By a strange coincidence, in the space of mere weeks, two separate films have popped up to tackle the same subject: the life and curious mind of Alfred Hitchcock. One, The Girl, is a BBC/HBO effort that appeared on cable TV; the other, Hitchcock, opens theatrically on Friday. Both show the director hard at work forging a movie – principally The Birds in the former, Psycho in the latter. Both are based on books – Donald Spoto’s Spellbound by Beauty, Stephen Rebello’s The Making of Psycho. Yet each paints a portrait of the director so diametrically different that set side by side – Alfie in white hat, Alfie in black hat – it’s like seeing a photograph and its negative. What’s it all about, indeed. Let’s find out.
Anthony Hopkins handles the portrayal in Hitchcock and, although squeezed into a much more sedate script, does a professional job with his usual panache. Toby Jones plays him in The Girl, which bring us to another odd coincidence. Seven years ago, in an eerily similar set of parallel releases, Jones vied with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in duelling Truman Capotes. He may have won that set-to; he definitely wins this one, but only because Jones gets to play the dark Alfie, a truly venal fellow. How dark? With apologies to Hopkins, this borders on Hitch as Hannibal – yes, as in Lecter.
In Hitchcock, Alfie skirmishes with the studio and the censors, yet his real fight is with his inner demons. He’s just a faltering old guy, preyed upon by eroding confidence and encroaching age. In The Girl, Alfie is the demon, no longer the prey but the big bad predator. As the title suggests, his target is the actress Tippi Hedren, who commits the unpardonable sin of refusing to join him on the casting couch. He ogles her, he stalks her, he jumps her on the back seat of his limo, he plies her with champagne and a rich feast of filthy limericks and then, vindictively, he sics real birds on her in that famous attic scene.
Laughably, all this is presented as a case of unrequited love for a younger woman by a powerful man who, at one meant-to-be-poignant juncture, drunkenly confesses: “I can’t get it up now.” Powerful then, but not potent. Less laughably, Jones gets down low enough to infuse the portrait with a palpable and memorable creepiness. In fact, a comparison can be drawn to his work in Infamous, the Capote film. Once again, a disturbed artist manipulates his star subject to both aesthetic and besotted ends. Hey, maybe that’s another movie exercise in revisionist history: Capote invites Hitch to his masked ball. Masks drop, sparks fly.
Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh is just a bit player in Hitchcock, there to occupy the shower and sprinkle a little praise on her director’s on-set behaviour. Thinking back to Touch of Evil, she assures us: “Orson Welles was so much worse.” As the principal victim, Sienna Miller’s much-abused Tippi is a whole other story. Literally bloodied and scarred, she suffers through her predators both winged and human, suffers some more in Marnie, then bolts from her contract exhausted but free at last – escaping her demon at the price of obscurity. Last shot: Tippi is finally smiling, Hitch is still pining.
Spouse Alma is the main attraction in Hitchcock, where creepy unrequited love gives way to the classic reciprocal brand. There, she’s his rock, his fortress, and Helen Mirren makes her smart and cinematically savvy and sexy too. In The Girl, Alma settles for smart and cinematically savvy – then again, she’s played by Imelda Staunton. Here, the wife looks on from the periphery, fully aware of hubby’s malfeasance and Tippi’s plight, but refusing to intervene, content to watch another gorgeous blonde discover her place in the pecking order.
Still, in the matter of sex, Staunton’s Alma certainly knows the score. Catching Hitch in mid-phone call, lusting after his prey, she stares in disgust before launching this poison dart: “If she dropped her knickers, you’d run a mile.” Gotcha.
Who knows? Wearing a white hat or black, whether a crime or misdemeanour, guilt is a moving target at the best of times. However, on that very question, this much is sure: Each film is flagrantly, often risibly, guilty of the biographical fallacy, of confusing the work with the worker and the artist with the art. In Hitchcock, he’s as flawed and vulnerable as the victims in his films; in The Girl, he’s as scary and heinous as the villains.
Here’s the difference, though. At his finest, with his comedy no less than his suspense, Hitchcock was the master of the implicit. He only used the sharp blade of insinuation. By contrast, in both these biopics, a surgical director celebrated for his scalpel is repeatedly bludgeoned with the flat hammer of explicitness. And that really hurts – not just Hitch but, more to the point, us.