(2012, PG-13) Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Toni Collette (Peggy), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), Michael Stuhlbarg (Lew Wasserman), James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins), Michael Wincott (Ed Grein), Kurtwood Smith (Geoffrey Shurlock), Richard Portnow (Barney Balaban). Music: Danny Elfman. Screenplay: John J. McLaughlin. (based on “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello). Director: Sacha Gervasi. 98 minutes.
Tags: Behind-the-Scenes, Bio-Pic
Notable: Good story about the making of Psycho, but the personal aspects ain’t actual history.
By all accounts, Alfred Hitchcock was a difficult man, as a person, as a director, and as a husband. The great gamble of his life was to make the film Psycho. The studio hated it, wanting him to fall back on thrillers like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, his first big success in the genre) and several dozen others. Hitch was becoming somewhat bored with the formula, even with brilliant films like Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), and Rear Window (1954) in his repertoire. The truth was that Vertigo (1958), which has long since been vindicated as brilliant, was a box office flop as far as the studio was concerned; North By Northwest (1959) did well enough, and Paramount wanted “another one like that.” They wanted to make money, and at that point, the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis was making a ton of cash for the producers. Studio executive Lew Wasserman was so sure that Psycho was going to bomb that he banked on the rather “craptastic” Martin-Lewis debacle called Cinderfella, which came out that Christmas. Talk about flops…
Hitchcock, who was hyper-confident in public and filled with self-doubt in private, quite literally banked his life on the film — every dollar he had, and a great many more that he didn’t have, was poured into the project, without Paramount spending a dime. In return for this, the bargain would be that Hitch would get 40% of the profits. Wasserman took the wager, figuring there wouldn’t be any profit at all. The result, of course, was box office and cinematographic history. Even his later films, like The Birds (1963), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969) — the latter two returning to his original spy-thriller suspense background — were not as successful as the legendary, broke-the-mold Psycho.
Hopkins, in my opinion, is incapable of turning in a poor performance. In becoming Hitchcock, he did not stoop to parody or imitation, but instead relied upon a slight modification to his own accent and speech patterns, combing this with the corpulent, regal presence of Hitchcock’s imperial personality. (I can only hope that was padding; if not, the man had to have gained a hundred pounds in order to look that large.)
Mirren, similarly, couldn’t even perform poorly in a beer commercial (“Don’t be a pillock,” she implores, urging Super Bowl viewers to drink responsibly). Knowing next to nothing about Hitchcock’s wife Alma, my only way to evaluate her performance is to affirm that she created a character, kept it consistent, and showed a beautiful contrast to Hitch that made the exchanges and progression of both characters completely believable. I have to stress that they are indeed characters and not the real people, at least according to various Hollywood sources.
There are certain points in the film that as near to the truth as most bio-pics can come. Anthony Perkins was indeed gay, and having to hide that secret was something that Hitchcock used to get the duality of Norman Bates’ character out into the open. Vera Miles, who played Janet Leigh’s (Marion Crane) sister, was more or less forced into that secondary role, partly due to a failed love affair with Hitchcock; Miles had one more film to finish in her contract, and Hitch got her into the role without any particular desire to use her talent for her gain. Only briefly touched on is the hiring of a virtually unknown writer named Joseph Stefano to pen the script (which, according to the film, was heavily edited and revised by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma); Stefano went on to fame not only for this script but for being the producer and co-writer for the original Outer Limits television series. (He also penned the episode “Skin of Evil” for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The great fun of this movie is the intro and outro moments provided, which are both parody and homage to Hitchcock’s intro and outro commentaries for his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (No spoilers, but I had to howl with delight when the outro moment had Hitch hoping that “inspiration for his next picture” would arrive soon. It does. Bonus points if you guess how.) The other delightful segment occurs near the end of the film as Hitchcock contrives a brilliant strategy to make the film a success. Paramount’s executives, in a spiteful move, distributed the film first to only two theaters, as well as refusing a full-scale premier; Hitchcock realized that, without word-of-mouth, the film would never get seen in the numbers needed to make it a success. He created a series of brilliant gimmicks that got people talking before they’d even seen the picture, from refusing to seat anyone once the film began to insisting that the theater hire private security to handle possible mobs, because “the film is so shocking.” Box office gross for Psycho was $15 million — about $120 million in today’s dollars.
Reviewer Leonard Maltin observed, “If you love movies, Hitchcock is hard to resist.” If you don’t care for behind-the-scenes stories, the film may bog down and bore you, despite it being relatively short. The performances are good, and the characters are interesting. That, however, is where my personal issues stem from: They’re characters, and there’s such a huge temptation to make this into a genuine biography. The how-the-film-got-made information appears to be accurate, as I mentioned, and for that reason alone, the film is worth watching. For the rest, don’t take too much of it as gospel.