The making of “Psycho” was, in many ways, scarier than the film itself. At least for legendary director Alfred Hitchcock.
The horrermeister had to finance the classic 1959 film himself, risking his own money and reputation after timid studio bosses who had decided the material was too shocking and risky.
“Hitchcock,” a film that’s enormous fun despite not being especially good, tells how the English director bet the farm, or more accurately his Hollywood estate and high standard of living, on a cinematic shocker about a woman whose life literally goes down the drain after she checks into the wrong motel.
The principal characters in “Hitchcock” are Hitchcock himself (Anthony Hopkins) and Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), his longtime wife who served as his behind-the-scenes script doctor and chief professional consultant. Also popping up are such well known real-life Hollywood figures as Lew Wasserman (Michael Stulberg), who is Hitch’s devoted agent; and “Psycho” stars Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy).
At the start of “Hitchcock,” the director is stuck in a professional and personal torpor. He’s coming off the high of the rousingly successful “North by Northwest,” but has no idea what he wants to make next. Then he reads the slim novel “Psycho” and decides to take up the challenge of applying his patented patina to pulp; can he transform it into art, or least a hell of an entertaining motion picture?
The film makes the most of (and possibly takes liberties with) Hitchcock’s obsession with his blond leading ladies, turning it into a major fetish. We see the director lingering over and fondling glossy headshots of actresses in his study and spying on women through a peephole in his office at the studio.
Alma, fully aware of his weaknesses, is depicted as carrying on a possible flirtation of her own with a screenwriter (Danny Huston) who is hopeful of getting the director to read his work.
Having seen “Psycho” and knowing a little about Hitchcock’s oeuvre and personality is a prerequisite for getting the most out of this new movie. But even without that back history, the movie is easy to enjoy.
That’s because Hopkins and Mirren are having such a merry time of it playing off each other and walking up, especially Sir Anthony, right to the edge of hamminess. Their robust performances give the film a high energy jolt, not to mention jollity.
In the supporting cast, Johansson and D’Arcy manage to capture the essence of, respectively, Leigh and Perkins, while Biel is her usual resolutely beautiful but bland self as Miles.
“Hitchcock” has been directed with an unsubtle touch by Britisher Sacha Gervasi; it’s his first feature film following on his 2008 debut documentary, “Anvil: The Story of Anvil.” The screenplay, by John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”), is based on Stephen Rebello’s 1990 non-fiction book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho.’ ”