Early stills from two soon-to-be-released movies about Alfred Hitchcock suddenly have me in suspense. The first ones, from the provisionally titled Hitchock about the making of Psycho, show Sir Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit – with a silicone double chin, bald pate and made-to-measure suit – suggesting a corpulent penguin. Only Hopkins' proud bearing and knowing gaze save the costume from cruel mimicry. Scarlett Johansson looks typically delectable but less convincing as a curvier, poutier Janet Leigh.
The second batch are from The Girl, in which Sienna Miller stars as Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock's most notorious muse. Where Johansson is a steamy confection, Miller is a bony icepick – the perfect blank-eyed, pin-curled slate on which Hitchcock (and us) could project our fears. And Hedren's story was a nightmare indeed, at least where Hitch was concerned. After plucking Hedren from a soft-drink ad, he set about obsessively moulding the young glamour model as his personal muse and sexual plaything. Signing her up to an exclusive studio contract, he obsessively controlled her image, dictated her off-set wardrobe and even instructed the press to spell her first name in single quotes.
After starring in two of his greatest films (The Birds and Marnie) and fighting off an endless string of sexual advances, Hedren refused to work with Hitchcock again. The director threatened to ruin Hedren's career and, as she told the press a few years back, "he did – kept me under contract, kept paying me every week for almost two years to do nothing."
Early on in Marnie, the psychological thriller many critics consider to be Hitchcock's last masterpiece, there is a scene that sheds spooky light on the director's legendarily complicated relationship with the female sex. In it, our eponymous heroine is visiting her mother, an emotionally-manipulative Baltimore belle with a tongue as sharp as her brooch pin.
"I see that you've lighted up your hair, Marnie," her mother says appraisingly, but her daughter is already on high alert. Hedren stiffens up like a china doll about to crack.
"A little," she says cautiously. "Why? Don't you like it?"
The honey drains from her mother's voice. "No. Too-blonde hair always looks like a woman's trying to attract a man. Men and a good name don't go together."
Hitchcock, of course, was attracted to sexually remote blondes – Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint and Hedren among them. It was a casting pattern he later claimed in interviews was "not by design," but instead grew out of an effort to "avoid the obvious, voluptuous, sexy blonde" typified by other leading ladies of the time, Marilyn Monroe among them.
Instead, he was obsessed by so-called "decent girls," not the ones who oozed sex but those who withheld it – from men, from public-view and, most notably, from themselves. His heroines were erotic not in their abandon, but in their throat-constricting restraint. They were always warding off predators, eyes widening in slow gripping horror, flapping their hands around their faces and shrieking in a pornographic cries of terror.
The pleasures of the flesh were, for Hitchcock, something to be taken roughly from a woman rather than freely shared and enjoyed. He conveyed this through an ingenious array of visual horrors – horrors that have since embedded themselves in pop cultural history, not to mention our collective nightmares. Think of Janet Leigh's splattered hand sliding down the shower tiles in Psycho – the same hand we'd watched her use to lovingly clean and caress herself just moments before – or Hedren having her smooth skin pecked into a bloody hash in The Birds.
You wouldn't exactly describe him as a champion for equal rights, but Hitchcock's voyeuristic lens tells us more about our cultural obsession with beautiful women than all the venerable feminist film theorists put together. As Camille Paglia explained in a recent essay, published in advance of her talk at the British Film Institute's summer-long retrospective of his work, "Hitchcock's highly sexualized view of women is not politically correct …What he records is the agonized complexity of men's relationship to women – a roiling mass of admiration, longing, neediness and desperation. Heterosexual men instinctively know that women have magic. Gay men know it and, through high fashion, ingeniously enhance it. Drag queens heartily mimic it. Most heterosexual women keenly observe, appreciate and competitively monitor [it]. Only feminist critics, evidently, fail to see that magic – or they dismiss it as a product of social conditioning and commercial manipulation."
Was Hitchcock guilty of "commercially manipulating" his leading ladies into shimmering, quivering and screaming in terror the way they did? By most historical accounts, yes indeed. Does this make him a self-loathing, psycho-sexual sadist with a serious Oedipal issues to boot? Probably. Are his films any less genius as a result? Absolutely not.
It's not surprising that it would take a scary man to make such scary films.