It wasn't just that the book featured a man Alfred Hitchcock called "not your average run of the mill nutcase." After all, as the director reminded his revolted assistant, "This is the boy who dug up his own mother."
"Psycho," a movie no one wanted to make -- or finance, same thing -- represented a chance to return to his moviemaking roots, a time of poverty, risk-taking and fun. "We experimented, we invented new ways of making pictures because we had to," he reminds his wife and eagle-eyed collaborator, Alma Reville, in "Hitchcock."
3 stars = Good
Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johannson.
PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material.
"I just want to feel that kind of freedom again," he quietly confesses, and that's why he is willing to bet their house (literally) on the project.
The fact we know that actress Janet Leigh would swear off showers after playing Marion Crane, Anthony Perkins would be forever typecast as loony Norman Bates, "Psycho" would send shivers up the spines of generations of watchers, and Bernard Herrmann would set a new standard in use of screechy strings makes no difference here.
Neither does the fact that "Hitchcock" is the second of two movies in two months dealing with the master of suspense. The first was HBO's "The Girl," featuring Toby Jones as Hitch and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, the actress he often terrorized during "The Birds."
Mr. Jones famously played Truman Capote in a 2006 movie released months after Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his Truman Capote.
This time, he was first out of the gate, but Anthony Hopkins is more adroit and believable as Hitchcock, although part of it is the makeup and apple-shaped abdomen along with a voice that matches the director's or our memory of it. Facial prosthetics change Mr. Hopkins' neck, chin, cheeks, earlobes and the tip of his nose, and contacts turn his blue eyes brown.
"Hitchcock" uses "Psycho" to explore the marriage of Alfred and Alma, the director's ability to recognize a good -- if gory -- story, to outwit the censors leery of a showering actress and a taboo toilet, to demonstrate a flair for the dramatic in marketing the movie and to wrestle with his outsize appetites for food, jealousy and an appreciation for his stable of blondes.
Alma famously was a redhead, not to mention Hitch's closest collaborator and an assistant director, screenwriter and editor in her own right, even if she wasn't always credited as such.
As played by Helen Mirren, Alma appears taller and more glamorous but similarly smart and analytical, methodically buttering her toast and attacking it with crisp bites as she proposes "Psycho" kill off the leading lady after 30 minutes -- not halfway through.
Sacha Gervasi, who made "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" about the heavy metal band from Canada, directs "Hitchcock." John J. McLaughlin (one of the "Black Swan" writers) penned the screenplay, based on a Stephen Rebello book about the making of "Psycho."
The cast also includes Scarlett Johansson as sunny Janet Leigh; James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins; a bewigged Jessica Biel as Vera Miles; Toni Collette as Hitch's trusted assistant, Peggy Robertson; and Danny Huston as writer Whitfield Cook, who worked with Hitchcock on "Strangers on a Train" and "Stage Fright."
Not long after "Hitchcock" opens, an impudent reporter asks the director, "You're 60 years old, shouldn't you just quit while you're ahead?" He was fresh from the triumph of "North by Northwest," but no one realized his next picture would double the box office.
But "Psycho" was more possible poison apple than safe bet, and we watch as he assembles his cast, decides to personally pony up the money, finds himself with new and old leading ladies and descends into a jealous frenzy when Alma starts collaborating with Whit, a handsome flirt.
In the weirdest, most off-putting device of the movie, Hitch occasionally imagines the figure of Ed Gein, the real-life Wisconsin murderer and grave robber who inspired "Psycho." In the press notes, Mr. Gervasi says the body-snatching killer is a "very fun but potent way of articulating the battle that we all have with the darker side of ourselves."
"Hitchcock" doesn't need the conceit, nor the sometimes obvious hindsight.
When it pulls the curtain back on a landmark film -- and a couple whose relationship is tender, twisted and time-tested -- it already has plenty of film fodder. Add in an actor who can convincingly play Hitch, Hannibal Lecter, Richard Nixon, Pablo Picasso and Thor's daddy, plus the royally talented Ms. Mirren, and you have a magnet for movie lovers.