The Birds and Marnie are two of the earliest Alfred Hitchcock films that I saw, and I wore down those VHS cassettes until they were virtually unwatchable. The former is a relentless horror-suspense film that made audience reconsider the nature of birds; the latter is a deeply psychological love story on par with Vertigo. HBO’s Original film The Girl explores these two films and the relationship between Hitchcock’s boyish crush and cruelty towards his new “cool” blonde, actress Tippi Hedren.
Alfred Hitchcock (Toby Jones) has attained an unfettered control of his films and is looking to follow up his most horrific film, Psycho, with The Birds. After his wife Alma (Imedla Stauynton) spots Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) modeling for a commercial, she is quickly brought in, screen-tested, and offered the starring role in the film. Hitchcock showers her with the glamor that his female stars and their roles require, but his obsession for her goes unrequited.
You have to be crazy to be a director. You can still be intelligent, brilliant, perhaps even a genius. But you still need to have that inherent craze to communicate cinema to an audience. When you are a strict auteur, it is even worse. Hitchcock was in top form in the early 1960s. Psycho changed horror films forever, North by Northwest, was the epitome of his wrong man theme, and Vertigo, although passed by in its initial release, would be eventually seen as a masterpiece, and re-seated Citizen Kane on Sight & Sound’s top ten films of all time earlier this year.
Hitchcock had an embarrassingly difficult time keeping blonde actresses for more than a film or two, most of the time for legitimate reasons. Vera Miles, who stared in The Wrong Man, became pregnant prior to Vertigo, only to arise again in Psycho. Hedren was a chance to woo her to remain with him. She was relatively unknown, a model who wanted to turn to acting, and a woman who was gracious for the attention. Yet, Hitchcock used to attention from women. He is surrounded by them, and their roles in his personal and professional life are clearly imperative. Alma is the one to spot Hedren at first, and his personal assistant (Penelope Wilton), helps him manage his empire.
Some directors are notorious for getting under the skin of their actors to provoke bombastic performances. We see a perfect example in The Girl when Hedren, who is originally told that a scene will include fake birds, is instead subjected to nearly fifty takes of being attacked by real birds. The cuts and bruises are real, as is the horror that is evoked in Hedren’s eyes. This cruelty is a reaction to Hedren’s rebuff from the previous day when Hitch jumped her in a limo. It is indicative of Hitchcock’s boyish regression and his reactionary resentment, especially when he sits emotionless from his director’s chair. He represents the voyeurism that exists in all his films, and is an innate aspect of cinema in general.
From early in the film, Hitch recites childish limericks that are often vulgar; slight jokes where he would never crack a smile. Hitchcock’s screenwriter at the time even asks if it is supposed to be funny. “As is well known, I have no sense of humor whatsoever.” This mix of juvenile desire to partake in infidelities, retain his British humor, and his dominance of power in film production from top to bottom, Hitchcock continues to assert his power towards his subjects, and his actress at the time will always bear his physical and metaphoric weight.
Hitchcock is the embodiment of modernity, especially in cinema. His career began just prior to the talkies and would span into the mid-1970s. He invented and mastered many of the tropes and conventions that would become common place in every moving image. He was one of the few filmmakers to make use of psychoanalysis to augment his films, and The Girl attempts to psychoanalyze Hitchcock. Too late; he seemed to do it to himself over the course of his six decade career.
Toby Jones only slightly resembles Hitchcock, but is voice is spot on. As is his dark, but boyish obsession. Then again, many of Hitchcock’s films are about obsession and manipulation. Thus, The Girl provides a historical document to relay how Hitch dealt with these themes in his films and in own life. Sienna Miller also only passingly resembles Hedren, but she does embody the gracefulness that nearly all the blondes in Hitchcock’s films for the 1950s through the 60s exhibited.
Essentially, The Girl is merely a document to explain the intense production backgrounds of Hitchcock’s last two critically acclaimed films. Imitating one of the most physically and artistically iconic filmmakers in the 20th century is no easy feat, and the representation of Hitchcock falls short. The Girl, while certainly entertaining in its backstage drama, is pedestrian in its visual execution. The worst is towards the end; Hitchcock is walking up a spiraling stair case, similar to his inventive scene in Vertigo. Hitch stomps up the stairs a defeated man, on the way shoot the last scene in the Marnie.