In the scene where Hitch is trying to get script approval for Psycho from the blue-nose censor board that existed at the time, the head Bowdlerizer says there is no way they will approve showing a toilet on screen. There has never been a toilet in any American picture, he says, and there won’t be on his watch. I’m wondering if this can be literally true. I know there were insane rules, such as never showing a pregnant woman or even saying the word “pregnant,” and I’m not surprised to hear that a toilet had seldom been shown … but maybe it’s true. Americans have in the past been among the most prudish people on Earth—other than those wacky Muslims, of course—and there is still a sick strain of it around. But thankfully, things have loosened up in the last fifty years. You can even make fart jokes in a Disney film.
I had hoped to like this film a lot more than I did. It’s not a bad movie. It was based on a book called Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello, which was highly praised by most film critics, people who probably know a lot more about it than I do. And if they had stuck to that, the actual making of, I’d have been a lot happier. But I would be greatly surprised if some of the things we see here are actually in the book. In particular, a repeated framing device suggesting that Hitch had an obsession with Ed Gein, the Minnesota cannibal and grave robber that Robert Bloch based the fictional book on, just didn’t work for me. We see Hitch talking with Gein in his spooky old farmhouse where he slept with the corpse of his mother. Later, Gein feeds Hitch’s “obsession” with his wife, Alma Reville, spending time with a novelist and screenwriter, Whitfield Cook (played by Danny Huston, John Huston’s son). Cook worked on the screenplays of Strangers on a Train, with Raymond Chandler, and Stage Fright. So he was Alma’s longtime friend. The movie suggests that she might have contemplated an affair with him. Was that in the book? I don’t know. Did Hitch really go through the roof at that idea? I don’t know that, either. In fact, the whole personal relationship between Alma and Hitch just seems made up to me.
But ironically, it is the part of Alma that fascinates me here. Anthony Hopkins does a wonderful impersonation of someone who was so widely known that his face, his voice, and even his profile have become self-caricatures. Alma is the woman in the background, but any Hitchcock enthusiast knows they were very much a team. For the most part, Alma seems to have been okay with this, but not all the time. Helen Mirren really owns this film, in my opinion, because we can see Alma as a person for the first time, out of Hitch’s rotund shadow. When Hitch confronts her with his suspicions she has a great speech where all her resentment comes spilling out. And, in spite of it all, she loves him, understands his flaws, and loves working with him. It was Alma, more than anyone else, that was responsible for much of the truly great cutting Hitch was so famous for.
So there are good things. I wish they had focused more on the actual making of the film, because the parts of that we do see are very good. James D’Arcy doesn’t get a lot to do as Tony Perkins, but his one scene auditioning for Hitch is a very, very good impression of Perkins’ famous tics and mannerisms. Scarlett Johansson is gorgeous as Janet Leigh. Jessica Biel is relegated to the background as Vera Miles, just as Vera was in real life. And Toni Collette is almost unrecognizable as Hitch’s faithful amanuensis, Peggy Robertson.
The picture opens and closes with Hitch speaking directly to us, just as he did on the TV show. And in my opinion they missed a great opportunity for a laugh at the end. He says he’s hoping for an idea, an inspiration for his next film. And I said to Lee, “A bird is going to appear.” And sure enough, a crow lighted on his shoulder, then flew away. Then Hitch turns and walks away from us … and he doesn’t have the little spot of bird doo-doo on his shoulder that I was hoping for. I dunno. Maybe it would have been too much. If there was some way to work a toilet joke into the scene …