Spielberg. Tarantino. Romero. Cronenberg. Miyazaki. DeMille. There’s a small band of directors whose names stand beside if not above their works. People know them, and not just intelligent cineastes like us, True Believers , but the Ordinary Folk as well. If they’re lucky, their names may even become adjectives to describe the films they become most famous for.
But there’s one name on that exclusive list that stands head and shoulders above the rest, and is of particular interest to the acolytes of horror: Alfred Hitchcock. French legend Francois Truffaut once remarked, “It was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes…It occurred to me that in Hitchcock’s cinema…to make love and to die are one and the same.”
He started in Britain making silent movies, eventually moving into talkies before coming to America, though his fame really took off in America with his television show, his portly profile becoming a trademark. He directed more than 60 movies in a career that spanned almost as long, and though nominated six times for a best Director Oscar, never won one. He did get an Irving Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1967 Oscars, delivering what is still the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history: “Thank you.” He was not a sociable man, preferring to stay at home with his wife Alma, though he was fond of practical jokes on the set, often learning of a star’s phobia and ensuring they found said object in their dressing rooms, even if they were spiders or rats. He was knighted in 1980, and died the same year.
He directed films in nearly every genre, though he was most famous for his thrillers, and he loved to experiment with new techniques or gimmicks. Many of Hitchcock’s films have one-word titles – REBECCA, LIFEBOAT, ROPE, VERTIGO, PSYCHO, MARNIE, FRENZY – a deliberate action because he felt that it was uncluttered, clean and easily remembered by the audience. Most of his movies are in the Top 100 films ever made.
Two movies of his are of particular interest for this article: 1960’s PSYCHO, and 1963’s THE BIRDS. I shouldn’t really have to elaborate on the importance of this movie to the horror genre, or of its origins with the unbelievably batshit murderer Ed Gein, via a novel by Robert Bloch. What I didn’t know until recently was that Hitchcock had difficulty in raising the budget for such a risky movie, eventually having to use his TV crew to film it, to help finance it personally and defer his standard $250,000 salary in lieu of 60% of the movie’s net profits – if any. His personal earnings from the movie eventually exceeded $15 million. Adjusted for inflation, that amount would now exceed $150 million (or five percent of the budget James Cameron has set aside for that giant platinum statue of himself for his bedroom).
Surprisingly, there have been no biopics on the man, and Hollywood usually loves to put its heroes up on display. Now, as what seems to happen in Hollywood, we get two at once (two asteroid movies, two volcano movies, two alien invasion movies, ain’t it always like that?): HITCHCOCK and THE GIRL. And because of this, I thought I’d combine both reviews into one. Sort of a Hitchock Hoagie.
The first, based on celebrity biographer Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is centred around the eponymous hero (Anthony Hopkins, from some cannibal movie whose name escapes me) at the time of his making, yes you guessed it, PSYCHO. In 1959, Hitchcock’s previous movie, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, had been successful, but many thought he should have been considering retirement. Not ready to get out of the business just yet, he bypasses proposals such as making the first Bond film in favour of Bloch’s book.
HITCHCOCK actually opens on a farm, where one yokel is seen killing another yokel with a shovel. The camera then pans over to Hitchcock, ala his introductions in his TV show, explaining that the killer we have just seen is Ed Gein, and though Bloch’s book only barely hints at the crazy shit that Gein got up to (there was no way in hell that “Hitch” – as his friends called him, could film Gein’s full insanities), but Gein’s inspiration remains strong.
This won’t be Gein’s only appearance; he’ll visit Hitch throughout the course of the movie, usually when he’s under stress. And this will be frequent as he continues to make PSYCHO. The Motion picture Production Code’s representative Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith, ROBOCOP) fights with him over every little detail regarding the lurid, bloody story, and the studio continually threatens to take over despite Hitch’s contract giving him total control.
Then there’s his long-time wife Alma (Helen Mirren, THE QUEEN). Alma was also his collaborator and unofficial partner, with perhaps just as much nous about the business as her husband (she was the one, for instance, who suggested killing off the leading lady a third of the way into the movie, and of using Bernard Hermann’s score in the shower sequence when Hitch just wanted screams). But Alma is stressed over continually being overlooked while Hitch got all the glory. She’s also less than pleased over his lecherous behaviour with his leading ladies, such as when they first meet Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson, THE AVENGERS). As a diversion, she begins collaborating with her screenwriter friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston, who played Colonel Stryker in XMEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) on his latest work, at his isolated beach house. There’s no indication that anything more happened – but tell that to Hitch’s suspicious mind, not helped by Gein appearing to him, taunting him to take action…
HITCHCOCK is a strong movie, helped by a very strong cast; Hopkins makes a suitably impressive job of portraying the iconic director, eschewing the broad mannerisms favoured by comedians and impressionists over the decades. Helen Mirren’s Alma is multilayered, showing the conflict between her love for her husband and her desire for respect for her own talents, and there’s definite chemistry between the two leads. The rest of the cast are fine as well. James D’Arcy (AN AMERICAN HAUNTING) is the spitting image of Anthony Perkins, and its nice that they touched on Perkins’ homosexuality, concealed at the time but useful for helping to convey a character with secrets. Jessica Biel (THE TALL MAN) made a convincing Vera Miles, Hitch’s previous protégé, now just working out her contract with him after he lost interest in her. And the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio, makes a nice appearance as screenwriter Joseph Stefano – wax on, wax off, Daniel-san! (Say that to him if you see him, I bet he never gets tired of hearing it)
At the end of the movie, Hitch appears to us, wondering what his next project could be. A large black bird appears on his shoulder. This leads us nicely into the second movie of this article: THE GIRL, a HBO and BBC co-production starring Toby Jones (STEPHEN KING’S THE MIST) in the lead, and an altogether more lurid portrait of the legendary filmmaker. The original short story, by Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, also filmed by Hitchcock), was set at an English coastal town under inexplicable siege by the birds, but Hitch transferred it to a California setting, starring the original time traveller, Rod Taylor, as well as Jessica Tandy, a young Veronica Cartwright, and Hitch’s latest leading lady, Tippi Hedren (here played by Sienna Miller). THE GIRL is based on Donald Spoto’s 2009 book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, which discusses Hitchcock and the various women who took leading parts in his films, and posits that Hitch’s infatuation with his leading ladies went further with Hedren into an obsession.
The California setting was partly inspired by a real-life incident in 1961 when the residents in the town of Capitola, California, awoke to find flocks of birds slamming into their rooftops and dying in the streets, possibly poisoned by eating amnesic shellfish. Hitch hired screenwriter Evan Hunter (whom you may know by his crime books under the pseudonym Ed McBain) to adapt the story, having collaborated with Hunter on his television show. He also forewent any incident music, making use of electronically-enhanced sound effects and sparse background music.
Hitch had also envisioned Grace Kelly in the lead, but Kelly had since married Prince Ranier of Monaco and became a princess. This, in his eyes, was obviously a betrayal, so he set his sights on another blonde, Hedren. Hedren, recently divorced and with a daughter Melanie (whom you may already know as Melanie Griffith) had only worked as a model until discovered by Hitch. He put her through a costly screen test, doing scenes from his previous films with Martin Balsam, signed her to a multi-year exclusive contract, and moulded her public image by overseeing her dress, grooming, means of walking and talking. For Hedren, wanting to be a star and be able to support her daughter, it was a dream come true.
That would change.
His attentions on her would increase, the humorous limericks he favoured with his crew would be filthy when they were alone, and during location shooting (which he hated doing, which is why he liked using rear-projection a lot in his films), he tried to molest her in the back of a car. She rebuffs him, but for the sake of her job and the conventions of the time has to find the strength to work with him the next day (I’m no expert, but I’m really hoping that this sort of thing doesn’t go on in filmmaking anymore. But somehow I doubt it).
Hitch, however, is seemingly bent on revenge for her rejection of him. In one scene where Hedren’s character is trapped in a telephone booth (kids, in those days a telephone booth was a fully enclosed box where you spend ten minutes using the rotary dial to input the number- never mind, you wouldn’t believe me) while the birds attack, Hedren is injured when a mechanical bird on a wire slams into the seemingly unbreakable glass on the booth – breaking it.
But the real horror comes when they filmed the infamous attic scene. Filmed back at the Universal-International studios, Hedren had been previously assured by Hitchcock that mechanical birds would be used (by the way, did you know that Disney Studios had done the special effects? That’s right, the MARY POPPINS crew also gave us a spoonful of terror with THE BIRDS). Instead, Hedren endured five full days of prop men, protected by thick leather gloves, emptying boxes of or flinging dozens of live gulls, ravens and crows at her (their beaks clamped shut with elastic bands). Again and again. In a state of exhaustion, when one of the birds gouged her cheek and narrowly missed her eye, Hedren finally sat down on the set and began crying, and a studio physician ordered a week’s rest for her, which Hedren said at the time was riddled with ‘nightmares filled with flapping wings’.
That’s suffering for your art.
The experience leaves her drained, but her next project with Hitch looked more promising: MARNIE, a psychological drama with Hedren in the title role as a repressed, emotionally-twisted thief discovered by her latest employer, played by Sean Connery, who eventually blackmails her into marriage – and in one notorious scene, commits marital rape, ‘for her own good’. Hedren at least doesn’t have to worry about bird attacks.
But she does have to worry about Hitch’s continued obsession with her…
As with HITCHCOCK, the cast of THE GIRL remains its strongest feature. Toby Jones, enduring four hours of makeup each day, does a very credible performance, though for me his physical stature is too slight even in a fat suit to give me a feel of this larger than life character. But what he lacks in height he makes up for with acting chops, investing his Hitchcock with vulnerability despite his alleged sordid actions. Sienna Miller provides a strong performance as well, as a woman wanting career and recognition but not at the cost her employer was demanding. THE GIRL focuses on these two (Hitchock’s wife in THE GIRL, played by Imelda Staunton, better know as the bitch Dolores Umbridge from the HARRY POTTER films, is a minor character here), and like HITCHCOCK offers some interesting information on the making of one of the man’s most famous films (though both suffer from not giving enough on them, for a film buff like me).
The sequences in Donald Spoto’s book regarding this period in Hitch’s career are based on interviews with Hedren, though her accounts are dispute by Hitch’s other leading ladies, like as Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint, who called Hitch a gentleman and a friend, whose attention to detail was simply a mark of his artistic meticulousness. Many others have criticised THE GIRL for this, especially as Hitchcock is not around to defend himself (though other critics have praised this as a more balanced viewpoint, and Jones’ Hitchcock is not exactly portrayed as a slavering monster). The real Tippi Hedren, who left the film business soon after when Hitchcock refused to release her from her contract, employ her or let her work elsewhere, gave THE GIRL her stamp of approval.
Was Hitchcock a genius? Undoubtedly. Did he harass and abuse Hedren? I don’t know. It could just be one woman’s word over so many others. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood has overlooked the actions of one of its leading lights (their shameful support of child rapist Roman Polanski being the nadir of such misguided solidarity).
Of the two movies, HITCHCOCK might be the preferable one for a better look at the filmmaking process, but I don’t want to denigrate the superb performances given by Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in their respective roles.
Here’s the trailer for HITCHCOCK:
And here’s the one for THE GIRL:
Hey, go see both! Meanwhile, I’m gearing up for the next biopic: UWE BOLL: JUST HOW SHIT CAN THIS MAN GET?
Director: Sacha Gervasi (HITCHCOCK) Julian Jarrold (THE GIRL)
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars (both films)
Gore: 1 out of 10 skulls (both films)
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains (both films)
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien. The D is silent.