Thirty-eight years after the release of his final film, Alfred Hitchcock is still considered the ‘master of suspense’ by casual film goers and cinema buffs alike. Over the course of his fifty-three year career he directed over fifty feature films and introduced camera and narrative innovations that have continued to influence the suspense genre. In 2012, Hitchcock was the subject of two films that explored his directing style and personal life. Both the made for tv film, The Girl, and the cinema released Hitchcock, convey their stories with enthusiasm and skill, but which biopic better captures the reality behind the illusions of ‘the master of suspense’?
1. THE STORY: While both films explore the inner workings of Hitchcock’s life during the filming of one of his masterpieces, they each tell a very different story. In Hitchcock, the focus is the on and off-set struggles that the director faced during the production of Psycho. The film begins with Hitchcock feeling discouraged at the restrictions of working in Hollywood, despite the commercial success of his latest film, North By Northwest. In order to test his directorial skills and regain some of his old passion, he starts searching for scripts and novels that are drastically different from anything he’s done before and finally settles on Robert Bloch’s fictionalized account of the 1940’s Ed Gein murders, Psycho. After purchasing the rights to the script, he is confronted with the difficulties of breaking out of the Hollywood mold as he struggles to adjust to a new genre and create a truly horrifying film that still passes Hay’s Code censors, all while financing the film on a meager out-of-pocket budget. Complicating matters further, he is simultaneously faced with the looming threat of his wife, Alma’s flirtation with her screenwriting collaborator, noted womanizer Whitfield Cook.
In The Girl, four years have passed since the successful debut of Psycho and Hitchcock is again in search of a new story, and more notably a new talent to introduce in it. While searching for an unknown actress to play the lead role, he comes across model Tippi Hedren and becomes determined to cast her. With the help of Alma, Hitchcock sets about approaching and winning over the naïve Hedren, who is all too happy to have the opportunity to break into films. Over the course of production of The Birds and its follow-up, Marnie, Hitchcock becomes obsessed with his leading lady and psychologically and physically abuses her after she rejects his sexual advances. The story quickly becomes a battle of the wills as Hedren struggles to maintain her dignity and independence while still fulfilling her contractual obligations to the maniacal Hitchcock. While both films offer fascinating insight into the inner workings of Hitchcock’s life and mind, The Girl limits the scope of its focus to Hitchcock’s personal life and his interactions with Hedren, forcing the other characters to the side. Unlike The Girl, Hitchcock features multi-faceted portrayals of the cast and crew of Psycho and Hitchock’s wife, as well as an in depth analysis of Hitchcock himself. By taking a broader approach, Hitchcock’s script provides a more balanced and informative view of the director, as it shows him at work and at home, while still highlighting the dark aspects of his psyche. For its equal emphasis upon Hitchcock’s working and personal lives, Hitchcock delivers a more insightful account of the director's life and work ,which will appeal to a broader audience.
2. THE CHARACTERS: The script for The Girl was based upon Tippi Hedren’s memoir, and as a result, the film and all of its characters are seen through her perspective. Because of the film’s first person point of view, the characters are only shown in relation to their interactions with Hedren, and are portrayed in the same way that she wrote about them. This limited viewpoint denies the viewer the opportunity to see the characters in different facets of the lives. As a result, the supporting characters become little more than caricatures who are forced into the background as Hedren and Hitchcock continue in their tumultuous working relationship. Even Hitchcock and Hedren suffer as characters in the film, as the audience never learns what motivates Hedren to continue suffering through the abuse that Hitchcock inflicts upon her beyond the chance at stardom, and Hitchcock is shown only in terms of the monstrous behavior he displays towards Hedren.
Hitchcock is based upon a work of historical research rather than a memoir, and is told from an outside, more objective, perspective. Not only does the film show Hitchcock in varying and conflicting lights, but it also shows those around him as three dimensional people with their own back stories and motivations. The most notable of these characters is Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, who is shown to be an intelligent, driven, woman who is tired of spending her life in her husband’s shadow. One of the key plot arcs in the film is Alma’s attempt to regain her former independence and Hitchcock’s realization of her importance in his professional, as well as personal, life. In stark contrast, The Girl portrays Alma as an insecure and dependent secondary character who facilitates her husband’s predatory behavior in hopes of maintaining his favor, reinforcing the film’s insistence upon gravitating all of its characters’ and their actions around Hitchcock and Hedren. For its layered and varied portrayals and complex supporting cast, Hitchcock provides a more in depth view of life behind the scenes.
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3. THE PERFORMANCES: While it is a difficult task for an actor to play a historical figure, both films feature excellent casts who turn in spot-on performances. Both Anthony Hopkins and Toby Jones capture the outward genius and inner torments that made up Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the lack of dimension in the writing of his part, Jones adds depth to a role that would otherwise be a one note villain in his portrayal of Hitchcock. Although neither actor bears a striking resemblance to the director, both aptly mimicked his mannerisms and voice in a way that was historically accurate without distracting from the overall story. Similarly, Helen Mirren and Sienna Miller each create fully fleshed characters in their performances as Alma Reville and Tippi Hedren. In Mirren’s hands, Alma is an intelligent and eloquent woman who is much more interesting than the background player she has been relegated to. Miller portrays Hedren with an endearing combination of naivete and resilience that makes audiences identify with her struggle and root for her success. The supporting casts in both films also succeed at the difficult task of creating fresh, intriguing, characters, while still remaining true to historical fact. The entertainingly accurate acting in both films leaves the performances at a draw, leaving Hitchcock in the lead as the more all around enjoyable film. Post your favorite in the comments!
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