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'Hitchcock' review: Directing 'Psycho'

Actress Janet Leigh is shown screaming in the

Actress Janet Leigh is shown screaming in the famous shower scene of Alfred Hitchcocks 1960 thriller "Psycho" in this undated black and white photo. Sixteen of Hitchcock's films were on a list of 400 nominees of possible thrillers for the American Film Institute's 100 most heart-pounding U.S. movies, including "Psycho," at number one, "North by Northwest" and "The Birds." Credit: American Film Institute

It's fun to imagine Alfred Hitchcock spying on actresses through a dressing-room peephole, muttering to imaginary murderers and nearly stabbing Janet Leigh on the set of "Psycho." But is any of it true?

That question doesn't bother "Hitchcock," and it might not have bothered its subject much, either. The Master of Suspense disliked sticklers and critics -- "the plausibles," he called them. Stick to the facts, he once said, "and you wind up with a documentary."

"Hitchcock" is no documentary, but a breezy and funny (if overly literal-minded) movie about the director's uphill battle to make his 1960 shocker, "Psycho." Anthony Hopkins, wearing extra chub in his cheeks and an unchanging black suit, tucks into the title role with gusto ("Good eve-en-ing"); the fine supporting cast includes James D'Arcy as the soon-to-be-typecast Anthony Perkins, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles and a very good Scarlett Johansson as the classy-yet-steamy Leigh. With Richard Portnow as Paramount Pictures' skeptical president and Danny Huston as a smarmy screenwriter, "Hitchcock" paints a fun, frothy picture of a bygone Hollywood.

The film's other star is Helen Mirren, bringing quiet dignity and fiery intelligence to Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife of more than 50 years. "Hitchcock," loosely based on a nonfiction book by Stephen Rebello, argues that Alma was not just her husband's emotional pillar but nearly his creative equal. In this telling, she contributes to the famously brilliant editing of "Psycho" and even suggests scoring the shower scene with Bernard Herrmann's now-iconic piercing violins.

If only director Sacha Gervasi (the heavy-metal documentary "Anvil!") hadn't forced this Hitchcock to hold imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life inspiration for so many cinematic psychos. These scenes don't "explain" Hitchcock but merely reduce him to a cliche. That's one thing the real Hitchcock might have called implausible.

PLOT How the Master of Suspense made his most famous film, 1960's "Psycho." RATING PG-13 (language, violence, sexual themes)

CAST Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson


PLAYING AT Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE An overly literal idea of the brilliant director, but an entertaining visit to the set of a horror classic.


Helen Mirren on Alfred Hitchcock's wife

Alfred Hitchcock's one-time boss, his editor, confidante and sounding board, Alma Reville, steps into the spotlight in the glamorous form of Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock."

"She's not been forgotten by those who study Hitchcock intently," Mirren says. "But the general public never knew of her role in his work, his career. They didn't even know her enough to make her the 'forgotten heroine' of his career."

Stephen Rebello, in his book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho,' " calls her "the exacting Mrs. Hitchcock," the first person Alfred had to impress and please with any film idea, the sharp-eyed editor who spied Janet Leigh taking a "gulp" when she was supposed to be dead in the shower scene in "Psycho."

"She worked side by side with him for his whole career," says screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), who used Rebello's book as the basis for "Hitchcock's" script. "It's very common in this business to, if you have a spouse, you run your work or work you plan to do by them. You let them read the script before it goes out, you ask them questions as you're editing. You want their feedback."

Mirren, 67 and married to a famous filmmaker (Taylor Hackford), knew "nothing of Alma's importance to his creative process. Hitchcock undoubtedly was that brilliant auteur-ish filmmaker everyone says he was. . . . But it would be interesting, don't you think, to see what Hitchcock's movies would have been like without Alma. They might still have been wonderful, but certainly they wouldn't have been quite as tight and smart as they were."

-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service


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