“What if someone really good made a horror picture?”
That’s the enticing proposition Alfred Hitchcock puts forth in the new biopic “Hitchcock,” a dramedy about the making of the movie “Psycho,” the director’s risky, triumphant fusion of terror and art.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi (“Anvil!”), from a screenplay by John J. McLaughlin (adapting Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”), the movie is a celebrity profile combined with a love story centering on Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, heavily padded) and his longtime wife and artistic collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
Enjoyable on the surface, it’s lightweight where it requires darkness and depth.
Mixing commonly known facts, credible speculation and wrongheaded fabrication, the film begins with a 60-year-old Hitchcock, despite experiencing huge success on both the big screen (“North by Northwest”) and small (“Alfred Hitchcock Presents”), fearing he has become old-hat.
Yearning for a challenge, he decides to film “Psycho,” Robert Bloch’s slasher novel, despite the prevailing view that the story is lurid trash.
The underdog project requires that Hitchcock and Reville come up with their own financing, and Hitch must battle studio bosses and censors (though the latter seem more worried about showing a toilet onscreen than the famed shower scene).
Hitchcock nearly unravels from the strain, but the effort pays off. Premiering in 1960, “Psycho” is a smash.
The movie is watchable. It is peppered with familiar Hitchcockisms (“It’s only a movie”) and has engaging interactions between Hopkins and Mirren, and a sunny Scarlett Johansson as leading lady Janet Leigh.
It has engaging fun with Hitch’s spooky aspects and acknowledges contributions from the often uncredited Reville, editor, writer and creative adviser on Hitchcock’s films.
Yet it remains too superficial to enable viewers to believe the man onscreen is the same person who directed penetrating thrillers such as “Vertigo” or “Shadow of a Doubt.”
Rather than seriously exploring the interior of the notoriously impenetrable Hitchcock, the movie presents his obsession, suspicion and voyeurism (he’s like a composite of his Jimmy Stewart characters) via shallow devices.
For example, his fixation with “contract blondes” has him spying on “Psycho” co-star Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) through a peephole.
Hitchcock’s hallucinatory visions of killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates, too, are impossible to buy.
Hopkins is good with Hitchcock’s trademark macabre humor, but the movie’s breezy approach gives him little chance to get into the director’s head.
Mirren, as always, is stellar, but she plays a sketchily defined character who is little more than long-suffering, talented and seemingly flawless.
The underused supporting cast includes Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Robertson, Michael Stuhlbarg as agent Lew Wasserman and James D’Arcy as “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins.