Monday, 7 January 2013

The Two Faces of Alfred Hitchcock

The Two Faces of Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock (2012) Dir. Sacha Gervasi
The Girl (2012) Dir. Julian Jarrold

Please note that these reviews contain discussion of major plot points of both films and so should be considered spoiler heavy.

Alfred Hitchcock was notoriously difficult with women.  The sound tests he made with Anny Ondra for the 1929 film Blackmail see him quizzing her about her sex life.  Just under a decade later, he maximised discomfort for Madeleine Carroll on The 39 Steps by handcuffing her to co-star Robert Donat.  Such incidents were presented as part of Hitchcock’s playful nature; they fit with the man known for directing such suspenseful pictures with tongue firmly in cheek.

When Hitch decamped to Hollywood in 1940 he was already an international star, and the studio system wanted some of that glory for themselves.  He made three pictures with super-producer David O. Selznick, and Selznick kept loaning him out to other studios, notably RKO where he made Notorious.  Hollywood didn’t serve Hitch very well in the 1940s, and he churned out some mediocre pictures (with a couple of notable exceptions, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt), but the 1950s saw him moving into more fertile territory and an infatuation with a new ‘Hitchcock Blonde’, Grace Kelly.  Kelly caught Hitch’s eye in a way I don’t think any leading lady truly had since Madeleine Carroll, but Kelly left Hitch to become a princess.  Vera Miles took her place, but became pregnant. 
Two new films, Hitchcock and The Girl, both explore the genius behind Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and what it meant to be a Hitchcock Blonde.

Hitchcock, written by John J. McLaughlin and directed by Sacha Gervasi, is based on Stephen Rebello's non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.  Gervasi is best known for his documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008), a highly regarded documentary about the Canadian heavy metal band.  This is debut fiction film.  Immediately in this picture, the blending of the real and the fictional is clear.  We open on Ed Gein’s farmhouse, in rural Wisconsin in 1949, where Ed Gein, soon-to-be-infamous serial killer is about to murder his brother.  Post-killing, however, Alfred Hitchcock steps in front of the camera and speaks to the audience.  This is a knowing moment for the cine-literate: Hitch, in his famous cinema trailers, addressed the paying public, baiting and teasing them with delights to come, as he would later do in his TV series.  It also sets the tone of Gervasi’s film early on: what we are getting here is playful Hitch, the public man with only the lightest of insights into his troubled personal life.

Gervasi’s film is a polished affair.  Playing the director, Anthony Hopkins gives a memorable, comedic performance that highlights the macabre sense of humour in the man.  At many times, the audience laughs with Hitch at the unfortunate people who are the recipient of his bad taste jokes.  His long-time wife, Alma Reville, is played by Helen Mirren.  Rounding out the picture is Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh.  

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho

Janet Leigh was rarely a memorable actress, and her best role is undoubtedly as the victim Marion Crane in Psycho: but even here what makes her memorable is circumstance, and Hitch’s camera, rather than any true screen presence.  As with Tippi Hedren in the later films, the emptiness of the performance is what allows the camera to fill them up and make them shine.   There is a moment late in The Girl, the other Hitchcock bio-film to be made, when Hitch is looking at Tippi Hedren against a yellow screen as she shoots the final moments of her last great film, where for the briefest of seconds she becomes real to the great man, human, and not just an object of desire, and she acts for the first time, rather than just existing, and it is transcendent.  

Toby Jones and Sienna Miller as Hitch and Tippi

The Girl, co-produced by HBO Films and BBC Films, premiered on television.  Directed by Julian Jarrold, who has worked widely in British crime TV, and made a few well-received but underperforming films, The Girl is written by Gwyneth Hughes and based on Spellbound by Beauty by Donald Spoto.  Spoto was one of the first critics to highlight the perverse darkness that imbues much of Hitch’s cinema, and has written a number of books on the master, from when he was still alive, and beyond.  In this film, based on the making of both The Birds and Marnie (the duration of Hitch’s relationship with Hedren), Hitch is played by Toby Jones, Alma by Imelda Staunton and Tippi by Sienna Miller.

The Girl is set three years after Hitchcock, and presents a very different side to the great man.  In this film, Hitch is a lecherous dictator, whose wife is cowed by his arrogance and timid against his will. If one contrasts Imelda Staunton’s performance with that of Helen Mirren’s, who battles cheek by jowl against her husband, and is more dominant over him then he is over her, it is difficult to believe we are looking at the same woman.  The same is true of Hitch himself.  Hopkins plays the man for laughs, Jones seeks out the darkness: but here is a critical difference between the portrayals of the man over the woman – both these incarnations of Alfred Hitchcock are conceivably the same man. 

Hopkins’s performance allows the darkness in Hitch to accrue slowly.  There are subtle hints that not all is well in Hitch’s mind: we see him watching the blonde’s that walk by his office window, he begins to suffer nightmares, and soon he has Ed Gein as his psychiatrist.  Hopkins’s Hitchcock never crosses the line into brutality or sexual violence, and the psychosomatic disorders he suffers in this film are all revealed to be part of his obsession with making the perfect picture.  The darkness in this Hitchcock is danced away as the screams of the audience enjoying Psycho for the first time cleanse him spiritually, emotionally and physically.  By the end of Hitchcock, the man is in playful mood again, addressing the audience, hoping to soon have another bolt of inspiration: just as a crow lands on his shoulder before flying off.  

Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins as Alma and Hitch

In this film his relationship with Janet Leigh is kind and gentle.  He is flirtatious with her, and Alma seems to allow it (there is a niggling undercurrent in this and The Girl about Alma’s complicity in the attempted seduction of Hitch’s female leads, almost as if she knows he needs to fall in love with his leading ladies to make the perfect picture), and they strike up a camaraderie, their bond professional without ever crossing the line.  Only in one brief scene does Hitch frighten her, when she isn’t giving enough fear to her impending murder in the infamous shower sequence – but he has frightened her in the name of art, so the negativity of character is undermined by the requirements of art. 

There are other moments that suggest Hitch might have a problem with women.  In Hitchcock, Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh is talking with Jessica Biel's Vera Miles, trying to find out why this actress who was meant to be Hitchcock’s next big star (following 1956’s The Wrong Man) is being side-lined in Psycho.  Miles tells Leigh it is because she got pregnant, that she wanted a family.  Leigh asks Hitch about it, and he asks with enormous sadness in his eyes, “Why do they always leave me?”  The undercurrent is him asking Leigh not to leave him too.  She will, though, for she too has a life outside Hitch: a marriage to Tony Curtis, and a two year old daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis.  The heart of this sequence, and reasoning, seems psychologically flawed however: if Hitch side-lined Miles because she started a family, why has he allowed himself to use a woman already nine years into a famous marriage, and already a mother?  In the film he uses her because his wife, Alma, says she will be perfect.  In The Girl, when he and Alma are casting about for someone to use in The Birds, it is Alma who suggests Tippi Hedren.  Are these films suggesting Hitch could only fall for those women that his wife had first approved?  Whatever the darkness is that occasionally bubbles away at the edges of Gervasi’s film, it is muted by the positive portrayal it wishes to make of the man: this is a film made by a Hollywood production company, The Montecito Picture Company, and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and aimed at the Academy Award crowd.  It is a back-slap of a movie to Old Hollywood, and an affirmation that belief in yourself and your work will see you rewarded in the end: everybody lives happily ever after.

The Girl, however, takes us further than the playful Hitchcock, into the dark heart of the man.  This Hitchcock is a sexual predator.  In a car ride to the location shoot for The Birds, Hitchcock attempts to rape Tippi Hedren.  It is a shocking claim, but one whose authenticity has to be allowed as The Girl has been made with Hedren’s blessing.  In this film, Toby Jones plays Hitchcock as a seething, power-hungry, megalomaniac genius; he sits hunched in his chair, forcing Hedren to do take after take, allowing her to be brutalised and injured on camera, until she is broken and bleeding and catatonic. 

Tippi Hedren, like Janet Leigh, was never a truly great screen presence.  She made little impact after her two films with Hitchcock, appearing in a lot of mediocre television.  Like Janet Leigh, she was a good actress hindered by some bad film choices, but with both women, Hitchcock found a way of making them great, and for them to shine brilliantly.  Most famously, and in a moment chillingly recreated in The Girl, Hitchcock forced Hedren to endure five days of attack by real life birds (after being assured they would be mechanical) who clawed at her, but whose beaks were closed with elastic bands.  Cary Grant visited her on set and said that she was the bravest actress he knew.  On the fifth day, she was clawed close to her eye, and she suffered a breakdown on set.  Ordered to take a week off by the doctor, she endured nightmares of attacking birds.  The question becomes why was this apparent psychological and physical torment necessary?  Hitch clearly hadn’t got the scene he wanted.  He wanted to see the sheer mental and emotional turmoil of this terror destroying Melanie Daniels (the character Hedren was playing).  Did Hedron deserve to endure this torment to achieve Hitchcock’s art?  Undoubtedly not – but the scene, when seen in the finished film, is what is needed: we can see Melanie Daniels suffering and dying inside.  It is the same motivation as him attacking Johansson’s Janet Leigh in Hitchcock.

One would think that Hedren would have left Hitchcock after suffering a sexual assault by him, and the psychological assault of appearing in his film – but she still with him a year later making Marnie.  Marnie is a difficult film: Donald Spoto claims it is Hitchcock’s last great masterpiece, others feel it is an awkward watch.  It is a film interested in sex and sexual violence, and in frigidity and rape.  It fits with The Girl’s thesis that Hitchcock was a sexual predator – and Marnie does feel a very personal film, much like Frenzy, Hitchcock’s genuine last great masterpiece, and another film about sexual violence – but it serves as a great disconnect between what we have learned of the man through these films, and what we know of the man from others.  Here it should be noted that Kim Novak, another Hitchcock blonde, and the star of the film that is described as Hitchcock’s truest fantasy and the most autobiographical in terms of mood, and a family friend, Nora Brown, refute the portrayal of Hitchcock in The Girl.  The Girl’s presentation of events is that Hedren didn’t have the emotional and psychological power to break her contract with Hitchcock at the end of The Birds, but that she did by the end of Marnie.  But what has changed in that time?  He was brutal to her in the making of The Birds, and she stays.  He propositioned her near the end of Marnie and she turned him down and walked.  The Girl fails to dramatize the internal thoughts processes that led to Hedren changing her mind, and finding strength, leaving the film with a hole in its centre.

Alfred Hitchcock

So we have two films about the same man, but both are different.  He is a Jekyll and Hyde figure, shifting between macabre humour and macabre action.  He is a good husband in one, a poor one in another. Hitchcock, the film, shows us that he loves his wife dearly – he is driven into madness when he discovers she might be having an affair – but in The Girl he loathes her.  He tells Hedren he never really loved her.  There is a moment late in The Girl, when Hitch is bought home a little drunk, and he tells his friend that he has not had sex in a long time, and that he no longer gets erections.  What that moment tells us is that these unhealthy fixations with his movie blondes are not about sex, but about desire.  I wondered, as I watched him torturing Hedren with repeated attack after attack by birds, whether Hitch was self-flagellating himself for having these desires: it was not Hedren that was suffering, but him, at least in his head. 

Neither film gives us a true portrait of Alfred Hitchcock – that is impossible, especially in just 90 minutes of screen time – and neither film agrees on who and what the man really was; with The Girl especially appearing like an attack on a man who can no longer defend himself.  Also both fail to show something vitally important to the understanding of this man.  He married Alma Reville in 1926, and she was his wife until his death in 1980.  Fifty four years of marriage is a long time, and to have lasted so long there must have been love and respect, and dedication to him.  In his early days, an actress, Clare Greet, appeared in six films he directed, more than any other actress, and she believed in him so much she used some of her own money to fund Number 13.  These expressions of love and dedication are not something the figure shown in The Girl would ever receive.  Nobody doubts Alfred Hitchcock had a dark side, and that he was a troubled genius, but he must have had kindness in him too, to inspire such dedication in others, and one should remember such things when they watch either of these two films.

The Girl is now available on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Hitchcock is on limited release in the US and will be in UK cinemas in early 2013.

1 comment:

  1. Superb article ! As a deep admirer of Hitchcock's craft and filmic ethos, the revelations which became more obvious after his death , significantly unsettled me, and your article with its honest detailed analysis, provides a cold splash of unbiased deeper perspective. Especially your finisher which underlines the world of greys we live in. Excellent cross-comparison and critique again! Tc