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Shadow of a Director: How 2012 Became the Year of Hitchcock

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Move over Garbo, Marilyn, John Wayne, and Kristen Stewart! Thirty-two years dead, Alfred Hitchcock this year supplanted any other pretenders to the role of the dominant icon in the history of world cinema.

Not only was “Vertigo” for the first time voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade poll organized by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine, but the BFI ran a comprehensive three-month Hitchcock retrospective at its Southbank theaters in London. Writing in the current Film Comment magazine, Richard Combs records how, as part of this event, 900 people assembled in front of the British Museum wearing cardboard cutout masks of the jowly master of suspense before a screening of a restored print of Hitchcock’s silent “Blackmail” – the remarkable accompanying photo suggests there’s a streak of Hitch in everyone.

As a personality rather than as filmmaker, however, Hitchcock has twice been given the warts-and-all treatment this year. In Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” which opens tomorrow, Anthony Hopkins portrays him as a lugubrious dispenser of one-line quips who’s distracted from filming “Psycho” by the suspicion that his wife and chief scenarist, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), is having an affair. Inevitably, he metes out his sexual rage on Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh when, dissatisfied with the filming of the shower scene, he frenziedly mock-slashes her with Norman Bates’s huge phallic knife. That the movie is, disarmingly, a comedy is underscored by the serial killer and necrophile Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) showing up as the addled director’s alter ego.

Even less hagiographic is Julian Jarrold’s HBO film “The Girl,” about the director’s sexual harassment and vicious treatment of Tippi Hedren during the filming of “The Birds.” Toby Jones captures the veiled menace in the initially bland friendliness his unerringly accurate Hitchcock shows toward the actress (Sienna Miller) — the pale and fragile rabbit caught in his headlights. (Imelda Staunton’s Reville, played in “The Girl” as the director’s enabler, is more convincing than Mirren’s more independently minded incarnation.)

Since the benign “Hitchcock” ends with a sight gag that ushers in the filming of “The Birds,” it’s axiomatic that Gervasi’s and Jarrold’s films will one day be shown back to back at a Hitchcock festival. They will do nothing to impair his legend, which will get a further massage with next year’s “Bates Motel,” A&E’s straight-to-series “Psycho” prequel which stars the English actor Freddie Highmore as the young Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his widowed mother Norma. How weird and yet apposite that the still (above) released by the cable channel on Tuesday should echo Andrew Wyeth’s grief-laden painting “Christina’s World.”

With “Rear Window” scheduled for Broadway treatment, the new age of Hitchcockiana isn’t over yet — a revival of Terry Johnson’s “Psycho”-related play “Hitchcock Blonde” must surely follow.

Image: Top: Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in “Bates Motel”/Courtesy A&E, Left: Alfred Hitchcock/Courtesy Wikipedia

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