To many of us the new films about Alfred Hitchcock may come as a great surprise. We may not have anticipated, when walking into the theatre, that our perception of him would be so radically altered. By the end of Hitchcock and The Girl, the man who charmed us so often with his baby cheeks and his murderous wit emerges as a deeply troubled figure, even a pathetic one at times. Both films offer intimate portraits of the filmmaker’s private life, exposing the mania and obsessive behavior that were so profoundly a part of his personality. Yet, however disagreeable these films’ depictions of the corpulent “master of suspense” may be, they succeed in humanizing a figure that has remained, up until now, a droll icon to the general public.
The newly-released Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, begins in the final phase of Hitchcock’s career, after the completion of his forty-seventh film, North by Northwest (1959). Desperate to find a new project—something “fresh” and “different”—Hitchcock becomes obsessed with the story he eventually adapts into his groundbreaking film, Psycho (1960). Displeased with the gruesome subject matter, Paramount Studios refuses to fund the project, so Hitchcock agrees to fund the project himself. Between the stresses of the filmmaking process; the threat of financial ruin; and a nagging suspicion that his wife, Alma Reville, is having an affair; he descends into a world of delusion and torment. Gervasi depicts this in a series of experimental scenes, in which Hitchcock fantasies about the tormented protagonist of Psycho, Norman Bates.
Hitchcock’s fixation on the macabre proves a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows him to evoke moments of profound horror in his films, such as the infamous shower scene in Psycho. On the other hand, it leads him to a morbid understanding of both himself and the world around him. His mastery of all things horrifying and mysterious is both his biggest asset and biggest burden.
Julian Jarrold’s The Girl, a television film produced by HBO films, begins exactly where Hitchcock leaves off, at the onset of Hitchcock’s production of The Birds (1963). The Girl is considerably darker in tone, and presents the film director as both ruthless and manipulative. After casting Tippi Hedren, a relatively unknown actress, as the film’s leading lady, Hitchcock begins to make lewd passes at her during production. He exploits Hedren’s vulnerability—her desire to become a successful actress and her dependence on Hitchcock to make such a desire a reality—in order to satisfy his own ends. Ultimately what ensues is a disturbing power struggle between an aspiring actress and a perverted and domineering director.
Like Hitchcock, The Girl presents striking parallels between the filmmaker’s work and personal life. In the film, Hitchcock molds the young, beautiful Hedren into a real-life version of the mortified victim she plays in The Birds. He goes to all lengths, often using cruel tactics, to capture a truly terrified woman on screen. In one scene, Hitchcock asks an unsuspecting Hedren to pretend she is being attacked by a flock of vicious birds from within a phone booth; as Hedren begins acting, Hitchcock orders a crew member to thrust a model seagull at the phone booth, causing the glass the shatter, and sending Hedren into a veritable state of panic.
Both The Girl and Hitchcock also explore the director’s role as “the watcher”—as a man viewing life from the outside as it were. He is always, as the film puts it, “the man hiding in the corner with the camera, watching” menacingly. It is this very kind of voyeurism that films like Rear Window (1954) force us to engage in, as we join Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly spying on their suspicious neighbors. The spying that recurs in so many of Hitchcock’s films gains a kind of biographical significance, as we watch Hitchcock spying through doors and peep holes at various acquaintances in his own life.Making several references to the Pygmalion myth, The Girl identifies Hitchcock as a kind of cinematic sculptor who falls in love with his created art. And indeed, as the film progresses, Hitchcock develops a perverse and obsessive love for the tormented Hedren, demanding, at one point, that she make herself “sexually available” to him at “all times.” The Girl reveals how the same control that allowed Hitchcock to shape the contours of his films with precision and grace became an oppressive force to those nearest to him in his real life—to his wife, in Hitchcock; and to the figure of Hedren in The Girl.
Although we can hardly countenance Hitchcock’s behavior, the directors of both Hitchcock and The Girl compel us to sympathize with him. The pathos these films exude is derived largely from a paradox in Hitchcock’s person. In perhaps the most moving moment in The Girl, Hitchcock tells the then 24-year-old Sean Connery, who was playing Mark Rutland in Marnie (1964), that he would “give up everything if [he] could just look like him.” A certain desire to be watched, rather than watching, is suggested in these films—to be the handsome stranger who sweeps the dashing blonde off her feet, rather than the one who captures such an irresistible duo on film.
The real power of both Hitchcock and The Girl lies not in how they retell the events of Hitchcock’s life, but in how they critically analyze that life. Ultimately, they reveal how the complexities of his nature allowed him to produce the films he is so well known for today.