Hitchcock (2012; dir. Sacha Gervasi) proposes that the violence against women, the murder, and the obsessive fascination with the grotesque in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961) are reflections of the director’s turmoil over fear that his career is over, that he has lost his touch as a director, that his wife is having an affair, that those whom he has befriended have betrayed him, and so on. The basic suggestion is that Hitchcock’s own near nervous breakdown helped form his most terrifying of films. Hitchcock does a fine job of proving the proposition, at least speculatively.
Portions of the film are narrated from within Hitchcock’s mind, as if he is the protagonist of one of his own films, such as Spellbound or Vertigo. His age is a constant concern, as is his weight—his wife Alma has him on a diet. His fear that she may be on the verge of having an affair drives the rage he expresses when he demonstrates how Norman Bates would slash a woman to death in the famous shower scene. It also drives him to eat prodigious amounts of food late one night in a frenzied binge of frustration and unhappiness. Alma herself is bothered by her husband’s fascination with the young blonde actresses he casts in his films..
The credits tell us that Hitchcock is based on a book about the making of Psycho—Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello—but I suspect the filmmakers inserted some of their own inventive speculations into the story. Hitchcock is obsessed with the real killer on whom Norman Bates was based—a serial killer who mutilated women and shared a bed with his mother, who had been dead for ten years. Hitchcock fantasizes that the killer sometimes speaks to him and advises him about Alma.
Hitchcock chooses his actors on the basis of their own psychological traits. Anthony Perkins, for instance, he found suitable to play Norman Bates because of his obsession with his mother and guilt over his father’s death, which he felt he had caused by wishing for it to happen. James D’Arcy, who portrays Perkins, is good in the role.
One may say that Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho, but it’s actually about the marriage and partnership of Hitchcock and Alma. Although he is the credited director in all of his films, she is always deeply involved, providing ideas and suggestions that her husband frequently adapts. She revises scripts, assists in the editing, and when her husband is ill, directs in his place. They had a close and creative partnership.
Hitchcock is highly entertaining. It’s a small film—its focus is narrow. But each element fits. Anthony Hopkins is so effective that he simply seemed to become Hitchcock. Scarlet Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jennifer Biel as Vera Miles, and Helen Mirren as Alma are excellent. Its psychological intrigue, suspense, mystery, and empathetic character portrayals make it a gripping and informative study in filmmaking.
A caveat: the film allowed Hitchcock’s own psychological issues to overshadow his deliberate intentions as a director. It is not as if, even in his most stressed moments, he was not making choices, shaping the film, developing his original vision. Undoubtedly trauma and personal crises helped direct those choices, but the making of Psycho was not an involuntary act.