Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most celebrated filmmakers of the 20th century, a director who was acclaimed by critics and serious cinema buffs but also made a fistful of major commercial hits, and whose influence is still keenly felt today. Hitchcock was also one of the first filmmakers who was a genuine celebrity in his own right; while D.W. Griffith...read more

Reviewed by Mark Deming

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most celebrated filmmakers of the 20th century, a director who was acclaimed by critics and serious cinema buffs but also made a fistful of major commercial hits, and whose influence is still keenly felt today. Hitchcock was also one of the first filmmakers who was a genuine celebrity in his own right; while D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille might have been household names, neither was as immediately recognizable as Hitchcock (especially after Hitchcock lent his name and talents to a popular TV anthology series in the late 1950s and early ’60s), and as well respected as Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Frank Capra were, none of them had a strong public persona the way Hitchcock did.

While Hitchcock was both a director and a star, the nature of his pictures and the consistent themes than run through them have caused more than a few film scholars to play amateur psychoanalyst with his work, pondering what the movies said about the man who made them and what the director might have been revealing of himself in his films. As much as we think we know Hitchcock, fans have long been eager to know more, and Sacha Gervasi offers a fascinating look into both sides of the great director in his new film Hitchcock; the movie examines a crucial turning point in his career, but also peers into the ideas and obsessions of the man behind the camera.

Hitchcock takes place in 1959, just as North by Northwest has been released to impressive box-office returns and enthusiastic reviews. While the movie is doing well, it’s seen by some as an example of the sort of big, splashy thriller Hitchcock has done before, and more than a few people are wondering if he has any surprises left. Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) has become keenly aware of this and is looking for a new project that will startle people. He finds it when he discovers a novel by Robert Bloch called Psycho, which centers on a man who commits a seemingly unmotivated killing. Hitchcock is excited by the novel’s bold themes and adult tone and decides that it will be that basis of his next film, despite the severe misgivings of the executives at Paramount Pictures, who have the director under contract for one more movie and find Psycho’s violence and sexuality quite troubling. While screenwriter Joe Stefano (Ralph Macchio) whips the book into screenplay form, he gets some uncredited assistance from Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock’s wife and a gifted writer who was already a success in the British film industry while Hitch was struggling to make a name for himself. Reville is Hitchcock’s secret weapon and most trusted creative ally, but she’s grown accustomed to living in his shadow; she’s also had to deal with the fact that they now sleep in separate beds and her husband obviously has an eye for other women, though it isn’t clear if he acts on it.

Hitchcock believes in Psycho, and when Paramount balks at financing the film, the director decides to bankroll the project himself, which only adds to the tension he feels about putting a risky project onscreen. And while Hitchcock is dealing with studio brass, censors, and his cast -- including Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy), who are committed but occasionally wary -- he’s aware that Reville is working on a screenplay of her own in collaboration with her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a handsome and charming playboy who clearly admires and respects her, giving her a validation she hasn’t received from her husband in quite some time.

While the making of Psycho is the main focus of Hitchcock, the troubled relationship between Alfred and Alma takes up nearly as much screen time, as do Hitchcock’s myriad eccentricities, and John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay doesn’t always succeed as it attempts to juggle these various elements. Over the years, film scholars have made much of Hitchcock’s fascination with cool, sexy blondes, and the movie devotes plenty of time to his obvious infatuation with Janet Leigh, who’s clearly fond of him but smart enough (and married enough) to keep him at arm’s length. The movie also plays on Hitchcock’s voyeurism, his alcoholism, his bursts of temper, his sublimation of his emotions in food, and his bouts of insecurity, but much of this material is handled with the insight of a freshman psych student. And the use of notorious serial killer Ed Gein as a recurring motif in the film is curious, since Gein was only a passing influence on Bloch’s novel and has no real place in Hitchcock’s movie.

But while the screenplay is flawed, director Sacha Gervasi handles it with a sure hand, giving the picture a strong, confident visual style that tips its hat to Hitchcock’s own work more than once, and he’s brought together a splendid cast who do marvelous work. Anthony Hopkins is excellent in the title role; while the makeup department have done their part to make him resemble the iconic director, Hopkins wisely doesn’t attempt to reproduce Hitch’s voice so much as capture his cadence, and as he connects with the character, he makes him fully believable as a person and not simply as a caricature. Helen Mirren is equally impressive as Alma, making her love for and frustration with her husband equally understandable (also convincing is her attraction to Cook), and she and Hopkins seem as natural a creative team as Hitch and Reville did in real life. Danny Huston brings just the right amount of charm and bluster to Whitfield Cook, and Scarlett Johansson is appropriately luminous as Janet Leigh, giving the character a natural, easygoing likability that mixes well with her physical beauty (and in some respects, Johansson looks more like a classic Hitchcock blonde than Janet Leigh did herself). Toni Collette deserves more screen time as Hitch’s faithful assistant Peggy, and Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Portnow, and Kurtwood Smith are fine as the various clueless suits Hitchcock has to contend with. And though Jessica Biel and James D’Arcy sometimes feel one-dimensional as Vera Miles and Anthony Perkins, they’re never distracting and slip comfortably into the film’s rhythms. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth has given the images a rich, bold look, and Judy Becker’s production design captures the period well. Gervasi keeps this film lively and engaging throughout, even when it spends more time on subtext than is needed; this is the first scripted drama he’s helmed (he made his directorial debut with the acclaimed documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil), and he makes Hitchcock’s battle with his own creative process just as interesting as his personal demons and the rickety state of his marriage. Hitchcock doesn’t feel like the last word on this iconic director, but it is a worthy exploration of what made him tick and how one of the first truly groundbreaking films of the 1960s came to be.