Like with the two competing Snow White movies earlier this year, Hollywood finds itself in the midst of battling Alfred Hitchcock pseudo-biographies this fall; each detailing the production of one of the master director’s seminal films and his relationship with that film’s comely leading lady. Timed for optimum Oscar impact, arriving in November is “Hitchcock,” with Anthony Hopkins as the tumescent filmmaker and a story centered around the making of his touchstone horror classic “Psycho.” And later this month HBO is airing “The Girl,” starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller as Hitchcock and ingénue Tippi Hedren, who the director provoked into starring in both “The Birds” and “Marnie.”
The former picture begins with Hitchcock searching for a worthy follow-up to “Psycho,” one he deems will be “bigger, better, and scarier.” He finds what he’s looking for in “The Birds,” based on a story by Daphne DuMaurier (who wrote the novel that “Rebecca” was adapted from), wherein a shadowy blond woman, visiting a small island community, is ruthlessly and mysteriously attacked by flocks of killer birds. Prompted by a television commercial spotted by his wife Alma (Imelda Staunton, somewhat underserviced by the role), Hitchcock auditions the young Hedren. Seemingly possessing the fortitude to handle the role, the master of suspense quickly casts her in a role Hedren admits half of Hollywood is clamoring after. She has no idea what she’s getting into, though.
The dynamics of the production start off relatively smoothly. The reputation of Hitchcock as a controlling auteur whose sensibilities bordered on the sociopathic had yet to permeate and Miller’s Hedren, fresh-faced and naïve despite already having gone through a divorce (she had also already given birth to a young Melanie Griffith), is unprepared for the physical and mental abuse Hitchcock is about to unload. Hitchcock promises her a controlled environment utilizing mostly mechanical birds; what she receives instead are grueling conditions and constant interaction with real-life birds – birds that scrape and peck and flap their wings menacingly. And then there are the unwanted sexual advances. Initially Hedren is able to rebuff Hitch’s growing flirtations, the off-color jokes he tells and the way he wraps his arms through hers while toasting the production, proclaiming, “To Alfie and Tippi!”
But as his leering become more menacing, the tone of the movie too starts to darken. Initial sequences that showcase production people trying fruitlessly to capture birds at a local dump are replaced with footsteps given an absurd amount of atmospheric weight and a full-on sexual assault in the back of a car, in which Hitchcock cups Hedren’s breast and forces himself on top of her. Somewhat shapeless, structurally, the attack in the car sets the course for the rest of the movie, which more or less follows the pattern of Hitchcock doing something really, really terrible to Hedren and Hedren finding the inner strength to carry on and persevere.
One of the most memorable sequences involves the famous attic scene in “The Birds,” when Hedren’s character goes to take shelter and is attacked, furiously, by birds that have been seemingly lying in wait. Hitchcock orders real birds on set (the trailer ominously warns “don’t let them get at your eyes”) and multiple arduous takes. The way that director Julian Jarrold (“Becoming Jane,” the excellent pending “Red Riding” section) cuts it together makes it feel like nothing less than a siege. The patter of wings becomes unbearable; the scraping of claws; the pecking of beaks: it’s a symphony of torture orchestrated by Hitchcock. And it’s deeply affecting.
The rest of the movie however is nowhere near as effective. While it has a brief running time and a whole lot of personal Hitchcock narrative to squeeze in (including the production of the second movie that Hedren and Hitchcock did together, in spite of everything, “Marnie”), the film feels thin and uninvolving. Besides the conspicuously low budget (the photography is flat and the audio tinny), “The Girl” seems doggedly uninterested in exploring Hedren’s emotional interior. One day she returns to the set of “The Birds” triumphant, with a jet-black crow perched on her shoulder, but the filmmaker never clearly articulates how she arrives in this stronger state of mind. Psychologically Hedren is seen breaking down often, but the audiences is never really granted genuine access to the moments when she builds herself back up. Miller is terrific in the role, but it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t have more to do. Additionally troubling is a shifting perspective. Ostensibly about Hedren, the film vacillates between her and Hitch and it’s never clear whose story this is. And so the picture’s point of view is split, with just as much time devoted to Hitchcock and his surly but supportive wife (who, in a later scene, he says was more like a sister than a wife) than it is about “The Girl.”
Jones does a wonderful job as the creepy filmmaker, the second great Film Festival performance of the month from him (after his tortured sound artist in the gob-smackingly brilliant “Berbarian Sound Studio,” which was part of the first-ever midnight line-up at New York Film Festival), but it feels as if he is playing a character with depth who is forced into a much more two-dimensional corner. As the movie progresses, it becomes darker and darker, with Hitchcock transforming into a more violent and forceful figure in his behavior with Hedren. Had the movie really committed to this conceit, it could’ve been stronger, but Jarrold still toys with distracting winky Hitchcock references (there’s an unmistakable shower head and a set of “Vertigo“-ish stairs) that don’t supply much other than reflexive movie citations that aren’t particularly clever given how iconic the films are. Less overt elements that might seem wise in terms of subliminally exploring the Hitchcock mythos are untapped (like a jazzy title sequence or perhaps an unconciously familar musical score), leaving the audience wondering what could have been.
Additionally, so much history is left on the cutting room floor, including the fact that Hitchcock locked Hedren into her contract even following the near-disastrous filming of “Marnie” (a movie “The Girl” notes is widely considered his final masterpiece — which too quickly discounts “Frenzy“). This basically meant Hitchcock froze her out of work for several years after, effectively crippling her burgeoning career, something that Hedren has bitterly held onto to this day (Miller said as much in the post-screening Q&A). The fact that her recounting of events could have been colored by this heartache is never addressed. Jarrold’s Hitchcock is a larger-than-life villain, both literally and figuratively, but while the movie does much to cast a sort of hypnotic mesmerism on its audience, it doesn’t thrill or intrigue nearly as much as it could. “The Girl,” quite frankly, is for the birds. [C+]