New Hitchcock Film Covers Most Stressful Period: Making ‘Psycho’
by Sandra Olmsted
When watching director Sacha Gervasi’s film Hitchcock, remember that this is only one version of the Alfred Hitchcock’s life and that it only covers a short but very stressful period, both domestically and artistically, in Master of Suspense’s life. While the list of what Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin exaggerated or fabricated in speculating about Hitch’s mental state while financing and making Psycho is long, what they got right, such as using Hitch’s style of playing with guilt, suspicion, and dark impulses, is more interesting. The results is a fascinating portrayal of a creative temperament struggling against the ravages of age and the business and financial pressures of making art.
After the 1959 success of North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma Reville Hitchcock (Helen Mirren) live the high life of Hollywood fame, but the aging Hitchcock wants to make another film. When he chooses Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, he encounters opposition because of the many dark elements blatantly apparent in Bloch’s account of real life killer Ed Gein’s (Michael Wincott) incest, murder, transvestitism, and human taxidermy. Consequently, Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), the head of Paramount, refuses to finance Hitchcock’s Psycho, forcing Hitch and Alma to put their house and savings on the line to make the picture. Everyone, except Hitch’s agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), has substantial doubts about the commercial prospects of Psycho and about the cheap horror film salaciousness of the material.
With so much on the line and the need to make the a commercially successful film by truly understanding the material, it seems no surprise that the stress brings out the worst of Hitch’s demons — binge eating, drinking too much, fixating on his leading lady, jealously suspecting Alma of cheating, and delusionally chatting with Gein, who offers “advise.”
However, the truth of Hitch’s mental state during this period is more speculative than substantiated fact, despite the film being based on Stephen Rebello’s well-researched book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. What does work in Hitchcock is how the impulse control and the lack of it mirrors the development of Psycho, a film, like so many of Hitchcock’s, which deal with people who dispense with impulse control. However, Gervasi was hamstrung in his account by not being able to use any footage or even to recreate shots from Psycho because of legal restrictions.
The desire to do what one wants is the core of the relationship between Alma and Hitch because each is dealing with aging and the desire to get a few more projects in before old age prevents them from following their bliss. While Hitch daydreams of his newest blonde star, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), he also imagines Alma and Whit are having an sexual affair, but maybe Hitch’s jealousy is more about Alma sharing her creative talent than her body. Gervasi shows how entangled creative collaboration is with the romance of love and sexual desire, and Gervasi adds Alma and Hitch’s jealous protection of their longtime creative collaboration to their financial stress of funding and making Psycho. For Alma and Hitch, there’s more at stake than just love and marriage.
The examination of the marriage is interesting because in the tense moments, Gervasi uses suspense-creating techniques that Hitch would have approved of. For example, after Hitch has drunk too much and had one to many creepy “conversations” with the imaginary Gein, Gervasi lets a moment of menace hang in the air of the Hitchcock’s bedroom as Hitch towers over Alma. The best scene, however, is when Hitch waits in the theater lobby “conducting” the audience’s response to the shower scene.
He orchestrated Psycho, like his other films, to elicit squeals of fear and peals of nervous laughter, and, if he succeeded, if the audience likes the film, if Paramount is forced to open the film in more theaters, and if his inventive marketing plan works, he and Alma won’t loose each other or their home. For artists, especially in the ever more costly business of filmmaking, creative success must be mingled with business savvy and supported by financial success, and Hitchcock, the film, points how the conflict between the two can bring about great art, such as Psycho.
All the acting in the film is exceptional. Although Hopkins and Mirren are not physically like Hitch and Alma, they both capture the these dynamic people through their ability to project the emotions and personality of each. Hopkins emulation of Hitchcock’s voice and inflection grows on the viewer. Johansson’s Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel’s Vera Miles, and James D’Arcy’s Anthony Perkins are dead on portrayals of legends. Toni Collette is perfect as Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s longtime and sometimes long suffering secretary, and Michael Stuhlbarg nails a young Lew Wasserman.
Hitchcock runs 98 minutes and is rated PG-13 for for some violent images, sexual content, and thematic material. Hitchcock, a Fox Searchlight release, is in theaters now. More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at www.thecinematicskinny.com.
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