More of a portrait of the sometimes strained marriage and creative partnership of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville than an in-depth exploration of the psyche of The Master of Suspense, Hitchcock walks the fine line between the man and the myth.
It also gives meaty roles to its lead actors, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, two of the best actors to ever step in front of a camera. Hopkins sounds like Hitch more than he looks like him, but manages to capture the great director’s essence, especially his dementedly impish sense of gallows humor and creative passion, while Mirren is her usual fierce self.
Hopkins-as-Hitchcock is introduced to us much in the same way as he introduced his classic TV series of the 1950s and ’60s, bidding us “Good eeevening” after we witness Wyoming farmer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) murder his own brother. In real life, Gein’s crimes served as inspiration for Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, as well as the 1973 cult classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre; the movie concerns itself with the former, specifically Hitch’s decision to film it as his next project.
Probably the director’s most widely known film today, it was an audacious and risky decision for the then-60-year-old filmmaker, who feared becoming an anachronism at the close of the ’50s. Concerns about old-age and the blow to his to confidence caused by the critical and commercial flop of Vertigo (which recently deposed Citizen Kane‘s status as the greatest film ever made) lead him to try something radically different. The studios — as usual — balk at taking such a risk, until Hitch mortgages his own home to finance the production himself.
Running parallel to this is the state of Hitch’s marriage to Alma, who was his creative partner for most of his career but was usually overshadowed and taken for granted by him. Here, she looks for her own artistic identity by collaborating with a second-tier writer named Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), whose true intentions may be less than honorable.
The movie itself aspires to be an imitation of its subject, opting more for whimsy and tweaking of conventions over detached drama, most notably in the scenes where a feverish and frustrated Hitch engages in heart-to-hearts with Gein, or when the director stands outside the theater during the world premiere of Psycho, taking in the audience’s screams and gesticulating like an orchestra conductor. It doesn’t shy away from the director’s well-known fussiness, his dependence on Alma, his obsessive and domineering nature with his leading ladies, his stress-eating, or his professional insecurities, but it never really gets to the root of them either. It’s a valentine to the man, and a pretty good one. Ultimately, this is Hopkins’ and Mirren’s dance, and they bring it to vivid life; he captures Hitchcock’s droll wit while keeping his humanity at the fore, and she as an aging but still vibrant woman looking to step out of her husband’s ample shadow without abandoning him.
The rest of the cast also shines, including Scarlett Johansson as Psycho leading lady Janet Leigh, subtly nailing her voice and mannerisms without sinking into caricature and showing more range than the Avengers allowed. Jessica Biel is equally strong the smaller role of co-star Vera Miles, a former object of Hitch’s obsessions until pregnancy forced her to drop out of Vertigo and burned the bridge between them. Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, and James D’Arcy are also well cast, with the latter so strikingly believable as Anthony Perkins that it is perfectly eerie.