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4 February 2013

"Compared to Orson He's a Sweetheart"

Many Alfred Hitchcock movies feature in my list of all-time favourite movies, and although Psycho comes below Vertigo and North by Northwest, among others, it was fairly inevitable that I would go to see Sacha Gervasi's new film, Hitchcock, which is about the making of Psycho. I enjoyed Gervasi's other movie, the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and having seen the trailer for Hitchcock, I had high hopes for his new film.

The movie opens in 1959 and Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is trying to decide what to do to follow the huge success of North by Northwest. Many people are trying to persuade him to make Casino Royale, but Hitchcock says he's already made that film, but he called it North by Northwest. But what if someone really good made a horror, he muses, happening upon the true story of the serial killer Ed Gein. "Not your average run of the mill nutcase," he says, setting about the business of making Psycho, despite opposition from the studio, who refuse to fund the movie.

Luckily, his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) is the epitome of the phrase, "behind every great man is a great woman." She was once Hitchcock's boss and is now a huge part of his success. She makes suggestions to the script, she takes his place on set when he is too ill to come in, and she keeps the production moving. She also puts up with his constant flirtations with the revolving cycle of "Hitchcock blondes," who, in this film, include Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johannson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). "Call me Hitch," he says, "hold the cock." Tee hee. To keep herself sane, Alma is also assisting her friend, the screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), with his latest project, of which Hitchcock is vastly critical, and a budding friendship is developing between Alma and Whit.

The audience knows, of course, that Psycho will go on to be one of Hitchcock's most successful movies, but based on the constant cock ups we see in Hitchcock, this was far from inevitable. The studio and the censors are worried about the nudity ("she isn't nude; she's wearing a shower cap"), the violence and the presence of a flushing toilet for the first time in an American film. Hitchcock assures them that his murders "are always models of taste." Besides, we don't actually see Marion Crane's murder and a large part of the reaction it evokes is due to the music.

Hopkins's Hitchcock is a gross, corpulent, arrogant man and Gervasi encourages us to consider Alma's role even in those aspects of him we do admire: his brilliance as a film-maker, in particular. He isn't likeable in this film and as the movie progresses and he alternates between single-minded obsession with the idea that he is doing the right thing by making Psycho and crippling insecurity and need to be reassured. Mirren, meanwhile, puts in a great performance as the talented but long-suffering, over-shadowed wife. The movie is as much about their relationship, its growing cracks and the shifting balance of power between them, as it is about Psycho. I enjoyed Hitchcock a lot: it is sharp, unapologetic and engaging, and it will appeal to movie buffs in general and Hitchcock fans in particular.

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