Was Hitchcock Psycho?

Alfred Hitchcock: genius or monster, or both?

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Suzanne Tenner/Fox Searchlight

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock

Rehearsing Janet Leigh for the shower scene in Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock comes at the nude actress, Mrs. Bates’s knife in his hand, displaying murderous intent as he slashes and stabs, leaving Leigh shaken. For a sequence in The Birds in which gulls attack Tippi Hedren in an attic, he replaces the promised prop creatures with live gulls that peck away until Hedren is bleeding and traumatized. The scene takes a week to shoot, not the single day Hedren expected. By the end Hitchcock, furious at Tippi for rejecting his clumsy displays of passion, realizes that he has staged an assault for his pleasure, his crew’s horror and her shame.

Did these little on-the-set atrocities actually occur? Maybe; a director will try anything to get a suitable reaction from his performers — shock therapy included. Does it matter? As Hitchcock said to his frequent leading lady Ingrid Bergman, “It’s only a movie.” Or, now, a pair of movies. In a combination punch unprecedented in cinema, two docudramas have appeared about the same director shooting consecutive films. In theaters there’s Hitchcock, on the making of the 1960 Psycho, which stars Anthony Hopkins and which Mary Pols has already reviewed for TIME.com. The other film is The Girl, with Toby Jones as Hitchcock; this HBO feature reimagines the director’s relationship with Hedren while filming The Birds in 1962.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Hitchcock)

No one loved inside-Hollywood stories more than Hollywood people did. They figured that the little people in the dark were as fascinated by moviemaking as they were, and they spangled film history with many bright or corrosive tributes to their line of work, from What Price Hollywood and A Star Is Born (three versions, spanning 40 years) to Singin’ in the Rain, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Last Tycoon and, just last year, The Artist. These were all fictions, though they hinted at the careers of real-life actors and producers.

Eventually, as artistic license expanded, and screenwriters started running short on their own ideas, the movies and TV turned to star bio-pics: Grace Kelly, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Audrey Hepburn and, this weekend on A&E, Liz & Dick with Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor and Grant Bowler as Richard Burton. Very few films — the TV movie RKO 281, about Citizen Kane, and My Week With Marilyn, about The Prince and the Showgirl — detailed the making of a single movie. Never two depicting the same director.

(SEE: the 10 most memorable scenes from Hitchcock movies)

But Hitchcock is different. A crafty promoter of his films and his image, he gave himself a brief cameo in each movie, reminding the audience of the droll little fat man behind the camera. As the host of his own TV series, which began in 1955 and continued for a decade in half-hour and hour-long formats, he was surely the world’s most famous director; and his sense of humor about his pudgy face, spherical stature and sepulchral diction — like the Tex Avery cartoon character Droopy Dog, but with an English accent — cued audiences to his tone of macabre comedy. By the time of Psycho and The Birds, he was better known to audiences than the films’ putative stars. The movies, the TV shows and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (a monthly founded in 1956 and still publishing) all exploited the image of the mordant cherub taking pleasure in telling ghastly tales. So Hopkins and Jones aren’t the first actors to play fictional versions of Hitchcock; Sir Alfred beat them to it.

“Well, I guess he’s like any great artist,” someone says of Alfred Hitchcock in the Hopkins film — “impossible to live with, but it’s worth the effort.” Well, indeed. No film employee in the late 1950s referred to any Hollywood director as a “great artist”; that phrase was reserved for Leonardo and the Impressionists. And Hitchcock, whose thrillers had earned him the respectful-demeaning term Master of Suspense, never received the highest acclaim of the industry that made so much money from his movies.

(FIND: the two, or actually three, Hitchcock films on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Nominated five times for the Best Director Oscar (for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window and Psycho), he won none, while lesser talents like Fred Zinnemann, George Stevens and Daniel Mann picked up the statuettes and the A-list acclaim. The one honorary Oscar he received, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, was typically given to “creative producers,” not for directorial achievement. The lack of peer recognition rankled Hitchcock, though in public he remained puckishly stoic. Of the Oscar snubbings, he might have given the same reply as when he was asked in 1980, just before his death, why it took so long for the Queen to give him his knighthood: “a matter of carelessness.”

History has rectified the industry’s carelessness. The critical and inside-movie verdict on Hitchcock has escalated from clever craftsman to great artist. In a Sight & Sound poll of film critics this summer, Vertigo was voted the best film of all time, dethroning the five-decade champ Citizen Kane. The selection certified Hitchcock’s primacy in the brilliant creation of images that exposed the apprehensions and fears of his characters and his audience. His best films bear the thumbprint of a great artist and, possibly, the steel grip of a sadistic voyeur.  Those are the poles between which Hitchcock and The Girl dance.

(READ: Corliss on Vertigo, not Citizen Kane, as the best-ever film)

The novelist and art critic John Berger said that the camera is a man watching a woman. The movie audience is a collective voyeur; the customers sit in the dark, watching the giant screen — a rectangular keyhole, a rear window — that affords them a safe view of the pleasures, torments and bodies of beautiful people. The film director is the audience’s mediator: the man beside the camera telling an actress what to do. He manipulates her and, by extension, us.

Sometimes in a Hitchcock film, and particularly in Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho, “watching” is the subject. Anthony Perkins peers through a hole in the wall to watch Janet Leigh in her Bates Motel room; the arousal he feels as she undresses stirs the murderous instincts of Mother Bates. In the other two films, James Stewart played men, disabled physically or emotionally, who become obsessed by the missing woman across the courtyard, the elusive blond in the bell tower. Vertigo doesn’t deserve the ultimate accolade of the Sight & Sight poll, but it is surely Hitchcock’s creepy crowning achievement in implicating moviegoers in his own cinematic fetish — voyeurism, the movies’ essential impulse, raised to art.

(READ: Christina White on the 2001 Hitchcock exhibition in Paris

In a lifetime of watching movies, and a long time writing about them, I’ve rarely cared much about the psychological process of their creation. Are directors meanies? Some, probably. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the great and strange German filmmaker, enjoyed humiliating his performers; and I recall one actor saying that Otto Preminger, also a notorious tyrant on the set, was “the very worst person in the world,” adding the caveat, “now that Hitler’s dead.” Other filmmakers may be pussycats, camp counsellors, benevolent shrinks, best friends. What’s certain about top male directors, especially those lacking matinee-idol looks, is that they make movies for two reasons: to express their unique vision of the world, and to control beautiful women. On the set the actress must please her director, “do it again” until she “gets it right”; and he must encourage, seduce or terrify his performers to make this piece of time a memorable one for the audience.

In the droll intros and outros that James Allardice wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the director seems a natural showman who knew how to ingratiate himself with viewers by poking fun at his looks and tone. His conversation was gamier on the set, where he would say to actors who hadn’t worked with him before, “Call me Hitch. Hold the cock.” But his raillery may have been been the preemptive defense mechanism of a man who deflects the public derision he anticipates by turning his physical liabilities into comic assets. His famous persona might have been real, or a sunnier version — even an inversion — of the private, agonized Hitchcock. Either way, he fit the mold of the little man in the director’s chair, exercising his power over glamorous actresses. At least on the set.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s memorial to Alfred Hitchcock)

Both of the new bio-pics allege that Hitchcock tended to fall in love — and not always the nice kind of love — with his leading ladies. Especially the blonds: from Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps in 1935, when he was still in Britain, through Joan Fontaine and Carole Lombard in the Hollywood ’40s and up to his defining goddess Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Why the light-haired heroines? Because, he said in a quote cited in The Girl, “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the  bloody footprints.”

The snow melted, but the blonds didn’t; Hitchcock is said to never have consummated an affair with any of his leading ladies. Even on screen, as he saw it, they reneged on the faith he invested in them. (“Why do they always betray me?” Hopkins says in Hitchcock.) Kelly’s abruptly retirement from movies, at 26, to become Princess Grace of Monaco, hit Hitchcock hard. To fill the void, he turned to Doris Day, Vera Miles, Kim Novak (turned platinum blond in Vertigo) and Eva Marie Saint (sporting an improbably yellow coiffure North by Northwest). He had wanted Miles to star in Vertigo, but she became pregnant — more treachery against the Master. In the making-of-Psycho movie he is consistently rude to Miles (Jessica Biel), in a supporting role as the sister of Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). And in The Girl, the Toby Jones Hitchcock says, “I do hate it when actresses get pregnant.”

(READ: Five Ways Psycho Changed Cinema)

Hitchcock, scripted by John J. McLaughlin from material in the Stephen Rebello book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is the more indulgent bio-pic. The title (like Lincoln) suggests a synoptic view of its subject but is really one chapter in a complex life. The movie argues that Hitchcock, just turned 60, felt he was considered passé in Hollywood — an odd theory, since his previous picture, North by Northwest, was one of his biggest hits  — and wanted Psycho to prove he had not lost the innovative skills he showed three decades before, as a young director of silent and early sound films in Britain. “I just want to feel that kind of freedom again,” he tells his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Born a day after Hitchcock, and married to him for 53 years, Reville was a film editor when he entered the industry; she helped write some of his first pictures and consulted closely with him on all of them.

Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasiinflates this presumption of Reville’s importance and, in the process, downplays the crucial contributions of novelist Robert Bloch (who received only about $5,000, and no royalties, for film rights to the book that made Hitchcock a fortune) and screenwriter Joseph Stefano (whose long dialogue scenes between Perkins and Leigh give Psycho its poignant emotional heft). Stefano gets just one scene in Hitchcock, in which he tells the director he spends a lot of time in therapy talking to his shrink about “the usual things: sex, rage, my mother…” In Hitchcock’s tight smile, a light snaps on. This is the writer to get inside the mind of Norman Bates.

(READ: TIME’s Q&A with Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi)

Hopkins’ Hitchcock, a tall gent encased in preposterous makeup, touches the requisite bases of voyeurism. Like Norman, he has a hole drilled into his office wall for spying on his actresses in the act of undressing. “You see,” the movie’s Vera Miles says to Leigh, “He’s always watching.” He is keenly attentive to Leigh’s thin voluptuousness — as who wasn’t? — and relishes the prospect of two scenes of Leigh in a bra and another nude in the shower. In his 1966 book-length conversation with François Truffaut, Hitchcock speaks of Psycho‘s opening scene, with Leigh and John Gavin in bed, saying, “Janet Leigh should not have been wearing a brassiere… The scene would have been more interesting if the girl’s bare breasts had been rubbing against the man’s chest.” Interesting because it would immediate put the audience in Norman’s place —and Hitchcock’s — avidly gazing at a gorgeous woman in an intimate moment. But impossible under the strictures of the Hollywood Production Code, which allowed no nudity until the late ’60s.

The movie says that, if Psycho were denied a Production Code seal, it would not have been shown in U.S. theaters. That’s bunkum. In the mid-’50s Preminger released two films without a seal, The Moon Is Blue and The Man With the Golden Arm, and the second film played across the country, made a good deal of money and earned Frank Sinatra an Oscar nomination. Hitchcock also has Psycho being shot on the Paramount lot, not at Universal, where Hitchcock produced his TV shows and made the film on the cheap ($800,000) with his TV crew. And it blithely consigns Vertigo to the flop pile (the movie did fairly well in its initial release), so that Hitch can wonder, while preparing Psycho, “Am I making a terrible mistake? What if it’s another Vertigo?” As in: the greatest film of all time?

(READ: Corliss’ 1984 tribute to Hitchcock and Vertigo

But Hitchcock is only peripherally interested in the facts of the Psycho shoot. It wants to be the love story of two middle-aged artists, Alfred and Alma, recharging their creative and connubial batteries. The movie gives her, not him, a romantic flirtation, with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston); Alma skips off to Santa Barbara with Cook while Hitch stands fretfully next to his refrigerator bingeing on foie gras flown in from Paris. Alma deserves to be at the center of the film only because she is played by Mirren, who has radiated smart and sexy throughout her 45-year film career. (Mirren should have played M in the latest Bond films, and Judi Dench the stern, mousy Alma.) It almosty makes sense that Hitch says, at the end, “I will never find a blond as beautiful as you.”

“I’m lost without her,” says Toby Jones’s Hitch of Imelda Staunton’s Alma in The Girl, the nastier and better of the two films. The movie sees the director in a more caustic aspect, and Alma as not his savior but his enabler, wearing the sly smile of a child complicitous in a nasty prank. Hitch, who still pines for Grace Kelly and is still pissed at Vera Miles’s perfidy through pregnancy, seeks a brand new blond as the lead in The Birds, his first feature after Psycho. He casts Hedren (Sienna Miller), a model with no acting experience, believing that he can mold her into an actress: “She’ll have nothing to unlearn.” (This is odd, considering how indifferent Hitchcock was to actors’ pleas for tipis on motivation.) And then, like Pygmalion to Galatea, he will win the love of his creation.

(READ: TIME’s 1963 story on The Birds)

It doesn’t quite happen that way. In The Girl, directed by Julian Jarrold (Red Riding 1974), Hitch presses his bulk amorously on Tippi during a limo ride, calls her drunkenly on Christmas Day, submits her to five days of bird pecking for the attic scene and tells her, more or less as the terms of her contract, “I want you to make yourself sexually available to me at all times, whatever I want you to do, whenever I want you to do it.” When she refuses, and he calls her “cold as marble,” she replies, “No, you had that whole thing wrong way round, Hitch. You took a living breathing woman, and you turned her into a statue.” For all his predation, Hitch is still as naively hopeful as a teenager with his first crush. When he confesses, “I love you,” and she cries, “No,” and runs away, he whispers, as Tippi, “I love you too. I love you, Hitch.”

With a screenplay by Gwyneth Hughes, from Donald Spoto’s gossipy biography The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, the movie is fully in Hedren’s corner; the actress receives a thanks at the end, along with the legal proviso that “some of the events and characters have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.” Spoto’s book brims with juicy anecdotes on the shooting of The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock’s next film, also with Hedren. One is that Hitch sent Tippi’s daughter Melanie Griffith, then five, a doll that resembled her (or her mother), in a gift box shaped like a coffin. On a Los Angeles panel this summer, Hedren, now 82, recalled that at the end of an early screening of The Girl, “nobody moved, nobody said anything — until my daughter Melanie Griffith jumped up and said, ‘Now I need to go back into therapy’.”

(READ: Coverage of Tippi Hedren’s remarks on Hitchcock and The Girl)

Jones has been cast in the “other” bio-pic before: he played Truman Capote in Infamous, which was released just after Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for Capote. (Jones has also impersonated Karl Rove, Swifty Lazar and, in the Harry Potter films, Dobby the House Elf.) Maybe he caricatures Hitchcock, but only to embody the ruthlessness that helps a movie director get things done; if they fear you, they’ll do what you want. As he says to Tippi, “There’s only so much I can teach you through kindness.” For Hedren, that means “He wants to get inside me and squeeze me till there’s nothing left.” But in this game of survival, she eventually wins. After finishing her last scene in Marnie, Tippi strides off the set, her face wreathed in a just-got-out-of-prison smile. Hitchcock, in impassive closeup, says, “Cut.”

In real life, or rather in real screen life, Hedren exuded a frostiness, a mannequin chill, that made the women she played tough to empathize with. (She had only a minor career post-Hitch.) Miller’s face is alive with character and intelligence; in that sense she’s an excellent actress but the wrong Tippi. And the real Hitchcock: genius or monster, or both? While his mannerisms are obvious, his interior life remains elusive. Besides, his strategies on the set matter much less than the mordant glories he put on film. And that should be all we care about — we, Hitchcock’s pawns and avatars, in the dark movie house, waiting to be thrilled, and watching, watching.