Though the film is titled Hitchcock and ostensibly centers on the legendary director, we get a better sense of the women around him than the enigmatic filmmaker.
The film brings into focus Alfred Hitchcock's collaboration with his wife, Alma Reville, as well as his working relationship with Janet Leigh in Psycho and, to a lesser extent, his obsession with Vera Miles.
Alfred and Alma are played with panache by estimable actors Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, but Hitchcock (* * ½ out of four; rated PG-13; opening Friday in select cities) seems tonally disjointed in its look at them.
An editor in her own right, the tart-tongued Reville had an essential role in casting, writing and editing Hitchcock's films. Mirren gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Hitchcock's long-suffering wife.
While their creative connection flourished, their romantic bond stagnated, or at the most was chastely companionable, leading each to consider emotional validation from others.
Hitchcock's well-known obsession with his beautiful blond stars is addressed, but not deeply explored. Alma's working relationship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) speaks to her yearning for admiration and approval.
Donning a padded paunch to approximate Hitchcock's well-known corpulence, Hopkins has the look of the director at 60 and effectively mimics his distinctive vocal patterns. But swaths of the film featuring the director's hallucinatory fantasy conversations with mass murderer Ed Gein serve as a confusing distraction from the more involving elements that were happening outside of Hitchcock's head.
Early in the film, Hitchcock attends the premiere of his 1959 classic, North by Northwest. A reporter remarks on the director's age. "Shouldn't you quit while you're ahead?" he asks.
Hitchcock comments to Alma that he'd like to return to the excitement he felt as a young filmmaker. The result upsets the industry's censors with its murderous cross-dressing lead character. In fact, few shared his enthusiasm for Psycho — especially the studio with which he was on contract. But Hitchcock persevered, and as the studio balked, he funded a large part of the production himself.
Director Sacha Gervasi can't seem to decide whether this is a historical biopic, a love story, an homage to a brilliant director or a story of the making of Psycho.
Scarlett Johansson captures Janet Leigh's down-to-earth charm. Leigh is well aware of the director's reputation and doesn't need the cryptic warning issued by Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) about not letting him control her life.
For her part, Alma is always in control, particularly as she nags her portly husband to slim down. When he accuses her of not being supportive of his work, she explodes with some of the film's most memorable dialogue.
Set circa 1960, the film, based on Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is at its best when the masterful director is on his film set or when he's at home talking shop with Alma.
Hitchcock approached Psycho as a wonderfully risky move, ideal for his offbeat sensibility: "What if someone really good made a horror picture?" he asks Alma.
Imagine where the genre would be now if that someone had not.
Hitchcock ultimately does not reveal much about the famed master of suspense. But perhaps that's how he would have wanted it.
Hopkins' Hitchcock Transformation