DIRECTED BY Sacha Gervasi
STARS Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren
THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS: Film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and psycho killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) converse in one of the many daft fantasy sequences in Hitchcock. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
The filmmakers behind Hitchcock claim that it's based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, but a more accurate title for this cinematic claptrap would have been Psycho and the Unmaking of Alfred Hitchcock. While purportedly taking a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the Master of Suspense's best movie (at least in my humble opinion; step aside, Vertigo), it's often so risible that it's no wonder I initially misread the name of the director, Sacha Gervasi, as Sacha Baron Cohen — although I doubt even the helmer of Borat and Bruno could make a farce as outlandish as this movie.
When it premiered in 1960, Psycho proved to be a lightning bolt from the heavens, revolutionizing the film industry in countless ways and startling a moviegoing public that had never seen anything remotely like this (it's the only movie I truly wish I had been around to catch when it first opened). Hitchcock promises to give us the back story surrounding the film's unlikely success, kicking off when the portly director (played by Anthony Hopkins) is basking in the afterglow of 1959's North By Northwest and trying to figure out his next project. He stumbles across Robert Bloch's Psycho, a novel that was inspired by the gruesome antics of mommy-obsessed killer Ed Gein (Gein also served as the inspiration for characters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs). Hitchcock immediately decides that this will be his next project, but he meets resistance from all corners, including, initially, his wife and frequent (uncredited) collaborator Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). But little by little, it all comes together, and the rest is film history. Unfortunately, the history seen on screen often differs wildly from the history that actually took place.
Of course, fact-based films are legendary for monkeying around with the truth, but the falsehoods in Hitchcock prove to be especially grating. Some of them are minor, possibly even dismissible: As but two examples, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) speaks ill of Orson Welles even though they got along while making Touch of Evil, while it's highly unlikely the savvy Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Hitchcock's agent (and later head of Universal Studios), would dismiss his client James Stewart's film Winchester '73 — merely acknowledged as one of the great Westerns of the 1950s — as a "dog."
Other aspects are simply impossible to ignore. The movie posits that the marriage between Alfred and Alma was a strained one, and that it took working together on Psycho to bring them back together. To get to this point, Gervasi and scripter John J. McLaughlin fabricate an entire romance between Alma and screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Cook is painted as an immoral, talentless hack who probably couldn't even be hired to write jokes on bubble gum wrappers. Not once does the movie mention that he penned two previous Hitchcock films, the classic Strangers on a Train and the underrated Stage Fright, but why would it, since that would destroy the filmmakers' flimsy playing-card construct? Still, the treatment of Cook is nothing compared to the treatment of Hitchcock himself. Certainly, the director's lust for the ladies led to some unpleasantness in his life, but as depicted here, he's less a great artist and more a lecherous pervert who drills peepholes into his actresses' dressing room walls and — are they kidding? — holds imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). The notion of reducing Hitchcock to Gein's level by turning the latter into the filmmaker's psychiatrist, confessor and partner-in-crime is tasteless by any standard.
The scenes that actually bother to deal with the filming of Psycho are entertaining and at least provide a respite from the turgid melodrama polluting the rest of the film. James D'Arcy's turn as Anthony Perkins is note-perfect (too bad his screen time totals less than 15 minutes), and although Johansson looks nothing like Janet Leigh, her performance can't be faulted. The striking, domineering Mirren is actually miscast as the diminutive, meek Alma, but they obviously wanted an Oscar-bait actress for the role, so there ya go. Hopkins isn't the train wreck that his casting might have suggested, but while he's superficially amusing, it's a performance that goes no deeper than the fat suit swallowing his body.
Like a combat veteran angered by the liberties taken in a Vietnam War flick, it's possible I'm simply too close to this subject. In other words, folks who know little about Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho or Hollywood in general might be engaged by this movie, and more power to them. Others, however, will watch this and, given the limited grasp of those who made it, immediately think of a better title: Clueless.