Hitchcock role nothing to kill for
Selected cinemas (99 minutes)
SINCE its release in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has lived again … and again … and again. It has had three sequels: the first was directed by Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin, an ardent admirer of Hitchcock, who brought back Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles from the original; the second was by Perkins himself.
In 1993, artist Douglas Gordon made an installation called 24-Hour Psycho, with the film projected in a dark room and slowed down to two frames a second, so that it lasted an entire day. Five years later Gus Van Sant made his celebrated ''shot by shot'' remake, in colour rather than black and white.
The movie has been spoofed and lovingly referenced countless times - generally in moments involving a shower scene, a stabbing motion or the sound of hysterical, jagged strings. And now there's Hitchcock, a film about the making of Psycho, which has somehow managed to ensure that a famously disturbing movie becomes part of a rather tame tribute to the loneliness of the long-suffering wife.
Hitchcock, written by John J. McLaughlin and directed by Sacha Gervasi, stars Anthony Hopkins as the director and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville, his right-hand woman, who is becoming a little tired of her thankless role in her husband's life. It presents us with a filmmaker at a late stage of his career who wants to prove himself. So he decides to tackle Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, loosely based on the murders and rituals of the notorious Ed Gein (who was later to inspire, among other things, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).
This Hitch is a showman and an artful entrepreneur: he risks his own money to make the film and keep control of it, he buys up every available copy of the book so that the killer's identity can remain a secret, and, when the movie is released, he gets great publicity out of insisting that cinemas have nurses on hand to tend to terrified audience members.
Hopkins has been transformed, through the art of the make-up department, into a jowled, ponderous, bulky figure, occupying a Hitchcock-shaped space. His voice can be a little dodgy - it sounds at times as if he is getting ready to take on Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon of The Trip in a Michael Caine impersonation challenge.
Mirren has more to work with: she gives us a lively, intelligent woman, who knows filmmaking inside out, understands Hitchcock perfectly, yet is at a point of dissatisfaction and frustration. She is distracted from the production of Psycho by the attentions of the debonair writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wants her for her screenwriting skills, and perhaps more besides. But what Reville needs, finally, is her husband's attention, an affirmation that she means more to him than his famous Hitchcock blondes and the actresses who play them.
The Hitchcock of Gervasi's movie - which is based on a book by Stephen Rebello - is voyeuristic and manipulative, not to mention vindictive. But the emotional focus of the film is on Reville, on her frustrations and concessions, on how she reconciles her partnership with Hitchcock, personally and creatively.
A recent HBO movie, Julian Jarrold's The Girl, starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, has taken the same approach - a biopic constructed around a film - but with a grimmer focus. It deals with the relationship between Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren (Marnie, The Birds) which took a much darker turn.
Hitchcock has a shifting, complicated place in cinema history, as a filmmaker who began in the silent era and became a personality in the heyday of television, a household name who never managed to win the approval of the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - they couldn't find it in their hearts to give him a best director Oscar. The critics of Cahiers du Cinema and some of the key directors of the French New Wave were the first to champion him and prize his influence. He is still a potent source of inspiration. And Vertigo has now displaced Citizen Kane from its longtime No. 1 position on the Sight & Sound worldwide critics' poll.
Hitchcock gives us, however, a reductive sense of the film and its maker, leaching out much of what was interesting, intense and memorable about the director's vision, whatever his personal flaws might have been There is one odd extravagance, a weird flight of fancy, in which the anxious Hitch is haunted by a strange, ghostly figure of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). He is an apparition who is more uncalled for than uncanny, and certainly not unsettling.