One year after My Week with Marilyn, which covers the making of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), we now have Hitchcock, supposedly all about the making of Psycho (1960). (One can only wonder what might come next in this sub-genre of movies about the makings of famous movies.) Whether or not any of the behind-the-scenes incidents depicted actually happened, how do you make the audience believe that they did? I haven’t read the book upon which the Hitchcock screenplay is based, and maybe everything presented onscreen did happen in real life, but why didn’t I find a single moment of it plausible?
Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, writer Alma Reville, were personal and professional collaborators, presumably quite gratified: doing what they loved; appreciated for it; being of such valued use to each other in their work. Sometimes credited and sometimes not, Reville was certainly Hitchcock’s chief sounding board and his most trusted advisor. To portray their marriage, in the years of 1959 and 1960, as a soap opera of mid-life crises seems a disrespectful bore, strenuously projecting a modern sensibility onto their era. It all reeks of self-help books and talk-show psychology, with everything spelled out in tired, simplistic terms. Though she’s frustrated here, maybe Alma was quite thrilled to be the woman behind the great man, uninterested in being a celebrity, merely loving her work and enjoying her low profile. And if their union was sorely tested during the period covered in this movie, was it really about possible flirtations with others? They had been married since 1926, so if Hitchcock had a thing for his leading ladies, wouldn’t Alma have adjusted to this fact after 35 years? Wouldn’t their marriage and their professional partnership have both been well-oiled machines by now?
The dirty-old-man scenario for Hitch—his lust for his luscious blond leading ladies—may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn’t ring true in Hitchcock. Doesn’t it make more psychological sense to surmise that he put all that desire and repression and fantasy into his films, while protecting his safe, fairly ordinary private existence? Would he have been able to fetishize Kim Novak so hauntingly in Vertigo if he had spent the filming trying to bed her? Aren’t many of his films great because he poured all that lustful yearning and fearful excitement, and those violent urges, into his work and nowhere else, all the stuff that terrified him in real life? He was able to deal with the best and worst of his imaginative stirrings in the controlled atmosphere of his creative life.
Anthony Hopkins does the best he can with the script’s superficial conception of Hitchcock, meaning that he can’t get beyond imitation. As Alma, Helen Mirren looks far too attractive. (Someone who looks less like a “star,” such as Imelda Staunton, would have made a better choice.) Mirren is fine, utterly untaxed as an actress, while her flirtation with a writer (Danny Huston) is a real snore. Despite her low, husky voice, Scarlett Johansson makes a bright and likable Janet Leigh, while a convincingly cast James D’Arcy is seen all too briefly as Anthony Perkins. Then there’s the ruinous choice to have Hitch and the “real” Norman Bates (Michael Wincott) share fantasy conversations.
As for the actual making of Psycho, we do get a recreation of the shower scene, but with the addition of some stupid, all-too-literal commentary from the script: as Hopkins demonstrates how to stab Johansson, we suddenly get a montage of all those that Hitch would like to be stabbing. And it’s hard to swallow that Psycho was saved in the editing room when Hitch famously edited his movies in his head, before he even started filming them. This just feels like trumped-up suspense for the movie’s climax. Again, even if everything portrayed here actually happened, director Sachi Gervasi is unable to make any of it convincing.
It’s also truly hard to accept that Hitch thought he could turn the ordinary Vera Miles into a major star. (Even though she was supposedly his first choice for the film, Vertigo would not be Vertigo if Miles had played the Novak role.) Jessica Biel is odd casting as Miles, mostly because Biel is someone you can actually believe could become a director’s obsession. And I took offense at a throwaway line uttered by agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg). He tells Hitch that he made a million dollars for Jimmy Stewart on a “dog” of a picture called Winchester ’73. Excuse me, but that western is quite a fine motion picture, directed by the great Anthony Mann. There’s no satisfactory explanation for why Wasserman, who should know better, would call it a “dog.” As for Hitchcock? Can’t you hear it barking?