F Scott Fitzgerald claimed that, back in 1920, he'd tried to persuade DW Griffith that the film industry was a wonderful subject for the cinema. Griffith laughed at the idea, but not for the first time Fitzgerald was proved right.
He went on to write a series of stories and a great unfinished novel on Hollywood, and since the silent era there has been no end to the making of movies about movie-making. Particular interest has recently been shown in Alfred Hitchcock, one of only two movie directors whose faces are immediately recognisable to popular audiences the world over. The other, of course, is Hitchcock's fellow working-class Londoner, Charlie Chaplin.
Last summer, Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo was voted the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound's worldwide poll of movie critics, and every year there are several new critical and biographical studies. In the past 20 years, Hitchcock has been at the centre of a play (Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde), a British novel (Nicola Upson's Fear in the Sunlight, a thriller set in the 1930s) and three films. All assume a widespread interest in his character and work, and indeed view them as inseparable. Why is this consummate, apparently extrovert artist so admired? Probably because of the ease with which he takes us to our vulnerable dark sides then brings us back to normal life, chastened and restored.
The first of these films, Robert Lepage's adventurous The Confessional, made a relatively minor impact, no doubt because it was largely in French and concerned the connections between a family in Quebec City and I Confess, the film Hitchcock was shooting there in 1952. Hitch was played by Ron Burrage, an actor who has carved out a career as a physical and vocal Hitchcock lookalike; only the late William Hootkins (who appeared on the London stage in Hitchcock Blonde) could match him for verisimilitude. The two latest movies, Julian Jarrold's TV film The Girl (shown on BBC2 last Christmas), starring Toby Jones, and Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins, feature interpretations of the Master by character actors rather than waxwork impersonations by would-be doubles designed to elicit laughs or gasps.
The Girl and Hitchcock are about productions of specific films in the late 1950s and early 60s, based on nonfiction works by people who knew Hitchcock. Historically and thematically they are almost inseparable, and likely to invite comparisons with each other for years to come. Hitchcock is based by its American screenwriter, John J McLaughlin (author of Black Swan), on Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Though at times he seems more like an overweight, middle-aged Neil Kinnock than the East End director, Hopkins captures the sad, insecure Hitch beneath the posed public persona that's half Dickens's Fat Boy "who wants to make your flesh creep" and half the urbane sophisticate who has the Times flown in from London daily. The scene is set by the corpulent Hitch lying in a bath reading a Times article about the challenge to his supremacy as "master of suspense" by European directors.
The narrative covers 18 months, starting with Hitch acquiring the rights to Robert Bloch's gothic horror novel as a vehicle to give his career a new lease of life and concluding with the film's triumphant popular (but not critical) success in the summer of 1960. It ends rather beautifully as he listens to the film from the foyer during the first performance and then wonders about his next movie, at which jocular point a raven flies in and lands on his shoulder, anticipating the trailer for The Birds. The Girl focused on Tippi Hedren and the making of The Birds and Marnie, drawing on three books by Donald Spoto that deal with Hitchcock's abusive treatment of Hedren on and off stage.
Hitchcock is concerned with the same bad dreams, guilty desires, egocentricity, lack of generosity and demonstrations of power that were central to The Girl. What is latent in Hopkins's performance became dangerously manifest in Jones's tragic portrayal of an artist no longer capable of sublimating his desires and frustrations. Hitchcock is both polished and crude, its accurate research not matched by original insight.
Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, the protector, helpmate and secret senior partner, is a key figure in both films and impressively played by two outstanding British actors. In The Girl, Imelda Staunton's Alma was steely, conventional, judgmental, the homely, motherly wife on whom Hitch relies but who cannot satisfy his passions. In Hitchcock, Helen Mirren is the beautiful, determined woman the director himself sees in Alma, a commanding, alluring figure. The sexuality of Alma is a central issue Hitchcock scholars have tended to skirt around.
Lighter in tone than The Girl, Hitchcock is a portrait of an extraordinary artist, a crafty hoodwinker triumphing over the unimaginative front-office suits and bureaucrats of the studios and the censorship boards. It gives a revealing picture of the last days of the big studio system and the old production code but doesn't explain why Psycho was a landmark in 20th-century popular culture. It does, however, take liberties with the facts. It gives prominence, for instance, to an affair that may have taken place between Alma and the family friend, Whitfield Cook (a deeply unsympathetic performance by Danny Huston). But it took place in 1949, when the pair were scripting Stage Fright and Hitch was in England, not in 1959. (The source is Patrick McGilligan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Life of Darkness and Light.)
Even less persuasive is the reductive fashion in which the film makes Ed Gein, the bucolic real-life serial killer who inspired Bloch's Norman Bates, enter into Hitchcock's mind as a doppelganger. On the other hand, the actors playing Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy), Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) make convincing bricks with the few straws they're given.
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