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Women steal the spotlight in 'Hitchcock'

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Though the film is called “Hitchcock” and ostensibly centers on the legendary director, we get a better sense of the women around him than we do the enigmatic filmmaker.

The film brings into focus Alfred Hitchcock's collaboration with his wife Alma Reville and his working relationship with actress Janet Leigh in Psycho.

Alfred and Alma are played with panache by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, yet “Hitchcock” seems tonally disjointed in its look at them.

An editor in her own right, Reville had a big role in casting, writing and editing Hitchcock's films. Mirren gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Hitch's long-suffering wife.

Hitchcock's well-known obsession with his beautiful blond stars is addressed, but not deeply explored. Alma's working relationship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) speaks to her yearning for admiration and approval.

Donning a padded paunch to approximate Hitchcock's corpulence, Hopkins approximates the look of the director at 60 and effectively mimics his distinctive vocal patterns. But swaths of the film featuring the director's hallucinatory fantasy conversations with mass murderer Ed Gein serve as a confusing distraction from the more involving elements that were happening outside of Hitchcock's head, namely Hitchcock's singular methods on set and his interactions with Alma.

Early in the film Hitchcock attends the premiere of his 1959 classic North by Northwest. A reporter remarks, “Shouldn't you quit while you're ahead?”

Hitchcock tells Alma he'd like to return to the excitement he felt as a young filmmaker and becomes fascinated by Robert Bloch's novel “Psycho.” The resulting film upsets the industry's censors with its murderous cross-dressing lead character.

Director Sacha Gervasi can't seem to decide whether this is a historical biopic, a love story, an homage to a brilliant director or a story of the making of “Psycho.”

Scarlett Johansson captures Janet Leigh's down-to-earth charm. Leigh is well aware of the director's reputation and doesn't need the cryptic warning issued by Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) about not letting him control her life.

For her part, Alma is always in control, particularly as she nags her portly husband to slim down. When he accuses her of not being supportive of his work, she explodes with some of the film's most memorable dialogue.

(James D'Arcy who plays Tony Perkins in “Psycho” looks scarily like the actor he's playing, but he's not given much to do except make wan gay innuendos.)

Set circa 1960, the film, based on Stephen Rebello's “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” is at its best when the masterful director is on his film set or when he's at home talking shop with Alma.

Hitchcock approached “Psycho” as a wonderfully risky move, ideal for his offbeat sensibility: “What if someone really good made a horror picture,” he asks Alma.

Hitchcock ultimately does not reveal much about the famed master of suspense. But perhaps that's how he would have wanted it.

Claudia Puig is a film critic for USA TODAY.

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