Here is a film that looks worryingly like the world’s longest awards ceremony clip, featuring famous Hollywood figures dressing up as other famous Hollywood figures in the clear expectation of silverware. It is about Alfred Hitchcock making his pulp-nightmare masterpiece Psycho, a career departure on which he gambled his reputation and, indeed, his own money. The result is self-conscious and unsatisfying: a shallow and naive celebratory biopic.
Anthony Hopkins climbs into the fat suit and latex jowls to impersonate the master; Helen Mirren does a routine job as his wife and unsung collaborator Alma Reville; Scarlett Johansson gives a creamy and bland turn as Janet Leigh – though James D’Arcy is certainly an eerily precise Anthony Perkins. This movie’s problem is that it has been upstaged and outclassed – and its confected happy ending brutally exposed – by the recent BBC/HBO play The Girl, based on Tippi Hedren’s revelation that Hitchcock sexually harassed and abused her later, during the making of The Birds and Marnie. The performances of Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton as Hitch and Alma were, frankly, superior, and that play had some sharp things to say about Hollywood’s casting-couch politics, the tip of a nasty and little-discussed iceberg. Hitchcock hints at the same ideas but leaves the sacred cinephile cow coyly untouched; it takes the director at his own tongue-in-cheek estimation of himself, while itself remaining unperceptive and wrongheaded about Psycho.
We see how the studio is dead against Hitchcock doing this vulgar shocker, so he mortgages his house to raise the cash, thus intensifying the troubles in his marriage, which are smoothly raised and sentimentally resolved by showing Alma’s friendship with ambitious writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and Hitchcock’s poignant feelings for Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who was to play Marion’s sister Lila in Psycho. Given what we know about how he later bullied and scared Hedren, boldly dramatised in The Girl, this is feeble. As for the making of Psycho and the shower scene, we get the moment where Hitchcock snatches the knife and shows how to stab – and what’s supposedly going through his mind is glib and unconvincing. A disappointing excursion into movie history.
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