(Originally posted at Take One)
There’s an uncomfortable sense of irony that radiates from the arrival of two films looking to re-evaluate perhaps cinema’s greatest practitioner, Alfred Hitchcock, whilst acting as a response to his recent re-appraisal. Not only did 2012 see the so-called Master of Suspense’s extensive (55 films, barring lost and unfinished projects) back catalogue reprised to the baying contemporary crowds in the BFI’s exhaustive ‘The Genius of Hitchcock’ season, it also laid witness to something of a seismic shift in cinematic appreciation when Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound magazine’s greatest film of all time, as voted for by critics and filmmakers worldwide.
However much the great filmmaker’s career is back in the public consciousness (although it arguably rarely left it), there lies in the shadow of its rejuvenated appreciation naysayers that make wobbly attempts at deconstructing Hitchcock, surmising that a handful of his most critically celebrated works were a product of psychotic obsession and perverse manipulation, to the point of overt misogyny. These come in the form of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, which prides itself on telling the untold story behind Psycho – ‘the film that shocked the world’, and Julian Jarrold’s BBC/HBO production The Girl, a ruthless indication of Hitchcock’s apparent mistreatment of actress Tippi Hedren whilst making The Birds and Marnie. Whilst each film masquerades as matching dissections of their subject’s clearly complex psyche, they are both frustratingly opaque and deeply subjective, using cinema to simultaneously observe and attack him whilst airing the dirty laundry of a man who can no longer answer back to such damning indictments.
The frothier of the two, Gervasi’s plainly titled Hitchcock is something of a visual interpretation of Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book ‘Alfred Hitchcock and The Making Of Psycho’, depicting Hitch’s (physically imitated with oafish, pouting detachment by Anthony Hopkins) desperation to turn Robert Bloch’s striking (and factually based) 1959 novel into his next picture after deeming his career to be in a state of stagnation. Pointedly asked by the paparazzi whether, after forty years in the industry, he should quit whilst on top, Hitch puts the wheels in motion towards what would eventually become a landmark of suspense cinema as well as a bold confrontation of stifling censorship rules (“No American movie has ever found it necessary to show a toilet, let alone to flush one!”) and a complete overhaul of attendance records the likes of which would rarely be seen again until Spielberg’s Jaws fifteen years later.
As fascinating as this behind-the-scenes glimpse of a masterpiece is, the virtues of Rebello’s book stop here, diluted as they are by gauche artificiality that undercut the film’s claims for authenticity. Bookended by a gawky framing device that uses monologues in the vein of the director’s television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and soundtracked by its theme tune), Gervasi’s film is less an historical illustration as it is, effectively, a love story about the various wedges that formulate between Hitchcock and his long-serving, long-suffering wife Alma (played here by Helen Mirren). Interjecting factual accuracy, Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin contrive for the film a would-be affair Alma embarks upon with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer who worked on the scripts for several of Hitchcock’s notable works. Posing a threat to the co-dependent relationship shared between the two protagonists, this possibly fictional aside fails to weave into the overarching non-fiction of the piece, which is already at odds with itself over what story it is ultimately trying to tell. The making of Psycho is a mere surface ruse to mask other angles and intentions: to create a duality between the troubled persona of Hitchcock and of Ed Gein – the psychotic murderer who inspired Bloch’s novel. Gein, who masked his sadistic front in public just like Norman Bates and, McLaughlin hints, Hitchcock himself, appears in the film in a parallel flashback of sorts as well as a ghostly figure hovering at Hitchcock’s shoulder, goading him to embrace his sadistic identity and corpulent mortality.
Yet Hitchcock’s ostensible depravity and his relationship with the dark recesses of his own mind are kept relatively dialled down as the film journeys on, stumbling on its attempts at examining anything resembling psychological complexity. The questions over Hitchcock’s deep fascination with the source text is immediately dropped in favour of the principal romantic conflict, building to a sympathetic ending where conflicts are resolved and genre conventions restored, as is the filmmaker’s recognition of his love and respect for both Alma (his stalwart) and women in general.
This dramatically conflicts with Jarrold’s The Girl; whereas Hitchcock allows the director to get away relatively unscathed by his shady obsessions, Jarrold and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes condemn him for them, levelling a series of post-mortem charges without conjecture. Based partly on Hedren’s recent allegations (she has been cited as calling him “evil and deviant”) as well as Donald Spoto’s contemptuous book ‘Spellbound by Beauty’, The Girl appears to be the cinematic equivalent of one of Hitch’s prominent quotes: “Blondes make the best victims”, going so far as quoting this macabre line in its opening frame. Played by Toby Jones, Hitchcock here is portrayed as nothing more than a gravelly voiced predator honing in on his prey, making constant bids for Hedren’s emotions whilst ignoring Alma, who, played more fittingly by an understated Imelda Staunton, is seen in more of a birdlike, submissive light than Mirren’s romanticised version.
Like the knife that plunges into the writhing body of Marion Crane in the 78 edits that comprise Psycho’s infamous 45 second sequence, one can almost visualise the hatchet pounding into the director here, portrayed as a man at war with his alcoholism, inflated egotism, sexual impotence and a loathing of his own physical appearance. He is played by Jones as a skulking crustacean, shuffling around awkwardly, spitting out the innuendo-laden and provocative remarks his sardonic wit was known for, as well as providing a steady stream of lecherous advances toward his leading lady. While perhaps the more effective of the two films in its analysis of the making of a classic – a sequence illustrating the lengthy shooting of the attic scene, where Hedren was showered with live birds for five days, is exact and quite arresting – it has more of a deplorable yearning to paint a biased and sensationalist portrait that has widely been condemned as false. However much Hedren and Spoto howl to the contrary, these vindictive reassessments are being unanimously denied by previous Hitchcock sirens such as Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak, who endorse their career benefactor, and even Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson in Hitchcock) labels him a sweetheart compared to the likes of Orson Welles. Hedren can be seen to be contrasting her own evaluation of history, considering her decades long silence and the warm anecdotes she is seen telling in interviews and the documentary All About The Birds. Furthermore, her accusations can be perceived as nothing more than rabble rousing and scandalous slander, the product of bitterness at her own sparse acting career.
Of course, such personal and serious accounts shouldn’t be ignored, but what should be questioned is the manner in which they are deployed and exploited. Yet these petty excursions in rotund pastiche make little effort in searching for truths, so absorbed are they with representing the master filmmaker – shot almost always side on, in his distinguished profile – in such shallow depths, however illuminating they are in showing his knack for self-promotion (even his quoting of Sardou’s line “Torture the women!” can be taken with a pinch of conscious provocation on his part). Whether audiences choose to believe the differing opinions on show here or not, where these films work best is offering reminders of just how fascinating and debatable Psycho, The Birds and even Marnie are; the three career peaks before a slow dwindling of artistic prominence.