Hitchcock: To Psycho with Love

A fond and fun—but not particularly enlightening—look back at the making of Psycho, with a stellar Anthony Hopkins in the lead and Helen Mirren as his ever supportive wife

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Suzanne Tenner/Fox Searchlight

Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock

“I couldn’t make Psycho without my tongue in my cheek,” Alfred Hitchcock told Cinema magazine in 1963. Director Sacha Gervasi takes the same approach to the man, the myth, the ultimate movie director in Hitchcock, his snappy adaptation of Stephen Rebello’s acclaimed nonfiction account Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. The movie scampers mischievously through Hitchcock’s creative process as he makes the transition from suspense to more overt horror and simultaneously, we’re meant to believe, rediscovers the love of a fine woman. It’s a feel-good frolic, which is fine for anyone who prefers their Hitchcock history tidied up, absent the megalomania, the condescending cruelty and tendency to sexual harassment that caused his post-Psycho blonde discovery Tippi Hedren to declare him “a mean, mean man.”

Hitchcock opens with the artist in a funk. Peering over a story in the London Times headlined “The New Masters of Suspense,” Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) snipes to his wife and advisor Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), “Why are they looking for new ones when they still have the old one?” Hitchcock lights on Robert Bloch’s true crime novel Psycho. He believes it his ticket to staying relevant, but he’s the only one. “Is this still a picture about a queer in his mother’s dress murdering people?” groans Paramount president Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow). The master of elegant suspense is suddenly positioned as a maverick, forced to put up $800,000 of his own for Psycho. But by the time Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) steers the narrative to the set, Hitchcock is in his element, nervy, pervy and proud of it. “Call me Hitch,” he tells his stars Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) on the first day of shooting. “Hold the cock.”

(READ: About the lost Hitchcock film and where you can see it)

In 2012, the line is pretty unnerving. But Hitchcock used it often. Gervasi and his screenwriter John J. McLaughlin don’t shy away from showing the grossness of Hitchcock—both behavioral (he’s got a peephole in his office, just like Norman Bates—although instead of into Cabin #1, it looks into his leading lady’s dressing room) and physical (in one scene the notorious diet breaker gobbles multiple tins of foie gras straight from the fridge). But it’s all portrayed as rather cute, just the impish side of your average genius/dirty uncle. Nothing about the flip Hitchcock calls for indignation, meanwhile over at HBO this fall, everything about The Girl, which told the Tippi Hedren story, judged Hitchcock as the bad seed. Is there no middle ground?

If such a place were located and could serve as the terrain for yet another Hitchcock biopic, Hopkins certainly deserves another crack at the role. Beautifully costumed in the hip undertaker’s suits favored by Hitchcock, he nails the mannerisms and incongruously delicate movements of a man who navigates from behind a vast belly. But the prosthetic chin is a major makeup don’t.  It is oddly seamless whereas the real article on Hitchcock doubled up on itself into an exaggerated horizontal dimple. When Psycho’s screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) describes his own daily therapy sessions as revolving around “sex, rage, my mother,” Hopkins’ eyebrows sail upward in delight as the unfortunate chin dips down and threatens to sail off entirely. It’s the most distracting false feature since Nicole Kidman‘s nose in The Hours.

(READ: TIME’S Q&A with Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi)

Impersonating an icon is risky business. Making a movie about making a movie is even riskier. Even a filmmaker who aspires to make the next Day for Night more often than not ends up with self-indulgent bombs like Full Frontal or pleasant piffle like My Week with Marilyn. Hitchcock improves on My Week with Marilyn but much of that has to do with the well-researched, playfully voyeuristic enticements of its Psycho backstory and a strong cast. D’Arcy makes for a sly Perkins, Johansson captures the perky sex appeal of Leigh and Mirren is both tart and vulnerable as Alma, oft neglected for those famous icy blondes even as she functioned as editor, nanny and personal chef.

Gervasi and McLaughlin attempt to inject some  Hitchcockian urgency with a subplot involving Alma. While Hitch is taken up with Janet Leigh’s bustline, Alma is flirting with one of Hitchcock’s past collaborators, Whitfield “Whit” Cook (Danny Huston). Or at least, that’s how it seems; this is where Gervasi pays homage to Hitchcock’s visual style, playing up the suspense as Whit bends his head toward Alma or she puts a hand on his. Hitchcock grows increasingly suspicious. Eventually the camera closes in on the back of Mirren’s neck like a guillotine at the ready. Does violence lurk or is this whole subplot nothing more than a MacGuffin? A MacGuffin of course, and by the time Psycho premieres, Hitch and Alma are ready to walk off into the sunset together, she appreciated again, he tamed, just a big fat pussycat. It’s the happy ending no one can believe (certainly not The Girl waiting in the wings) but as Hitchcock himself liked to say: It’s only a movie.

(READ: About which Hitchcock movie has been deemed the greatest of all time. Hint: not Psycho)

(MORE: Alfred Hitchcock’s 10 Most Memorable Movie Scenes)