Hollywood spellbound by Hitchcock

With battling biopics, BFI honor, late helmer's back in public eye

Peter Debruge: Hollywood’s master showman

More than three decades after his death, Alfred Hitchcock is having quite a year.

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In July, the British Film Institute presented restorations of nine Hitchcock silents, followed by a three-month retrospective of the director’s work. The timing couldn’t have been better: At the height of all the Hitch hullabaloo, “Vertigo” topped the once-a-decade critics’ poll run by the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine, knocking “Citizen Kane” from its long-held perch as the greatest film of all time.

Not all the attention has been quite so favorable. On Aug. 1, the day of the Sight & Sound announcement, Tippi Hedren appeared at the Television Critics Assn.’s press tour to discuss “The Girl,” an unsettling HBO/BBC drama about her tempestuous dealings with Hitchcock while making “The Birds” and “Marnie.” At the time, I noted the irony of Hitchcock being saluted for “Vertigo” — by far his most personal and confessional work, the film in which he most directly acknowledged his desire to tame, control and possess his beautiful blonde muses — even as one of those muses was speaking none too flatteringly, about the collaboration that launched and torpedoed her career.

“The Girl,” directed by Julian Jarrold, is one of two pictures this season to turn the Master of Suspense’s behind-the-scenes drama into biopic fodder; the other is Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” a genial farce about his struggle to wrestle “Psycho” to the screen. Although wildly divergent in tone, emphasis and intent, both films take a special interest in the well-known matter of Hitchcock’s often smothering fixation with his leading ladies, turning the director into a drawling avatar of sexual repression and psychological instability. The viewer is left with the implication that no movies so brilliantly twisted could possibly have sprung from a well-adjusted mind.

And so, in this eerie confluence of reverent tributes and warts-and-all exposes — a phenomenon one might perhaps term Hitch-steria — we behold the curious spectacle of a great filmmaker’s legacy burnished in one breath and lightly besmirched in another. Insofar as no one is above reproach, there is nothing particularly wrong with this. Given Hitchcock’s sly awareness of his own legend and the deadpan glee with which he turned his sinister persona into a marketable signature, I suspect the director is not spinning in his grave so much as chuckling in it.

Or perhaps he’s smirking. Although marked by dishy details and adroit feats of actorish mimicry, neither “The Girl” nor “Hitchcock” rises far above the level of glib entertainment, much less to the rich level of their respective source texts. In seeking to illuminate the inner workings of creative genius, they achieve merely reductive imitation.

“Hitchcock” follows an ultimately uplifting arc, showing how the director (played by Anthony Hopkins) took a major risk on a movie he alone believed in, and wound up with an unprecedented B.O. triumph. “The Girl” traces a downward spiral from that triumph, as untold reserves of commercial and creative cachet led Hitchcock (Toby Jones) to become ever more maniacally exacting, according to the film.

Jarrold’s movie depicts Hitchcock making a clumsy pass at Hedren (Sienna Miller), and shows his wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton), to be long-suffering to the point of pathetic complicity in her husband’s machinations. Gervasi’s film casts Helen Mirren as Alma and elevates her to the role of wise, faithful collaborator; it dramatizes the Hitchcocks’ marriage in an ultimately admiring, even inspiring light.

Each film restages a famous setpiece to imply that Hitchcock’s personal demons are getting the better of him on the set. In “Hitchcock,” it’s “Psycho’s” shower scene, as the director vents his personal frustrations by slashing wildly at a screaming Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). In “The Girl,” it’s the grueling five-day attic shoot in “The Birds,” during which Hedren is repeatedly attacked by the genuine articles as Hitchcock coolly calls for retake after retake.

This moment in “The Girl” is drawn from Hedren’s recollection; the equivalent moment in “Hitchcock” is a frivolous construct, which sums up the essential difference between these two interpretations. “The Girl” may present Hitchcock as a sexually repressed sadist and control freak, but it also has a healthy respect for his filmmaking mastery, and it’s mature enough to consider that even a monster might well command our respect. “Hitchcock,” though played in a comparatively benign tone, is more problematic; in attempting to humanize the director into easily relatable form, Gervasi’s film seems to betray a certain level of discomfort with the very notion of genius.

The reality is that genius, as Hitchcock embodied it, makes its own set of rules, and offers neither apologies nor explanations. It brooks no interference, as the helmer showed in his storied 1940s clashes with David O. Selznick, who sought in vain to control this talented British upstart he had successfully lured Stateside. Hitchcock saw the potential for greatness in exploitation fare, shot in cheap black-and-white and without a patina of respectability. He was shameless enough to turn a speeding train into a droll sexual metaphor, and perverse enough to spoil a murder mystery halfway through, as he does in “Vertigo,” knowing that the question of whodunit can be a gateway into deeper, more perplexing mysteries.

Indifferently received on its 1958 release, “Vertigo” has been steadily creeping its way up in the film canon for years. Its Sight & Sound victory was hailed in many quarters (full disclosure: I voted for it), but drew backlash from others who feel that the movie, far from being the best of all time, isn’t even the director’s personal best.

To be sure, this isn’t Hitchcock’s most efficient or entertaining picture, and it will never entirely satisfy those for whom such qualities represent the benchmark of cinematic achievement. “Vertigo” takes its time and follows its own logic; its pleasures are as difficult as they are finally indelible. With its deliberate, dreamlike rhythms and staggeringly cruel subtext, it is equal parts mastery and madness, a film that seems to have been conceived with the utmost control, and yet also in a state of wild, feverish abandon.

This is the film into which Hitchcock, knowingly or not, poured all his ideas and insecurities about the male ego confronted with the ultimate object of desire; viewed almost 50 years later, it speaks more powerfully than ever about the creator’s need to worship, possess and finally destroy his most sublime creation. More than “The Girl” or “Hitchcock,” “Vertigo” leaves us with the troubling, tantalizing suggestion that we do in fact know this man — maybe a bit too much.