Friday, May 24, 2013

The Boy

We always knew that Alfred Hitchcock was a pervert. It was simply a difference of degree, not of kind. So many of his movies are about perverts - who also happen to be murderers - that it became obvious as he got older that he identified more closely with them instead of with the James Stewart/Cary Grant/Henry Fonda heroes. Perversion was his true métier.

So the HBO movie The Girl (2012), based on the account of a witness to and a victim of old Tubby's more unseemly advances came as no surprise. It is, nonetheless, irresistible for any cinephile anxious to see Hitchcock's completely overwrought edifice chipped away: a personal account of the behind-the-scenes/behind-the-camera drooling of the Master of Suspenders over pretty Tippi Hedren, whom he made the star of two of his last highly-regarded movies.

Hitchcock prided himself on his knowledge of his audience. He was famous for calling actors "cattle," and infamous for regarding his audience as a flock of sheep. He knew exactly how to make an audience squirm, jump, bite their nails, and - crucially - grab their genitals. No other filmmaker had such a talent for making crime sexy. He knew that a suave, debonair criminal had a much greater chance of success than a creepy, uncouth one. I get the feeling that Rebecca was probably the favorite of his Hollywood movies because we aren't sure that Cary Grant isn't trying to murder Joan Fontaine until the last reel.

We never had to consult a psychologist to guess that his obesity gave Hitchcock a complex. His love of camera tricks - crane shots, impossible angles, action scenes in which people dangle from the heights of the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore - not to mention his fixation on studio shooting, leaving the location shooting to second units and using rear-screen projection almost obsessively - clearly was liberating for a man who didn't care to move about much. Rear Window, in which the hero (James Stewart) is incapacitated by a broken leg, is a fat man's fantasy. The spying into his neighbor's private lives was borderline criminal, but great fun for Hitchcock.

But for all the leering going on behind the camera, Hitchcock actually succeeded in eliciting an excellent performance from Tippi Hedren. She never acted before The Birds (1963) and went on a long hiatus after Marnie (1965). Hedren claimed it was Hitchcock's exclusive contract that sabotaged her career, but in her two movies for him, she was one of the few things worth watching.

The Girl has Toby Jones playing Hitchcock and Sienna Miller playing Hedren. At first, I found Jones to be too small for the role (Hitchcock once claimed he was 5 ft 8, but he was really a fraction shy of 5 ft 7). But Jones actually does a better job of impersonation than Anthony Hopkins did in the movie Hitchcock. Jones got the voice especially right.

The real casting mistake was Sienna Miller, who is pretty enough, but whose prettiness is of a different sort than Tippi Hedren's. Hitchcock certainly would never have looked twice at her. She doesn't suggest depths to her femininity or her sexuality. With Miller, it is all right there on the surface, "on the plate" as Hitchcock puts it, enticing but entirely lacking in mystery.

Hitchcock's long-suffering (an educated guess) wife, Alma comes off as something of a cipher in The Girl. Played by Imelda Staunton, she isn't given the credit due her for being Hitchcock's close collaborator up until her death two years before him. Only her unexplained departure in the movie, which apparently causes Hitchcock some concern, suggests the dimensions of their relationship. Much more room is given the woman in Helen Mirren's performance in Hitchcock. But then, Mirren is a scene-stealer even in the presence of Anthony Hopkins.

The Girl shows what a god Hitchcock was in Sixties Hollywood. Psycho had revitalized
his sagging career, and raised the bar for bloodiness (and bloodymindedness). He never learned how to drive a car (he was terrified of policemen), so in The Girl we see Toby Jones riding in the back of a chauffeur-driven Rolls. Hitchcock was 62 when principal photography started for The Birds. I watched it again recently and found it a sometimes excruciatingly methodical stylistic exercise. Like Psycho, it spends at least half its length reeling in a whopping red herring, dawdling over plots that are jettisoned as soon - or as late - as the action commences. There is a kind of elegance to the first halves of Psycho and The Birds that turns preposterously ugly the moment when Mother and the birds enter stabbing and biting. Hedren was traumatized by a week of shooting live birds being flung at her face on a soundstage, just so Hitch could get his sadistic kicks.

Glancing at Hitchcock's filmography, it's surprising to see how many misses there were, like The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Stage Fright, before arriving at the hits like Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, or the movie recently voted by a consortium of critics (who hadn't been introduced to one another) the "greatest film of all time", Vertigo. The only ones I would like to see again are The 39 Steps and The Wrong Man. Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut notwithstanding, Hitchcock was one of the best commercial film directors. Study his movies if you must, but don't come away from them talking about art. Such talk hasn't done anyone - least of all Hitchcock - a damn bit of good.

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