'What if someone really good made a horror picture?" Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) wonders aloud in the company of his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren).
The director, corpulent and crabby, is looking for his next project, having just premiered his Cary Grant/Eva Marie Saint wrong-man suspense yarn, North by Northwest. He is restless to make a picture, but none of the properties coming his way seem right.
Then he gets his hands on Psycho, a novel by Robert Bloch about a solitary killer who keeps a shrine to his dead mother - and dresses in her clothes.
Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi's surprisingly enjoyable bit of Hollywood lore, follows Hitch - deadpan host of an anthology TV series, the "master of suspense" whose 1958 thriller, Vertigo, confounded critics and left audiences unenthused, a celebrity director who people were beginning to think past his prime - as he defies a reluctant studio chief and Production Code censors, hocks his house, and proceeds to make that horror picture.
Taking a shower would never be the same again.
As the Lifetime Network's Liz & Dick recently reminded us, bringing movie icons back to life can be a cheesy game. Reenactments of soundstage squabbles, of affairs real and rumored, perversions and peccadilloes and star tantrums . . . whether it's documented fact or psychological theory, once you put well-known actors in the roles of screen stars of yore, the dangers of veering into camp become palpable.
And so, first off: Hopkins makes a wonderful Hitchcock. He's fussy, pompous, a peeping Tom whose twisted imaginings are revealed to us in a series of therapeutic (and figmental) dialogues with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life Wisconsin murderer whose crimes, and creepy fixations, served as Bloch's (and Hitchcock's) inspiration for Psycho's Norman Bates. Hopkins' wry delivery and cautious waddle are just right. He gives the man a soul.
Mirren, as Alma Reville, the constant companion constantly shunted to one side so reporters and fans can beeline to her famous husband, is likewise up to the task. Smart and industrious, a perceptive reader, a good writer - and Hitchcock's postproduction collaborator - Alma was a victim of the times, and a victim of her husband's fantasy vision of what a woman should be: icy, doll-like, blond. She was none of these things, and at the couple's rockiest, her resentment for the way he treats her, and her inability to live up to his fetishistic ideals, were a source of conflict.
At least, that's how John J. McLaughlin's witty, nutshelled screenplay, based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, tells it.
Scarlett Johansson, sporting a winningly candid smile, plays Janet Leigh, the latest "Hitchcock blond" - and the first to be killed off in the first act of one of his movies. The filming of the famous shower scene, in which Leigh's Marion Crane, naked and vulnerable, gets stabbed to death, is terrific, with Hitchcock moving in for the kill - directorially speaking. He scares his leading lady. He scares himself. He scares us.
Jessica Biel is Vera Miles, the star who had the nerve to get pregnant when Hitchcock wanted her for Vertigo. He feels betrayed, and she feels relieved, consigned to a supporting role in Psycho as Marion's sister. And Toni Collette, in glasses and a dark wig, is Hitchcock's long-suffering secretary, Peggy. Both Biel and Collette are very good, engaging.
It's fun, in Hitchcock, following the titular hero as he riffles the newspapers, bitter at his treatment by the press, or turns jealous when his wife goes off to work on a screenplay with another man (Danny Huston), or hungrily scans his stack of 8-by-10 glossies - headshots of the starlets of the day. But Hopkins and Mirren rise above the cinema-history caricatures to invest Alfred and Alma's relationship with real depth and poignancy.
And still there's room for some good ol' show biz biopic cheesiness.