If you’ve ever seen Psycho, or even if you know anything at all about the film, Hitchcock would like to congratulate you on your savvy. Sacha Gervasi’s movie, which simultaneously holds the audience’s hand and flatters its knowingness, finds its subject at a career and personal crossroads. Fresh off the success of North by Northwest, but nearing the final phase of his working life, Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) searches for his next project, while he confronts his own insecurities, many of them having to do with his wife and writing partner, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), about whom he harbors intense suspicions.
This confronting-of-the-personal-demons angle, which turns the film’s midsection into a half-baked psychodrama, makes an odd and wholly unsatisfying fit with the movie’s other through line: the surface-deep look at the lensing of Psycho. Essentially the film traces the evolution of the director from the witty quipster we know from reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to an absolute monster: tyrannical on the set, horrible to his wife, and perpetually plagued by visions of serial killer Ed Gein, who encourages his perverse impulses, which include spying on actress Vera Miles in her changing room—before duly reverting back to a spouse-devoted decent guy. None of this is very convincing, a fact that shouldn’t prove too surprising since the film’s real interests lie elsewhere.
In one sense, though, there’s a perfect continuity between the movie’s two disparate projects, showing what a tortured bastard Hitchcock was in real life and watching him at work on his 1960 masterpiece: They both either annihilate or pervert cinematic understanding. The first angle plays into our penchant for placing biography above output when considering an artist’s work, looking for answers everywhere but in the actual text, while the second ensures that we don’t have to deal with any of Psycho‘s uncomfortable or ambiguous elements, only acknowledge the film as the horror classic it’s now universally recognized as being.
It’s this insistence on superficiality that assures the film’s colossal failure. The story is essentially that of a determined artist fighting to make his film over the objections of the studios, the censors, and the press, but it’s presented in such a way that the audience is expected to laugh at those benighted individuals who could possibly object to the making of a masterpiece like Psycho. After all, with 50-plus years of hindsight, we know better. Similarly, Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin’s presentation of the actual making of the movie is replete with things that everyone already know about Psycho and little else. In case you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll be gratified to learn that Anthony Perkins was a good fit for the role of Norman Bates because of “the duality” he was able to bring to the part, and that the shower scene was carefully edited to give the suggestion of violence and nudity without explicitly showing either.
For Gervasi, the filming of the shower scene also stands as a chance to bring together his two contrasting views of his subject—Hitch as ingenious director, Hitch as real-life psycho—and create the movie’s most risible moment. As psychodrama merges with Psycho drama, we learn not so much how an artist’s insecurities can shape his or her artistic choices as about how non-artists (Gervasi and McLaughlin) too often reach for tidy conflations that both oversimplify the creative process and ensure that we need not dig any deeper. This is how it happened folks, the film says—and if didn’t unfold quite like this in real life, isn’t it nicer to imagine that it did?