Mysterious king of mysteries

Second take

Mysterious king of mysteries

Two new feature films on Alfred Hitchcock — one starring Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense, and the other Toby Jones as the dark genius — and both are none too flattering.

After dozens of books on Hitchcock, scores of articles and several documentaries over the years, praising and evaluating the man and his work, finally there’s a dramatic, fictional film on him and it sears and scorches his reputation, showing him as a sadistic megalomaniac.

It’s not news of course, we knew this from all those years ago from Donald Spoto’s biographies, The Dark Side of Genius and Spellbound by Beauty. But still, when you see it dramatised in a film, it makes you go hmmmmm…he’s not just droll, he’s really dark.

The Girl, with Jones playing Hitch and Sienna Miller playing Tippi Hedren, is the darker of the two. It revolves around the making of The Birds, and shows how the director repeatedly tortured the actress on the sets. Hopkins’s Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho, and the rich collaboration on and off the sets he had with his wife Alma, played here by Helen Mirren. That sounds nice, but what actually happens is that Hitch is constantly jealous and controlling of his wife even as he obsesses over his leading ladies. Alma has a huge tolerance for his dark fantasies, but there are times when Hithcock stepped over the line, making her despair and run away.

He went too far with Tippi Hedren and that’s what The Girl remorselessly captures for us. When the film opens, Hitch is still mourning over not getting his favourite leading lady to star in his movies anymore — Grace Kelly. Grace has become a princess and doesn’t stoop down to do movies anymore. He’s been fixated with her as well as Ingrid Bergman. He’s just finished Psycho, his first really big box-office hit (Vertigo ‘the greatest movie ever made’ had been a big flop), and he’s stumbled on an idea to make another horror film — The Birds. Evan Hunter (alias Ed McBain) is writing the script for him. Hitch and wife Alma (here perfectly played by Imelda Staunton) are looking for a sensational actress to play the lead. The Hollywood grapevine is buzzing with the news that Hitch is on the prowl for a hot star.

Alma spots a model on television with no acting experience and thinks Hitch should check her out. The model’s name is Tippi Hedren. Tippi is called to his office, and she turns up thinking the studio wants her for some small part. She is delighted and shocked when she’s told it’s the lead role. “But everyone in Hollywood wants to play this!” she exclaims. She undergoes a screen test, where she has to deep kiss a stranger, an older man, as Hitch watches as a voyeur would, through a peep hole. Along with Tippi, you grow uncomfortable as Hitch refuses to say ‘Cut!’ And Tippi is forced to keep kissing the old man. The Girl is already signalling to us that that Hitch would like to do exactly that to her. Later, as they celebrate her as the new star of the movie, she says “I will be putty in your hands, Mr Hitchcock, you just wait and see!”, and the director smiles sinisterly as if to say, “more than you know, my dear, more than you know.”

Even before Tippi begins to spurn Hitchcock’s advances, he puts her through scenes that would make her or any actress nervous, and on the edge. The true horror on and off-screen begins with the famous scene when Tippi is attacked savagely by birds in the attic. Hitch had assured the actress that the attack would be faked, but when he says ‘Action!’ a flock of birds are goaded into pecking her. You can let one or even two takes go for true effect, but our dark genius relentlessly keeps repeating take after take for days until the actress is shattered, bleeding, and a nervous wreck. Hitch’s face is blank throughout. Hedren bounces back and decides she’ll somehow finish her scenes. It’s the evenings in her trailer, when Hitch comes over to drink, pretending nothing has happened on the sets, that unnerves her more. The outcome of all this, which looks sordid and sleazy at first, turns out to be something more, something deeper.

For the first time Hitch has been defeated, and by a total newcomer, a plain model. Alma asks H’s faithful secretary why Tippi is different, what makes her special, what does she have that all those stars her husband fixated on didn’t have, and Patty says something like, “She makes him feel he can’t hurt her, no matter what he does, he can’t know her.” And that’s what Tippi has been shrinking from each evening: the way Hitch wants to get inside her head, take over her, possess her without physically possessing her. Jones gives a superb performance as the great filmmaker riddled by his own demons, but Sienna Miller is remarkable as Hedren. I don’t know if that is the real Hedren, but it’s an unforgettable performance that grows richer and richer as the film progresses.

Anthony Hopkins’ performance in the other movie — one should say impersonation — is what it is meant to be: amusing, droll and larger than life. This is not the real Hitch, but the Hitchcock we know from all those posters and cameos and TV spots walking to the tune of Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette. Hopkins is fairly buried under makeup, but he can’t fully disguise his well-known voice, even though he tries often to sound like the original Hitchcock.

The movie is also less realistic than The Girl, more for our entertainment, and to relive the mythology of Psycho and present its making as if it were one more episode from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology. As his gifted wife and collaborator Helen Mirren gives an understated, no-frills performance, that is just as enjoyable, if not believable.

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