Anthony Hopkins goes Psycho

Hitchcock offers a fluffy take on The Master of Suspense.

In May of 1990 I made my first trip to Universal Studios Florida. This was during the “preview” days, before the park official opened, and many of the rides were either malfunctioning or closed. One attraction that clicked from the start was “Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies,” a multipart show that began with a clip from Dial M For Murder that was interrupted by 3D birds tearing through the screen and attacking the theater. Then the action moved to a soundstage demonstration of the shower scene from Psycho that included a twist ending and a character threatening fanny pack-clad audiences with a knife. Hitchcock would have loved it.

I’m guessing The Master of Suspense would have been less enamored with Hitchcock, an entertaining but unremarkable new bio-pic starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch and Helen Mirren as his brilliant-but-in-the-shadows wife, Alma Reville. Well directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and featuring solid performances all around, Hitchcock is enjoyable fluff that approaches but ultimately turns away from the darker aspects of its subject.

Based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock opens in the period after the roaring success of North by Northwest. The studio wants Hitch to direct Casino Royale, but the aging filmmaker, fearing redundancy, is searching for a daring new project with which to thrill audiences. He finds it in the book Psycho by Robert Bloch, which he likes so much he promptly orders his long-suffering assistant (Toni Collette) to buy every copy available to keep the surprises under wraps. There’s only one problem: No one wants Hitch to make it. Not Alma, who has no interest in playing script doctor on a horror movie, and certainly not the studio, which refuses to finance the film. No matter, Hitchcock presses ahead and self-finances Psycho at enormous personal risk.

The film charts a linear course through Psycho’s production, from casting and principal photography, to Hitchcock’s battle with the head of the ratings board (well-played by That 70s Show’s Kurtwood Smith) and the eventual triumphant first screening where the audience screams its collective heads off. Despite its title, Hitchcock is as much about the women in Hitch’s life as it is the man himself, and makes time along the way to fully develop Alma as a character (she even gets a juicy will-they-or-won’t-they subplot involving a Hollywood hack played by Danny Huston), and to explore (however gingerly) Hitch’s odd relationships with his leading ladies, in particular Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

Despite its lack of depth, I enjoyed Hitchcock as fun Hollywood melodrama. Film fans and Hitchcock obsessives will dig the Alfred Hitchcock Presents-style opening (though I could have done without the Ed Gein character sticking around for the whole damn movie) and the many inside jokes sprinkled throughout. For everyone else, I suspect Hopkins as Hitch will be the main draw. He’s good (if giving more of an imitation than a performance), but it’s Mirren who owns the movie with a strong, nuanced take on Alma that’s solid Oscar bait. I guess there is a twist ending after all.

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