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posted: 11/22/2012 6:00 AM

Revealing story behind 'Psycho' fun, but has a few hitches

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  • Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), left, and her husband Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) go over a script in the amusing but flawed biographical drama "Hitchcock."

      Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), left, and her husband Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) go over a script in the amusing but flawed biographical drama "Hitchcock."

  • Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), left, joins Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) and her husband Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) for dinner in the amusing but flawed biographical drama "Hitchcock."

      Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), left, joins Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) and her husband Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) for dinner in the amusing but flawed biographical drama "Hitchcock."

  • Video: Hitchcock trailer

  • Video: Tippi Hedren on Hitchcock

 
 

The showcase scene in Sacha Gervasi's drama "Hitchcock" doesn't take place in a shower, but backstage at the premiere of the 1960 landmark horror thriller "Psycho."

That's where director Alfred Hitchcock, improbably but impeccably played by Anthony Hopkins, gleefully waits, twiddling his nervous thumbs until the movie gets to the part where Scarlett Johansson's Janet Leigh steps into the fateful bathtub at the Bates Motel.

Hitchcock, knowing what's coming, raises his hands as if preparing to conduct an orchestra.

Then the shrieks begin.

AHHHHHHHH!

Ohhhhhhhhh!

EEEEEEEEEK!

Oooooooooo!

Hitchcock's hands keep time and hit each crescendo of screams as the audience reacts to each thrust of the knife into the woman's naked, quivering body, accompanied by the stabbing violins in Bernard Herrmann's exquisitely chilling score.

Here is the master of suspense in his element, anticipating with perfect accuracy how his soon-to-be-infamous shower scene -- the beginning of the modern age of cinematic horror -- manipulates and shocks audiences.

Hopkins, the British actor who won the Oscar for creating his own horror touchstone with Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, seems like an odd choice to play Hitchcock.

Hopkins doesn't really look like the droll British filmmaker who made his mark -- and frequent cameos -- in American television (two anthology series) as well as movies.

He didn't really look like President Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon," either. But in both films, Hopkins captures the essence of these very public characters. He doesn't imitate them. He becomes them.

Even so, "Hitchcock" is less about the man himself than an oddly endearing sort of love story between the filmmaker and his wife Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren, the power behind the famous silhouette.

Hitchcock married Alma in 1926 when she was a film editor and a script consultant. She would become a collaborator on many of his screenplays, and, as this movie attests, was instrumental in creating "Psycho." ("You should kill her off in the first 30 minutes!" she advises Hitch about Janet Leigh.)

"Hitchcock" is not one of those exhaustive cradle-to-tomb biopics. It concentrates on a specific time frame during which Hitchcock desperately searched for his next big project after his 1959 release "North By Northwest" took the sting off his 1958 commercial disaster "Vertigo." (A film that would later be proclaimed a masterpiece.)

He finds inspiration in Robert Bloch's story of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin mass murderer who skinned his victims and became the source for Tobe Hooper's 1975 classic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

This leads to a major misguided gimmick in John J. McLaughlin's screenplay, based on Stephen Rebello's insightful book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho."

Whenever the director needs guidance or inspiration, the ghost of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) pops up to give him advice, like Humphrey Bogart does in Woody Allen's comedy "Play It Again Sam."

This is a major distraction in "Hitchcock" and a huge miscalculation by McLaughlin, who also glosses over the fact that the filmmaker was not a very nice man. He famously treated his casts like cattle and reportedly gave an obnoxious stage hand a bottle of spirits secretly laced with laxatives.

(Hitchcock also destroyed the career of his "Birds" star Tippi Hedren when she wouldn't succumb to his charms, but that happened later in 1963. For the movie version, see HBO's recent feature "The Girl" starring Tobey Jones as Hitchcock.)

"Hitchcock" would be a far more intriguing movie had it delved into the specifics of making "Psycho" -- including the choice to film in black-and-white using a TV crew instead of full-color with a regular Hollywood team, and how Hitchcock "auditioned" fruit to get the right sound for the knife piercing Leigh's skin.

But no, McLaughlin's screenplay plays like the hard work of a Hollywood committee. It's a standard story about a misunderstood genius who puts it all on the line (the Hitchcocks put up their own money to make "Psycho") against incredible odds (the Production Code Seal of Approval was very conservative in 1960) to win the day.

What "Hitchcock" lacks in substance it makes up for with a bravo cast: Johansson's subtle approximation of Janet Leigh, James D'Arcy's nervous, twitchy demeanor as Anthony Perkins and Danny Huston's loutish screenwriter Whitfield Cook, a superficial cad out to seduce the lonely Alma, whom Mirren makes sure never becomes a cameo in her role as Hitch's wife.

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