Decades after his death, he’s so famous that his film biography needs just one word in its title: His last name. We see him try to push one last reputation-making project to a close over a few wearying months. Friends doubt his ability and judgment and urge him to make peace with foes. His wife becomes estranged. Yet he plods forward in the face of declining health and powerful opposition, convinced this idea must not fail.
Yes, “Lincoln” is one heck of a movie. But I’m talking about “Hitchcock.”
The time is 1959, the idea is “Psycho,” and the director (played in a convincing fat suit by Anthony Hopkins) has decided to reinvent the horror genre with what could be the most psychologically disturbing picture ever made.
His wife and unsung collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), wonders if he’ll fail spectacularly; Paramount refuses to back the picture, and Hitch has financed it with family savings. But he sticks out his double-chinned jaw and marches forward.
I’m not sure who the target audience for this film may be. Hitchcock buffs probably already know he had a fond but asexual relationship with Alma, he could be cruel to actors – he once said, half-jokingly, they should be treated like cattle – and he manipulated and obsessed over blond actresses he cast as his leads. (See his classic “Vertigo” for a translation of that unhealthy behavior onto the screen.)
Yet “Psycho” was his last masterpiece, so no one under 50 was alive when he was at the top of his game. Will audiences care about this dry-witted British expatriate, the first great director to make a career almost entirely out of pictures that disturb viewers?
Writer John McLaughlin and director Sacha Gervasi have made a film that could have been shot in the era in which it’s set (minus profanities and sexual references).
Unctuous Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) makes goo-goo eyes at neglected Alma as they collaborate on a screenplay he hopes Hitchcock will shoot. Their hands meet, and the camera pans up to their eyes in melodramatic style.
Hitchcock has (mostly comic) hallucinations in which he talks to morose Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the serial killer who inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel “Psycho.” Moguls and agents drop in and out, speaking as we’ve heard them talk in films from the 1950s. Meanwhile, the production design links Hitch to nutty Norman Bates: His rooms are full of stuffed birds, drawings of birds, birds designed on lampshades or telephones.
Most of the supporting actors were hired for physical similarities to people: Scarlett Johannson for Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel for Vera Miles, James D’Arcy for Anthony Perkins, Michael Stuhlbarg for agent Lew Wasserman. These are not interpretations so much as impersonations.
Hopkins, too, impersonates as much as he acts. He gets the pursed lips and disgruntled stare, the waddling walk and breathy speech pattern. (Oddly for such a gifted mimic, though, he doesn’t get the sound of the voice right.) His makeup is superb, but like his whole performance, it’s applied from outside in layers.
Mirren, on the other hand, is realistic and believable in Alma’s pain, her businesslike competence and her flashes of humor or outrage. A great actor should not seem, but be. Mirren simply is, and she takes “Hitchcock” up a notch with every look and line.