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Hitchcock and the Girl


Hitchcock and TippiHitchcock and Tippi

Alfred Hitchcock has been the subject of two recent films, released only a few months apart: Julian Jarrold's television project The Girl (2012) and Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock (2012). This kind of "synchronized" interest in the "master of suspense", in the very year when Vertigo (1958) finally dethroned Citizen Kane (1941) from the top of the most influential lists of movies of all time, ran by the British monthly Sight and Sound, must be significant. In academic and serious film criticism, the author of Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960) is unrivalled when it comes to the hermeneutic focus and interpretational concentration that have been lavished even on the minute details of film text. While on some historically relevant directors (Murnau, Rossellini, von Sternberg) there are only a few English language publications available, Hitchock is the subject of at least couple of books every year, a tendency that is unlikely to be disrupted in the foreseeable future.

However, when it comes to general public, Hitchcock is far from the status of the most famous and recognizable world director that he enjoyed during the 1950s, in good part thanks to the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955). As Thomas Leitch pointed out in his essay "Hitchcock and Company", if we take Google search as a parameter of popularity and presence in the mainstream, Hitchcock lags behind Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg. Does that mean that the new generations of film audiences still need some kind of fictional stimulant in order to pay attention to the legendary author, because his "case" contains elements (besides implied cinephile nostalgia) which could be, if for completely wrong reasons, intriguing to the prevailing esthetical and political tastes of today?

With its rhetoric thus established, Hitchcock is able to engage in a play with quotations, apocryphal stories and (un)verified legends from the Psycho set, to such an extent that even the less informed viewer would hardly believe that Hitchcock spied on actresses through a wall as Norman Bates did, or whirled the knife at Janet Leigh (a spectacularly precise performance by Scarlett Johansson!) and even less that he was in a telepathic relationship with Ed Gein.

Both The Girl and Hitchcock deal with the great director during what was creatively and personally one of the most turbulent period of his life, and which reflected strongly in the three films where his auteur poetics culminates: Psycho, The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). But, Jarrold's and Gervasi's approach is symptomatically disparate, in terms of the aesthetic-personal axis: it is the very quality of the said reflection – how and how much of biography features in his film – that essentially determines The Girl and Hitchcock as projects that operate on completely different levels, even though both films very liberally, not to say irresponsibly and unprofessionally, take over and interpret "facts" from Hitchcock's life.

It should be said upfront that both films – each based on a book, Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of "Psycho" by Stephen Rebello – openly forge and distort data and testimonials, but their intentions are different: while The Girl shamelessly adds and exaggerates certain allegations, Hitchcock rather boldly invents and projects something that ultimately never happened, that is, it couldn't have happened in such a way. Although both films are far from a plausible description or insight in the mystery of Hitchcock, why is then The Girl only a revolting pasquinade, and Hitchcock most certainly clumsy, but at least interesting attempt to "bring closer" the notoriously reclusive and reserved director? Why is The Girl nothing but an unreconstructed, sorely tendentious defamation, profiteering at the time of great sensitivity when it comes to issues of abuse of women (in and by the film industry), and Hitchcock – an ultimately flawed project – is an almost ludicrous "reconstruction" of Hitchcockian aesthetic points and moments, even though the quantity of misinformation, wrong interpretation and unfettered falsehood is immeasurably greater in this film?

The Girl is dealing with the "tumultuous" relationship between Hitchcock and his last great movie star and blonde, Tippi Hedren, the heroine of The Birds and Marnie. Yet, Jarrold and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes do not even try to offer a compelling description that would show at least a part of ambivalent, mixed feelings between the famous director and the actress, who was preparing to become a definite Hitchcockian model blonde. The Girl embarrassingly, one-sidedly and idiotically tendentiously builds an image of Hitchcock as a pervert predator whose obsession towards Hedren exceeds the limits of understandable behavior of a man in love. According to a number of plausible reports, Hitchcock was indeed somewhat overly obsessed with Hedren, occasionally engaging in something that today might be called sexual harassment, but in that relationship, physical aggression never existed.

However, for Jarrold and Hughes the thing by itself is not condemning, and with nothing to support it, they aggravate the situation and promote excess where there was only a vague suggestion. We find the most evident example in the painful scene in which Hitchcock (a pathetically unconvincing Toby Jones) attacks Hedren (Sienna Miller, who neither looks nor talks as the famous actress).

Evidently, it wasn't enough for the authors of this travesty that they have based the film on Spoto's book (which was by the way, the most controversial overview of Hitchcock's career), without consulting other resources, they have passionately decided to go a step further: in Spellbound by Beauty, Hedren herself will say of the whole situation that it was just a "violent embrace", while in The Girl we have a direct attempt of rape. With this kind of a grotesque misstatement of facts, the aim is not only to place Hedren as an absolute victim (which she was, but not in such drastic measures), but primarily to present Hitchcock as a genuine sexual monster. Thus, The Girl reaches the perverse paradox that, out of all possible exemplars of sexual abuse in film industry, one almost virginal director is chosen as a paradigm of Hollywood exploitation. Certainly, the film, even biographical, doesn't always have to meet with the standards of objectivity and true-to-lifeness, it is understood that certain amount of "imaginary" material must be manifested in any artistic setting, but all interventions done by The Girl – even towards the source which the incriminating information is derived from – have no other goal but entirely shameless denunciation, subsequent slander of the famous director. As such, The Girl is nothing but a worthless piece of garbage.

On the other hand, in Hitchcock the falsehood is obvious, stretched half-truths and a number of correct anecdotes still brought closer to the wider cinephilie and metapoetic purpose. The results are, undoubtedly, problematic, but Gervasi's method to try – even in a simplified way – to read Hitchcock's life from his films, to reduce and translate the auteur cinematic opus, has a specific relevance, given that with it, the fictional intonation is immediately emphasized, unlike the supposed "mimesis" which the The Girl impudently propagates. Hence, when we see Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) in the film for the first time it is not in a realistic setting, but in his famous role as an announcer – all followed with the Gounod's musical theme "Funeral March for a Marionette" – from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. We are, that is, facing a public persona, a jovial and ironic figure that was in fact Hitchcock's construction and creation, a mask that was effectively hiding an intimate side of a genius.

With its rhetoric thus established, Hitchcock is able to engage in a play with quotations, apocryphal stories and (un)verified legends from the Psycho set, to such an extent that even the less informed viewer would hardly believe that Hitchcock spied on actresses through a wall as Norman Bates did, or whirled the knife at Janet Leigh (a spectacularly precise performance by Scarlett Johansson!) and even less that he was in a telepathic relationship with Ed Gein.

What is at work in Hitchock is an aggressive and sometimes meaningless need to subordinate all aspects of the film to a rather literal cinematic contextualization and motivation, which some times generates results that are in poor taste, but at least there is no appetite for intentional affront. Veracity of the event is valorized only through their amenability to the rapid cinematic (mis)use, in order to create a coherent image where (non)diegetic details from Hitchcock's life and his films coincide and overlap. For example, when Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) – at the time still in closet – is interviewed by Hitchcock for the role of Norman Bates, he predictably glorifies Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951), the Master's films about homosexuals. Based on the director's famous statement from the interview with Truffaut, "Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ", Gervasi "makes it literal", so Hitchcock conducts – with Herrmann's screaming violins – the audience which is terrorized during the famous scene in the shower. That would, in a nutshell, be the symbolic economy of Hitchcock: a hope that even invented or absurd situations and episodes still reveal and illustrate some "deeper" truth about the director himself.

The Girl is dealing with the "tumultuous" relationship between Hitchcock and his last great movie star and blonde, Tippi Hedren, the heroine of The Birds and Marnie. Yet, Jarrold and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes do not even try to offer a compelling description that would show at least a part of ambivalent, mixed feelings between the famous director and the actress, who was preparing to become a definite Hitchcockian model blonde.

This is especially evident in the treatment of Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock's wife. Her love affair with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), at least according to the claims of Patrick McGilligan in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, happened in the late 1940s not in the late 1950s, and her influence on the Psycho script, as all Hitchcock's biographies testify, as well as the recently published book on the director's relation with screenwriters, Scripting Hitchcock: "Psycho", "The Birds", and "Marnie" by Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick, was minimal. But, for Gervasi, this exaggeration in emotional and artistic sense has a dramaturgic function through condensation, with which, yet again, the metafilmic perspective is emphasized.

Finally, if The Girl has no other but a repulsive tabloid agenda, then Hitchcock – in the scope of its rhetoric – wants to "normalize" the image of the director (even though his sadistic, neurotic and dark dimension is indicated), exactly in the way of classical Hollywood cinematography, that is, by (re)constituting diegetic couple through a romantic view (which is, by the way, an aesthetical procedure that gained its most consequential Oedipal realization in North by Northwest (1959), the film that followed Psycho). How a couple is formed, inside the forces of destined arbitrariness and suspense, is actually Hitchcock's obsessional subject, and Hitchcock essentially is – with a "relaxed" approach to facts and happy ending in marriage – primarily a sort of a comedy of remarriage. That is why Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin should have taken it to the end: the film – based on the image of director's only screwball comedy and at the same time his weakest American film – should have been more precisely called: Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock.


Aleksandar Bečanović
translated by Marko Jusič

 

 

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