Entertainment » Movies

Hitchcock and His ’Girls’

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Mar 28, 2013

For some reason, 2012 was the Year of Hitchcock.

First we got the HBO telefilm "The Girl," which detailed how Hitch (played with pitch-perfect sticky obsessiveness by Toby Jones) harassed and tormented Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds and Marnie. Then we got the theatrical release of Hitchcock, based (more or less) on the non-fiction account Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello.

The two films work well as companion pieces, but ideally they should be viewed in reverse order, if only because Hitchcock first made Psycho and then went on to direct The Birds and Marnie (and, the end credits of "The Girl" tell us, Marnie is now regarded as Hitchcock's final masterpiece -- though he did go one to direct a number of subsequent movies).


But though these two productions work well as hand-in-hand companions for a mini-marathon viewing, they approach Hitchcock (and those around him) from very different perspectives. The tone, mood, and overall style of Hitchcock honors Hitch as viewers knew him from his movie trailers and television anthology series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" -- a master not just of suspense, but also of macabre humor, with a slightly stiff air about him that could easily be forgiven because of his somewhat down market English accent (and his black suits that made him look rather like an undertaker).

This means that the director’s onerous ways with women were only acknowledged in passing. All Scarlett Johannson, in the role of Janet Leigh, has to do in order to keep Hitch off her case (and her corpus) is act in a friendly but totally professional manner. Her demeanor and conduct lay down the boundaries; Hitch respects them accordingly. It probably helps that his attention is diverted by the problems he faced getting Psycho made at all; then there’s the film’s ridiculous invention of an imaginary friendship with serial-killing fiend Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), which ties into a somewhat less ludicrous subplot about Hitch’s jealousy when wife Alma (Helen Mirren) begins working on a side project with writer friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

The shower scene

The one scene in which Hitch does flip out and terrorize his leading lady comes during the shower of Psycho’s famous shower scene. Hitch, frustrated that he’s not getting the reactions he wants from Leigh, takes up the knife himself and starts flailing away; Leigh panics, screaming and huddling before Hitch as he slashes away at the air, the blade coming dangerously close to the actress. In his mind, Hitch is seeing all the people who have enraged and frustrated him recently, including Alma and Whit, the studio bigwigs who profess to respect him as a director but refuse to back him financially, and the MPAA official who gets stern and censorious about things like the flushing of a toilet -- as though American audiences will be irreparably corrupted by so commonplace a sight on the movie screen.

The core of Hitchcock has to do with the creative urge and pride in constantly excelling and finding new themes and techniques. In a tender, telling scene, Hitch confesses to Alma that he misses the old days when he was as nobody, and he and Alma were given such miniscule budgets that they had to devise novel ways of filming their movies. As hurtful as it is to be slighted by the studio, the lure of filming Psycho has as much to do with the need to get inventive once more as with demonstrating to critics and audiences alike that North By Northwest is not Hitch’s last great picture. "What if someone really good did a horror film?" Hitch muses late one night to Alma, who can’t understand his obsession with the Robert Bloch novel that serves as the basis for the movie.

If Hitchcock primly anchors itself in the question of creative renewal, "The Girl," delves right into the creepy dark side of the artistic ego -- the insecure, sexually frustrated side that’s a matter of cliché when it comes to how creative types can be perceived. "The Girl" homes in on (indeed, revels in) Hitch’s dysfunctional relationship with Hedren (Sienna Miller) and, by extension, women in general. Alma, he complains to Hedren during a drunken phone call, is like a sister to him; his marriage to her is a sexless sham. At another point, he drunkenly confesses to a handsome, younger male colleague that he is impotent, and gives vent to his envy for the sort of chiseled, vital young Hollywood males he sees all around him.

What did Hitchcock want?

What is it that Hitch wants from Hedren, exactly? The film seems unable to answer this, but it does tiptoe around various possibilities, starting with an introductory quotation that has Hitchcock ruminating on how "blondes make the best victims." There’s a creeping, twining thread of sadomasochism wending through "The Girl" that implicates not only the director but the women in his life right along with him, including Alma, as well as Hitch’s assistant, Peggy (played by Toni Colette in Hitchcock and by Penelope Wilton of "Downton Abbey" fame in "The Girl").

Where Alma as played by Mirren seems like the loving and long-suffering wife who stands by her foolish husband, Hitch’s wife in "The Girl" -- a role filled by Imelda Staunton, who does a terrific job and avoids the inevitable and distracting glow of Mirren’s irrepressible star quality, portraying Alma as a little more drab and earthly -- comes across as almost a co-conspirator. "I like her smile," Alma tells Hitch at the start of "The Girl," spotting Hedren on a television ad and setting startling, sickening events in motion that, today, probably would have resulted in a major media blowup and a sexual harassment suit.

Hints of harrassment

And what about Hedren herself? Does she lay down professional boundaries the way Leigh does in Hitchcock or is she party to her own victimization? "The Girl" hints that the latter was the case. At his first meeting with Hedren, Jones’ Hitch recites a sinister limerick that drips with creepy, sexual foreboding. When he compares making a film to growing pest-prone Pinot Noir grapes, he summarizes the process with the words, "Heartbreak guaranteed." Hedren, as though picking up the gauntlet -- really, almost as though daring Hitch to do his worst -- turns the words into a toast, lifting her wine glass to the man she later accuses of so traumatizing her that he turns her frigid.

Once The Birds is finished, Hitch tells Hedren that his harassment, sexual and otherwise, has all been to do with coaxing her best performance out of her; Hedren even seems to willfully buy into this, though it seems a flimsy justification. Rumor has it that Stanley Kubrick bullied Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining, and enlisted Jack Nicholson to join in, seeking to upset the actress to a point of extremity that would service the film. However, even if that’s true (and it may be an exaggeration), Kubrick does not seem to have followed up, as Hitch later does in "The Girl," with a demand that the actress he’s targeted with such tough directorial love should "make [herself] sexually available" at the director’s whim. (In the movie, Hedren flatly refuses.)

Anthony Hopkins fills his fat suit with style and gives us glimpses of Hitchcock’s insecurities (especially as they manifested in his pathological relationship to food), but they were mere blots in the director’s over-arcing genius for telling stories and his passion for exceeding himself. ("Style, my dear, is mere self-plagiarism," Hitch tells Peggy in Hitchcock.) Jones wears a similar fat suit as though hiding in its folds and layers and peering out with mayhem on his mind; he channels a desperately dissatisfied, pathologically dysfunctional Hitchcock, a man incapable, for some reason, of healthful sexuality. The implication is that this state of affairs feeds into his art, turning his leading ladies into blonde muses that inspire and torment him so that, should he torture them in turn, there’s a gruesome shapeliness to it all.

What "The Girl" has that Hitchcock sadly misses is a sense of real fun when it comes to incorporating visual quotes from Hitchcock’s own body of film (including an early sight gag reference to the technique used in The Birds to make the flocks seem bigger, more chaotic and threatening, than they actually were). Hitchcock has only one really noticeable visual quote, right at the start, and it comes, oddly enough, from Foreign Correspondent.

Still, these movies deserve adjacent spots on the cineaste’s shelf, right next to his Alfred Hitchcock boxed sets. These two films, taken individually, could be seen as Freudian, especially "The Girl," but taken together they become something more, and more modern. Jointly, they create a cubist impression of Alfred Hitchcock -- surely fictionalized to an extent, but tantalizingly complex: Brilliant, lustful, frustrated, lonely, juvenile, verging on the villainous, and every bit a towering (if rotund) figure in the history of the cinematic art.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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