A telling moment near the end of “Hitchcock,” Sacha Gervasi’s awards-bait look at the difficult production of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” captures the symbiotic bond between filmmaker and audience. Hitchcock paces nervously in the lobby during the first screening of the film as the now-infamous shower sequence unfold. The camera cuts from the rotund director to the reactions of the period-perfect moviegoers as Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score kicks in—Hitch conducts their screams with the precision of a master.
It’s a beautiful, oddly touching moment that reminds us why we go to the movies. If the rest of “Hitchcock,” chock-full of famous people doing exemplary impersonations of other famous people, can’t conjure that same level of cinephilia, there are still enough movie-lover moments to keep film fans happy.
The greater part of Gervasi’s movie revolves around the marriage of sensibilities between Hitch and his wife, Alma Reville. Played with British pungency by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, Alfred and Alma are drifting apart over Hitch’s obsession with filmmaking—and blondes—it is the work on “Psycho” that reunites them.
While the marital discord plot threaten to bog the film in sentimentality (she finds comfort in a younger screenwriter who praises her abilities; he ignores her warnings about his health and continues to eat and drink to excess), the behind-the-scenes looks at the creation of “Psycho” give the “Hitchcock” its real oomph. Undeterred by Paramount’s distaste for the project, Hitchcock finances the movie himself. His unnerving cool—which sometimes tips over into cruelty—reaches a peak during his direction of Janet Leigh (a restrained and quite good Scarlett Johansson) as Marian Crane drives her car through a storm. Hitch recites a seemingly endless monologue about what a bad girl Marian has been to get the proper reaction, building to an uncomfortable climax that leaves Leigh shaken. And an exchange between Hitch and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel, a bit glib) in which he forlornly asks why she chose the life of a housewife instead of letting him transform her into a star reveals the extent of his monomania.
The lives of the actual people involved, no matter how titillating, pale beside scenes of the creation of “Psycho,” which rescue it from the pantheon of pop culture and restores it to the gritty, harrowing movie it was at the time. “Hitchcock” doesn’t have that same grit, but its clear-eyed celebration of the art of filmmaking is almost enough.
Critic’s Grade: B+
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Casting by Terri Taylor
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson