An almost palpable buzz preceded the advance screening of “Hitchcock” I attended a couple of weeks ago—understandable given an audience composed exclusively of people who make a living reviewing and writing about film. Still, I can’t help hoping that the appeal of this impressively directed, impeccably acted and beautifully designed movie will attract more than a cult audience of Hitchock fans and film buffs.
With a screenplay by John J. McLaughlin based on Stephen Rebello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho,” director Sacha Gervasi’s film neither promises nor delivers much in the way of action, adventure or suspense. What it does, however, is create a film worthy of the "Master of Suspense" out of fairly straightforward material: the biographical account of how Alfred Hitchcock brought this controversial project to the screen despite resistance from his studio (Paramount), objections from the Hollywood censors and general skepticism regarding his compulsive obsession to make it at all. In the end, he was forced to finance the film by mortgaging his home— a deal that turned out to be a windfall.
The sidebar—which eventually takes over the film thanks to superb performances by Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hitch and Dame Helen Mirren as Alma Reville, his wife of 54 years—is a valiant, though undocumented effort to depict their unusual partnership. Alma, a thwarted talent in her own right, actually contributed to most of Hitchcock’s screenplays and served behind-the-scenes as his uncredited consultant and editor. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine any other actors who could make this odd liaison so compellingly credible.
By 1959 when the film begins, Alfred Hitchcock’s distinctive profile and dry wit were already staples of prime-time television. With superior makeup to augment his consummate gift for empathy, Hopkins manages to retain the caricature we expect, while exposing the seldom sympathetic man behind the carefully created persona. While we have no preconceived image of Alma to measure Mirren’s appearance against—and she is hardly an unattractive woman—the Oscar-winning actress creates another remarkable character, a woman whose unassuming pride in her appearance is more than compensat ed for by the knowledge that her exceptional talent is indispensable to the Hitchcock myth and success.
The screenplay attempts to hint at a love story by introducing elements of jealousy on both sides, but basically the Hitchcocks’ marriage is one of those unromantic unions that simply endure out of habit (his) and determination (hers). Mirren’s finest moment is Alma’s tirade after Hitch accuses her of infidelity—matched only by Hopkins’ silent, intense response reflected in unforgettable close-up.
Gervasi, known mainly for directing the acclaimed documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” has said that his goal was to make the drama in Alfred and Alma’s marriage “as suspenseful, entertaining and raw” as many of Hitchcock’s films. In my opinion, he succeeds surprisingly well. Some of this is due to scenes that flash back through Hitchcock’s imagination to the true story of Ed Gein, the serial killer whose macabre crimes were the source of Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho,” the inspiration for Hitchcock’s obsession. These imaginary sessions between Gein and Hitch imbue the movie with the dark and foreboding ambiance of a Hitchcock thriller. And then there are numerous ominous references to other Hitchcock classics—particularly “The Birds.” But a great deal of credit goes to Danny Elfman’s score, which capitalizes on the “Psycho” theme music without imitation…quite a feat!