“A thankless role for an utterly thankless girl.” So says Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) of Lila, the role he’s assigned to Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) in Psycho. Just so, when Vera shows up on set of Psycho in the fanciful biopic Hitchcock, she discovers she will be wearing tweedy suits and a prim hairstyle. As she raises an eyebrow in acknowledgment of her not very subtle punishment by the Master of Suspense, Vera appears improbably empowered. You know that she knows what’s happening here. And she’s not falling for it.
More precisely, she’s not falling for the director’s increasingly notorious demands and manipulations. She’s worked with him before, and she’s made her own decisions. Though she doesn’t reveal details to her newbie costar, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), details concerning her experiences on The Wrong Man or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director does let slip the most well-known of their run-ins, when she became pregnant and so lost the role in Vertigo to Kim Novak. This lack of detail is what’s most intriguing in Hitchcock, a movie that is otherwise filled with details, both imagined and based in testimonies, concerning Hitchcock’s fabled fixations and cruelties. As these are laid out and you might feel repulsed or fascinated or confirmed in your guess that his was a sinister and rather unstable temperament, Vera remains admirably professional, able to work with the guy and sane about it.
Vera’s function as a sympathetic audience stand-in, most clearly illustrated in her on-set and rather cursory friendship with Janet: they share a drink in Vera’s dressing room, swap stories, and so maintain their distance from the process and their sanity. Just so, the film implies, women grappled with overbearing bosses and complicated studio power systems for decades, finding ways through the peculiar victimization and general weirdness for which Hitchcock provides an extreme example.
That extremity makes him an ideal sort of subject for biography, if not hagiography. While HItchcock’s art, as François Truffaut early on proclaimed, is singularly enthralling, his means to it has been revealed over time as a function of personal and broadly cultural demons—and to no small extent enabled by agents and studio heads in love with the money he made them, as well as assistants and starlets who found their own ways to overlook the pathologies, in order to keep their jobs.
While it offers Vera and Janet as a kind of counterweight to this version of Hitchcock, the movie focuses more closely on the other version, as it is experienced by deeply complicated relationship with his wife and (mostly uncredited) collaborator Alma (Helen Mirren). Alma has her own story in the film, that is, something like a rebellion fashioned as a tentative romantic interest in her other sometime writing partner, the self-impressed Whitfield (Danny Huston), but this is a gloss on her plot with Hitchcock. This plot uses her to make him less apparently toxic: if this noble, intelligent, and practical-minded woman can put up with his oafish obsessions, then he can’t be so terrible as he seems.
Whether or not this is true, the movie manages your view of the man with scenes from the period when Hitchcock and Alma made Psycho, from 1959-1960. These scenes—awfully episodic in structure—show his Norman-like peepholes on the set, his conversations with underlings and studio heads. They dramatize her pain and frustration (asked to write 2000 words for Reader’s Digest on “what it’s like to be married to a man obsessed with murder,” she rolls her eyes but accepts the promotional role), as well as her sense of betrayal on discovering her husband has been engaged in the very obsessive behaviors he has promised to give up. And they indicate her own erratic responses, sometimes culturally constructed (as when she buys a red bathing suit advertised for younger women), utterly pragmatic (as when she puts her husband on a diet or keeps their budget when she agrees they will finance the production of Psycho themselves), and sometimes straight-up heroic (as when she stomps off to the Psycho to direct when her husband is indisposed, and so saves the production from the circling suits).
In all instances, of course, Mirren’s very presence goes a long way toward making Alma’s range of responses appear both credible and extra-self-aware. But it helps too that Alma’s not operating in a vacuum. Her understanding of Hitchcock (not to mention the unnecessary speech she makes about it) is confirmed by what Vera and Janet have understood.
At the same time, Hitchcock borrows from Hitchcock, not so much challenging the mythology as reframing it. Certainly, it indulges in some antic crazy-artist portraiture—Hitchcock has conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), going so far as to follow him into the Psycho house, that is, the set you already know, rather than Gein’s own Wisconsin farmhouse, where they contemplate the grisly sight of dead Mrs. Bates laid out on her bed. But it also pulls back, exploiting the sensational effects of art, a representation of damaged psychology, even as it reminds you that what you’re seeing is exactly that, art and a representation of damaged psychology, as Vera knows too well.