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The Season of the Hitch

The year in film was already marked by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo at last topped Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound poll. Vertigo had been slowly climbing its way to the top and this year it finally broke Kane’s 50-year reign at #1. As human nature dictates, the larger they loom, the harder they fall and it was inevitable that the arguments would begin about Vertigo’s worth.

Simultaneously, two films about Hitchcock were nearing completion. The Girl on HBO, starring Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones as Hitch, and Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, starring Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and Anthony Hopkins as Hitch. Both of these films seemed to appear like bad tabloid stories designed to take Hitchcock down a notch or two, more than 30 years after his death. Thus, the perennial question arises once more about how to separate the man (or the woman) from the art.

Joe Queenan told NPR, while remembering an old quote, “Someone once said about Emily Dickinson: The correct way to approach Emily Dickinson is on your knees.”

The correct way to approach the work of Alfred Hitchcock is on your knees. Yet because our prurient interests in the private lives of our celebrities and politicians tends to override almost everything else, the Season of the Hitch has not been an occasion to appreciate the master’s work, as it should be; but rather, a time to put him on trial for alleged sexual harassment and whatever else writers and directors come up with that has nothing to do with his films.

This is not to discount Tippi Hedren’s own account of what happened on the set of The Birds. But there is a difference between making an artistic decision that doesn’t make sense — like, sending Hedren’s character up to the attic only to be attacked by birds — and a filmmaker today condemning that decision by lamely deciding that Hitch devised that scene only to torture Hedren. If Hitchcock was guilty of anything in that regard, it’s this: he was not sympathetic to actors. Their comfort was secondary to his work. That is the dilemma, right? His work was exceptional. Can it not simply be appreciated as such? Or must we put an asterisk next to our assessment based on a personal judgments of his behavior?

The Girl is the more enjoyable of the two films for me personally, simply because I thought Sienna Miller captured the essence of Tippi Hedren better than Scarlett Johansson captured Janet Leigh. Miller’s touching performance made The Girl a better film overall. But Gervasi’s Hitchcock attempts to dive deeper into the influence of Alma Hitchcock, which gives that film the edge in bringing her back to life, at last giving her due credit for her devoted contribution to the Hitchcock canon.

But Gervasi has taken many liberties in explaining what inspired some of Hitchcock’s artistic choices and that — in both The Girl and Hitchcock — is where both of this year’s films go wrong.  Psycho and The Birds are two pinnacles of Hitchcock’s filmmaking genius, exemplifying the risks he was willing to take, the exacting methods with which he planned them out, his nimble handling of every effect he wanted to have on audiences. I don’t know if it’s necessary to delve into his personal life, or his psychology, to appreciate his films. Sure, you can always fill in the blanks with what you think you know about Hitchcock — or any artist. But my advice is to keep the two realms separate, the man and his work.

My own personal feelings about these issues have less to do with whether or not I “believe” Hedren, or the embellished stories of Vera Miles — there is no reason not to believe them. Hedren’s is a first person account of her experience and that makes it valid. Just because her experience left her feeling abused, does that mean we all should regard The Birds as nothing more than a way to cuddle up to Hedren and then torture Her? Moreover, would it be far more interesting to watch a movie being made about a movie if the story simply focused on the real reasons behind the artistic choices he made, without indulging in amateur psychoanalysis?

Harder to pin down is the notion put forth in Stephen Rebello’s book, Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, that Hitch was still feeling resentful of Vera Miles when he chose to cast her in Psycho.  Miles had been groomed to become Hitch’s next protégé — he liked to take plain-looking girls like Miles and Hedren, dress them, school them, monitor them to the point of suffocation — to make them stars.

According to Rebello’s essential and brilliant book, Hitch surrounded himself with a very tight and loyal group of collaborators. But that, along with many other great details, never make it into the film adaptation. Hitch was fairly shy. Expressing his emotion was hard for him. As for whatever desires and longings he may have had with his actresses, we have nothing but bits and pieces to hint at those obsessions — not nearly enough to understand the whole picture. From Rebello’s book:

“I felt the same way directing Vera that I did with Grace,” crooned a usually more circumspect Hitchcock to a reporter for Look magazine. “She has a style, an intelligence, and a quality of understatement.” Convinced that he had found in Miles another icebox blonde in the Grace Kelly tradition, Hitchcock ordered costume designer Edith Head and Paramount’s platoon of makeup and hair specialists to groom her expensively to his precise specifications. Hitchcock grumbled to Edith Head that Miles was “swamped by color,” so he decreed that from then on his protégée should be attired in nothing but black, white or gray. Upon inspecting Miles’s portfolio of publicity photographs, Hitchcock announced to the Paramount publicity department that he was putting a moratorium on any further “cheesecake” shots. Hitchcock and his minions scrutinized and advised Vera Miles upon every public and private move she made — from the company she kept to her commercial tie-in arrangements, such as the one she enjoyed with Lux Soap. Costume designer Rita Riggs observed: “The sort of eduction one got from Mr. Hitchcock and Miss Head in publicity and the presentation of a new personality, one could not get anywhere else in the world. Although Vera was a lovely girl, she was far too intelligent to be an actress, and too independent to be anyone’s Trilby.

To the surprise of no one, the relationship between the spunky Miles and her demanding Svengali deteriorated rapidly during the making of The Wrong Man, shot on location in New York and released in 1956. Miles found Hitchock’s attentions toward her stifling and inappropriate. Hitchcock smothered her with flowers, telegrams, and demands for private conferences. Miles found herself constantly in arrears to express her gratitude. “Dear Hitch,” began a typical note from Miles, almost three months too late. “It suddenly occurs to me that I didn’t thank you for the beautiful flowers you sent me, both when I started Beau James and on my birthday. I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness and good wishes. Sincerely, Vera.”

Matters worsened irrevocably when Miles married Gordon Scott, the new movie Tarzan, during the shooting of The Wrong Man. Hitch wasn’t happy about that. However, Miles’s performance as the wife of Henry Fonda in his spare, documentary-like, black-and-white thriller prompted the director to design Vertigo as the next picture to showcase her talents as his latest incarnation of the iconic Hitchcock blonde.

By the time the screenplay was ready and James Stewart was signed to squire Miles in the film, the actress enraged Hitchcock by announcing she was pregnant — for the third time. “He was over-whelmed,” Miles has said. “He said, “Don’t you know it’s bad taste to have more than two?” Instantly, the director cooled toward Miles. Hitchcock had lavished on his budding star time, money and most precious, emotion. Hitchcock associates say that he believed that Miles should have been grateful AND compliant. Privately, Hitchcock fumed like a rebuffed suitor. Miles observed: “over the span of years, he’s had one kind of woman in his films, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and so on. Before that, it was Madeleine Carroll. I’m not their type and never have been. I tried to please him but I couldn’t. They are all sexy women, but mine is an entirely different approach.” Miles remained philosophical about losing the chance for Stardom in Vertigo, “Hitchcock got his picture,” she said. “I got a son.”


However, by September 22, 1959, with Miles still under contract when Hitchcock summoned her for the role in Psycho, Miles’s agent took a more conciliatory tone in his telegrams: “Be assured of desire to cooperate and intention of accepting your offer.” In what could only be read as a comeuppance, Hitchcock tossed his would-be ice goddess into a drab, underdeveloped part. Further worsening matters, Miles had just had her head shaved for a role in Five Branded Women, in which she played a Yugoslavian girl punished for consorting with German troops. For Psycho, Hitchcock paid off his one-time contender for the throne of “The New Grace Kelly” with a $1,750 a week and a dubious wig and wardrobe. “Vera was a pretty headstrong lady,” concurs makeup man Jack Barron, who recalled several set-to’s between leading lady and director. “She’d do things HER way and stand up to anybody. Even him.”

It’s an interesting back story, and one that caused both of them pain. But it’s all condensed in one line delivered by Jessica Biel who plays Miles (she is far too pretty for the part) to hit the audience over the head with Hitchcock and Vertigo. I won’t spoil it here. I bring it up only as example of how the filmmakers here oversimplify Hitchcock’s work with facile Freudian explanations, which I think, to put it mildly, is the wrong approach.

This is not to say that none of the personal stuff is valid, or that Tippi Hedren isn’t justified in speaking out about her claims of abuse. That is an important story that needs to be told. But does that invalidate The Birds as a great film? Hitchcock is rendered as a drippy neurotic mess in The Girl, and Gervasi’s Hitchcock comes close tothe same slander. In both films Alma is there to pick up the pieces. But I never got that picture of Hitchcock reading Rebello’s book. He was all about the work. For instance, when he filmed the shower scene in Psycho, careful thought and meticulous planning went into exactly how they would shoot Janet Leigh, who would have to either be covered with body makeup or use a body double. The body double was nude and walked around the set freely talking to people, including Hitchcock. Filming was long and laborious, over five days. This wasn’t at all how the shooting was depicted in Hitchcock, where emotions are shown inferring with the filming of the famous sequence.

On the plus side, Hitchcock does feature two outstanding performances by Hopkins and Mirren. Mirren, in particular, is the true standout here. Other than the fictional love affair the screenwriter invents to complicate Alma’s life — they also celebrate Alma Reville, a writer, editor and filmmaker in her own right. She stood in the shadow of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette for thirty years and let him take all of the credit. As Living in Cinema’s Craig Kennedy said about Alma, that illustrates a healthy ego. Yet both films make Hitchcock’s love for his leading ladies Alma’s biggest problem. In my eyes, I believe the work would matter to her more, getting due credit for basically being his co-director all the way through. In that way, she is the invisible woman. But perhaps those responsible for adapting truth into melodrama thought it would be more emotionally effective to make it about the Other Women.

Hitchcock will do well with the Academy I think, but will probably make its strongest impression in Best Actress with Mirren taking a slot. The tech crew may be recognized as well — art direction, costume and makeup. I also recommend reading Stephen Rebello’s book if you are a fan of Psycho. There is so much information in it about the sacrifices and concessions Hitchcock had to make in order to get it made at all, some of which the film depicts. For example, how Hitch had to get the film made on his own dime — foregoing his usual fee in return for a 60% stake in future profits — a move that would prove to be a canny financial gamble in the long run. How he had to navigate with the ratings board in order to get what he wanted — a sly game of compromise that would essentially make movie history. Gervasi’s film inflicts Hitchcock with an Ed Gein obsession, but in reality one of the main reasons Hitchcock was drawn to Psycho was that he had observed how audiences and box-office were changing, and he wanted to try his hand at one of these smaller but grittier horror movies that he saw were making money.

In real life, there was much ado about Janet Leigh being killed off after thirty minutes, who thought of it, why they thought of it, why they cast Janet Leigh because of it, and how they worked so hard to keep it a secret. To me, that kind of behind the scenes information is far more valuable than prurient speculation about what gave Hitchcock and erection and what didn’t. But you should probably read the book AND see the movie to decide for yourself — the film is worth seeing just for the performances alone.

But ask yourself when it’s over if every bad thing you ever heard about Hitchcock could ever ultimately ruin the movies for you. Similarly, can you watch Woody Allen movies or Roman Polanski movies without having their historic achievements diminished by your knowledge of their private failures?

I’ve heard tell of how cruel Gaugin was to Van Gogh. But those stories would never make me hate Gaugin’s work. What’s the best way to approach Gaugin? On your knees.