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HBO's Creepy and Revealing Take on Hitchcock

HBO’s The Girl comes in a pregnant pause, just weeks after the Sight & Sound critics’ poll found Vertigo the best film of all time, and a month before the American opening of Hitchcock, where Anthony Hopkins will be Hitch and Helen Mirren his wife Alma at the time of the making of Psycho. That startling success came just before Hitch cast a model who had hardly acted before, Tippi Hedren, as the spoiled San Franciscan socialite whose playful impulse in buying a pair of lovebirds for a man who has mocked her seems to unleash the total and inexplicable malevolence of The Birds. The Girl has been thoroughly dismissed by most critics of TV movies. It has been lamented that Toby Jones can offer no more than a creepy impersonation of Hitch. It is said that Sienna Miller misses the unique but repressed persona of Hedren. So let me make two points: The Girl, written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by Julian Jarrold, is remarkable, disturbing and something Hitch would have understood. In addition, it insists quietly on a nagging question: why do we like Vertigo so much?

I don’t know how many people will be shocked by The Girl, but its portrait of Alfred Hitchcock is not pleasant or comfortable. Hitch was 61 when Psycho opened. This was his most audacious and subversive film, and his biggest hit, coming at the end of a decade that had seen Strangers on a TrainRear WindowTo Catch a ThiefThe Wrong Man, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. The range there is fascinating: the steady presence of mystery is slanted towards guilt, voyeurism, romance and humor, paranoia, and being on the brink of madness. That list of qualities omits Vertigo (the signal failure at the time) which has this in common with The Girl: it concerns a man who falls in love with an actress, but cannot realize that passion adequately.

Hitch had taken a wife when still young: her name was Alma Reville, and she had a notable career in the British film industry as a script girl. With marriage, she became Hitch’s steadfast assistant and collaborator, not least in seeing and having to ignore his many flirtations with the girls who were necessary to make a picture work. The Girl has Hitch saying Alma was the only woman he’d ever slept with, and I’m inclined to believe that. But that means his flagrant attraction to so many of his female stars was simply the fantasy of a man who could enjoy no greater sexual satisfaction than watching actresses do what he told them. Alfred and Alma were never as glamorous as their stars, and Hitch was notoriously overweight, with a face that settled in gloom and balefulness as he gazed upon beauty. You don’t have to trust the gossip. Rely on your instinct: the man is as crazy about Madeleine Carroll, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint as he is in love with staircases, tracking shots and commonplace, magical objects.

Success and aging may have combined to dispel Hitch’s caution (and shyness). He put Tippi Hedren under a personal service contract. He sought to remake her just as James Stewart redirects the second Kim Novak in Vertigo. And he touched her in brutal and ugly ways where his desire could not be separated from his power over her and the actress’s own timidity. He wanted her as his paramour and star, just as his old boss, David O. Selznick, had changed his own life with Jennifer Jones. This story comes from Hedren herself, and no Hitchcock partisan has ever disproved it, or really objected to it. It reached a climax of cruelty when the director subjected the actress to five days of filming as she was attacked by gulls and crows with sharp beaks. That breakdown is palpable in The Birds. In Marnie (the film that followed), Hedren played a woman who masks her sexual terror by a career of stealing.

This sounds like trashy stuff, and I have read one reviewer who warns that we may want to take a shower afterwards. In The Girl, Hedren does exactly that, in imagery meant to summon up Psycho. In other words, Julian Jarrold has made this a disturbing but plausible case study as well as a valuable piece of film commentary. We need not be surprised. Jarrold has directed a lot of television, and his credits include an episode of Red Riding as well as Becoming Jane (Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen) and the recent remake of Brideshead RevisitedThe Girl is made with great skill and sensitivity, and no one should be put off by the approach taken by Toby Jones in doing Hitch.

Jones has worked hard to acquire the bulk and the features, but he manages the voice effortlessly and that is a vital asset. He has decided (with his director) not to be or imitate Hitch. He has made a dramatic character, a strange genius and a man of great authority who is crippled by his handicaps. You will not like this Hitch, and if you need to admire artistic heroes then you’re in trouble. But if you seek insight into the films you will not be disappointed, and make no mistake: Jarrold has studied Hitch’s films and used them with great imagination. There is one scene involving a tracking back projection for Marnie (it goes behind the shot of the heroine riding her horse) that is brilliant. And in staging the opening shot of Marnie, Jarrold has delivered one of the sharpest insights into that odd film. At the end of The Girl, a title says Marnie was Hitch’s last masterpiece. I question that, but the argument doesn’t matter.

Sienna Miller is less convincing as Hedren, in part because there are times when she looks more like Kim Novak. In her two Hitchcock films, Hedren had a primness that spoke of inhibition and a voice that was guarded and cramped. There is a great moment where Hitch trains her in a line reading and she actually sounds like Hedren. But too often, Miller seems out of her depth or cut off, whereas I suspect the real relationship was very complicated and interactive. As for Alma, played by Imelda Staunton, there is far too little of her. It’s hard to determine in life whether Alma was just a wronged wife or a very skilled arranger of her husband’s neuroses. The Girl could have explored that issue far more usefully.

But the discomfort that attends The Girl should not be shrugged off. I think it’s intelligent and revealing of Hitchcock, and of the whole medium in its great age of fantasy. Hitch grew up with the movies and no one had a more instinctive grasp of the intricate tangles in watching film for a life. A double bill of Vertigo and The Girl cries out for showing. In which case there might be some critics who would retreat to the robust humanism of Orson Welles. You can say The Girl is creepy, but I think it was meant to be.