When it comes to the master of suspense, there is only one name that comes to mind – Alfred Hitchcock. Mystery, murder, madness, and mayhem; all the things we’ve come to expect when popping in one of his classics. No matter if it’s something from his early days working in his United Kingdom homeland to his heydays in Hollywood. It’s also what was looked forward to during the ten-season television run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I remember the first time I was actually introduced to the world of Hitchcock. In junior high I checked out a VHS copy of Psycho from the library, loving it so much I returned it far after it was supposed to have been and a new director obsession was born.
It’s actually quite surprising that there haven’t been more films made about the man himself. First we got the TV film The Girl with Toby Jones portraying Hitchcock during the production of The Birds, now we get Anthony Hopkins donning the fat suit breathing new life into the character Hitchcock was known to be. Helen Mirren plays his wife, Alma Reville, and it should be said up front that while the advertising may make director Sacha Gervasi’s biopic Hitchcock look like the making of Psycho itself, screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan) has adapted Stephen Rebello’s biography Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho into a loving tribute highlighting a love story at its core between the married couple and the personal toll it took on their marriage during production.
With a most fitting yet surprising Alfred Hitchcock Presents-styled opening, Hitchcock shows the trials and tribulations at home and on the studio lots after the huge success of North by Northwest. Paramount Pictures wants to play things safe, but Alfred knows there’s more to himself than becoming pigeonholed. He’s had enough of spy thrillers and the like until his production assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), hands him a copy of Psycho, the new book by Robert Bloch. Ol’ Hitch is instantly mesmerized by the novel and becomes bound and determined to adapt it for the big screen. It’s just what he’s been waiting for, because while Alma finds it to be standard horror clap trap, Hitch thinks, “but what if someone good made a horror picture.”
Immediately turned down by Paramount President Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), Alfred decides to finance the film himself. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) is instantly hired by Hitch to adapt the book after confessing that he talks to his therapist a lot about sex, rage, and his mother. After buying up every copy of Psycho across the country to avoid spoilers, production is in full with the casting of Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy), while Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) rounds out the cast still being under contract so that Hitch can get something out of her. Subplots also involve butting heads with Production Code Administration head Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith), Hitch fantasizing about his leading ladies and having dark conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), and the marital strain of Alma spending too much free time with longtime friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).
Director Gervasi pulls no punches when it comes to filling the film with spectacularly placed nods and references to both Hitchcock’s films and the man himself; whether it’s a silhouette in the background or Psycho’s infamous showerhead spray and curtain tear. Most people may head in hoping for more of the production side of Psycho, and will be caught off guard by the tonal shifts involving Ed Gein and the story of insecurity between Alfred and Alma. Nothing is taken too seriously and it all gets tied together in a hilarious bow with a few jokes in the end.
As fantastic as Hopkins and Mirren are (and won’t be surprised if either receive Oscar nods), I can’t help but mention how much I loved Danny Elfman’s score. As fitting as his music may be to the film world of Tim Burton, he seems to be having more fun here. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he would have contributed to Hitchcock’s own work had they been from the same era. As it stands, Hitchcock is one of the most fun biopics along with one of this year’s more fun films as well. It may seem an odd choice for the holiday season, but you could do far worse. And with that I say, good evening.
Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures