Plot Summary: Riding high on the success of North by Northwest, British director Alfred Hitchcock is looking for his next big project. The studio wants him to keep doing what he does best, but Hitch is looking for a change of style and finds himself drawn to a nefarious new paperback – Psycho. Gleefully appalling his close circle of peers, the censor board and the studio, he turns to wife and long term underappreciated collaborator Alma to help him go at it alone, even if it means financing the film themselves and re-mortgaging their house. Alma is loyal but none too enthusiastic, as she suddenly finds herself in the position to work on her own screenplay.
Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day)
Helen Mirren (The Queen, Gosford Park)
Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Match Point)
Danny Huston (Children of Men, The Aviator)
Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine)
Directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil)
Written by John J McLaughlin (Black Swan, Man of the House)
Based on the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello
What Did I Think of the Film?
For a film focusing on the making of Psycho, not just one of Hitchcock’s best films but also a masterpiece in the horror genre, there’s not very much Psycho here. Sacha Gervasi’s sophomore film based on the book by Stephen Rebello, who meticulously delivers to his readers how the film was founded, financed, produced and marketed in 1960, takes the unsolicited decision to focus instead on Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins)’s relationship with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), and have the production of Psycho lurking in the background like Norman Bates in a nightie. Tonally it’s all over the place and the script could have done with the ruthless cutting of Alma Reville herself, but there is some enjoyment to be had here, especially if you’re a fair-weather fan and enjoy a good melodrama: devotees of the Master of Suspense may find their fists curling just a little at the sweeping overtones of marital discord and a lesser emphasis on his uncompromising genius.
It begins – as sadly it continues – with Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott), who was a loose inspiration for the original novel Psycho with which Hitchcock was so impassioned by. These odd little scenes and appearances throughout the film aim to give an impression of a madness Hitchcock was suffering throughout the making of the film, not just trying to pull off such an ambitious and repulsed project but also paranoid that Alma was having an affair with her writing partner Whit (Danny Huston) and abandoning him. But the Gein scenes add nothing, and their confusing presence (is it a dream? Is it a hallucination? Is it a visual to a narrative? At one point he appears as a shrink!) intrudes on the script. Psycho is about murder and insanity – it’s a dark piece of work, and Hitchcock wanted to embrace that in his film. Gervasi however, can’t quite decide whether to follow the mood of the piece he’s working to, or send it up in ghoulish glee – in clunky comparison to serial killer Ed Gein we’re also given a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place scoring The Addams Family – it’s almost whimsical in places, which totally threw me as a viewer.
Similarly, the domestic drama which drives the plot is also ill-fitting, as it’s extraneous and bloated. Hopkins and Mirren are excellent as ever, particularly when they get to row at each other, and it’s an unyielding relationship you can understand and see both sides to. But it’s not needed here – this is a film about the making of Psycho, and a much better film could have been made separately about the two of them which focuses on their whole lives together. Here, it feels amplified to fill out the rest of the film, which is extraordinary to me when the rest of the film is about the creation of one of the greatest genre films ever made. Do we really need a scene where Alma defiantly buys a red swimsuit? There is so much untapped material here about the process of a unique filmmaker that is glossed over by Gervasi and writer McLaughlin that would have enriched the film and given them the edge they’re so desperately trying to force with Ed Gein’s presence (this isn’t Black Swan, y’know).
The film shines when it focuses on its “nasty little piece of work” Psycho. Hitchcock so admirable fighting for what he believes in, desperate for recognition, unpredictable on set. The slip of a backstory we get with Anthony Perkins (superbly cast with James D’Arcy) and his relationship to his character Norman Bates is so tantalising, but then never addressed again. The short scenes we see being filmed are so brilliantly well done with the duality of being off-screen and on, and watching the iconic shower scene come together was the highlight of the film. The conspiring of the indelible music score (eek! eek! eek!) and ingenious marketing campaign that is devised after the studio tells them they will only be opening the film in two movie theatres is hugely interesting, but again, rushed through like a montage – I was desperate for Gervasi to hit the pause button and stay with this momentum a little longer. The scene where Hitchcock conducts the shower scene alone in the foyer to the chorus of screams from his inaugural cinema audience is just fantastic. But these moments are few and far between.
His flirtations with his leading ladies (here Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh and to a sourer extent Jessica Biel’s Vera Miles) are touched upon here, but is not as thickly spread as the other recent Hitchcock biopic The Girl, which angered many an avid fan at the unflattering depiction of their hero. As The Girl pushed things a bit too far, Hitchcock doesn’t go far enough, and fans will fault this just as much. But the bigger disappointment will come from fans of Psycho, as there is nothing new on offer here. I was never bored, but it’s hardly chewing gum for the brain – more like candyfloss on a stick. The post script seems a little self-aggrandising for the frothy drama that goes before it. There is still room for a definitive film about the greatest British director of all time, still so much more to say – let’s hope it comes along soon.
Watch if: you want a domestic drama set in the backdrop of the movies
Don’t watch if: you’re a diehard Hitch fan looking for the truer, finer details
Overall Rating 6/10
Kate McCall – @_culturemouse