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November 25, 2012

Good evening. As you probably know, Alfred Hitchcock was knows as the “Master of Suspense”. For his most famous movie, Psycho, he decided to take a sharp turn from the higher-brow fare of his recent North by Northwest into subject matter usually left to B-grade horror films. “But,” he mused, “what if someone really good made one?” We know the result, but getting from here to there took some doing, as chronicled in Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.

But Hitchcock was a filmmaker, so why not make a film from this biography? And, while we’re at it, why don’t we spin it as a suspense film, and try to shoot it in a way that will remind the audience of Hitchcock’s own style? And that’s just what Sacha Gervasi has attempted with Hitchcock.

The first great success is Hitchcock himself, played marvelously by Anthony Hopkins who, if not quite the spitting image of the man, at least bears a much closer resemblance to Hitchcock’s famous profile than his own. But then, and more interestingly, we get to meet his wife and all-but-silent collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).

Of course, nobody thinks that a film based on Robert Bloch’s Psycho — a novel very loosely based on the exploits of murderer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who also inspired characters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs — was worth Hitchcock’s time, if it could even be filmed at all. This was still the era of the Hays Code, after all, and even its comparatively lax enforcer Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) wasn’t about to allow just anything to be shown on American movie screens. Despite the best efforts of his agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Paramount head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) refused to fund the picture, driving Hitchcock to finance it out of his own pockets and cut costs wherever he could.

Hitchcock and his long-suffering assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) commissioned a script from neurotic writer Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) and went into production with Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy), ingenue Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), and his contract player, Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

Just as Bloch took significant liberties with Gein’s story in writing Psycho, and as Hitchcock and Stefano took further liberties with Bloch’s novel in bringing it to the screen, so Gervasi and Black Swan cowriter John J. McLaughlin seem to punch up the story and infuse it with its own tensions and suspenses.

Beyond the monetary pressures, Hitchcock’s marriage seems to be strained. His own egomania and attraction to his leading ladies was always a sore point, but now he harbors suspicions about Alma and his screenwriter from Strangers on a Train (Danny Huston). On top of that, she continually nags him about his weight, which is one of those laughably quotidian details that Hitchcock himself might have included as an aggravating factor.

Many scenes are also shot as Hitchcock might have. The camera motions and the compositions quote the master’s own films over and over again. Gervasi has clearly gone back to the source for inspiration in his first narrative feature.

Do I believe, walking away from Hitchcock, that I have seen “the real story” about the making of Psycho? well, no. It’s light — as light as anything about Hitchcock might be — and an enjoyable way to pass a couple hours, and it’s always fun to watch Hopkins and Mirren work as they do so well here. But I have a feeling we haven’t seen the definitive Hitch yet.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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