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The Sunday Times (27/Jan/2013) - Which Hitch?

(c) The Sunday Times (27/Jan/2013)

Which Hitch?

Now you can see what he wrought.

Advancing your DVD frame by frame, you can see the savage artistry, the knife slashing down again and again, cutting towards the wet, naked flesh, punctuating the screaming violins, 78 edits in the most famous 45 seconds in all of cinema: the still shocking shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, released in 1960.

As modern technology offers fresh ways to understand his cinematic genius, two new films about the English director offer parallel dissections of his complex psyche: Hitchcock, about the making of Psycho, starring Anthony Hopkins as the director and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma; and the recent BBC film The Girl, with Toby Jones as Hitchcock and Imelda Staunton playing his wife. Both propose that the sexual obsessions, fears, anxieties, guilt and violence the director described so vividly on screen were disturbing reflections of his own deeply troubled mind.

This lurid reading of the director has been propounded by Tippi Hedren, the actress who starred in The Birds and Marnie, which he made immediately after Psycho. In recent interviews, Hedren, who is now 83, has called him "a misogynist", "evil and deviant", and claimed that, while they were working together, when she was in her mid-thirties and he was in his sixties, he became sexually obsessed with her. "He had me followed, he analysed my handwriting," she says. In The Girl, which is partly based on her recollections, Hitchcock is shown as a monstrous, sadistic sexual predator and a dangerous, controlling svengali. He attacks Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) in the back of a car, trying to force himself on her. "I want you to make yourself sexually available to me at all times," he demands. When she refuses, he destroys her career by refusing to allow her to work for any other directors. The Girl also shows him subjecting his star to five days of vicious and bloodying avian assault on set. Hedren says that if such sexual harassment happened today, "I would be a very rich woman".

In the upcoming film Hitchcock, based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990), the mood is less sensationalist. The film has at its heart Anthony Hopkins's deliciously affectionate portrayal of the rotund director, but it takes remarkable liberties with historical truth. For example, Alma becomes embroiled in an unrequited love affair with a scriptwriter (played by Danny Huston) that even the film-makers admit never happened.

The most shocking invention, though, comes when the director himself takes the knife in the Psycho shower scene, slashing and slashing towards the cringing naked body of Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson), as if conducting a symphony of violence that is intimately reflective of his tormented mind. "Even your boss can smell the rancid, pungent smell of sex all over you," he shouts at the actress in another scene. Manohla Dargis, a film critic for The New York Times, suggests, in a comment that could equally be applied to The Girl, that the film "doesn't merely give creative genius a bad name, but also pathologises it".

Discussing Hitchcock with The Hollywood Reporter, the film's British director, Sacha Gervasi, suggested that everyone knows about the director's psychological perversity. "We all know he's a bit crazy, obsessive, neurotic, dark with his actresses and a bit nuts at times," he said. But do we? Hitchcock's apparent obsessions with many of his leading ladies, who also included Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Kim Novak, are delineated in Donald Spoto's book Spellbound by Beauty (2008), the basis for The Girl. Spoto had previously said in a 1999 interview: "These were all fantasy romances. He never touched them." But his allegations have become increasingly florid over the years. In Spellbound by Beauty, he excavates what he sees as the director's deranged psyche, which he suggests stems from his Catholic guilt, his disgust at his physical appearance, his alcoholism and his sexual impotence. Spoto claims he was able to publish the most serious charges only after the deaths of Hitchcock, in 1980, and others he had interviewed.

These postmortem reassessments of Hitchcock as a kinky voyeur and sadistic sexual predator have infuriated people who knew him; others are concerned that tarnishing the names of artistic geniuses has become a nasty British parlour game. The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber wrote a letter to The Daily Telegraph saying that the portrayal of the director in The Girl "reminds me of the hatchet job that was executed on Jacqueline du Pre in a film unworthy of mention. How easy it is to malign those who can't answer back."

Other actresses who worked with Hitchcock have defended him. "I feel bad about all the stuff people are saying about him now, that he was a weird character," said Kim Novak, the star of Vertigo (1958), in an interview. "I did not find him to be weird at all. I never saw him make a pass at anybody or act strange to anybody." Eva Marie Saint, who starred in North by Northwest (1959), said: "I had a wonderful time working for him."

The writer and critic John Russell Taylor came to know the director well in the 1970s. He wrote Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978) based on interviews with him and with many of the people who worked with him. "I thought it was totally exploitative and almost entirely false," Russell Taylor says of The Girl. Although one can hardly doubt that Hedren is telling the truth about the reason for the souring of her relationship with her director, Russell Taylor says: "I knew and talked to Tippi Hedren when I was teaching in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and she didn't give any hint of any of that. She was warm in her praise of Hitchcock. The most she said was that her only trouble was that she felt he was possessive. She didn't mind that, as far as anything to do with her being a star or being made into a star was concerned. If he wanted to dictate what she wore in public, this was fine. But he didn't approve of her agent/boyfriend, and that she found tiresome, because she didn't think he had any right to interfere with that, which was her private life."

According to Russell Taylor, Hedren's rupture with her mentor came while they were making Marnie (1964), after he refused to give her permission to travel to New York for the weekend during the shoot. "She told me she lost her temper with him on set, in front of the whole unit. 'You fat pig! Who are you to order me what to do in my spare time?'" He says this was corroborated by Hitchcock and others who were there that day, including Peggy Robertson, the director's longtime assistant (played in Hitchcock by Toni Collette): "Hitchcock said, 'She said something no one is permitted to say... She referred to my weight.'" Russell Taylor feels the charges against Hitchcock "diminish him as a man, and a lot of people feel that if he's diminished as a man, particularly by claims that he did something unforgivable, then he must be diminished as an artist. I don't think that, but a lot of people do."

The charges are buttressed not just by the subject matter of many of his films -- sexual obsession, voyeurism, sadism, violence and guilt -- but by the director's lifelong delight in shocking people with tart declarations such as "Nothing pleases me more than to knock the ladylikeness out of an actress", or "I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou. He said, 'Torture the women!' The trouble today is that we don't torture women enough." And he could be cruel. When asked by one nervous actress, "Which do you think is my best side, Mr Hitchcock?", he replied, with the dryness of a funeral director: "Sweetheart, you're sitting on it."

What is ironic about these disturbing re-evaluations of the director is that they have come when critical opinion of him has never been higher. Last year, in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound magazine poll of more than 800 of the world's leading film critics and academics, Vertigo was named the greatest film of all time, displacing the longtime favourite, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. In his lifetime, Hitchcock felt, rightly, that he was looked down on by Hollywood, seen as a mere director of genre thrillers, and he never won a best director Oscar. He was consoled by attention from French filmmakers such as François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, and eventually with an honorary Oscar in 1968.

At least the Hopkins-Mirren film looks at the director at a crucial moment in his remarkable career, showing how he came to create Psycho. It also gives Alma her due as an important influence on his work. What the film cannot do is show how profound an effect Psycho had, not only on terrified audiences, who turned it into a huge hit, but on western culture. "Psycho changed 'cinema'," David Thomson writes in his book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder. "Sex and violence were ready to break out, and censorship crumpled like an old lady's parasol. The orgy had arrived."

Today, Hitchcock's influence is pervasive: just look at film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino or, more obviously, Gus Van Sant, who remade Psycho shot for shot. As revered as he has become by critics and academics, his work has seeped into the popular imagination. Even non-cineastes know what horrors lurk in the Bates Motel, and can quote the film's most morbidly delicious lines, "Mother... my mother... she isn't quite herself today" and "A boy's best friend is his mother".

Perhaps Hitchcock did overstep the bounds of propriety in his private life; perhaps, as Thomson puts it, he "was drawn to touch what he beheld". But the director's vivid dreams and awful nightmares remain so potent, so insistent, that we can no longer tell where his end and ours begin. The petty psychologising of these new films cannot diminish the genius in that.