There’s a pretty clear line separating the good scenes from the bad scenes in Hitchcock, a biopic about the battle to make 1960’s Psycho, the shocker that ushered in the modern era of horror films. The good scenes find Hitchcock on set or in studio offices, asserting his creative vision in the face of executive resistance, despite having just ended his peak decade with North By Northwest, one of his biggest hits. The bad scenes are the ones that have nothing to do with making movies, or are so tangential to the process that they don’t have any relevance. This is the fatal mistake made by so many artist biopics: Assuming that the banal details of an artist’s personal life can illuminate his work or make it seem more compelling than it was already. In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, here was a man staking his reputation on a project of unprecedented audacity. What does it matter that it put a mild strain on his marriage?
Based on Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock And The Making Of Psycho—a book widely acclaimed for a meticulousness that’s lacking here—Hitchcock stars a bejowled Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense, whom he plays as a caustic wit whose confidence reads to others as bullying and arrogance. Nearly as much attention is given to Hitchcock’s devoted but long-suffering wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), who gets little credit or reward for her stabilizing presence at home and on set. With imitators nipping at his heels, Hitchcock feels pressure to take a bold creative leap, but he drums up little enthusiasm for Psycho, a grisly tale in which the star dies at the end of Act One. After failing to secure studio financing, Hitchcock opts to produce the film independently and stakes his own personal fortune on it, over Reville’s objections.
Making his feature debut, director Sacha Gervasi follows up his fine documentary Anvil: The Story Of Anvil with another story about the perils of uncompromising creative endeavor, but his Hitchcock goes only a step beyond caricature. While it’s great fun to see Hitchcock terrorizing Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and his collaborators or anticipating the precise response of the audience he’s playing like a fiddle, his domestic crises are substantially less compelling. Hitchcock asserts Reville as the unsung hero of the Master’s oeuvre, a meticulous planner, gifted writer, and important sounding board who neither received proper acknowledgement nor worked outside her husband’s sphere. But their marital scrapes look absurdly petty in relation to a watershed moment like Psycho, an irreducible achievement that’s cheapened every time Gervasi wanders away from it. History is history; the rest is trivia.