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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Hitchcock Nobody Wanted

What could poor Alfred Hitchcock have done recently to provoke such enmity more than 30 years after his passing? Sure, it's well-known that he was an obsessive control freak given to treating his actors like cattle and indulging his tastes for cool blondes, but why is he now suddenly the subject of two crappy biopics that do nothing to enhance the legacy of the Master of Suspense?

Name your poison — one has him depicted as a slobbering toad obsessing over his icy discovery; the other shows him as an oversized infant tortured by thoughts of his wife's infidelity and taking advice from a notorious serial killer.

Neither one is any damn good — and it's not nice to pick on someone who's not alive to defend himself.

HBO's The Girl centers around Hitch's obsession with Tippi Hedren, a model he happened upon by chance. While he is casting The Birds, wife Alma points out a pretty model on television and suggests her for the part of "the girl." Thus begins his fevered, wet-mouthed obsession with the unattainable actress, who is grateful for the opportunities he's giving her at the same time she's recoiling from his advances. In turns pursuing and punishing her, he looses real birds on her during the climactic attack scene, keeps her on edge with disgustingly ribald limericks and locks her in a seven-year contract to keep her from working for other directors.

This film is loaded with problems, not the least of which are the locations. It wasn't made anywhere near Hollywood, and the "studio" they keep pulling up to looks hilariously like a prison (the filmmakers may argue that it was intentional). And the Birds exteriors reminded me more of the White Cliffs of Dover than Bodega Bay.

Toby Jones (who also played Truman Capote in Infamous, one of two Capote biographies of the mid-2000s) bears little physical resemblance to Hitch, but at least sounds like him. Imelda Staunton is really quite good as his no-nonsense pepperpot wife Alma, as is Penelope Wilton playing his devoted assistant, Peggy Robertson. But Sienna Miller doesn't look or sound anything like Hedren, and she spends much of the film looking dazed, except — of course — during the requisite "bird flashback" scene.

The biggest problem with this film is that it's just plain dull. I can only imagine its intended target audience is old fat guys in love with beautiful, untouchable young women. And a closing title has the temerity to suggest that his second film with Hedren, the dull Marnie, is now considered his final masterpiece.

Wrong! Take a look at 1972's Frenzy again. Not only was the Master firing on all cylinders with this wonderfully sick dark comedy, he really gave full reign to his misogynistic feelings. Just check out the truly awful rape and murder of Barbara Leigh-Hunt..."Lovely....Lovely!"

Hitch's memory was desecrated again this year with Hitchcock, an alleged behind-the-scenes biopic about the making of Psycho. At the outset, when we see Ed Gein bash his brother's head in with a shovel, after which have Anthony Hopkins as Hitch mugging it up in a fat suit to welcome us to his movie, our hopes rise, as we think we're going to be treated to another genius faux biography along the lines of Ed Wood.

Then, when we start meeting the cast of his proposed new horror film, our anticipation increases even more. Though Scarlett Johannson looks nothing like Janet Leigh, she does a terrific job capturing her essence and matter-of-fact way of speaking. James D'Arcy, on the other hand, looks and sounds just like Anthony Perkins. Then the trouble starts...

Hopkins himself can't seem to rise above his enlarged self, playing Hitch as if he behaved in everyday life like he was introducing one of his television episodes, and when GILF Helen Mirren arrives on the scene in the role of Alma, all bets are off. Mirren is far too earthy and sensuous to play his bookish spouse (see below), and the idea of sexual tension between the real-life Hitchcocks seems...unlikely.

According to John J. McLaughlin and Stephen Rebello's screenplay,  Alma was nurturing a screenwriter during the production of Psycho, and jealous Hitch was so worried that she was sleeping with the younger man that he was driven to distraction. To make matters worse, he'd risked his own money on the film and couldn't even get the screenplay cleared by the censors.

There's a bit of nice history here and there. We're shown some pre-production wrangling with the Production Code's Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) denying Hitch's film a seal of approval and a couple of recreations of Psycho, including the shower scene, and we get bits and pieces of his ideas for its promotional campaign, but for the most part Hitchcock is more concerned with its rather pedestrian story of a marriage than it is with revealing any aspects of the Master's creative genius.

As I said, Hitchcock has been lovingly produced, with a good sense of location and some good performances, but it couldn't have chosen a more boring central story unless it depicted an afternoon in the life of the Hitchcocks as they look for one of Alma's missing earrings. Wait — that could be a MacGuffin.

One marvelous scene (that comes too late in the film to save it) occurs when Hitch is standing in the lobby of a theater during the Psycho premiere. Listening to Bernard Herrmann's now-legendary cue, he knows exactly when the shower curtain will be ripped open and when the audience inside will react. And when it does, he conducts the subsequent screams as if they were instruments in an orchestra. Alas, it only serves as a reminder of what could have been.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Spot on! If only Alma had lived to apply some of her insightful editing on both films - but then there would have been nothing left of either.

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