‘Hitchcock’: Joyfully juicy

November 19, 2012

Pity poor Toby Jones.

A few years ago, he got what he probably thought was the role of a lifetime, playing Truman Capote in “Infamous,” a movie about the writing of “In Cold Blood.” Then Philip Seymour Hoffman swooped in playing the title role in Bennett Miller’s “Capote,” winning the Oscar and leaving Jones’ performance in “Infamous” as an afterthought, a curiosity released a year later to little notice.

Now Jones, unfortunately, has done it again. He’s been cast as Alfred Hitchock in a creepy little film, ‘The Girl,” which dramatized Hitchcock’s obsession (and harassment) of actress Tippi Hedren during the making of “The Birds.” Jones even got out of the gate first, with his film airing in October on HBO.

But that film will be just another footnote, after people see “Hitchcock,” which features Anthony Hopkins in what could, in a less crowded year, be an Oscar-nominated performance, playing the master of suspense as he tries to get “Psycho” off the ground.

Sacha Gervasi’s film, from a script by John J. McLaughlin (and based on a book by Stephen Rebello), is fun in all the ways that “The Girl” was not. Even as it treads some of the same ground as “The Girl” – including Hitchcock’s overbearing fixation on his blonde leading ladies – it finds depth and humor in a man who, at the top of his game, is told he can’t make the movie he wants to.

Hitchcock was coming off the multi-million-dollar success of one of his biggest hits, ‘North by Northwest,” when he settled on Robert Bloch’s novel, “Psycho.” The book was a shocking little thriller inspired by the multiple murders and cannibalistic habits of reclusive farmer-killer Ed Gein; it caught the attention of Hitchcock, who was always under pressure to surprise the audience.

His wife and lifelong partner, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), wants him to look at a new novel by her smarmy friend, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who had an “adaptation by” credit on Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” But Hitchcock is fascinated by the success of low-budget (if tawdry) black-and-white horror movies. What, he wonders, would happen if one was made by a director who knew what he was doing? He becomes convinced that, if he shoots “Psycho” cheaply in black and white – the way he did his weekly TV series – and applied his own unique talent to the horror genre, he could have a success.

But the bigwigs at Paramount disagree. They see “Psycho” as distinctly down-market and unseemly, unworthy of the studio or its most prestigious brand-name director. So Hitchcock convinces them to let him finance the picture himself, though the studio will release it.

The bulk of the film is about the pressure this puts him under. He’s mortgaged the Hitchcock manse to pay for the film – and finds himself drawn to his new leading lady, Janet Leigh. Meanwhile, he’s ignoring Alma, who decides to fill her time by collaborating with Cook on a screenplay adaptation of his novel. Ultimately, the film is not just about Hitchcock’s creative process, but his creative partnership with his wife, which is threatened by mutual jealousy.

Gervasi and McLaughlin find ways to work in tidbits from the book that don’t bear directly on the story, yet add to the context of the situation. When Hitchcock tells Paramount brass that he wants to try something a little different, they remind him that the last film he tried that with – “Vertigo” – was a flop. They manage to work in other inside-baseball tidbits as well, in organic ways that don’t feel like a film-history lesson.

The film captures a master filmmaker at the height of his powers, even as it examines the quirks that drove him. It’s both a fascinating character study and a wonderfully entertaining inside show-biz story, offering the “Psycho” we never knew.

Hopkins, hidden beneath a bald cap, padding and facial prostheses, captures Hitchcock’s dry wit and mordant sense of humor, as well as the artist’s occasional forays into self-pity. Even the greatest are insecure, and Hopkins brings that out without seeming to reach for it. Hopkins’ Hitchcock is a bundle of contradictions – and Hopkins makes each one intriguing.

His chemistry with Mirren is sublime, because Mirren is his perfect counterpoint: tart, brisk, as ready with a line that cuts as an encouraging word. No one, as they say, is a hero to his valet – and often to his own wife. Yet Mirren also makes us understand why Alma not only stuck with him but urged him on for more than 50 years.

The other cast members hit their marks and find actual people beneath the famous names they are meant to evoke: Scarlett Johansson as the prim, professional Janet Leigh; Jessica Biel as one-time Hitchcock protégé Vera Miles; James D’Arcy as the shy Anthony Perkins.

But this is Alfred and Alma’s story – and the Hopkins and Mirren show. If you’re a “Psycho” fan, it will offer juicy insight into the making of an all-time classic. And if you’ve never seen “Psycho,” you’ll want to rent it almost as soon as you walk out of the theater.

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