In the opening credits to the television series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," the iconic director is shown in silhouette walking into a caricature of himself. In the new "Hitchcock," actor Anthony Hopkins steps into his portrayal of the legendary filmmaker just as adroitly. Mr. Hopkins' impersonation is so uncanny — that it's a bit jarring to see the face of Mr. Hopkins on what seems for all the world to be Hitchcock's body.
The movie itself is a solid, straightforward biopic, supremely well acted and crisply paced. It tells the story of the making of the movie "Psycho," a film that is so much a part of Hitchcock's legacy that it's hard to imagine that at the time the director took flak from the press and his own studio for making a horror film. Hitchcock was forced to mortgage his house — and reputation — to get the movie made and distributed.
At the time, Hitchcock's fame rested on his early espionage movies and thrillers like "Rear Window" and "North By Northwest." Though he worked with the top stars of his day, Hitchcock felt pigeon-holed by his reputation. In the film, Hitchcock says, "They've put me in the coffin, and now they're nailing down the lid."
Helen Mirren more than stands up to Mr. Hopkins as Hitchcock's wife and collaborator Alma Reville. As the least well known in a cast of characters that includes Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) and Hollywood superagent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Alma is liberated from the demands of history. Her marriage is strained by Hitchcock's lack of appreciation for her efforts, and his chaste but creepy obsessions with his leading ladies. As escape from the doldrums, she begins work with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) on an adaptation they hope to pitch to Hitchcock. Their work together, in a cozy beachfront hideaway, has some of the trappings of an affair — which is not altogether to Alma's dislike.
The will-they-or-won't-they aspect of Alma's collaboration with Cook provides a little frisson, but not all that much. Hitchcock's creative struggles also fuel the story, but since we know how it all comes out in the end, there isn't that much suspense there. The one Hitchcockian element in "Hitchcock" is supplied by Ed Gein, the killer on whom the character of Norman Bates in "Psycho" is partly based. Gein (Michael Wincott) appears to Hitchcock from time to time to urge the beleaguered director to vent his true inner self more often.
We get occasional glimpses of this inner self. In one scene, Hitchcock compulsively eats from tins. In another, he's seen peeking through a hole into one of his starlets' dressing rooms. In the filming of the notorious shower scene in "Psycho," a frustrated Hitchcock decides to wield the knife himself, to the horror of Leigh. One actress says of him, "Jimmy Stewart in 'Vertigo' — that's Hitch."
This isn't the sort of movie Hitchcock would have made, but the spare screenplay and excellent performances do honor to its subject.
CREDITS: Directed by Sasha Gervasi; screenplay by John J. McLaughlin; based on the book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" by Stephen Rebello
RATING: PG-13 for adult situations
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS