“Hitchcock” focuses on a brilliant director, his wife and a risky venture

It seems like all books, movies or plays that eventually become classics are products of humble, troubled beginnings — initially dismissed as not having a chance at being successful yet given life by someone or some group that has enough faith in it to risk whatever is necessary to bring it to fruition.

Such is the story in “Hitchcock,” which may by its title appear be a biopic but in fact covers just one chapter in the brilliant career of director Alfred Hitchcock.

Director Sacha Gervais, in his first major feature, has put together an actors’ movie, driven by strong performances throughout. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”), based upon a book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello, focuses on Hitchcock’s effort to put the now-classic “Psycho” on the screen.

During the 1950s, Hitchcock had directed several thrillers that had earned him the title “master of suspense”: “Strangers on a Train, “Dial M for Murder,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Wrong Man,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.” In addition he was hosting his weekly “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” program, one of the popular anthology series of the time like the “Twilight Zone” with different stories each week and in which he always had commercia-break tongue-in-cheek vignettes — Encore Suspense movie channel broadcasts these shows on weeknights.

Following the success of “North by Northwest,” Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is on the prowl for new material. While his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren)  urges him to look at a book manuscript by her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer who penned many television series episodes like “Playhouse 90” and “Have Gun, Will Travel,” Hitchcock discovers the novel “Psycho” by Robert Bloch, a story of a deranged killer that was inspired by real-life mass murderer Ed Gein.

While Alma very reluctantly endorses this effort, Paramount Studios, with which Hitchcock was contracted, dismisses “Psycho” as being a cheap horror flick and refuses to finance it. So Hitchcock, supported by his agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), opts to put up the money himself, mortgaging his spacious home in the process. He and Wasserman then set up just a distributing deal with Paramount.

Hitchcock hires Joseph Stefano (Ralph Maccio in a brief but memorable scene) to adapt the novel to the screen. Stefano, who wrote some “Outer Limits” episodes, is seen as a fidgety man with his own psychological issues, mostly surrounding his mother.

Stories of Hitchcock’s obsessions with his leading ladies were well known, and this is touched upon in the movie. At Alma’s suggestion, he casts Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) in the pivotal role of Marion Crane. At the time Leigh was married to Tony Curtis and had two children (Jamie Lee was just a baby when filming began in November 1959). In “Hitchcock,” the relationship between the director and Leigh is shown as being very cordial and one of mutual respect, with Leigh not having to endure any of the psychological torment Hitchcock was reputed to have inflicted upon his young female stars. In one sweet scene, Leigh even gives Hitchcock a ride home in her little Volkswagen Beetle.

The strained relationship in this movie centers around the director and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who plays Marion’s sister Lila Crane in “Psycho.” Miles had worked with Hitchcock before in “The Wrong Man” and Hitchcock had aspirations of making her a major star, but she opted for marriage and family — yet still had a long career, including reprising her role as Lila in “Psycho II” in 1983. It was a testament to Hitchcock’s massive ego that he considered Miles’ life choices as a betrayal to him.

The emotional focus of “Hitchcock,” however, centers around the director’s relationship with Alma. They married in 1926, a union that lasted until his death in 1980. Mirren, who has earned Screen Actors Guild and  Golden Globes nominations for this role, portrays Alma as a firm foundation in their marriage. Her support of him was unwavering and she had to endure the constant uneasiness that had to peck away at her regarding Hitchcock’s more than professional interest in the young actresses he was directing.

In “Hitchcock,” Alma finds comfort in her friendship with Whitfield Cook, although as portrayed by Huston, the writer seems to have ulterior motives in his relationship with Alma. She has no intentions of initiating an affair with Cook, but her willingness to collaborate with him on a screenplay adaptation has Hitchcock suspicious.

Alma’s steadfast support of Hitchcock’s filming of “Psycho,” even to the point of writing revisions on the Stefano script, is heroic and certainly a test of her love for the man.

“Hitchcock” does veer off the path with a paranormal sub-story in which Hitchcock has mental encounters with Gein (Michael Wincott), who serves as sort of a creepy muse. These scenes are a mixed bag, as Wincott is riveting in the role. But the scenes disturb the flow of the movie.

The on-the-set scenes are fascinating for those of us who are interested in witnessing the pre-filming preparations. Of note are a few scenes featuring James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. D’Arcy, who does resemble Perkins, absolutely nails Perkins in his mannerisms, and it is too bad he is not seen more in the movie. Interestingly, Andrew Garfield, the latest Peter Parker/Spider-Man, was going to be cast as Perkins, but his commitment to a stage production of “Death of a Salesman” forced him to give the role a pass.

Other aspects of the bringing “Psycho” to the screen are also covered in “Hitchcock,” such as the director knocking heads with the censors, led by Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith), the intense editing process as Alma collaborates with Hitchcock on cutting the film, the shooting and editing of the famous shower scene, Hitchcock’s reluctance at first to have music accompany the stabbing scene — thankfully he gave in, and the screeching violins as composed by Bernard Herrmann are now an iconic musical representation of bloody mayhem — and the publicity strategy initiated by Hitchcock — “Psycho” was the first movie of which nobody would be allowed into the theater after it had started.

“Hitchcock” at its core is a love story, recalling a lasting bond between two people who were strong and brilliant in their own right but were even better as a pair.

The movie is loaded with many wonderful moments — one scene in which Hitchcock, driven to the lobby by his anxiety at the premiere screening of “Psycho,” hears the audience reaction to the horrifying shower murder, is exceptional. Plus, the closing scene is a witty homage to the epilogues that Hitchcock appeared in on his television programs.

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