(by Dustin Putman
It has been extensively studied, pored over, written about and revered for over fifty years, but how many people know the genesis of slasher prototype "Psycho" and the story behind its creation? Adapted by John McLaughlin (2010's "Black Swan") from Stephen Rebello's non-fiction book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho'," "Hitchcock" is a motion picture for anyone who loves movies, revels in the art of filmmaking, and appreciates the special, one-of-a-kind, cathartic power of great horror cinema. Director Sacha Gervasi (he of 2009 documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" and writer of 2004's "The Terminal") has made one of the year's most acutely enjoyable and all-out engrossing releases, a film that not only beautifully peers into the behind-the-scenes creation of a future masterpiece, but also into the little-discussed lifelong romance between the so-called "Master of Suspense" and his dutiful muse of a wife, a woman who creatively consulted on all his projects but never received her rightful credit or accolades. It's endlessly entertaining, sweeping by in an effortless 98-minute gush, and also unexpectedly moving. Article continues below
When "North by Northwest" is released in 1959 to rapturous reviews and robust box-office returns, the studios are suddenly clamoring for Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) to repeat the success with a similar follow-up effort. Fearful that he is becoming stuck in his ways and out-of-touch with the public consciousness at the ripe age of sixty, Hitch turns his attention away from spy and espionage thrillers and toward a different genre: horror. Sure, most are just considered low-rent B-movies, but what if a true craftsman behind the camera were to take the reigns and treat such a project as more than just an exploitation piece? Inspired by Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho," itself loosely based on the crimes of notorious Wisconsin killer and cannibal Ed Gein, who kept the corpse of his overbearing mother in his house long after her death, Hitchcock proposes his new picture to Paramount, who balk at the subject matter and understandably are fearful of the censors. At first, his beloved wife (and frequent script supervisor) Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) is skeptical, too, but when she sees just how important it is to her husband, who yearns to reclaim the excitement of his earlier days as a director, she has no choice but to go along with him when he makes the decision to finance the $800,000 budget himself. If the gamble works, they'll be all the more on top. If it fails, it could be a real stab to their livelihood and Hitch's reputation.
A "born to play" type of part that rivals his Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," Anthony Hopkins (2011's "Thor") wholly immerses himself into the daunting role of Alfred Hitchcock. Yes, the make-up that physically transforms him into the icon helps, but it is all Hopkins who sheds the things that make his so recognizable and seemingly embodies the very soul of Hitchcock in all his intensity, self-doubt, ambition, and acidic humor. Helen Mirren (2011's "Arthur") matches her co-star step by step as wife Alma, bringing her out of the shadows she seems to stand in publicly, supporting Alfred while yearning to have her own creative pursuits. Their relationship, close and kindred but filled with passionate sparring, is poignantly depicted, Hitch's suspicions and paranoia about Alma when she begins collaborating on a script with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) like something out of one of his movies; he discovers she's been spending time at the beach by collecting the grains of sand on their bathroom floor. Neither Hopkins nor Mirren ever fall into the trap of actors obviously acting, but transcend impersonation to find the real people behind the personas.
If it is a treat to get an intimate glimpse into Alfred's and Alma's private lives, the insider's look at the preparation, shooting, and post-production of "Psycho" runs enticingly parallel to the one-on-one scenes between these two. From Hitch's fights with the censors—elements seen as innocuous today were taboo in 1960, from the sight of two characters laying on a bed in their undergarments to the very sight of a toilet on screen—to his methods in provoking authentic responses from star Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), to his breakthrough discovery of how Bernard Herrmann's chilling orchestral score could be the key to saving his picture altogether, viewers will no doubt learn a great deal they never knew about the production of "Psycho." Meanwhile, in an example of crafty storytelling ingenuity, Hitchcock has occasional dreamlike conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) as the killer lurks around his farmhouse of horror, frightened of being found out—a literalized symbol of the filmmaker's own trepidations at being labeled a behind-the-times fraud and relic.
It is said that Hitchcock was instantly won over by Hollywood star Janet Leigh for the pivotal role of Marion Crane—a heroine who, in a twist of expectations, is killed off forty-five minutes in, at the end of the first act—when he discovered she had created an entire background and history for her character in preparation for meeting him. Scarlett Johansson (2012's "The Avengers") is exceptional as Leigh, looking every bit the part while capturing the actress' kind and delicate essence. The filmmaker's working relationship with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) was decidedly chillier, Hitch intentionally casting her in the relatively thankless part of Marion's sister Lila, passive-aggressively burying her in bland, homely costumes as unspoken punishment for the actress dropping out of the role that went to Kim Novak in 1958's "Vertigo" due to her pregnancy. He never completely forgave her—Hitchcock's ego was easily ruffled, to say the least—a fact not exactly lost upon Vera. Jessica Biel (2012's "Total Recall") is terrific as Miles, making the most of her screen time as she poignantly portrays a young woman disillusioned with her profession and hoping she may soon be able to escape it to concentrate on motherhood. Also in the universally well-played ensemble: Toni Collette (2011's "Fright Night"), a vision of quiet, if somewhat harried, dedication as assistant Peggy Robertson, and James D'Arcy (2012's "Cloud Atlas"), perfectly cast as Anthony Perkins, who has no way of knowing just how unforgettable his transgressive character of Norman Bates is about to become.
"Thank God we have 'Cinderfella' for the holidays!" Paramount reasons when prospects for "Psycho" turn bleak, a wickedly sly commentary on the Hollywood studio system and the unpredictability that comes with guessing which movies are going to click with audiences and which ones aren't. Fortunately, "Psycho" did click, despite there being no premiere and the theater count beginning at just two. With Alfred insisting that no one be allowed in the theatre once the picture has started, a furor quickly builds. For a film buff such as myself, there have been few more purely joyous moments in cinema this year than the sight of Hitchcock anxiously waiting outside of one theatre showing "Psycho," his nervousness turning to giddy, childlike elation when the screams of the audience during the now-infamous shower scene carry into the lobby. Headlined by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in top form and draped in lush period tech details—lovely costumes, sleek art direction and production design (notice all of the bird imagery, a sly suggestion of what is to come for the director a few years later), and a fitting score from Danny Elfman (2012's "Dark Shadows")—"Hitchcock" is a centralized biopic that brings newfound insight to an artist, his artistic wife, and the enduring legacy they left behind. The only disappointment is that it couldn't be twice as long.