Director: Sacha Gervasi. Fox Searchlight/Cold Spring/Montecito Picture Company. (12a)
Producers: Alan Barnette, Joe Medjuk, Tom Pollock, Ivan Reitman, Tom Thayer.
Writer: John J. McLaughlin.
Camera: Jeff Cronenweth.
Music: Danny Elfman.
Sets: Judy Becker.
Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Wincott, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Richard Portnow, Kurtwood Smith, Ralph Macchio.
Renowned and respected by all in Hollywood, film director Alfred Hitchcock (Hopkins) feels too comfortable in himself and a sudden dip in adoration from his critics. He is looking for his next big film and what he needs is something nasty, dirty and shocking. Despite the consternation of his loyal wife Alma (Mirren) and most of Tinseltown, he finds it in the pulp horror novel Psycho. With no support from Hollywood big-wigs, he remortgages his house to fund the film and assembles cast and technicians, despite everyone predicting this folly will be his down-fall.
Here’s a quirky little cinematic treat. Greatly polished but not greatly accomplished, the enjoyment here lies more in the neat approach taken in presenting the back history to how a well-known (in fact, one of the most well-known) movies came to be made.
Alfred Hitchcock always maintained, possibly with his tongue in one of his portly cheeks, that Psycho, largely credited by everyone else as inventing the modern horror film, was nothing more than a comedy.
This could very well have been part of his own marketing spiel to whip up interest in a film that was clearly not an out and out laugh fest (incest, murder and necrophilia not usually producing a high titter tally with movie audiences). But with this reference at the fore front of their minds, writer McLaughlin and director Gervasi have nonetheless created a fruity comic drama about the genesis and production of Psycho.
The viewer is in fact completely made aware of this point in a neat preamble that sees notorious serial killer Ed Gein (Wincott) casually bumping his brother off on their Wisconsin farm, coolly observed by Hitch, who sips a cup of tea whilst commenting on the action.
These bizarrely comic moments punctuate the film at regular intervals and serve another purpose, as they help develop a seam of psychotic darkness that increases as the action proceeds. Hitch has regular conversations with Gein about how to embellish or improve his film based on Gein’s life and crimes and also for a chit chat about the director’s own black fantasies. Gein in facts ‘counsels’ him as a psychiatrist would, when probing him about his treatment of women, Hitch declaring that he has been having “impulses…strong ones”. If only ‘Tippi’ Hedren could have been a fly on the wall.
Thankfully, the comedy is allowed to come to rescue such dark moments thanks to the arch, naughty performances. Hopkins underwent the make-up department’s full prosthetic demands and certainly looks the part, allowing his physical tics and playfully mordant performance to light up the screen (at the end, he ‘conducts’ his premiere audiences’ screams in time with Bernard Hermann’s screeching violins score). Unaccountably though he misses a cockney trick with the vocal interpretation, sounding far too much like the clipped, Welsh intonation that is Sir Anthony. But this is still a fun role and the pathologically funny lines are brought to the fore by him. Compare this performance with Toby Jones in another recent Hitch bio, The Girl, in which his accent was spookily recognisable as The Master.
Mirren scores strongly as his forthright and talented wife Alma, although even the most ardent of Reville’s admirers (she is credited as being the galvanising force and sculptress of his career) would be pushed to agree she was ever this buxom and flirtatious.
One would never have believed Janet Leigh was quite the professional actress Johansson portrays her as, but this is a timely reminder of how very good an actress she was in Psycho. Biel has a knowing glint in her eye in a small but telling role as a strong-willed and sarcastic Vera Miles, the Psycho co-star and former Hitch favourite whom he very nearly made into a world-wide star but whose resistance to his over-bearing and controlling style of direction almost ruined her career.
British actor D’Arcy clearly wasn’t in need of anything even approaching a latex make-over as Anthony Perkins sharing, as he does, an uncanny likeness to the American star and also nails the twitchy, nervous, lost boy demeanour that secured Perkins the part that launched him.
A lot of the detail in the film will be fascinating to the uninformed, but a lot about the behind the scenes making of Psycho will already be known to movie buffs, as Stephen Rebello’s book on which the screenplay is based was originally published in 1990. Just to show how much of a movie geek I am, the necessity of Vera Miles’ immobile, concrete wig is explained away here as covering up her brunette hair (in defiance of Hitch, she changed her hair colour). The real reason is because Miles had shaved her head for her most recent role in Five Branded Women. Perhaps Miss Biel, who gave an interview about how terrifying it was to portray a real-life movie star, was too spooked herself at this suggestion?