Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A BIG YEAR FOR ALFRED HITCHCOCK


He’s considered the greatest director of all time. His name is synonymous with the words ‘suspense’ and ‘thriller’. His film VERTIGO was recently chosen as the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine. And now he’s got a starring role in front of the cameras…twice!

“Good evening. I’m Alfred Hitchcock.”
Original caricature of Alfred Hitchcock by Jeff York (copyright 2012)
It’s turning out to be quite the year for the master of suspense some 32 years after his death. He’s never really been out of the vernacular and it’s amazing that it’s taken this long for someone to put the larger-than-life character in front of the camera. Hitchcock’s life story is a fascinating one – a drama filled with pain, insecurity, sexual obsessions – it should have been immortalized on film decades ago. So why did it take Hollywood so long to showcase one of their greatest artists in his own biographical film?
Alfred Hitchcock with Anthony Perkins on the set of PSYCHO.


Perhaps the problem is that Hitchcock has become a bit of a caricature over the years, both in his instantly recognizable film style as well as his larger-than-life persona. (I know I’m not helping by doing my own illustration of him here.) Hitchcock’s style is obvious to any filmgoer: the propensity of overhead shots, swooping crane shots, the slow tracking shots, the subjective editing, the Bernard Herrmann scores, the actors staring directly into the camera…all trademarks of the Hitchcock cinematic oeuvre that has been borrowed liberally or parodied by everyone from Brian De Palma to Mel Brooks to Jonathan Demme to Quentin Tarantino. His predilection for blonde femme fatales has become so recognizable that the casting of a blonde villain (Hello, Sharon Stone!) has almost become an out-and-out punchline. And his rotund visage itself is as iconic as anything else in the movies. His silhouette became such a statement of who he was that it literally became his signature in the TV show credits of his anthology series ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and was even lampooned by the master himself in his final film FAMILY PLOT (1976).
Toby Jones and Sienna Miller as Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren in HBO's TV movie THE GIRL.

And Hitchcock became so well known too through his droll appearances on talk shows through the later decades of his life too that it might have intimidated actors or filmmakers trying to recreate him onscreen. His droll delivery, his catlike stare, toying with his interviewer or audience, it may have been too much to try to duplicate. Still, singular individuals like Nixon or Kennedy have had oodles of projects done about them, so why not Hitch? Maybe they couldn’t find enough good, fat actors in the day.
Tippi Hedren in MARNIE

Luckily, for film fans everywhere, this year will see not one, but two different film bios about Hitchcock, in as many months. The TV-movie THE GIRL just premiered on HBO. And in November the movie HITCHCOCK gets a theatrical release. THE GIRL is just so-so. While it does well recounting the grueling experiences that young ingénue Tippi Hedren had while working with Hitchcock on two movies, THE BIRDS (1963) and MARNIE (1964), it’s a dour slog with few laughs. You’d think that the story of how Hitchcock plucked Hedren from the world of modeling to be his leading lady on screen twice would be entertaining but it concentrates on his lurid sexual pursuit of her and thus the film is a downer. 

Donald Spato’s take on the dynamic between Hedren and Hitchcock in his 2008 book Spellbound by Beauty painted a disturbing portrait of harassment, and that’s all here in this adaptation, but Spato also sympathized with the lonely, fat man looking for sexual love. (Despite a loyal best friend in his wife Alma.) The teleplay doesn’t spend much time on that and veteran character actor Toby Jones struggles to find any nuance in his one-note villain role. Unfortunately, Jones also does an all-too accurate vocal imitation of Hitchcock that recalls too many Vegas mimics like Rich Little. It ends up caricaturing Hitchcock rather than deepening the real man. British actress Sienna Miller is far more affecting as Hedren but then the film is on her side and is told through her POV.
Anthony Hopkins in the teaser poster for HITCHCOCK.
What Anthony Hopkins does with his role in HITCHCOCK remains to be seen, but his performance in the trailer already looks more promising than that of Jones. Hopkins is not doing an out-and-out imitation of the director, but rather going for a certain essence of the man’s vocal style. Soft and sly in voice and manner, the clips suggest a wittier Hitchcock here. At a party scene where he’s attempting to raise money to film PSYCHO, Hitchcock tells potential benefactors, “Try the finger sandwiches. They’re made of real fingers.” (See for yourself with the exquisite trailer here: http://go.ign.com/SiEMKa)

This version promises more of the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife/best friend/confidante Alma (Helen Mirren). She helped him stay on course while working on PSYCHO and the film may be a love story as much as anything. If the posters are any indication of striking the proper tone for Hitch, we’re in for a treat. The teaser reveals Hitch holding a butcher knife that reads as his tie. And the full one-sheet vamps the original PSYCHO poster.
Even with my problems with THE GIRL, I’m glad to see Hitchcock getting his due more than once. While he was a very flawed man, he was also one of film’s greatest artists and anything that brings more attention to his body of work is aces in my book. I now await the theatrical release of HITCHCOCK on November 23rd. That will be a true Thanksgiving feast. Pass the knife.

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