Make no mistake: Anthony Hopkins has some acting chops. He’s brought to life some of the most memorable, likeable, and sinister characters in film, sometimes all at the same time. When faced with the prospect of Hopkins playing the iconic Alfred Hitchcock in a mini-biopic centered around the production of the genre-defining horror flick Psycho, and being a fan of Hitchcock myself, it’s understandable to have some reservations, but fear not -- Hopkins lives and breathes the master of suspense from the opening shot to the closing credits. From the plodding gait to the bulbous posture, the pouty mouth to the subtle British accent, he brings every ounce of presence that Hitchcock had in person and in the camera frame.
I avoided trailers and advertisements to go in with as blank of a slate as possible, the way Hitch would have wanted it. Can’t have anyone giving away the ending! Things kick off with an introduction to “The Plainfield Ghoul” Ed Gein, the man whose horrific acts inspired not only Hitchcock’s character Norman Bates, but also Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Jame Gumb (The Silence of the Lambs). Hitch discovers a book detailing Gein’s crimes while searching for a film project to follow North by Northwest, amidst criticism that perhaps his best work has already been done. Psycho becomes that project.
Taking a brief stroll through 1950s Hollywood was something else. Perhaps most engaging was Hitchcock’s repeated bouts with the censors, who found anything more risque than showing a silhouette of a woman from the shoulders up in the shower behind a curtain through frosted glass to be horribly offensive and taboo, let alone showing an actual toilet flush -- these are things that had never been in film before and, according to the censors, never needed to be. The struggles with nudity, sexuality, and violence in the media are certainly signs of the times, as Hugh Hefner was at that moment just getting the Playboy empire off the ground, also in the face of great criticism from conservative types.
Unable to find common ground with the censors or the studio, Hitch eventually finds ways to fund the project himself, feverishly driven to finish this project even if not a single ray of projector light were to shine through the film and touch the screen in an American theater. Gradually, with the help of the cast, crew, and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), the project comes together, and becomes the influential classic we all know it to be today.
While all this is going on, Alma sets out to work with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) on another writing project, her first collaborative creative endeavor with anyone besides her husband in decades. Naturally, jealousy starts brewing and Hitch starts throwing accusations around while the stress of filming Psycho and some questionable dietary choices begin to take a toll on his health. Mirren is brilliant as Alma, offering support throughout the project’s darker periods (and in fact adding some of the most iconic elements), tenderness when Hitch grows weak, insecure, and disheartened, and strength in the face of her accuser. The movie is billed as “the woman behind the man,” and she certainly delivers while maintaining balance with her titular husband and his pet project/obsession.
Scarlett Johansson glows as Janet Leigh, bringing the necessary amount of bouncy yet respectable Hollywood heartthrob to the set. She toes the line of being both a Hollywood sensation and one of Hitch’s many leading-lady fantasies without getting into too much trouble along the way. Johansson’s trademark raspy voice stood out just enough to always remind me it was her, but it’s hardly a negative. The Ed Gein that haunts Hitchcock’s dreams is well cast, played by the surly and imposing Michael Wincott, and Jessica Biel steps into the shoes of Vera Miles, with whom Hitch has a troubling and unresolved past. For nailing the look and mannerisms, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins gives Hopkins as Hitch a run for his money. Too bad he was only in a couple of scenes.
All in all, I enjoyed the movie. It never gets too bogged down in documentary mode to stop being fun. The 98-minute runtime was a little shorter than I expected, but the pacing and editing are such that nothing overstays its welcome, nor does it feel under-developed. While it’s light on special effects, the 1080p picture and DTS-HD 5.1 more than do the story justice. There are quite a few special features here to keep you busy as well, including one deleted scene, several behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes, on-set cell phone footage, features breaking down the story, cast, and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack, as well as audio commentary with both the film’s director and the author of the book that inspired it.
If you’re a fan of the legendary director or just want to take a peek at a more morally rigid time in America’s not too distant past, Hitchcock is definitely worth a look. The cast is a treat, the performances spot-on, and the director even thought to include intro and outro sequences with Hopkins as Hitchcock pretending it’s all just one long episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.