When I first saw Psycho as a teenager, I remember being immediately jealous of the audiences who first saw it back in 1960. The movie and its twists are part of film history now, so there was no chance I could go into it fresh. But back in 1960, audiences must have freaked the fuck out when the lead actress dies before the halfway mark. Hitchcock, the new biopic directed by Sacha Gervasi, looks at the nervy choices the Master of Suspense made during the production of (arguably) his most famous work. It’s clever and fun story, although strangely absent of any insight into its subject.
The film industry thinks Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is over the hill, incapable of showing audiences anything new. And after the stunning success of North by Northwest, Paramount wants him to make another big budget hit. The novel “Psycho” gives the lethargic Hitchcock a jolt of inspiration, and while his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) is skeptical at first, she collaborates with him as always. Her loyalty is never in question – Paramount agrees to distribute Psycho only after Hitchcock agrees to pay for it himself – at least until Alma starts working with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a handsome screenwriter. Alma distances herself from her husband as filming gets underway, so serial killer Ed Gein’s (Michael Wincott) nasty ideas start to invade the director’s subconscious.
Hitchcock is at its best when it shows the details of filmmaking. The director’s early conversations with Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) are an opportunity to showcase the director’s obsessions. He always dominated his leading ladies, for example, so Leigh gets a warning from Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) about how his approach to directing can be cruel. In a knowing joke, Perkins hints at his sexual orientation by mentioning which of Hitchcock’s films are his favorite. Even though the conclusion is foregone, Gervasi generates some suspense by showing how Hitchcock solves the problem of the peephole and the infamous shower scene. There is nothing new for longtime fans of the film – the drama works best for newcomers – so Hitchcock works as insider entertainment.
Strangely, screenwriter John J. McLaughlin gives the subplot of Alma and Whitfield Cook the same amount of attention as Psycho. Hitchcock and his wife may sleep in separate beds, yet his jealousy consumes him. Gervasi has a trick to make us care about this material: with menacing shots and controlled camera movement, he shoots the romantic subplot like a Hitchcockian suspense sequence. The appearance of Gein, the killer who inspired Psycho, suggests that Hitchcock’s dark imagination grows more pervasive when Alma grows more distant. Despite this technique, the romantic sub-plot is still a distraction. Bells and whistles cannot hide its bland predictability. Mirren may have a terrific scene where she finally explodes at her husband, one where she describes her unwavering support, but she never develops any chemistry with Hopkins. Their scenes together are like concurrent solos, not a duet.
When Hitchcock finally screens Psycho before an audience, he steps out of the theater before the shower scene. His behavior in the auditorium is an over-the-top metaphor for his relationship to his audience: it works in the moment, but leaves lingering questions. In fact, Hitchcock wanes after pausing to think about what actually happened. The film suggests that the director got over his strange relationship with women, but thanks to The Birds, we know that’s not true. It reinforces Hitchcock’s marriage too neatly since real life rarely follows a common three-act structure. Hitchcock replaces depth with charm, so instead of any greater appreciation for the man, I merely found myself wanting to watch Psycho again.