'Hitchcock': Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren Slash Through the Melodrama of Making 'Psycho' (MOVIE REVIEW)

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Of the few directors to achieve celebrity status, the biggest among them, both literally and figuratively, is Alfred Hitchcock, whose career spanned fifty years and 66 movies including Rear Window, Vertigo and finally North by Northwest as the fifties were winding down.

It is here where Sacha Gervasi begins his new movie, Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the maestro, and the equally captivating Helen Mirren as his longtime wife and collaborator, Alma Reville.

Hitchcock is an occasionally enjoyable, though uneven look, at the making of Psycho, an unlikely triumph that changed the face of horror.

As the new movie begins, Hitchcock is coming off North by Northwest, a critical and commercial triumph which leaves him inundated with offers -- including Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, which he passes on because Cary Grant won’t play James Bond.

Instead, against the advice of his agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and mostly every studio in Hollywood, Hitch decides to adapt a new book, Psycho, Paul Bloch’s thriller about Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein.

With no one to back the movie, Hitchcock mortgages his Bel Air mansion for the $800 thousand budget, choosing to work lean and mean as with his popular TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Hitchcock is most engaging when Hopkins and Mirren share the screen as a durable old couple straining under 33 years of marriage.

While Hitchcock was a cinematic genius, he didn’t make a move without first consulting Alma, and no screenplay went in front of cameras before being subject to her pen.

Hitchcock is known to have obsessed over his blonde leading ladies, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren, but such blustery fantasies are believed to have been nothing more than that.

When he hires Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) as the latest to join the pantheon of ‘Hitchcock Blondes,’ Alma can only roll her eyes.

In the meantime, she’s begun a collaboration away from Psycho, which she derides as "cheap horror claptrap."

Her partner is a dashing younger writer named Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), whom she regularly meets at a secluded beach house.

Not quite a romance, Hitchcock might have been a mildly engaging movie but is immeasurably elevated by the presence of Hopkins and Mirren, who provide the story’s emotional core.

Donning a fat suit and prosthetics, Hopkins, who bears little resemblance to Hitchcock, fully embodies the director, protruding lower lip and all, adapting his distinctive and deliberate accent as well as his droll and arid wit.

Mirren, who looks nothing like Alma, delivers an emotionally honest performance as a mid-century wife who, in a later era, would have no doubt forged a successful career of her own, given her storytelling talents.

In Hitchcock, (as in life, no doubt) she is his anchor both at home and, after a lackluster early screening of Psycho, at work.

On her recommendation, Hitch, who insisted the movie’s infamous shower scene play without music, was persuaded to lay in Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking chords, raising the scene’s tension to an unbearable level.

Director Sacha Gervasi, who holds a writing credit on The Terminal and directed the memorable documentary, Anvil:  The Story of Anvil, left script duties to John McLaughlin (Black Swan).

While his characterizations of Hitch and Alma are vividly rendered, minor roles like Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), Tony Perkins (James D’Arcy) and Janet Leigh are sketched in much more lightly. And the subplot involving Alma and Whitfield feels like a halfhearted attempt to inject the material with much-needed tension.

While some of his dialogue is snappy, McLaughlin struggles to find the right balance between humor and drama, and occasionally missteps with ‘fantasy’ sequences in which Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) visits Hitchcock providing helpful hints on murder.

The production was barred from using footage from Psycho, an obstacle Gervasi gracefully eludes in the film’s finest moment - a scene where Hitchcock stands in the lobby on opening night, listening to the audience reaction as the shower scene unspools.

Most of us, having seen the movie numerous times, hear Herrmann’s music and the image of poor Janet Leigh being butchered jumps starkly to mind as Hitch swings his arm to and fro, stabbing the air like a maestro conducting a symphony.

Hopkins is among the best actors of his generation and is being talked about for awards season. Should he win an Oscar, it would be his second Best Actor win, with five nominations.

Hitchcock, on the other hand, reinvented the thriller genre and remains one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. Although he was nominated for the Oscar six times, he never took home a statuette.

Hitchcock opens in theaters November 21. Watch its theatrical trailer below.

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