Knowing director Sacha Gervasi and his prior works, knowing the history of Psycho, and even having known several of the real-life players in the Psycho and Hitchcockian dynamic (among them, Alma Reville, Lew Wasserman, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins), I had mixed feelings about HITCHCOCK even being made. With Hitchcock's penchant for perfection, could or would this telling of a single chapter of his storied life and career, live up to HIS standards? Well, the verdict is in - it does.
Given my own experiences with and having known some of the real-life players and having the benefit of their own storied recollections of the events now depicted on screen, afforded me a different perspective than the public perception of “just” the film. But it is those stories that I took in my subconscious into the screening and which, in and of themselves, created an extra hurdle for Gervasi and company to master. At the end of the day, I can honestly say, I have never been more enthralled or mesmerized with a biographical excerpt of someone's life on the big screen. The meticulous excellence of the overall film is stunning and in many moments, had me tearing up.
Focusing on the behind-the-scenes events leading up the making of and release of Psycho, and particularly the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his beloved right-hand/wife/editor/writer/partner in every sense of the word, first and foremost, HITCHCOCK is a love story - a two-fold love story; Hitchcock’s love story with Alma and his love story with his work. Knowing first-hand from recollections by Ms. Reville, both meant everything to him and were so intertwined as to not know where one ends and the other begins. Gervasi embraces that Hitchcockian triumvirate as his concrete base. As rock solid as Hitch and Alma were, so is the base of this film. Where Gervasi and screenwriter John McLaughlin excel in this storytelling is celebrating and showcasing the true partnership between Alma and Hitch. They were beyond Lucy & Desi or Bill & Hillary. To not have one without the other would be like cutting off one's right arm. Thanks to magical and powerful performances by Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins, we not only see, but feel the strength of the relationship and the love and respect (respect being more than key) between them; not to mention the love that both shared for work. Hitchcock may have voyeuristically lusted in his heart and wanted to play Svengali with his "Blonde Obsessions", but were it not for the strength, respect and confidence in each other and their marriage, Alma & Hitch and Hitch & History would never have happened.
The story here is so telling about the man and clearly distinguishes him from the myths. Calling on “dream sequences” (of course, “dream” and “Alfred Hitchcock” is somewhat dichotomous), Gervasi adds levels of expected and patented Hitchcock creepiness as Hitchcock imagines himself acting out sequences of the script but in “real life”, as well as having conversations with the murderous son in Robert Bloch’s infamous novel from which the film Psycho was born.
Particularly notable is that Gervasi and screenwriter John McLaughlin did not go the Hollywood gossip route or tell a story just about the making of Psycho. While many may be disgruntled by this, I am not. What sets HITCHCOCK apart from the crowd is that this is the story of the man and his mind and what made him tick in order to create a film like Psycho, leading to a film that is more interesting and absorbing. And of course, the driving ticking force was Alma Reville.
The movie Psycho was a crossroads not only for Alfred Hitchcock but for the film industry as well. While there are little “untruths” and filmmaking license sprinkled throughout, insiders, cinephiles and historians alike cannot help but note the impeccable little details that are elicited through the script, the production design and above all, the performances. Helen Mirren is perfect as Alma with her taut face, strong posture and confident demeanor, so much so that there were times I thought it was Alma Reville herself on screen. Although not physically resembling Reville, Mirren channels her essence. Even when I met Reville late in her life, she had a formidable but generous presence. Mirren captures that beautifully. As for Sir Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock - WOW! While make-up and padding have done much to give the physical illusion of HITCHCOCK himself, it is the nuanced and subtle mannerisms that are telling and just fuel the "essence" of the man. Adding a chilling factor to the package is hearing the voice of one of the most infamous literary and big screen murderers, Hannibal Lector, come from the body of the master of murder and mystery. Chilling. Effective. Love it. But it is the tenderness and "old married couple" presence that Hopkins brings to the character that is beautiful to watch. A sad look on seeing Alma's earring on the stack of 8x10s of his blondes; the jealous streak that erupts when he thinks she’s having an affair with a writer. And then you see the distinct professionalism of the man and his craft; the exacting nature of his concerns, his vision. Between script and performance, we have a clarity of the things important to HITCHCOCK in both his personal and professional life.
One that history has often overlooked is Hitchcock's longtime secretary, Peggy. Toni Collette is a stand out as a strong woman in a man's world and as Gervasi shows us, was much more than a glorified typist. On watching HITCHCOCK, one often gets the feeling Alma was his right arm and Peggy the left. I can easily see Collette tossed into the Best Supporting Actress mix for Oscar.
Can I just say how much I LOVE Michael Stuhlbarg's performance as Lew Wasserman? Energetic, focused, strong and commanding, Stuhlbarg gives the young Wasserman the same intensity I still saw in the man when he was helming Universal/MCA. Kurtwood Smith is delicious as Geoffrey Shurlock, head of the MPPDA and enforcer of the infamous Motion Picture Production Code. With moments of both fire and brimstone and then “humiliated ass”, Smith soars. Also a shout-out to Spencer Garrett as Hitchcock's longtime editor (along with Reville) George Tomasini. Although with minimal screen time, it is one scene with Hopkins-Mirren-Garrett that really defines the Hitchcock-Reville relationship as Hitch and George go toe-to-toe against Alma over a Janet Leigh blink. (Of course, Alma was right.)
One thing that HITCHCOCK brings to light is that Alfred Hitchcock only surrounded himself with strong people - people that were as strong, if not stronger (as in the case of Alma and Peggy) than himself. He had no mamby pamby hanger-oners in his camp or on his set. But on the flip side, we also see a demanding little boy who likes to out and show fits of temper when he doesn’t get his way. A wonderful balancing act.
I am beyond curious to hear Jamie Lee Curtis' thoughts on Scarlett Johansson's performance as her mother, Janet Leigh. I think Johansson nailed it and kept true to Leigh's support and non-gossip policy about Hitchcock (which she maintained throughout her life). From the hair, to the posture and right down to the period impeccable wardrobe with Playtex cotton bra and panties, Johansson delivers a Leigh that was not only the consummate professional, but a kind woman and devoted mother.
One sour note is Jessica Biel. As Vera Miles, she seems a bit off and creates an uncomfortable edginess within the cast that, while I suspect Gervasi may have done that intentionally given the relationship between Miles and Hitchcock, nevertheless disturbs the flow of an otherwise flawless picture.
Was a seance being held for casting Anthony Perkins or did he just come back from the grave for this film? My heart stopped when James D'Arcy came on screen for his first meeting with Hitch in the office. The look, the mannerisms, the nervousness, the head movement and uncertain tilting when speaking, the slight stutter.... D'Arcy IS Tony Perkins. D'Arcy IS Norman Bates. So much so that it turns my blood cold...or into Hershey's chocolate syrup (which was used as the shower blood in real life).
Shocked and surprised given the history of the subject matter that Gervasi and his cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth elected to shoot digitally using the Red Epic, but the visual result is beautiful. Cronenweth really masters the look and technique of a HITCHCOCK film within a film about HITCHCOCK with great lighting, lensing and framing. Love the effect of framing HITCHCOCK in many scenes as voyeuristically as HITCHCOCK framed his own subjects. Subtle genius. And can we get a big Oscar push here for production designer, Judy Becker? Flawless.
The icing on the cake is Danny Elfman. Who else but Elfman could anyone choose to score a film about HITCHCOCK? Embracing the celebrated musical notes of the actual Psycho score and fusing it with similar tone and style, Elfman completes the immersive experience into the Hitchcockian experience. Oscar nomination please!!
Provocative. Evocative. Insightful. Psychologically chilling. A perfect slice of Hollywood history. It's a love story alright. A love story of HITCHCOCK.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Written by John McLaughlin based on the book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" by Stephen Rebello
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, James D’Arcy, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Kurtwood Smith, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Biel