As well as being the most famous film director of all time, Alfred Hitchcock was also the most recognisable – from his many public appearances, his cameos in his own films and his role as presenter-host in his long-running 1950s and ’60s TV series. His signature corpulent body outline, together with the bald head and lugubrious jowled face have become as much of an iconic image as that of Henry VIII or Winston Churchill. So before anything else, any actor has the challenge of getting the look right, which isn’t easy for Anthony Hopkins as he doesn’t particularly look like Hitchcock.
On top of that Hopkins is having to contend with competition and possible upstaging from Toby Jones, who played the man in the recent BBC-HBO made-for-TV film The Girl, which centred on Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and Marnie. Uncannily Jones did a similar trick with Philip Seymour Hoffman and the portrayal of Truman Capote, with his alternative take in Infamous, and in both cases he has the knack of impersonation acting down very well. Jones’ Hitchcock is a sadistic, pervy little gnome, but Hopkins goes for an altogether more rounded figure – if you’ll excuse the irresistible pun! In prosthetic makeup and fat suit, Hopkins’ effort is most apparent, and at times it feels like the suit is wearing him and not vice versa. But he has the slow, droning voice about right, and through careful application of his craft, he soon dispels any small misgivings.
Based on the Stephen Rebello book, the film centres on the making of Psycho and in particular on the important collaborative relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). After the success of the crowd-pleaser North by Northwest, the idea of following it up with an adaptation of the gory Robert Bloch horror novel appalled studio bosses and the director ended up having to finance the movie himself, in what we would now call an indie production. Hitchcock makes us realise just how daring and innovative a departure a ‘slasher movie’ like Psycho was in 1960, when everything was on the cusp of changing but hadn’t quite changed yet. Scenes showing the tense arm wrestling with the censors over what could and couldn’t be shown in the shower scene are particularly good, revealing Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) as a kind of creative collaborator rather than an adversary.
In attempting to redress the balance and give Alma Reville proper credit for her creative input, Hitchcock becomes something of a two-hander, with Hopkins and Mirren each giving their all in acting terms, in a suitable mirror of the struggles of a long-term marriage. The strain of Hitch’s flirtations with his leading ladies, in this case Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), takes its toll on both partners, and as Alma sinks into exasperation, Hitch gets paranoid over Alma’s own close friendship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), feeling sidelined both professionally and personally. In touching on Hitch’s casting-couch forays, the film enters the same territory as The Girl, and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), declares that the obsessed Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo is really Hitch himself, only much better looking, which comes as news to nobody.
Johansson does a competent job as Leigh, but the best bit of impersonation comes from James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. He has the look, the creepy body language and the dulcet voice to perfection, and the scene where he’s interviewed by Hitch and gives just the right answers to his questions is one of the best. It would have been good to have seen more of the Perkins character and also Bernard Herrmann (Paul Schackman) in the process of making Psycho, but these scenes are necessarily pared down to essentials. The direction of the famous shower scene, with Hitch’s pent-up misogynistic anger playing its part, together with Herrmann’s counterpointing strings, is memorably featured. Also, in a marginally non-naturalistic touch, Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) – the model for Norman Bates and several other fictional serial killers – crops up in Hitch’s dreams and ruminations as a kind of muse and advisor.
The journey of the making of Psycho, with its many vicissitudes and considerable pitfalls, culminating in unparalleled box office success, is indeed made most interesting; and the attendant explorations of Hitchcock’s preoccupations with the macabre and attractive blonde actresses are worthily handled too. Hitchcock remains a satisfying but fairly anodyne movie, less edgy than The Girl, and ultimately it suffers from a single insurmountable disadvantage: as a study of the underbelly of obsession it cannot possibly compete with the works of the master himself.