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Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D'Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow

Director: Sacha Gervasi

After the bitter but enticing The Girl which pulled few punches in examining Hitchcock’s troubled (to say the least) relationship with Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds, director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin’s account of Hitch making his classic Psycho is rather tame and less likely to inflame those who believe Hitchcock, as an auteur, should be immune to criticism.

To start with, Hopkins’ take on Hitch is a lot less acid than was Toby Jones’ in The Girl. Under Hopkins’ urbane portrait of Hitch – we see him reading The Times in the bath - he comes across as a much more benign dictator, rather under the thumb (or should that be influence?) of his wife Alma, pleasantly played by Helen Mirren. And while Hopkins – whose make-up frequently looks lumpy and rarely convincing – doesn’t really resemble Hitchcock, he has the voice off pat and (mostly) speaks in the affable tones his subject used in trailers for his films and, more frequently, in his personable introductions to his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It’s not a biopic. Instead it charts the loving relationship between Hitchcock and Alma set against the making of Psycho. The love story is bland and not very interesting. What makes the film a must for movie buffs, however, is the fascinating, funny and – for all we know – accurate story of the making of the film that redeemed Hitchcock’s career after the commercial disaster that was Vertigo.

(In this respect, my late father-in-law, director Harold Schuster, deserves a large portion of the blame for the failure of Vertigo. He directed Vera Miles and Gordon Scott in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955) and encouraged their romance. They married and Hitchcock wanted Miles to star in Vertigo. Unfortunately (like Jean Simmons who lost Roman Holiday to Audrey Hepburn for the same reason), Miles became pregnant and Kim Novak was cast in her stead in Vertigo - and the film failed).

I really enjoyed seeing the making of Psycho (or, at least, Gervasi and McLaughlin’s version). Hitchcock/Hopkins enjoys himself winding up screenwriter Josef Stefano (Ralph Macchio, making a somewhat unlikely comeback), refers to the casting of John Gavin as ‘Plywood is more expensive’, dismisses Deborah Kerr as a possible star with “She’s too Scottish” and describes serial killer Ed Gein, the inspiration for Psycho as 'Not your usual run-of-the-mill nutcase'. And, asked about the notorious shower scene, Hitchcock gleefully states, “She won’t be nude. She’ll be wearing a shower cap!”

Hopkins contributes a fun, knowing performance delivered with something of a wink to the audience; his relationship with Mirren is pleasant but hardly memorable and his characterization far removed from that of Jones who portrayed Hitchcock as a something of a sexual pervert, as acknowledged (in the credits of The Girl) by Tippi Hedren. Here he simply contents himself with a peephole into Janet Leigh’s (Scarlett Johansson) dressing room.

Hopkins and Mirren are fine for what is required of them, James D’Arcy makes a decent stab at playing Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel doesn’t disgrace herself as Vera Miles. Here the unfortunate mummified corpse in the basement is Johansson, who neither resembles Janet Leigh nor is a good enough actress to play her. I could scarcely suppress the unattractive thought that, had she played the role in Psycho, Perkins (or his stand-in) would have been cheered by audiences.

Alan Frank

USA 2012. UK Distributor: 20th Century Fox (Fox Searchlight). Colour by deluxe.
98 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 03 Feb 2013