In 1960, American movies couldn't even show a toilet being flushed. You can imagine how they dealt with sex and violence. Or you can remember, even if you weren't yet alive then, because you remember that things changed that year with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
How they changed is of little concern to Hitchcock, another defanged Hollywood history done in the biopic-snapshot style (see also My Week With Marilyn) and complete with voguish prosthetic distraction — this time in the fat-suited form of Anthony Hopkins, rolling suspenselessly along as the master of suspense. As Janet Leigh, Scarlett Johansson leads with her cheekbones and remains ever gracious.
Perhaps afraid of appealing only to a rarefied film-wonk crowd, director Sacha Gervasi settles very early into broad, easy strokes. The result is companionable but eventually sort of irritating, like a good friend with a bad habit of pantomimed stabbings and a cappella renditions of Bernard Herrmann's violins. Reportedly and demonstrably Gervasi was prevented by copyright restrictions from using any actual Psycho images or direct re-creations thereof. Bravely he went ahead anyway, heeding if not exactly living up to the master's example. Worried about advancing age and declining reputation, this Hitch bucks all career advice and stakes his house on a self-financed adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel, which in turn derives from the true story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, who appears to the director in a few cheesy and ill-advised dream sequences.
"But what if someone really good made a horror picture?" Hitch has cause to ask his wife, unsung collaborator and damage controller Alma Reville, played here with poised enjoyment by Helen Mirren. The answer is that it would alter the course of the genre.
Puffing up its behind-every-great-man mythology, which is at least good and righteous and quite true in this case, Hitchcock strikes an unconvincing, unilluminating pose of feminism. While her husband paws at his pile of blonde women's headshots or peeps like Norman Bates at his leading lady through a hole in her dressing room wall, Alma merely negotiates the flirtatious attention of a less famous but more romantically inclined colleague (Danny Huston). That leaves us waiting around while the Hitchcocks endure these blatantly screenwriterly obstacles to marital and creative fulfillment.
More promisingly, as Leigh guides her co-star Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) through the minefield of their director's neurotic misogyny, with both ladies looking splendid in period costumes, Hitchcock briefly begins to feel like an episode of Mad Men. Meanwhile James D'Arcy does a fine impression of Anthony Perkins, but the film doesn't seem to need him. Shortchanged here, Perkins was utterly crucial to Psycho, whose script had been tailored to him, and something's wrong if that strikes Gervasi as an inconvenient truth.
Adapted by John J. McLaughlin from Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Gervasi's film maintains a chastely mischievous tone, inadvertently making clear that nobody but Hitchcock ever could really nail that tone. This is fertile material, all right, but not for a feel-good movie, though we do behold the tidy arc of an artist's anguish redeemed: He goes from helplessly pigging out on canned foie gras to infusing the shower scene with his own murderous fury to cueing audience screams like a triumphant conductor. Masterfully, he did actually get Psycho made, and we're all the richer for it.