The making of Psycho is recast as a story of marital discontent in Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi’s attempt to delve into the mind of the Master of Suspense. More of a soft pedalling TV movie than a convincing psychological portrait, it’s occasionally fascinating for the odd titbit of trivia, but will leave viewers no more clued up about the man and his work, beyond a predilection for shock and blondes – really, where have you been – than when they started.
Picking up after the success of North By Northwest in 1959, Gervasi’s film finds Hitchcock (a typically hammy Anthony Hopkins) in a rut. A sensationalist novel inspired by cannibalistic mummy’s boy Ed Gein, Robert Bloch’s Psycho rekindles his creative energies, but also stirs dark visions of murder in the director. In a film mostly played for laughs – at the conservative censor, at the worried studio boss, at the great director’s ultimately charming cantankerousness – so begins a half-hearted, clunky stab at psychodrama, as Gein starts appearing to Hitch as a ghostly apparition, egging on the director’s darkest thoughts. It sounds ridiculous, and it is.
The meat of the story, though, is reserved for Hitch’s relationship with wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), and his slow realisation that he can’t live, or work, without her. But what could be a meaty plotline on the troubled role of women in Hitchcock’s life is rendered benign. Hitch’s legendary sexual fixations are reduced to well meaning idolisation, excusing both his terrorising of Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and his lusting after demure leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). Meanwhile Reville, driven to distraction by her Hitchcock’s doting, has a flirtation with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), but he proves interested only in her husband. Failing to get at Hitchcock’s male gaze – either on or off screen – it doesn’t serve its women well.
But if all roads lead back to Hitchcock and the need for his genius to be understood by the women in his life, Gervasi’s film isn’t entirely without its pleasures. Bookended by wry recreations of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents…’ and an artificial, chocolate box LA, Hitchcock is at its best when treating its story with a breezy lack of seriousness. While hardly the stuff of great cinema, Hitch’s sparring with the censor, the dropping of Psycho trivia and James D’Arcy’s flawless Norman Bates have a certain cheap charm; and Hopkins standing outside the auditorium during Psycho’s premiere, slashing gleefully in time with the shower scene as the audience shrieks in horror, says more about the man than anything else in this uneven biopic.