Hollywood has been making movies about itself almost as long as it has been around, but The Director (Anthony Hopkins) never thought he’d be the one on the wrong end of lens, with all of his flaws blown up to 30 ft. high and visible to everyone. If he’d known that could happen, well, he would probably still have indulged them, but at least he’d have been discreet about it.

That’s the idea behind Sacha Gervasi‘s Hithcockian (the TV show, not the directorial style) adaptation of “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” an in-depth study of the gestation of the film, from the discovery of serial killer Ed Gein‘s (Michael Wincott) crimes to Hitch’s decision to take the biggest risk of his career on the way to his biggest financial — and probably cultural — success.

It’s easy to forget that the slasher films Psycho was the progenitor of are fairly recent. It’s even easier, for fans who know Psycho and The Birds but may not know Hitchcock’s other work, to not realize how little his oeuvre has in common with Psycho, or what a risk it was for him to make something no one considered “real filmmaking.” Such a risk, in fact, that few filmmakers of similar stature have attempted it at similar points in their careers.

It’s also, of course, an opportunity to portray Hitch through a modern lens, to question where his genius came from and who the real man was under the legend he has become. Usually that means putting a fair amount of modern social context into a time and place it likely didn’t exist, and that’s certainly the case here. But it also comes wrapped in the package of Hopkins doing Hitch, and that is one of the real treats of the film.

It’s easy for these sorts of things to become imitation, to basically become a Saturday Night Live sketch, but in Hopkins’ hands, we feel as if we’re watching the real Hitchcock through the familiar look and speaking patterns. It helps that Hitch, at least the one we’ve come to know through various film studies and biographies (and that’s really the one we’re getting), was filled with quirks and contradictions, particularly his much-discussed search for the perfect blonde starlet to mold and control.

Fortunately Hitchcock refuses to be stuck in that mold any more than the real Hitch (who was, after all, a real person, and thus frightfully complicated) did, by choosing to shine a generally positive light on his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) and the part she had to play in his career, of which she was a part for their entire lives.

Since Alma herself — a professional editor and screenwriter before she got involved with Hitchcock in the ’20s — chose to live in the background of the great man’s life, she is much more open to interpretation by Mirren, who instills her with grace and understanding and annoyance and anguish. She is a woman who knows what she is worth and who knows who Hitch really is and just wants both of those things to be back together the way they used to. She is also a woman who is aware of time moving on and how much more unfair that is for a woman in society than it is for a man. She is every part her leading man’s match, both Hitchcock and Hopkins.

As good as they both are, it’s where their worlds collide that the downside of putting Hitch’s world through a modern outlook appears. In particular, the need to shift credit for Hitchcock’s work onto her shoulders, to the point where Alma actually begins directing Psycho herself when Hitchcock falls ill.

To be fair, she does deserve a lot of the credit, and more than she has generally gotten. Alma was an invaluable part of the editing and writing process, despite going uncredited for what she contributed to her husband’s films. And there can be no denying that films, above all else, are ultimately collaborative efforts, due the sheer number of disciplines needed to bring them off.

But as with all looks at the past through a modern lens, there is often a tendency to go too far, and Hitchcock falls into that trap as much as any film about the industry does, be it discussions about Hitch’s penchant for icy, blonde leading ladies or the fact that he never did win an competitive Oscar, or any other modern reflections on his work that were likely less spoken of at the time.

It works fine when it turns into a plot point, such as Hitch worrying about Alma having an affair with old writer friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Not quite so much when it becomes an on-the-nose point of conversation, such as Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) talking about Hitch actually being one of the controlling characters in his film. At those moments, Hitchcock stops being about the man and starts being about some grad student’s paper about him.

Fortunately, Gervasi has a good handle on how to keep it from becoming as overbearing as it could be, through a nicely-handled black-comic tone, a choice played up by the truly brilliant notion to frame the entire film as a semi-episode of Hitchcock’s eponymous TV show, an episode of which he has unwittingly become the star.

Of course, we’re all the stars of the films about our lives. Most of us, however, are just fortunate enough not to have anyone else ever get to see those films in their entirety.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock; Helen Mirren as Alma Reville; Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh; Toni Collette as Peggy Robertson; Danny Huston as Whitfield Cook; Jessica Biel as Vera Miles; James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins; Michael Stuhlbarg as Lew Wasserman; Ralph Macchio as Joseph Sterano; Kurtwood Smith as Geoffrey Shurlock; Michael Wincott as Ed Gein; Richard Portnow as Barney Balaban; Wallace Langham as Saul Bass; Richard Chassler as Martin Balsam; Josh Leo as John Gavin.

(The Montecito Picture Company; Cold Spring Pictures; Fox Searchlight Pictures -- http://www.foxsearchlight.com/; Hitchcock -- http://www.foxsearchlight.com/hitchcock/; Hitchcock (Facebook) -- http://www.facebook.com/Hitchcock.movie.2012)

Review by . Review posted Tuesday, December 4th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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