We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes
Chris Kavan - wrote on 12/12/12
It's a rare year where there are not just one, but two great biopics that not only impress, but give you insight into your subject. I truly thought that there wouldn't be anything that could approach Daniel-Day Lewis' performance in Lincoln, but I was wrong. Anthony Hopkins should easily be put in the same category as he not only brings the famed director Alfred Hitchcock to life - he truly embodies the Master of Suspense.
Although this film, much like Lincoln, only covers a small portion in the man's life (in this case, the making of the film Psycho) you really get a clear picture of the man. Whether he's sneaking drinks whenever he gets a chance, his obsession over leading ladies or his relationship with wife/collaborator Alma Reville - this is man that is larger than life (in more than one sense of the word) but is just as insecure and jealous as the rest of us.
A lot of credit also has to be given to the makeup department, who truly did an outstanding job of transforming Hopkins, physically, into the director. The voice is also key, as is the way he carries himself, but he truly looks the part as well and if my voice counted for anything, this film would be a shoo-in for the award in this category.
Besides Hopkins, Helen Mirren is just as good playing Alma. Her relationship with Hitch is born out of mutual respect and deep commitment. As the film opens, the two are basking in the success of North by Northwest but are still stinging from the failure of Vertigo (which is kind of funny, given how that film just dethroned Citizen Kane as the British Film Institute's top film of all time in the annual Sight & Sound poll). Hitch wants something different for his next project, and lands on Psycho - a violent, bloody novel based on the life of serial killer Ed Gein. He owes Paramount one last film, but the head honcho Barney Balaban (Robert Portnow) has no hope the film will do any business. In order to finance the picture, Hitch mortgages his own home (and cuts back on things like foie gras flow in from Paris, upkeep on his pool and giving his driver the weekends off - oh the humanity!).
As a secondary story that parallels the events of Psycho, Alma has been approached by author Whitfield Cook (or Whit) to help him work on a script that he hopes to pitch. As played by Danny Huston, Whit is a somewhat smooth character and while the relationship between the two remains strictly platonic - he gives her the warmth and attention that Hitchcock seems incapable of expressing. I mean - if you had to look at that dour face day in day out, you'd probably want to hang out with someone a bit more bubbly as well.
But Alma is also hard at work turning Psycho into a viable film - she works on the script, on the casting, and even fills in when Hitch gets sick. Speaking of casting, Scarlett Johansson plays the quintessential Hitchcock blonde Janet Leigh, meanwhile Jessica Biel plays the long-suffering Vera Miles (whom Hitchcock holds a grudge against for choosing to have a child rather than be the star in Vertigo). James D'Arcy plays the soft-spoken Anthony Perkins - and, although given limited screentime, he manages to channel that role quite well.
Rounding out the cast, Toni Collete plays the harried assistant to Hitchcock, Peggy Robertson while Michael Stuhlbarg takes on the role of Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock's agent. Throughout the film, Hitchcock has many encounters with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) usually in the form of dreams or hallucinations that serve as a kind of subtle reminder that both men have their obsessions - it's a strange way to introduce the concepts but I guess a serial killer as part of your subconscious is powerful.
As Hitch films his passion project, he begins to suspect Alma has more than a friendship with Whit - and though by all outward appearances he's the same man, on the inside it's eating away at him. At one point, during the famous shower scene, he interrupts the stunt double to show how a stabbing is done - and the reaction from Leigh is undeniably fright as his anger and suspicions boil over - and remember, this is before things like fake knives were considered.
But the the problems on set pale in comparison to the problems off set. With the censor board (led by perpetually grump Kurtwood Smith) threatening to deny the film their seal, and Balaban continuing to doubt the viability of a horror film playing to general audiences, it's looking more and more like Hitch is going to have another failure on his hands. Yet just when things look darkest, Alma and he reconcile and really put their respective talents to good use - editing, cutting, adding (including the famous Bernard Herrmann music to the shower scene) until they are happy. Needless to say, things ended well, as Psycho is considered not just one of the best horror films of all time, but is one of the most successful film's in Hitchcock's long career.
The journey we take is not just about making this landmark films, but getting into the inner workings behind one of the greatest directors of all time. The film is not perfect - while I understand the inclusion of the scenes with Gein - they felt out-of-place compared to the rest of the film. The relationship between Hitch and Alma was perfect, but I kind of wanted more of his interactions with his two actresses (Leigh and Miles) - while there are some powerful (and humorous) interactions, you don't get an overall sense of his obsession (though it sounds like the other Hitchcock film from this, The Girl, tackles this subject - and obsession - more acutely).
That being said - biopics usually leave me cold or bored, but this year I've had the opportunity to view not just one, but two great biopics. Hitchcock manages to mix humor and drama in equal parts while Hopkins gives a standout performance, and Mirren is close behind. Those who have any interest in the director should take time to seek this out.