Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil too, weren’t you?
Scottie’s questions at the climax of Vertigo do more to illuminate the inner workings of the film’s director than the entire ninety minutes that is The Girl. Hailed as Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork, Vertigo (1958) stars James Stewart as Scottie, a man in love with a woman, or his idea of a woman. He loses the first woman and then finds another woman just like her. Scottie does whatever he can to recreate her in her own image. He picks out her clothes, he does up her hair, takes her to places that he visited with the previous woman, forcing the second woman (both were played by Kim Novak) to live a life twice. Watching Vertigo isn’t just watching a man obsessed, it is watched Hitchcock obsessed. It is a more revealing portrait of a man than any biography or biopic could ever be.
Enter The Girl, the first of two biopics about film director, Alfred Hitchcock. The Girl debuted on October 20th, and will continue to play on HBO and is available On Demand via HBO Go. The Girl concerns itself with Hitchcock’s infatuation with his actress Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). The Girl begins with the success of Psycho (1960). Hitchcock (Toby Jones) is ready to make his next picture, but he will need a new leading lady, as he has already burned through Hollywood’s royalty (Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh…). His wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton) suggests an actress she saw on TV, “I like her smile”. The actress is Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) a runway model and single mother. Hitchcock pays for a screen test, hires her, and becomes infatuated.
Hitchcock casts Hedren in The Birds, and showers her with gifts, champagne, car service, etc. She assumes that this is how he behaves with all of his leading ladies, and doesn’t think twice about any of it. Hitch’s long time assistant and friend, Peggy (Penelope Wilton) informs Alma that Hitch’s infatuation with Hendren is like nothing he’s had before. Hitchcock’s infatuation slowly begins to turn sadistic. He eavesdrops on her conversations and budding romances with an assistant director. He tortures her during shooting by making her shoot the same vicious scenes over and over again. There is a possibility that Hitchcock continued to shoot the same scene over and over again until he felt it was right, he was directing a movie, but The Girl plays it as an extension of his impotence. Hendren survives the shooting of The Birds and the film is a huge hit. She is recast for the titular role of Marnie and Hitch becomes even more vengeful. Twice the character is raped, and the one time that it is played on-screen, we get a shot-reverse-shot of Hedren and Hitch staring at one another during the scene. After Marnie, the two never worked together again.
There are times where The Girl is infuriating. Alma was a very strong character in both Hitchcock’s life and in Hollywood, but here, she stays off to the side, feeling like a wounded animal, even apologizing to Hendren for her husband’s behavior. Jones plays Hitchcock, as most of us know him from his TV show appearances. However, Jones doesn’t drop the act when the cameras aren’t rolling. Hitchcock was an excellent showman, but I imagined that he relaxed when he was at home chatting with his wife. Jones also lacks any real joy for Hitchcock being Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a prankster and relished being a naughty boy. Watching excerpts of Hitch on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972 shows just how much fun he had being him. Jones’s Hitchcock hardly cracks a smile. Jones and director, Julian Jarrold, made an artistic decision, a serious artist must also be a serious person. Quite often, that is not the case.
A lot of the information used is based on the extensive writings about Hitchcock and his films. It was true that he used real birds for the scene where Melanie Daniels goes into the attic. He also used real birds for other scenes and other actors in the film. He had a pretty sadist streak to him, but don’t all film directors? Marnie is a troubling film, but would its subject matter been less troubling or more troubling with an actress that Hitchcock was not in love with? The Girl blames all of this on Hitch’s infatuation. I propose that if it was another actress, neither movie would have changed much.
The screenplay is by Gwyneth Hughes and is based on of the writings of Donald Spoto, who is also given a creative consultant credit. Spoto wrote three books on Hitchcock, the first, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976), is a film-by-film analysis of Hitch’s work. It is one of the best writings on the films and a must for anyone remotely interested in Hitchcock. The second, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983) is extensive and considered by many to be the definitive biography of Hitchcock. Spoto strays from simple film analysis and begins to interpret Hitchcock’s life and actions through a Freudian lens. At times, painting a picture of a monstrous man. The third book, Spellbound By Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (2009) is where The Girl garners most of its material. This is where Spoto publishes all the material he withheld from the biography because it was too damaging for the parties involved. Kind of a cheap gossip rag that went and got itself turned into a TV Movie.
What is The Girl about? Or more accurately, why make it? Any rabid Hitchcock fan knows all these behind-the-scenes stories, and they are going to comprise the majority of the audience. What about the casual viewer? Will this convince them to seek out The Birds and Marnie or other Hitchcock films? I don’t think so. I wished that I was watching those movies instead of this one, but The Girl didn’t illuminate me to anything that might be in those movies that I missed the first couple of times around. The real issue I have with The Girl is that it left me feeling flat. Here is a movie about one of my favorite filmmakers and a film that I wrote in great deal about for my college thesis, and yet… We really don’t need a movie about the inner workings of Hitchcock. Hitchcock left us fifty-three movies, and any one of those has enough of him in them for us to understand the man behind the camera. I return to Vertigo. A film where Hitchcock is exploring being Hitchcock: a director, warts and all. At least he cracked a smile every now and then. Toby Jones could benefit from that.