film hitchHopkins’ entertaining performance fuels larky ‘Hitchcock’

It takes a certain amount of gutsiness for an actor to try to transform himself onscreen into one of the most famous and recognizable icons in the history of film.

But Anthony Hopkins has guts to spare—as it were—in Hitchcock, stepping into the familiar persona and famed portly silhouette of the movies’ grand master of the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock. Well, it’s not exactly a transformation; from the lugubrious voice and eccentric diction to the baleful bloodhound gaze, there’s not a second when we’re not watching Hopkins play Hitch.

But the entertaining spectacle of Hopkins’ performance is its own reward in a film that never takes itself too seriously. Although the film is inspired by Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” don’t expect a doc-like piece of investigative research, or even a typical showbiz bio. Instead, director Sacha Gervasi adopts a larky approach in this pastiche of backstage Hollywood maneuvering built around the peculiar personal dynamic between the mercurial Hitch and his long-suffering, but briskly loyal wife and longtime creative partner, Alma Reville, played with sense and sensibility by the ever-wonderful Helen Mirren.

Scripted by John J. McLaughlin, Hitchcock begins and ends like an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, with the maestro appearing onscreen to deliver a wry introduction and epilogue directly to the audience. (A reference that might be lost on viewers unfamiliar with the show.) Then the story kicks in. In 1959, searching for a new property to fulfill his contract with Paramount, Hitch discovers the novel, “Psycho,” by Robert Bloch. Inspired by the crime spree of notorious real-life Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein, the book has everything Hitch’s prurient soul delights in—deviant and/or illicit sexuality, voyeurism, unhealthy obsessions, a blonde in jeopardy, and, of course, murder.

Alma, his accomplice, unofficial editor, and resident sounding board for thirty years, is dubious (“Doris Day should do it as a musical,” she cracks)—until Hitch entices her with the idea, “What if somebody really good made a horror movie?” Of course, the studio chief (who’s hoping for another classic star vehicle like Hitch’s last hit, North By Northwest), the moneymen, and especially the censors are more difficult to persuade. But, abetted by his canny agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Hitch agrees to finance the film himself, buffaloes the censors, and blithely sets out to make the film his way.

In humorous vignettes, Hitch assembles his dream team. Scriptwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) and star Tony Perkins (a sweetly ingenuous James D’Arcy) are chosen for their mom issues, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) for her figure and marquee value. To build suspense, Hitch orders his Gal Friday, Peggy (Toni Colette) to have every known copy of the book bought up so no one will know how the story ends, and delivers scripts to his cast with the last ten pages missing.

Meanwhile, Alma, a neglected wife who’s long had to put up with her husband’s fixation with his blonde actresses, is flattered by the attention of charming screenwriter, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wants Hitch to produce his new script. As tensions mount on set over shooting the Psycho shower scene—no nudity or violence can be shown directly onscreen, and must be suggested in the editing alone, although Hitch still has an effective method of getting stark terror out of his leading lady—Hitch begins having disturbing visions of Ed Gein (a compellingly creepy Michael Wincott), prodding him into suspecting the worst of Alma and Whit.
film hitchcock
It may or may not having any bearing on fact, but this “what if…” scenario—imagining the director and his wife embroiled in the kind of extramarital intrigue that often leads to murder (at least, on film)—is a useful enough device for organizing the material. This focus on the often contentious, yet companionable relationship between Hitch and Alma not only leads up to the funniest, most satisfying verbal exchange in the film, it alsocreates a solid base for the various sly, subversive themes, and entertaining details of backstage Hollywood dealmaking that keep this genial film percolating along.


*** (out of four)

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With Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, and Danny Huston.
Written by John J. McLaughlin. Directed by Sacha Gervasi.
A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.

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