Good evening… tonight’s review revolves around the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s quintessential film Psycho. Beginning with the release of North by Northwest, the film explores Psycho’s production from novel to screen and the role Hitchcock’s wife Alma played behind the scenes both personally and professionally.
Biography films live and die mostly on the effectiveness of the actor portraying the central character. For proof, just take a look at Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis (Abraham Lincoln) and Liz & Dick starring Lindsey Lohan (Elizabeth Taylor), one is a highly regarded film and the other was mocked for a week as a laughably bad joke. Granted one is a major motion picture directed by one the most acclaimed directors of the past half century while the other is a Lifetime Network movie of the week and whose director is best known for his Oprah Winfrey produced TV movies. Setting aside the scope and grandeur of the films, Daniel Day Lewis is likely going to receive numerous Best Actor nominations and Ms. Lohan is going to be nominated for another mandatory stay in LA County Jail. Thankfully Hitchcock’s casting choices leave it sitting much closer to the likes of Lincoln than Liz & Dick.
Since winning an Academy Award for his role as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins has gotten by in Hollywood mostly by riding the coattails of that performance. He’s been in some critically and financially successful films since first donning the Lector mask, but most of his successes have come in films with ensemble casts, whereas many of his failures have come in films where he is one of the leads. In Hitchcock, Hopkins plays the title character. While the film isn’t your atypical ensemble film it comes close enough for the rest of the cast to take some of the pressure off Hopkins shoulders. Not only does Hopkins bare a strong resemblance to the iconic director, he manages to sound very similar to him as well even if his inflection is a bit hammy at times. Hitchcock’s oddities, mannerisms, and sometimes bizarre personality are on full display and while certain amount of dramatic license are surely taken Hopkin’s performance is one of his best in years.
Helen Mirren’s role as Alma Reville may not be as flattering, but it is no less important to Hitchcock’s story. Alma was a behind the scenes force to be reckoned with; she was not only Alfred’s biggest supporter but also a staunch critic that helped keep things in perspective for him. Mirren dazzles as she beautifully walks the tightrope between both worlds and is every bit equal to Hopkins much as Alma was equal to Hitchcock.
The large supporting cast is also quite strong but is underutilized. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel play Psycho stars Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively. Early on Johansson seems a bit out of place, but she settles in as the movie progresses (I’d love to know how Jamie Lee Curtis feels about her portrayal). Jessica Biel’s performance is more subdued (and minor), and thankfully she doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb like she’s sometimes prone to do. There are several casting missed opportunities where interesting actors were given roles and then given very little screen time. Just two examples of this are James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins and Ralph Macchio as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano; they both have great introductions and then quickly disappear from the film.
Hitchcock’s biggest misstep comes in the form of its pacing and script decisions. The film is repeatedly sidelined by a subplot involving Hitchcock having a supposed unhealthy obsession with Ed Gein that affects his interpersonal relationships and health. The entire subplot feels out of place and sadly takes away from time that could have been better spent on some of the other cast members, the production of Psycho, or the just a few more interesting bits between Alfred and Alma.
I think Hitchcock will do rather well this awards season… when it comes to nominations for Best Actor and Actress. The film itself is enjoyable, provides an interesting look into the production of one of the greatest films ever made, and better yet gives us a peek into the lives of one of Hollywood’s first ‘power couples’. Some poor script or editing decisions keep Hitchcock from reaching the upper echelon of biographical films, but like Alfred said himself, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.”