Film
3:55 pm
Tue December 4, 2012

Hitchcock: Sometimes what happens behind the scenes is as entertaining as what's on the screen

In a screen career that lasted 50 years, Janet Leigh appeared in everything from Jerry Lewis comedies and the screen version of Bye Bye Birdie to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. But in the minds of millions of movie lovers, the versatile blonde star will forever be associated with the shower scene in Psycho.

The movie poster for 'Hitchcock'
The movie poster for 'Hitchcock'

Yes, Leigh's most enduring role is also one of her briefest. In 1960, she played Marion Crane, the would-be embezzler who makes the fatal mistake of checking into the Bates Motel in director Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. When poor Marion decided to clean up in the shower, she met a grisly death and, simultaneously, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins became immortal figures in Hollywood history.

Director Sacha Gervasi's entertaining Hitchcock provides a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Psycho, as well as a glimpse into the psyche of Alfred Hitchcock, played here by a generously padded Anthony Hopkins. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the movie is the questions it raises about Hitchcock's peculiar desires. His wife, Alma, portrayed by the dependably dynamic Helen Mirren, was a shrewd, brilliant, take-charge type who helped steer her husband's career. In fact, when they met, she was his boss at a studio in Berlin in the 1920s.

The film makes it clear that Alma was very much an independent woman who didn't have to ride on her husband's coattails. It also paints a slightly disturbing portrait of Alfred as a man obsessed with being an all-controlling Svengali, finding a potential leading lady and then determining every detail of her image, from her hairstyle to her clothing to her demeanor -- just like the unbalanced James Stewart did to Kim Novak in Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo.

Vera Miles was given the star treatment by Hitchcock but turned away from him to marry and start a family. In return, he forced her to take a lackluster supporting role in Psycho as Marion's sister. The revenge scheme may have backfired, however: If she had not been in Psycho, who would ever think twice about Vera Miles today?

If you've read Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, you'll know that John McLaughlin's screenplay takes a few liberties with the facts about the filming. But that doesn't get in the way of Hopkins and Mirren putting on a splashy show. In their scenes together, they suggest the Hitchcocks' marriage amounted to decades of secret deals, minor mysteries and major compromises.

The movie's other standout is Scarlett Johansson, who not only perfectly nails down Janet Leigh's look and mannerisms, but also shows how the actress managed to work alongside and yet wisely work around her director. Disappointingly, Hitchcock doesn't provide much background on how the filmmaker worked with Anthony Perkins. And James D'Arcy, who plays Perkins, barely registers. This is sort of peculiar, given that Perkins was the driving force behind the film.

But when it's focused on Hopkins and Mirren, Hitchcock provides some highly satisfying drama and a reminder that sometimes what goes on behind the cameras can be every bit as fascinating as what shows up on the screen.