On Boxing Day last year the BBC aired The Girl, a TV film dramatising events surrounding the production of Hitchcock’s 1963 masterwork The Birds. It is easy to see this film, released just seven weeks later, as a sort of prequel as it dramatises events surrounding Hitchcock’s 1960 masterwork, Psycho. If these two movies had intentionally been made as two parts of a story the criticism would be that they are just too similar. They both obviously feature 1960s film making, a corpulent Brit in a black suit struggling with his looks, his long suffering wife and a young blond actress getting freaked out when her director goes too far to capture a violent scene.
Other than these necessary similarities though the two films are tonally quite different. As the titles of both productions suggest, the events are told from two different points of view. The Girl was very much Tippi Hedren’s story and painted Alfred Hitchcock as a sadistic bully, motivated by sexual frustration. It prompted various people who actually witnessed the real events to both confirm and refute what happened, but true or not it came across as a character assassination. Hitchcock, true or not, paints a more sympathetic portrait of the man and as a result is a more enjoyable film. This isn’t necessarily a decision on the part of the respective film makers as both films play very close to already published materials. Donald Spoto’s 1983 book Spellbound by Beauty, on which The Girl is based, describes events very much as they appear in the TV movie (although it somehow doesn’t seem as harsh in print); and Janet Leigh’s 1995 book Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller tells it more like it is here.
A closer comparison could be made with last years’ My Week with Marilyn. Like that film Hitchcock initially feels quite light of touch but in the same way Michelle Williams gave a captivating and precise performance of a complex and emotionally tortured public figure, so here does Anthony Hopkins. As with Lincoln you don’t feel you are watching the actor so much as the character, although here this is substantially due to prosthetics rather than the supernatural ability Daniel Day Lewis has to actually morph into another person. This isn’t to take away from Hopkins though who does play the part really well. This is something I didn’t think Toby Jones managed as well in The Girl. He acted it well but there was something frame breaking about his performance. Perhaps it was because he didn’t look as much like Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps he was just too grotesque.
As a fan of Hitchcock the film did not hold any surprises for me but that is not necessarily a criticism. If you’ve not been reading books on this guy for 25 years then I think this film will serve as a good introduction to the man but it really doesn’t tell any new stories. The poster strap line for this film is: The Untold Story Behind the Film that Shocked the World, but the word ‘untold’ really doesn’t belong in this sentence as all of these events have already been documented in a number of books.
Incidentally, the best book on the director is Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock. It was originally published in 1967 and I was lent a copy by my film studies tutor at university. He told me it was out of print so it became my Holy Grail as a trailed round second hand bookshops in vain hoping to obtain a copy of my own. (This was before the Internet kids.) I later discovered it was reissued in a revised edition in 1983 and all I had to do was walk into WHSmith. You can get it on Amazon now for 15 quid.
This film did disappoint me in one main respect. It gave no indication of why Psycho is actually such a masterpiece. It made a big thing of how everyone thought the film would fail but I wanted there to be something at the end that explained why it didn’t. It seemed to suggest that it was all down to some precise cutting and a bit of showmanship in the screenings, but this isn’t accurate. If you watch Psycho then its brilliance is clear, it is a truly great movie and I wanted this new film to celebrate that. In that sense it doesn’t properly celebrate Hitchcock the director either. He is referred to as a true artist and a genius throughout but we get no sense of why. It is an introduction to the man then but not his work. This film about the making of Psycho would not actually make me want to watch Psycho and there’s got to be something a bit wrong with that. If a film like this is more about the behaviour of the artist and less about his art then isn’t it just celebrity gossip? Amadeus got the balance perfectly right but I am afraid Hitchcock doesn’t.
Is this one for the kids?
It is a 12A but there isn’t really anything too disturbing in it. The film features the serial killer Ed Gein, who was the inspiration for Norman Bates. He is a creepy character in a creepy setting and you do see him killing one of his victims as well as there being conversations about his other crimes but none of it is too gory.
P.S. Not wanting to be hypocritical here is my attempt to inspire you to watch Psycho. I watched it this week for the first time in 20 years and it remains a brilliant piece of work. My favourite Hitchcock film is The Birds although it has dated quite badly due to the special effects, Psycho has not suffered the same way. Don’t be put off by it being a horror film, it transcends the slasher genre it created and uses great dialogue as a tense prelude to violence long before this became Tarantino’s trademark. Spending so much time establishing your main character and her motivations only to kill her after 35 mins is an act of audacious genius but even knowing that spoiler the film still has plenty more to give. Psycho is one of those films you’ve heard is a classic but it can still surprise you when you see it for the first time.