Alfred Hitchcock may have been the closest thing to P.T. Barnum that film history ever produced. He was a showman, a trickster and a genius of self-promotion. He knew how to whip up a delicious tale of evil, revenge, romance, murder and, yes, suspense (he was a master of it). He is one of the greatest film directors of the last century, an artist who wove together a body of films that will live forever in movie history. He made films for the moviegoing audience, not critics, not executives. He respected our intelligence while proudly proclaiming “I played them like a violin.”
Hitch’s public persona was so unique that he made a game of hide-and-seek with his films, making cameos and trying to get the audience to spot him. He possessed a dark and – for its time – sick sense of humor. Once, on his television show, he announced that he had found a cure for insomnia and then presented a handful of bullets.
Sacha Gervasi’s film Hitchcock wisely does not try to be a tapestry of Hitchcock’s life, but an interesting curio of the days and weeks leading up to the release of Psycho. What motivated him to make this picture? After the elegance and deep sentimentality of Vertigo and the glory of North by Northwest, what made him want to scale back his artistry and make a horror film in black and white on a low budget with no hero, and a star who dies before the second act? Everyone around him seemed to be asking those questions, but Hitch wasn’t talking. He knew what we now know – that he had a nose for what the audience wanted.
The movie opens after the release of North by Northwest in which Hitch is aghast by critics who said that he was getting old and stale. So, he buys the rights to a semi-popular pot-boiler by Robert Bloch and melds it together with the story of Wisconsin mass murderer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who unearthed corpses and wore their skins (not to worry, this is a bloodless film). The fact that Gein’s habit of sleeping next to the corpse of his dead mother makes its way into Hitchcock’s film makes us question the miracle of how Psycho ever got made at all.
The title role is occupied, as well as it can be, by Anthony Hopkins who doesn’t look much like Hitch but manages to embody his spirit and his eccentric sense of style. Those around him think that Psycho will ruin his career. Paramount refuses to finance it, so Hitch and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) mortgage their house and pay for it out of their own pockets. Hitch fights with studio executives and with censors who are aghast that he wants a picture that contains no less than corpses, blood, bare breasts, stabbings and – worse of all – an actual toilet flushing complete with sound effects (that’s based on fact).
The story of the making of Psycho is only part of the story. Most of the film deals with Hitch’s relationship with his wife Alma who, if the film can be believed, came up with some of the darker elements that made their way into the movie. Hitch tells her that Marion Crane dies halfway through the picture, but Alma isn’t shocked and, in fact, suggests that he should kill her off sooner. The relationship is really quite beautiful. Alma is seen as a woman who is fiercely loyal to Hitch and stands by him at every turn – reminding us that behind every great man is a greater woman. Helen Mirren actually gives the best performance in the movie as a woman with stubborn resolve, who is his voice of reason and occasionally shares his sick sense of humor.
Yet, the film isn’t perfect. It is sometimes a jumble of interesting elements rather than a straight forward narrative. There is a needless subplot involving Hitch’s suspicion that Alma is having an affair with the writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). She calls off his suspicions with a brilliant monologue that won’t be spoiled here. Then there are several strange moments in which Hitch imagines conversations with Ed Gein that seem pointless. Still this is a very entertaining movie, the story of a very strange man and his very strange movie, one that – against all odds – became the most popular film that he ever made. Hitch tested, mother approved.