Fifty years past his heyday, and 30 years after his death, the world still knows Alfred Hitchcock by reputation, even if you can’t get the kids to check out his classic movies. “Hitchcock,” a dark and dazzling bio-thriller about the making of “Psycho,” could change that.
It’s a fanciful film buff’s delight, a grim yet glittery corner of Hollywood history given a “Hollywood” treatment. No, it’s not the literal truth, but as they’ve said since John Ford’s day, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
We catch Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) as he’s at the very height of his fame — just after the dazzling success of “North by Northwest,” on a roll with “Vertigo” and “Rear Window” just behind it. He’s on TV, introducing his weekly mystery-horror-thriller series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He’s being offered everything from the first-ever James Bond film — “Casino Royale” (“I just made ‘North by Northwest’”) — to “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
And what does he want to do to top that? Shock movie audiences to their very marrow. He wants to prove that he’s not the true “relic” his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), and others joke that he is as he turns 60. A man with phobias and fetishes to fill a book is obsessed with the story about “the boy who dug up his own mother.” He has an assistant (Toni Collette) buy up every copy of Robert Bloch’s novel, “Psycho,” to keep the public from knowing the story. And he immerses himself in the life and crimes of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin farmer whose gruesome crimes in the 1940s and ’50s inspired everything from “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“What if,” Hitch ponders, in that slow British drawl, “someone really good made a horror picture?”
Hopkins’ gift for mimicry is put to brilliant use as he inhabits the “corpulent” form of Hitchcock — uptight yet playful, with a mordant, morbid sense of humor that he was never shy about trying out on friends, new acquaintances and the general public. An actor not new to impersonating historical figures, this ranks with Hopkins’ very best work in that field, capturing (with the aid of prosthetics) Hitchcock’s deliberate timing, his button-down fussiness (the man gardened in suit and tie) and his kinky peccadilloes.
Gein gets under his skin, and director Sacha Gervasi (“Anvil!”) and writer John J. McLaughln (“Black Swan”) imagine Hitch imagining Gein’s life and crimes. Gein, played with creepy skill by Michael Wincott, starts visiting Hitchcock in his dreams.
That doesn’t help the old director’s marriage. Alma, much in demand as a story editor, is being courted by a charming hack writer (Danny Huston, smarmy to perfection) who may have more than getting his latest book into better shape and into her husband’s hands on his mind.
The fact that studios are balking at the very idea of filming something this grotesque means that Hitch finances it himself, that he feels added pressure because of that. And the delight of coming on set each day to torment his curvaceous leading lady, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson, on the money), insult his former fave Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), and make good use of his secretive, closeted gay leading man, Tony Perkins (James D’Arcy of “Cloud Atlas”), isn’t enough to settle his nerves. The movie makes much of how much Hitchcock had riding on this cheap, black-and-white slasher picture.
An inventive film, “Hitchcock” doesn’t neatly line up with Hitchcock’s “real” history — coming off his biggest hit, the Hollywood world his oyster, him recognizing “Psycho” was a potential blockbuster and wanting to share less of the cash with studios nervous about the controversy. But that wandering from the historic record doesn’t spoil it in the least.
First-time feature director Gervasi has great fun with the Hitchcock persona, having Hopkins, in character, introduce the picture and provide a coda for it, just the way “The Master of Suspense” handled his TV duties. Cameos from the Hitchcock orbit about — there’s Ralph Macchio as screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Paul Schackman as composer Bernard Hermann.
McLaughlin wisely makes this as much Mrs. Hitchcock’s movie as Sir Alfred’s, giving the Oscar-winning Mirren center stage in the circus of Hitch’s near-nervous breakdown. Alma Reville takes her rightful place as her husband’s keenest editor, that extra set of eyes that lifted his films above the other thrillers of the day and made them classics.
And Hopkins, as a man struggling with his physical bulk and his bulkier reputation, makes Hitchcock, the man and the monster, a sympathetic hero. By the time he’s in the theater lobby, “conducting” the screams that were the real soundtrack to his masterpiece, you’ll be as exultant as he is.