Alfred Hitchcock's career spanned most of the 20th century. A biopic covering his beginning, middle, and end would be far too expansive; too much breadth, no depth. Focusing on the creation, making of, and reception of his most famous film, Psycho, is a logical focal point to study the man; however, Hitchcock has the feeling of a stepping stone towards what will eventually be the definitive work concerning one of the most famous and influential directors of all time. This particular movie does not achieve that status.
By 1960, Hollywood and its major motion picture studies considered Alfred (Anthony Hopkins) old. Sure, he was still worth considerable box office gold, but new auteurs were on the horizon ready to claim his mantle as the master of suspense and intrigue. Fresh off another success with North by Northwest, the studio wants another picture just like it. They even offer him a shot at the first James Bond film. Hitchcock was not one to repeat and plagiarize his past work though; he was on the hunt for fresh, new, and most importantly, interesting material. Most movie studios had already passed on a screen adaptation for the book Psycho which was based on a real Wisconsin man, the mass murderer Ed Gein.
Paramount Pictures was understandably unenthused about the idea. Why would Alfred Hitchcock stoop so low as to film a low brow, cheap horror story? Alfred achieved enough clout by this time though to not necessarily dictate terms to the studio, but to at least force their hands when he wanted to. Financing the picture himself, he mortgaged his wealth and bet it all on the hunch that he could for once and for all, scare the living hell out of American audiences. Hitchcock is only 50% about the making of Psycho though. Alfred's relationship with his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), and their idiosyncratic peccadilloes absorb the other half of the film.
Alma was with Alfred since the beginning of his career. She was an accomplished writer in her own right, was Alfred's sounding board for his ideas, and was the first person he looked to for approval and opinions concerning his work. She also had to put up with an extremely stubborn husband who did not physically take care of himself very well, drank too much, ate horribly, and had a wandering eye for his leading ladies. According to this film, Alfred was in no shape to fully engage in adulterous liaisons, but that did not stop his frequent fantasies about Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), and while not addressed in this movie, Tippi Hedren later on. Alma tolerated these daydreams in stride but now in 1960, she notices she is also advancing in age. Alfred has stopped looking at her. One person who does look at her though is her friend and fellow writer, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).
Hitchcock sets up parallel instances where both Alfred and Alma tests themselves in the realm of faithfulness and fidelity, in thoughts and in actions. While these relationship dynamics lend weight and extra dimensions to Alfred and the movie, they are certainly not as interesting to the audience as the trials and tribulations of getting Psycho to mass audiences. The iron-fisted and backward censors were not about to let Psycho be the first film to feature a toilet on screen, let alone a flushing toilet. Why on Earth should an American audience be exposed to a ghastly toilet? Also, even Hitchcock's clever camera angles and tricky editing jump cuts were too close to letting the audience imagine Janet Leigh's breasts in the shower scene. The screenplay would have been better served if the fight between Alfred and the censors was fleshed out a bit more.
A warning to those who see Hitchcock without having seen Psycho before. It will serve your understanding and enjoyment much more if you take the time to watch Psycho first. In fact, if you have not seen the majority of Hitchcock's most famous films (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), do not even bother going to this film. I cannot imagine you will get very much out of it at all. For those of us who have seen most of Hitchcock's work, watching Psycho become a movie is quite enjoyable. Watching Anthony Hopkins parody Alfred is another matter.
The make-up is effective, it is hard to see Anthony Hopkins under all of those layers, but you can certainly hear him. Alfred Hitchcock had a very distinct accent and way of pronouncing his words. Hopkins just sounds like Anthony Hopkins trying to sound like Alfred Hitchcock. This role is so large and momentous that it should automatically garner numerous award nominations, but notice Anthony Hopkins has received none of them. This is not the fault of the movie, it's just that playing Alfred Hitchcock is immensely challenging and Hopkins does not pull it off very well. He looks the part but is nowhere close to sounding the part.
The best thing about Hitchcock coming along now is that it will hopefully remind audiences just how controversial, progressive, and down right shocking Psycho was. The screeching violins hurting your ears as a you watch a very long, sharp knife plunge over and over again into the heroine's naked flesh in what is supposed to be a safe place, the shower, is an iconic image that all film-goers should be aware of. This biopic, though, is only for those fans who want to learn a bit more about the genius behind the camera, not for those with only passing interest.