The film succeeds on many levels, but doesn't quite touch the heights of greatness of the titular director.
(This review contains spoilers for Psycho)
Alfred Hitchcock is still today the master of cinematic suspense. For the most part his films still hold up; I watched The Birds for the first time this week, and was enthralled at how such an admittedly silly premise could be turned into such a nail-biter. True, there were some awfully outdated "yellowscreen" effects, and times have certainly changed since the 1960s, but considering films like The Happening are made to this day, it's a wonder how well it holds up.
Psycho even more so. Psycho is perhaps most closely associated with the director today, but in 1960 when the film was in production it was considered a risky project, so different it was from Hitchcock's other works. The studio refused to fund and market it, the censors refused to approve it, and when it was released it was met with middling reviews. Since then, however, it has become most beloved by critics, with near universal acclaim. The film is considered both the genesis and the apex of the slasher/horror genre.
I suppose it just wasn't something the audience was prepared for back then. Hitchcock was a dependable director, making spy thrillers about murder, but never broaching on the cheap exploitation of the horror genre. The star, Janet Leigh, really was at the height of her career, and a selling point for the film. Her picture appeared on all the posters, and she looked to all the world like every other blond girl in a Hitchcock film: the centrepiece, the grounding force of the film.
What a shock for audiences, then, when the girl is killed in the first act of the film. Sheer brilliance, pure horror. Suddenly, they find themselves invested in this story, but without any of the familiar trappings or narrative rules. Nothing is as it seems, anyone could die. No wonder the film made ripples throughout history.
So now to the film about the man making the film; Hitchcock. If you've seen the trailers you'll pretty much know what to expect. The film stars Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock as, at 60 years old, he strikes out on a daring project that defies expectation, but reignites his creative passion. Helen Mirren plays his wife, Alma Reville, who was a close collaborator and advisor on many of his films. The story focuses on their relationship while he's making Psycho.
The whole cast - Scarlett Johansson, James D'Arcy, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston... All great. This is a well packed all-star cast and none of them disappoint with what little screen time they're given. However, none of them are given the focus that the two leads are. Mirren and Hopkins totally knock it out of the park.
The trailer, I feel, cheapened some aspects of the film. Helen Mirrens line about killing the leading lady off after 20 minutes instead of halfway is brilliant, but probably would have been better left out of marketing. The reason: it's her first indication that she might support Hitch on the project, and the first evidence we see of her genius in his work. The scene is still effective, I suppose, but watching it and knowing precisely what she was about to say took away from what could have been a nice surprise. And what a great crunch sound.
Helen Mirrens' finest moment is, of course, her emotionally charged speech when Hitch accuses her of not giving him full support. This also appears in the trailer, but its impact is in no way diminished by it. It's such a fine speech, both confronting and evidently loving, snapping Hitch out of his paranoia. Mirren delivers it with the breathless gusto of an innocent woman wrongly scorned, and it brings out the force of her character, who is usually such a quiet pillar in Hitchcocks' life. I had such an appreciation of Alma from that one moment; it was like a tent pole for the whole film. Hitch's reaction is a little unsatisfactory. The fact is there's nothing he can say, so he says nothing. The scene is over. But it's a brilliant scene.
The trailers did a great job, though, at hiding some of the more creative aspects of the film. Minor spoilers ahead, don't read on if you want to be surprised.
The inclusion of Ed Gein, the killer, giving Hitchcock therapy in his nightmares was a stroke of brilliance. It's played quite realistically at first, but then we see evidence that Gein appears only to him, and we start to realise that he is representative of the murderous urges that Hitchcock is struggling with. We see more evidence of his encroaching madness when he is shooting the shower scene. Here, Hitchcock takes the most famous scene from Psycho, and absolutely makes it its' own. Hitch wants a more visceral response from his leading lady, so he takes up the knife himself, and wields it in a way that seems to genuinely frighten Janet Leigh. What follows is a suggestive montage, similar to Psycho, with Hitchcock stabbing, Janet screaming, then Alma and Whit screaming in her place... I'd have to watch it again to tease it out, but it was an effective moment that seemed to express his urges and his angst.
The final scene featuring Ed, Hitch confronts him in a creepy looking basement. This comes fairly soon after Almas speech, and seems to be in response to it. Police lights flash, and Hitchcock finally cracks a joke at Ed. Up until this point he's been completely out of character in all of these scenes. The psychopathic recesses of Hitch's mind have been settled; the project is successfully finished, and he is at peace.
Hitchcock displays hints of greatness, but just falls short. The book-ending narration, when Hitchcock turns to the camera and talks about the film, is classic Hitchcock. For this picture though, it was a little out of left field. I feel like perhaps it should have been differentiated more from the rest of the piece; it looked and felt exactly like every other scene, but with a disorienting break in the fourth wall. It could have been shown to be something Hitch was filming for some other project, or it could have been cut from the film and used as marketing material (which is how Hitchcock did market his films).
Janet Leighs' character is a little inconsistent; she seems visibly disturbed by Hitchcocks' directorial style, when he shouts at her and when he wields the knife. The camera lingers on her in obvious discomfort as everybody around her has stopped acting and begin preparations for the next scene. But her interactions with Hitch off the set indicate no such trauma, and the film ends with him playing a light-hearted prank on her, to which she seems to respond positively. There is little indication of the future Hitchcock who will go on to traumatize his stars in other films such as The Birds. This is fine though, it works for this movie.
But the films worst quality, I think, is both the assumed familiarity with Psycho and Hitchcock, and the fact that the film never shows footage from the project that everybody is getting so worked up about. This might come down to an issue of copyright, which is a shame, but what the film lacked was evidence of what was achieved. What was the audience watching that made them so frightened; how did Hitchcock know when the screams would come (in a great scene referencing his quote about 'playing the audience like a piano')? I know because I've seen the shower scene from Psycho. So has Hitchcock, so has Alma. But if the audience for this film has never heard of Psycho, what then?
All in all, Hitchcock is a lot of fun, especially if you are a Hitchcock fan. If you're not, I suggest watching Psycho, and see if that changes your mind. Even if it doesn't, you may yet enjoy Hitchcock. It's nowhere near as contentious. That's why it won't be as well-remembered.