Article/ Hitchcock: Making a Killing

Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock dramatically reconstructs the making of Psycho

By Edward Lawrenson

Alfred Hitchcock is reclining in a barber’s chair as a  cut-throat razor glides over his puffy cheeks.  He’s in his office, all heavy furniture, oak-panelling and dark conspiratorial shadows – a cul-de-sac of Edwardian London transported to the huge back lot of Paramount Studios in bright, sunny Los Angeles. It’s 1959 and the 60-year-old director has just scored a huge success with North by Northwest.  Now he’s restless and on the search for new ideas.

Anthony Hopkins plays Hitchcock, his familiar features buried under a concertina of prosthetic false chins. The moment described is not recorded fact, but a scene from the new film about the making of that elusive new project. Following the high-budget frolics of North by Northwest, Hitchcock and  his wife Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren) re-mortgaged their house to finance a low-budget black-and-white horror film about a cross-dressing motel owner, obsessed with his dead mother, who kills a blonde as she showers naked. “A nice, clean, nasty piece of work,” Hitchcock says, moments after the razor nicks his cheek and draws blood, “That’s what I’m looking for”. As descriptions go, it’s one third accurate.

Director Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock plays fast and loose with fact and fiction, often ricocheting us  between documented history and imaginative reconstruction. Ed Gein, the true-life serial killer who inspired Psycho, appears  as the director’s  muse. We even see Hitch spying on Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), the actress who plays poor Marion Crane’s sister, through a peep hole in the dressing room, much as Norman does in his motel.  There are knowing film-buff jokes. A studio head makes disparaging remarks about Vertigo, a comment that carries piquancy given the film’s present reputation – thanks to a poll by Sight & Sound – as the ‘greatest film of all time’. Even Hitchcock is seen to be misguided, dismissing his composer Bernard Hermann’s advice that he should feature music during the shower scene.

What gives the film the emotional force is its focus on Hitchcock’s marriage to Alma.  A colleague from Hitchcock’s days working in Britain, Alma is Hitch’s most trusted collaborator. The film paints an admiring portrait of her contribution to Psycho, rightly drawing attention to a woman whom film history has often neglected. The film is especially touching in depicting the strengths and strains of the marriage, through Hitch’s notorious fixations on his glamorous blonde stars (Janet Leigh is played by Scarlett Johansson) and his suspicious, controlling nature, enflamed by Alma’s partnership with a Hollywood hack, played  with velvety charm by Danny Huston.

The marriage is depicted with genial restraint by Mirren and Hopkins: most of the tension is unspoken and there’s a clipped formality about their domestic arrangements that makes you  realise how very English Mr and Mrs Hitchcock were. At one point his screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) talks about seeing his shrink, an Hitch almost flinches with distaste – the very idea of psychotherapy anathema to this buttoned-up Londoner. Perhaps that’s why Hitchcock, as entertaining as it is, is ultimately a speculative account of this period in the director’s life.

Hitchcock was a keenly private man, who hid his obsessions behind a public mask. The master of suspense remains inscrutable to the end, his deadpan poise giving little away. If you want to know what the man was really like, then consult his films. Psycho would be a good place to start.

With thanks to Curzon cinemas

Hitchcock opens Fri 8 February.