Fifty years past Alfred Hitchcock's heyday and 32 years after his death, the world still knows him by reputation, even if you can't get the kids to check out his classic movies. Hitchcock, a dark and dazzling bio-thriller about the making of Psycho, might change that.
It's a fanciful film buff's delight, a grim yet glittery corner of Hollywood history given a "Hollywood" treatment. No, it's not the literal truth, but as they've said since John Ford's day, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
We catch Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) as he's at the height of his fame — just after the dazzling success of North by Northwest, on a roll with Vertigo and Rear Window just behind it. He's on TV, introducing his weekly mystery-horror-thriller series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He's being offered everything from the first James Bond film to The Diary of Anne Frank.
And what does he want to do to top that? Shock movie audiences to their very marrow. He wants to prove he's not the true "relic" his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), and others joke that he is as he turns 60. A man with phobias and fetishes to fill a book is obsessed with the story about "the boy who dug up his own mother."
He has an assistant (Toni Collette) buy up every copy of Robert Bloch's novel Psycho to keep the public from knowing the story. He immerses himself in the life and crimes of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin farmer whose gruesome crimes in the 1940s and '50s inspired everything from Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Silence of the Lambs.
"What if," Hitch ponders, in that slow British drawl, "someone really good made a horror picture?"
Hopkins' gift for mimicry is put to brilliant use as he inhabits the "corpulent" form of Hitchcock — uptight yet playful, with a mordant, morbid sense of humor that he was never shy about trying out on friends, new acquaintances and the public. An actor not new to impersonating historical figures, Hopkins turns in one of his very best performances in that field, capturing (with the aid of prosthetics) Hitchcock's deliberate timing, his buttoned-down fussiness (the man gardened in suit and tie) and his kinky peccadilloes.
Gein gets under Hitchcock's skin, and director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil) and writer John J. McLaughln (Black Swan) imagine Hitchcock imagining Gein's life and crimes. Gein (played with creepy skill by Michael Wincott) starts visiting Hitchcock in his dreams.
That doesn't help the old director's marriage. Alma, much in demand as a story editor, is being courted by a charming hack writer (Danny Huston, smarmy to perfection), who might have more on his mind than getting his latest book into better shape and into her husband's hands.
The fact that studios are balking at filming something as grotesque as Psycho means that Hitch finances it himself, that he feels added pressure because of that. His nerves can't even be settled by the delight of coming on set each day to torment his curvaceous leading lady, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson, on the money), and insult his former fave Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and of making good use of his secretive, closeted gay leading man, Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy of Cloud Atlas). The movie trumps up how much Hitchcock had riding on this cheap, black-and-white slasher picture.
An inventive film, Hitchcock doesn't neatly line up with Hitchcock's "real" history — coming off his biggest hit, the Hollywood world his oyster, him recognizing Psycho was a potential blockbuster and wanting to share less of the cash with studios nervous about the controversy. That wandering from the historic record doesn't spoil it in the least.
First-time feature director Gervasi has great fun with the Hitchcock persona, having Hopkins, in character, introduce the picture and provide a coda for it, just the way "The Master of Suspense" handled his TV duties.
Writer McLaughlin wisely makes this as much Mrs. Hitchcock's movie as Sir Alfred's, giving the Oscar-winning Mirren center stage in the circus of Hitch's near-nervous breakdown. Alma Reville takes her rightful place as her husband's keenest editor, that extra set of eyes that lifted his films above the other thrillers of the day and made them classics.
Hopkins, playing a man struggling with his physical bulk and his bulkier reputation, makes Hitchcock, the man and the monster, a sympathetic hero. By the time he's in the theater lobby, "conducting" the screams that were the real soundtrack to his masterpiece, you'll be as exultant as he is.