Alfred Hitchcock made a career out of putting beautiful women in great peril in his movies. He was the master of elaborate damsel in distress scenarios in which he trained his beady eye on an alternative A list of fifties and sixties screen goddesses whose icy aloofness left him intrigued and sometimes infatuated. As he often, and all too knowingly, said, “I’m just a man in the corner with a camera.”
But beyond those famed Hitchcock blondes, the woman behind the man in the corner was far more important. Alma Reville was his wife of 54 years and a talented film editor and scriptwriter in her own right who often brought the irascible director’s great works to completion. Not least Psycho. The master’s most celebrated and analysed work was nearly washed down the plughole by squeamish studios and the censor’s office and Sacha Gervasi's warm and comedic movie casts Anthony Hopkins as Hitch and Helen Mirren as Alma in an entertaining story of Psycho's fraught filming process.
Vertigo was arguably a better picture but this isn’t really a movie about the making of a movie. It’s more of a behind-the-scenes love story between an obsessive and his patient, silent collaborator and their battle to get their picture made in face of the buttoned-up sensibilities of the day.
We meet the master at the height of his imperial phase in 1959 as he walks with grandeur out of the premiere of North by Northwest. He is showered with plaudits but Hitch’s latest is, to borrow Graham Greene’s expression, somewhat of “an entertainment”, a missing identity caper with a good-looking cast and maybe too many MacGuffins. Hitch is sixty and arguably the most successful and famous director of all time but he's bedevilled by whispering critics and self doubt.
Casting about for something to really earn his title of Master of the Macabre, he bats away offers of The Diary of Anne Frank (would definitely have worked) and Casino Royale (an intriguing prospect) and decrees that he wants “A nice clean, nasty bit of work.” When he alights on Robert Bloch's novel Psycho about a serial killer dirt farmer in Wisconsin he has his project. Hitch may have been box office gold but the studios would not touch the book with its scenes of graphic murder and a lead character with the worst Oedipus Complex since Hamlet. Paramount rejected the idea of a movie about “a queer killing people in his mother’s dress.” Meanwhile, the censor’s office baulked at a scene featuring a toilet with the seat cover up.
An indefatigable Hitchcock goes ahead and finances the project himself and alongside an initially doubtful Alma, we follow his most celebrated movie’s progress through initial re-writes and casting to the shooting of some of cinema’s most well-known moments. Whatever about shots of less than decorous loos, the notorious shower scene, a genuine shocker in its day, is carried off with the same comedic touches with flashes of obession as the rest of Gervasi's storytelling approach.
James D’Arcy has an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Perkins and he captures Norman Bates’ avian twitchiness in his brief screen time. Scarlett Johansson, however, is hopelessly miscast as Janet Leigh; she has none of the flinty determination of the Hitchcock anti-heroine who makes off with $40,000 of her boss’ money. Perhaps knowing she was in the presence of real talent, queen of bland Jessica Biel does manage sufficient sass as Vera Miles.
But they are lesser entities in orbit around Mirren and Hopkins as Hitch and Alma. They share an affectionate but strained relationship refracted through a kind of English stoicism and a detached but non-judgemental view of Hollywood. A well-padded Hopkins, with an accent that strays once or twice away from the sound of Bow bells and into the valleys, does a superb job communicating the self-revulsion Hitchcock had for his physical appearance, “a notably corpulent relic” as Alva affectionately calls him as he stews in the bath.
Emotionally distant and obsessive, he torments himself with publicity stills of his previous leading ladies and spies on his current ones. In moments of anger and stress, he reaches for the bottle or shovels mounds of foie gras into his maw. A great sadness hangs over his glum face as his torments himself about his looks, his shaky marriage, and his work.
But Mirren outshines him. Her Alma is indomitable but also vulnerable and Mirren judges her empathy with Hitch’s obsession and her gradual loss of patience with his longing male gaze very well. She gets the best lines too; her suggestion that Hitch cast Doris Day in Psycho and do it as a musical is delivered with grand hauteur and she neatly cuts down one scandalised woman with the line, "Don’t upset yourself darling - it’s only a movie."
Of course, Psycho was more than just a movie. It reinvented the horror genre and its impact at the time and this may be hard for younger audiences to fully appreciate. Garvasi’s film is shot through with humour and there’s good chemistry between the leads (this is Mirren and Hopkins’ first film together). As in the TV series that really made Hitch a household name, Hopkins often addresses the camera as our gleeful fellow voyeur and Hitchcock gets the macabre mischief of the man just right. Perhaps the ending is overly quirky and as for the closing scene, it may very well be for the birds.