It’s 1959, and Alfred Hitchcock is at the peak of his creative powers and popularity, with the huge success of North by Northwest and his TV show. But he’s getting older (he’s 60) and no wiser – he’s he’s having a creative block and can’t come up with a new project.
Then the idea of filming the lurid, bestselling thriller novel Psycho comes to him, haunts him and truly inspires him. But the film studio won’t touch a trashy horror movie, and the only way ahead would be to take a big risk to mortgage his mansion and finance it himself.
And meanwhile, on the home front, his wise and wonderful wife, confidante and collaborator Alma is getting fed up with Hitchcock’s endlessly roving eye and crazy obsessions with his blonde actresses, and starts to desert him to help another writer-director, the suave and charming Whitfield Cook.
Based on Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, director Sacha Gervasi’s film is a total treat. Unlike the recent TV film about Hitchcock, The Girl, which tried to assassinate the director’s character and forgot to mention his genius, this is warm, generous, complex, intelligent and appealing – and lots of fun. It provides a proper warts-and-all tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma and is not a sensationalist hatchet job.
Not at all perfectly cast but absolutely ideal anyway, those national institutions Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are twin delights as the bickering star couple, indeed all the cast are great. Even if they never look or sound much like the originals (Scarlett Johansson is certainly no Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel no Vera Miles either), it doesn’t matter, they brilliantly capture the spirit of their characters and evoke all the old ghosts and the memories.
John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan) provides a truly excellent, classy script that manages to be informative, funny and touching. Obviously a lot of the story and dialogue is totally made up and this might frustrate film buffs looking for a more factual, documentary-style approach, but hey, it’s only a movie, Ingrid. Clearly we’ve no idea what the Hitchcocks said to each other in the privacy of their own home and this forms the main basis of the material, but the script nevertheless feels authentic and seems like an insider’s view, persuading you this is how it must have been. Hoppy and Helen have some great dialogue to chew over and spit out, and they relish it like the great old pros they are.
There are some surprises. Did Alma really take over the direction of Psycho when a stressed-out Hitch grew ill for a few days? Where is Saul Bass in the story, the ‘pictorial consultant’ who designed the title credits and supposedly filmed the infamous shower sequence? And did I miss the mentions of the Hitchcocks’ actress daughter Patricia, who appears in Psycho? The script implies the Hitchcocks had a sex-free marriage. Why?
The Psycho story is based on a real-life case about the infamous serial killer Ed Gein, and the film shows Hitch wandering about with him in dreamlike sequences. Yet the risky inclusion of this Ed Gein stuff works very effectively and adds another layer to the film. This is a prime example of how this multi-layered, textured film relishes its ambition and imagination.
And, technically too, this is one heck of a fine, polished movie. There’s a glorious Danny Elfman score, delicious production and glossy cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth and Oscar-nominated work on the hair and makeup. The period atmosphere, Californian location and movie-making backdrop all feel right, and are achieved gracefully with effective understatement. The opening and end credits are also extremely smart, again without seeming to try too hard.
After a brilliant 98 minutes, I felt cheated when the movie stopped, I wanted loads more and can’t wait to see it again. I can’t imagine it being better done or having a better tribute to an all-time great, favourite director.