The old truism goes, behind every great man is an even greater woman. This was seldom truer than the relationship of Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville. Hitchcock got his start in the British film industry drawing title cards and sets. Alma Reville worked as a producer and slowly their path’s converged. According to Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Hitch was taken with Alma, but refused to speak to her until they were on equal ground professionally. He waited and worked his way up to a position as a director and the two began to collaborate on projects. On a particularly rough sea voyage home from a shoot, Hitch proposed to Alma and she accepted and then threw up on him. They were married in 1927 and stay married until their deaths. Hitchcock went on to become The Master of Suspense, and Alma stayed right close to him. She worked on his scripts, participated in casting, helped secure financing with executives, and edited the scenes that weren’t working. She was his ultimate collaborator, yet hardly ever received screen credit. Based on the excellent book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello, director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin use this dynamic to explore their relationship and the backstage world of Psycho (1960) in the film Hitchcock.
Hitchcock starts in 1959, with Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) coming off the success of North by Northwest. The people love him, but the critics are beginning to find his plots predictable and old hat. Maybe he has grown too old for this town. Hitch is furious and frustrated and looks for something that might really shock people. He comes across Robert Block’s book, Psycho, a non-fiction account of the dark and grisly murders of the Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein, and Hitch immediately knows that this is his next picture. He gives the book to Alma (Helen Mirren), who doesn’t think much of it, but supports his choice never the less.
Hitch’s agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) fights with Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), the head of Paramount, to find funding. Paramount refuses to make Psycho, even if it is a Hitchcock picture. Hitch responds by ponying up the cash himself. Thus begins the usual scenes of casting the picture, ramping up production, difficulties during filming, and finally the release of Psycho. None of it is revolutionary, and maybe it doesn’t need to be, but a film about one of the iconic filmmakers needs to at least try to be unique.
Hitchcock comes off as a milk toast type of movie better suited for a TV movie of the week. The events are recounted, but there is very little there there. The film is loaded with a bunch of stars coming and going from their scenes: Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio), the writer, Bernard Herrmann (Paul Shackman), the composer, Saul Bass (Wallace Langham) storyboard artist and title design, and George Tomasini (Spencer Garrett), Hitch’s editor, all major contributors to Psycho, are given just enough screen time for cinephiles to catch a joke or two. To the uninformed, it will mean little. The performances from Hopkins as Hitch and Mirren as Alma are fairly good. Hopkins plays Hitch with humor and boyish prankishness, but it’s less of a performance and more of an imitation. Mirren plays Alma with a fierce independence, sharp sense of humor, and intelligence way beyond all those around her.
Hitchcock has plenty of material to mine from, but doesn’t seem interested in digging any deeper than the surface. There are several dream scenes where Hitch observes Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) doing what Ed Gein does best. This suggests that what is found in Psycho is not only real accounts from Block’s book, but the fantastic and demented mind of Hitch. Too bad nothing is really given over to this. There is a subplot with Alma and Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) that could lead to an affair, and does nothing more than provide Hitchcock something to be suspicious about. Characters give each other and the audience information in a very flat manner. One scene in a dressing room involves Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) explaining to Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) who Hitch really is. She uses Vertigo and Stewart’s character in the film as a reference point, but doesn’t explain it like any normal person would, she explains it like a film scholar or a psychologist would. Either Vera Miles was one of the first Hitchcock scholars, or the writer didn’t give the actors much to work with. Sadly, it’s the latter.
Even though this film uses the production of Psycho as the backdrop, it is not really about Psycho. Even though it pretends that it’s about Hitch and Alma, their relationship, their collaboration, it’s not really about Hitch and Alma. It’s about Hitchcock: Hitchcock, the singular, Hitchcock, the auteur, Hitchcock, the director. Take the scene at the end where Psycho debuts in theaters. An audience packed into the cinema, watching for the very first time, that infamous shower scene. Hitch waits in the lobby, watching, waiting to see how they will react. The curtain is pulled open, the violins start to shriek, the knife plunges forward, and the audience screams. Perfect. Hitch dances in the lobby, waving his arms this way and that to the screams and the shrieks, conducting his own chamber orchestra. The Master of Suspense, dancing all alone. Not with Alma, but all by himself.
The movie ends with Psycho as a success. What will Hitch do next? He doesn’t know, but he’s sure something will come along, a crow lands on his shoulder, and he knowingly nods at us and wanders back to the house and Alma. If you were so inclined, you could now watch HBO’s The Girl and watch Hitch self-destruct while making The Birds and Marnie. Or, if you prefer, you pop is Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, or any number of his films and watch the master of suspense at work. I think that is a much better way to spend your time.
Hitchcock fun fact: Hitch was exactly one day older than Alma. He was born August 13, 1899 and she August 14, 1899.