Coming off the heels of success for North by Northwest, producers clamor for another cookie cutter repeat of the esteemed thriller. Hitchcock, however, is acutely aware of the fact that he is only getting older, and some critics seem to think he has passed his prime. With this in mind, he sets out to uncover a new, different inspiration for his next picture. Enter the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch. The novel, which is inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, had been passed around and rejected by all of the major studios before it landed in Hitchcock’s lap.
Hitchcock, a man who gives in to obsessions fairly easily, fixates on adapting the novel. His wife, Alma Reville (performed admirably by Helen Mirren), has her own idea on what novel her husband should adapt: a manuscript by family acquaintance Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston, John Adams, Children of Men). Cook cozies up to Reville as he tries to interest her, and ergo, her husband, in his own novel. Reville finds herself stuck between a caring friend and a stubborn, obsessive husband. During the filming of Psycho, she tries to hang on to her sense of identity; she was once a successful assistant director, who is now best known as Alfred Hitchcock’s wife.
Interesting facets of the making of Pyscho featured in Hitchcock come straight from its true story. In 1959, no studio would financially back a film as provocative and horrifying as Psycho, so Hitchcock mortgaged his house and financed it independently for $800,000. He had to painstakingly fight the censors who were in charge of upholding the Production Code of the time. He had to fight for every provocative cut. Making Psycho was an uphill battle from start to finish.
Even though this is a movie about the making of Psycho, Hitchcock could have featured more scenes on its actual filming. The actor cast as Norman Bates has a very small role, and the famed Pyscho house can be seen only once in a background shot. There are also inaccuracies in the way the filming location is portrayed: Paramount is featured as this is a Paramount film, but the filming actually took place on the Universal back lot. The Psycho house was also built at the Universal back lot and is inaccurately shown in the background of the Paramount Lot. Perhaps these details are too trivial to focus on and really should not cause a viewer to pause. But, there is one more detail that is not so trivial.
Hitchcock takes us through an overview of the filming of Pyscho, which focuses specifically on Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, the leading lady from the famed shower scene, and Jessica Biel as supporting actress Vera Miles. For this adaptation, director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin choose to allude to the fact that Hitchcock may have been a little too interested in his leading ladies, and that he may have crossed a line from time to time. “Crossed a line” can mean many things, and what exactly Hitchcock did is kept vague. It is obvious he is preoccupied by his starlets, but the film refuses to get too ugly. There is a sense that perhaps we haven’t heard the whole story this time around. Hitchcock would rather skirt a fine line and keep an overall positive view of Alfred and his relationship with his wife. The handling of Hitchcock’s treatment of his various starlets feels a bit glossed over, as if the seriousness of Hitchcock’s treatment of young women needs to be just rosy enough to continuously portray him as an empathetic leading man.
That aside, this film is a reminder that being a true visionary means taking risks even when supporters, or believers, are scarce. No matter what, Hitchcock’s decision to make Psycho changed cinema forever, and that is a very important fact. Hitchcock chooses to adopt a slightly glossy look, mixed with surreal touches—serial killer Ed Gein makes a few appearances (played by Michael Wincott, The Crow, Alien Resurrection). This may not be the seminal work on Alfred Hitchcock’s life, but it is a fun, enjoyable, quirky attempt to shed light on the life of one of the most famous directors in cinema history.
Hitchcock is scheduled for theatrical release on November 23rd.