The Thin Line Between Genius and…

Anthony Hopkins, “Hitchcock”

Dir. Sacha Gervasi, with Anthony Hopkins, Hellen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson

Hitchcock, Director Sacha Gervasi’s current film, is of course about legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s particularly about the challenging period in his late career when he made Psycho (1960).  This is no small thing.  Sight and Sound Magazine’s 2012 decade poll voted Psycho at the top of its top-ten list of greatest films of all time, moving it from number two to number one, ahead of Citizen Kane.  Today’s film, Hitchcock, which stars heavy hitters Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, is only the second feature film by director Sacha Gervasi, whose meager previous credits are mainly as a writer.  One has to wonder how he managed to land this project, and its stars, but clearly, someone saw something real.

Films about Hollywood and filmmaking are very, very common, moreso than their cousin, the backstage musical.  Those would be the type of movie I personally have the least patience for, though they’re quite popular in some circles: a show about making a show… or worse, a musical about making a musical.  Some great examples of films about filmmaking would include My Week with Marilyn (2011), Wag the Dog (1997, technically not about making movies but about TV news), Get Shorty (1995), and on and on, going well back into the silent era to Russian director Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).  The single example that I can think of or find, however, that focuses on the making of an actual film that really exists, is Ed Wood (1994), the romp about the worst director of all time, and the production of one of the worst movies ever made, celebrated for its sheer, amazing awfulness, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Hitchcock sets a new standard, though.  The film is a wickedly entertaining look at the process of making an actual and highly controversial film, in the face of strong opposition from both inside and outside the industry.  In the course of the film’s 98 minutes we also get a fascinating tour through the creative process of the great, quirky director (Hopkins), his closely collaborative relationship with his wife, Alma Reville (Mirren), his notoriously obsessive relationships with his leading ladies, and the enormous challenge of producing great work under the stifling institutional censorship of the day.

Paramount Studios was extremely reluctant to let Hitchcock make Psycho, mainly due to the twisted, violent nature of the source novel, which was based on a true story.   Hitchcock, however, is anxious to demonstrate that he’s not yet over the hill, and is committed to the project.  He and Alma decide to self-finance the film, mortgaging their house and putting up something like $800,000 of their own money (nearly $6 million in 2011 dollars).   Economics thus shapes a number of creative decisions, some of which the film shows and some it suggests.  Hitchcock struck a deal with Paramount for distribution only, and production took place at Universal Studios, using the Revue Studios location and crew from his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  For cost-saving reasons, more than creative ones, the film was shot in black and white.  And Hitchcock’s seat-of-the-pants marketing of the final film, which Paramount refused to promote, is the kind of brilliance that geniuses toss off as an afterthought.

Mirren and Hopkins are two powerhouse actors, at the very top of their games, and the pairing works well.  Hitchcock has Hopkins and Mirren interacting and playing off each other throughout the film.  There is an exceptional, Oscar-clip-worthy scene at about the two-thirds point, where the two square off and go head-to-head.  It’s a confrontation driven partly by the couples’ history, Alma’s deepening frustration, and Hitchcock’s quirks, but mainly by the extraordinary stresses of making Psycho.  It’s a really superb scene, two perfectly dynamic, matched, powerful performances, or really one collaborative performance, in which neither actor gives an inch.

Beyond the great acting, the great story, and the inherent drama of “how are they going to pull this off?”, the film, the writers, and Hopkins do a great job of conveying just how odd a duck Hitchcock was, and how much of a factor that was in the way he made films.  The most vivid example comes in in the filming of the infamous shower scene.  All prior concerns about the kinds of things that preoccupied the censors – nudity, violence, blood, even toilets – turn out to be secondary to the sheer difficulty of capturing a believable, sufficiently terrified performance from Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).

With cameras rolling, Hitchcock himself comes around and enters the set, knife in hand, and simultaneously demonstrates, furiously, and goads Leigh into reacting.  As he moves from director’s chair behind the camera to the space within the set, the imaginary line between the “reality” of the film Hitchcock and the fiction of the inner film Psycho blurs quite alarmingly.  Hopkins channels the frustration, anger, and God knows what else that made up the soup of Hitchcock’s psyche so effectively, and takes the character so near to the edge of losing control, that it seems that Hitchcock is about to get into the shower and kill Leigh himself.  It was thoroughly believable, even knowing, as we all do, that no such violence ever really happened.  That is great acting.


Also published in