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'Hitchcock' takes an absorbing look at famed director

REVIEW: The most publicly recognizable director during his lifetime has now, 32 years after his death, become the subject of two films set at nearly the same time: HBO's just-aired "The Girl" and now "Hitchcock." Both stress a creepy vibe concerning the master manipulator's obsession with his blond female stars, but Fox Searchlight's big-screen effort elevates itself well above that preoccupation by attentively and warmly examining Alfred Hitchcock's deeply complicit relationship with his impressive wife Alma.

This narrative directing debut by Sacha Gervasi remains absorbing and aptly droll despite a few dramatic ups and downs and, led by large performances by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, should prove a popular specialized attraction through the holiday season and beyond. 

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While "The Girl" focused on the rotund director's infatuation with his discovery Tippi Hedren during the making of "The Birds" and "Marnie" in the early '60s, Hitchcock looks at the period just before, in 1959-60, when he made a bold departure from his normal methods with "Psycho." The lack of much detail about the production of this suspense classic is a disappointment on a certain level, but Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin ("Black Swan") take the alternate tack of delving into their subject's imagined mental and emotional state at the time which, however speculative, exerts a lurid pull.

Perhaps the most fanciful of the script's constructs is proposing a weird communal relationship between Hitchcock and the notorious Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer, disinterment specialist and mother obsessive who served as the inspiration for Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho." As Hitch remarks to Alma at one point, “All men are potential murderers,” and Gein (Michael Wincott), in assorted encounters that variously take the form of nightmares and elementary psychological discourses, forces the director to confront his most morbid motivations, advising that, “You can't keep this stuff bottled up.”

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But if Gein found release in murder and necrophilia, Hitchcock found his in creativity, channeling his darkest thoughts about human nature into mass entertainment that played with audiences' fears and has given scholars a seemingly bottomless well of material to theorize about.

At the outset, Hitch (as he tells Janet Leigh, “You can call me Hitch. Hold the cock.”) is riding the wave of one of his greatest commercial successes, "North by Northwest," as well as producing the long-running television series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." All the same, he's agitated about the lack of exciting material (he rejects Ian Fleming's "Casino Royale" out of hand as just being more of the same spy stuff) and disturbed, at 60, of suddenly being perceived as old.

But the shocking, bloody nastiness of "Psycho" excites him, and the more everyone -- his studio Paramount, his agent Lew Wasserman as well as Alma -- tell him the story is cheap “horror movie claptrap,” the fiercer his determination to make it becomes. What could have been just insiderish stuff about budget and story disputes becomes quite entertaining as Hitch slyly maneuvers the discussions to the point where Paramount's Barney Balaban only grudgingly gives the green light to make the picture if Hitchcock will foot the entire $800,000 budget himself, in exchange for which the producer-director will get 40 percent of the gross.

Still, the Hitchcocks are forced to gamble their Bel-Air home to run with the director's hunch, increasing his sense of urgency and anxiety. Initially resistant, Alma finally throws her full support behind her husband, as she always has, revealing what eventually emerges as the film's dominant impulse, which is to spotlight Alma Reville Hitchcock as an essential partner in her mate's extraordinary success.

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A sometimes-credited screenwriter for Hitch but always a story editor and adviser, Alma is by now a bit fed up with standing in the background while her husband eats and drinks too much and indulges in fantasy romances with his gorgeous blond stars like Grace Kelly and Kim Novak. Out of a need to fulfill her own creative urges, she embarks on a collaboration with dashing younger screenwriter Whitfield Cook (who had contributed to the scripts of Hitchcock's "Stage Fright" and "Strangers on a Train"), which Hitch eventually suspects has become an affair. This might be utter fantasy on the part of the present filmmakers, but this torment, along with the stress of "Psycho," pushes Hitchcock to the limit, with the suggestion that it even feeds the punishment he wants to inflict upon the eventual audience.

The attention on his inattention eventually leads Hitch and Alma to a rapprochement and even a deepening of their clearly chaste marriage (they sleep in separate twin beds), no matter that it is about to be disrupted once again by the arrival of Hedren, as delineated in "The Girl." The best scenes in "Hitchcock" are the direct but nonetheless subtle and dryly witty exchanges between Hopkins and Mirren (who had never worked together before), with both actors keenly aware and expressive of the undercurrents in an enduring marriage that still needs tending just as Alma looks after her backyard garden.

Hopkins has the confidence and command get the viewer past the obvious dissimilarities between him and the man he is playing and pull you along for what is quite an engaging ride with this unique, colorful character. In many scenes, Hopkins speaks considerably faster than the deliberate Hitchcock is ever on record has having done, his outbursts betray the power of a more physically fit man, and, notably in a couple of later scenes, more of Hopkins emerges from behind the elaborate makeup and prosthetics than does his character. All the same, it's a compelling performance, one layered with the intelligence, craftiness and wit that are always associated with Sir Alfred.

The robust, voluptuous Mirren could not be more physically contrary to the short, birdlike Alma but, working on the same high level as her co-star, strongly registers the woman's frustrations, accommodations of her husband's difficult nature and her seldom-articulated desire to be recognized.

Due to legal restrictions, no footage from the actual "Psycho" could be shown, nor even re-created representations of any shots, which disappointingly shortchanges much depiction of the weeklong shoot of the much-discussed shower scene. Of the film's stars, Scarlett Johansson gives Janet Leigh an openness and game quality that is very appealing; Jessica Biel portrays Vera Miles as a woman who, having incurred her director's wrath by dropping out of the lead in "Vertigo" at the last minute due to pregnancy, can't wait to get out of her contract with him; and James D'Arcy is physically right and all nervous quirks and uncertainties as Anthony Perkins. Toni Collette's character of Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock's perennially loyal right hand in his office, doesn't quite get her due.

The film gets much mileage out of Hitchcock's virtuoso playing of the Motion Picture Association of America's chief censor Geoffrey Shurlock (an excellent Kurtwood Smith) in order to get some taboo material up on the screen. It also accords composer Bernard Herrmann proper credit for his immortal score and for overriding his director's objections to placing music (the chilling shrieking strings) over the shower sequence.

Gervasi, who directed the music documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil," displays abundant energy and visual tact at the helm, with great assists from cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, production designer Judy Becker, costume designer Julie Weiss, editor Pamela Martin and composerDanny Elfman, who does not ape Herrmann so much as weave around him to dexterous effect. Location work on actual studio lots, primarily Paramount, brings a measure of authenticity entirely missing from "The Girl."

"Hitchcock" might be a work of fantasy and speculation as much as it is history and biography, but as an interpretation of a major talent's inner life and imagination, it's undeniably lively and provocative.

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