When my nieces were small, I took them on a day trip to the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank. We had fun touring a puckishly curated journey through the history of cinema, until my younger niece flushed the toilet in the noir-inflected bathroom — and set off the famous shrieking strings that amp up the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, creating the most terrifying moment in American cinema.
At age 8, my niece had never heard of Hitchcock — or the movie — so she wasn't in on the joke the museum was making at the expense of a director as obsessed with toilets as he was with symbolically whacking uncooperative blondes. But those few bars of Bernard Herrmann's score so freaked the poor child that she tore out of her stall, buried her head in my shoulder and demanded to be taken home at once. Bad Auntie!
As it turns out, attaching that particular musical fragment to that particular blonde murder was not Hitchcock's stroke of genius but that of his wife, Alma Reville, an accomplished script editor and story consultant. In Hitchcock — the second movie this year to make free with the life of a very secretive man (the first was HBO's The Girl) — Helen Mirren's Alma admonishes her husband (Anthony Hopkins) that his arty strategies of subtle suggestion are all well and good, but "you can't scare people just by going 'boo.' "
Where The Girl focused on Hitchcock's notorious abuse of actress Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock uses the couple's herculean struggle to make Psycho as backdrop to a crisis in their fraught but resilient marriage. Based on a book by Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi (who made the hugely entertaining rock documentary Anvil!), seeks to give Reville her due as a canny wife and talented collaborator.
Hitchcock is billed as a love story, but you'd need a pretty elastic definition of the word to apply it to an apparently chaste and testy union that seemed to work best as a commercial and creative partnership. In a slight variation on her regal crankiness in The Queen, Mirren is all bossy business as Alma, which, according to most biographies, is probably about right. But in the film, at least, there's not much more to her than that.
So it's jarring that screenwriter John McLaughlin lumbers her with an extramarital dalliance that probably never happened, yet which consumes a lot of time and space and detracts from what is meant to be a portrait of a marriage.
As for the man himself, he's a visually distracting tangle of missed opportunities. On a good day, the pop-eyed Hitchcock looked like a giant goldfish staring out of its bowl; on a bad day he looked like a basset hound bereft of its bone. He ought to be a snap to imitate, but Hopkins, buried behind a stately gut and several tons of "makeup effects," looks like some nondescript fat guy doing a passable imitation of Anthony Hopkins.
That's a pity, because like Hitchcock, this actor can be a great ham. Hopkins delivers a few ineffably funny moments as Hitch the compulsive overeater, parked innocently in front of a plate of raw vegetables as he tries to win back the health-conscious wife who reincarnates his own demanding mother; Hitch the prankster, rubbing his hands in glee when a key prop from Psycho, left in Janet Leigh's dressing room, makes the actress squeal.
Scarlett Johansson makes a brisk, captivating Leigh, an intelligent pro who, unlike Hedren, figured out how to get along with Hitch without alienating Alma or getting mauled by his morbid carnal fixations. And Hitchcock has some passing moments of greatness, especially at the end.
But the film never coheres. Trying to carve out a space between black comedy and straight evocation of a difficult but rewarding marriage, the movie never settles on a tone. The pacing is leaden, and Gervasi has little more to tell us about one of Hollywood's most prolific power couples than is already commonly known — namely, that Hitch ate and drank too much; that he could be petty and vicious when threatened; that he channeled his own boyhood rage and terror into implied but potent screen violence; that Alma tolerated his obsession with unattainable blondes for the sake of the work.
Far livelier is the movie's astute feel for a formative moment in American film history. Frustrated by Paramount's lack of interest in making Psycho, Hitch and Alma financed the project themselves and turned the studio from a producer into a distributor without the last word on final cut.
Today Psycho is widely considered to be a masterpiece, but Gervasi knows better than to read the battle over its birth as a triumph of art over commerce. Hitch certainly felt his talent was rotting in his TV crime series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he looked to Psycho to redeem his reputation as an auteur of horror.
But the couple were also savvy, high-living Hollywood insiders who understood popular taste. When the executives saw the finished picture, they still hated it. As Hitchcock had predicted, the public decided otherwise. In the movie, at least, he gives Alma full credit.