Two brothers are digging a hole outside a farmhouse. After a disagreement about their mother, one of them walks out of frame. He returns a moment later to bash his brother over the head with a shovel and the camera pans to the side where Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is watching, just like an audience member at a theatre. He turns to the camera and delivers the first charming quip (of which there will be many) to his audience about Ed Gein and how he inspired Psycho. And so begins the entertaining, somewhat lightweight look at one of the most famous directors in history, and the production of his most-famous film.
When it was released in 1960, Psycho made a huge impact on Hollywood that affects movies to this day. It was near the end of the censor’s reign, which had held films back from including content that would get anything beyond a PG rating by modern standards. It was also at a time when television was stealing audiences, and filmmakers were looking for new ways to lure people to the theatre. Hitch created a pre-release buzz that was unheard of, but has since become standard. In the ’60s a film could open in a couple of theaters and play for months before finding an audience and becoming a nationwide success; today studios release films in thousands of theaters, and if they don’t make the top three on their opening weekend they are considered flops.
But all of this history is secondary to the real purpose of Hitchcock.
Under all the film trivia, the focus of the story is Alfred (“Just call me Hitch, drop the cock.”) and his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). They are a couple heading into their golden years together, and comfortable performances from Hopkins and Mirren make their long-lasting love affair very believable. Running gags with Alma trying to make Hitch eat better food, and Hitch trying to hide his drinking, play out in scenes of Hollywood negotiations and production stress to bring these two characters firmly to life.
This care and attention given to develop the two lead characters is great for them, but it leaves most of the supporting cast underdeveloped. In the lead up to the production a series of short scenes introduces characters who are offered up like garnish; they look great, but they have little substance. Ralph Macchio plays the psychiatry-obsessed screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Kurtwood Smith is the hardliner censor who hovers over the script with a red pen, and James D’Arcy is Anthony Perkins, the actor playing the titular psycho. D’Arcy’s performance seems to avoid any of the complexity of the real Perkins in favor of his character in the film, Norman Bates.
A supporting part that actually does get some development is serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) who haunts Hitch’s dreams like a psychotic muse. There are times it seems that Gein might have more influence over the director than his long-suffering wife. Gein is one character who, along with beautiful blonde Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and slick writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), starts to come between Hitch and Alma, and his appearances are some of the only real insights given to Hitch’s thoughts.
By the end, with a great reference to Hitchcock’s next film, the piece that will be remembered most is Hopkins’ performance. His makeup is perfect and he uses the fat suit and prosthetic lips to make Hitch the charming, troublesome, childish genius he is known to have been. He has some great lines, but it is his physical reaction to the first audience seeing the shower scene that makes him a likely contender for this year’s awards. Standing outside the door he conducts their screams like Amadeus and stabs the air with an invisible knife.
The simple supporting parts, all of them brilliant impersonations, and Hopkins’ easy-to-like lead create the film’s simple, tongue-in-cheek style. It is the sort of biopic that Hitch himself would have enjoyed because it has the bare minimum of personal insights and regularly chooses entertainment over historical accuracy. We can never know exactly what went on with all these people during the making of the film, and we can never know exactly what Hitch and Alma’s relationship was like, so having a group of talented actors performing an entertaining script is really all we can hope for, and Hitchcock delivers. It might not be perfect, but, after all, “It’s only a bloody movie.”