(out of 5)
A prolific decade of films that saw him rise to the very top of his profession seems a punishment to Alfred Hitchcock by 1959. With North By Northwest raking in big box office dollars and the unfortunate disaster of Vertigo well behind him, finding his next project turns out to be a much bigger challenge precisely because of how successful he is. His wife wants him to consider a treatment she is working on with an old friend (Danny Huston) who is threatening to become more than just a friend; the studio wants him to direct The Diary of Anne Frank. Hitchcock is entranced by a potboiler of a book he has just read by Robert Bloch, based on the true story of a serial murderer who chopped women up while living with the corpse of his long-dead mother. The press is informed and audiences are warned: Hitchcock’s next film, Psycho, will be the most terrifying film ever made. With a studio unwilling to finance it, Hitchcock (played with amiable lightness by Anthony Hopkins under heavy prosthesis) is financing the film himself and allowing Paramount to distribute it on the proviso that he get a cut of the profits (which history now informs us was the wisest decision of all time). His personal relationship with wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) hits the skids during production, however, with her finally deciding that she has had enough of being brushed aside for the great genius when she is the one behind many of the key decisions in his most popular films. Adding to the mix is his constant obsession with his leading ladies, with Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson doing a bang-on job) capturing his fancy while Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) hangs about and reminds him of his failures (she turned down the lead in Vertigo to have a baby; he never forgave her). This sounds like the richest behind-the-scenes movie ever made, yet it’s mainly the good performances that keep the pedestrian dialogue and hack-job direction from turning it completely into a bad episode of Hollywood Babylon. The relationship between husband and wife should be the nucleus of the movie, but themes of inspiration and artist-versus-fallible man are also suggested as the spine of the experience, while sexual obsession combined with a fascination for violence might be its trigger as well. It’s hard to tell what movie it wants to be, particularly given that unnecessary strands, such as Hitchcock having fantasy dialogues with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life killer that Norman Bates (and Leatherface, for that matter) was based on, are given way more time than they actually deserve. The film also wastes a whole succession of great actors, including Ralph Macchio doing a hilarious Joseph Stefano in only one scene, James D’Arcy‘s perfectly uncanny Anthony Perkins (also with far too little time on screen) and a completely underused Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s secretary Peggy Robertson. It does a few things well, however: the man who went from making two to three films a year in the fifties only made six after this great hit, and here we get a lot of information that helps explain why this was (other than simply a desire to slow down with advancing age). There’s also a wonderful (and mostly fabricated) scene where Hitchcock directs the shower scene and Johansson admirably recreates the most famous scream in movie history. Were it a better film, however, the inaccuracies that it does indulge in (Leigh and Miles would not have both been on the set together in hair and makeup considering they shared no screen time, and Leigh did not actually shoot the shower scene naked) would be far easier to dismiss.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth
Music by Danny Elfman
Production Design by Judy Becker
Costume Design by Julie Weiss
Film Editing by Pamela Martin