The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 horror film Psycho is fodder for Hitchcock, the new by-the-numbers biopic from director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil). Making a movie about one of the most celebrated moviemakers of all time is a dangerous game, and while the film is competent, even breezily entertaining, on most levels, it plays like a cable movie more than anything else. All the requisite historical plot points are trotted out—Hitchcock’s snapping up of every in-print copy of the Psycho novel to keep his movie’s ending a surprise, the quick-cut editing of the famous shower scene (we don’t see the Bosco that was used as blood, sadly), the promotional stunts that prohibited anyone from entering the movie theater late. We also hit a few points that seem entirely invented, and just as many crucial bits that are hastily skimmed over.
Anthony Hopkins has the requisite droop and stockiness to play Hitchcock, and it’s fun to watch him bumble along in a fat suit, leering at starlets, slurping down alcohol and foie gras. He doesn’t nail Hitchcock’s precise diction or sly wit, but he works well opposite Helen Mirren, who plays Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, who was also the celebrated filmmaker’s uncredited collaborator, script editor, and assistant director. This is Reville’s story as much as Hitchcock’s, and what the film does best is demonstrate how essential she was to not just Psycho, but every movie Hitchcock made.
Scarlett Johansson is admirably committed to playing Janet Leigh despite having almost nothing to do except stand under a showerhead. Jessica Biel plays Psycho costar Vera Miles, who’d dropped out of Vertigo at the last minute, leaving Hitchcock feeling betrayed; he blames her for that film’s initially poor reception. It feels like vast portions of that intriguing plotline were excised to focus on Hitchcock and Reville’s marital relations.
A clunky framing device in which Hitchcock interacts with Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired Psycho, is the low point; the rest ticks along merrily and inconsequentially. As okay as everything is, though, I can’t help shaking the notion that, in place of a proper movie, Gervasi has made a 98-minute wink to Hitchcock lovers. The good news is that there are plenty of those, and they’ll find Hitchcock trundles along pleasantly. The bad news is that, during his lifetime, Alfred Hitchcock made roughly 50 feature films that are more interesting and entertaining than this, so why bother?