Hitchcock hits the big screen yet again

“Hitchcock,” based on the life of the famous director, comes to Milwaukee on Dec. 7. Photo via impawards.com

Great director Alfred Hitchcock is invading American theaters once again, albeit this time as the focus of a biopic about his life.

“Hitchcock,” coming out Dec. 7 in Milwaukee after a limited release last Friday, is the most recent attempt to portray the famed director on screen, with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. “The Girl,” an HBO film released earlier this year, is another attempt that focuses on the director’s obsessive relationship with actress Tippi Hedren.

Patrick McGilligan, a Marquette professor, film historian and author of the Hitchcock biography “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” has yet to see “Hitchcock.”

“Honestly, it’s outside my purview of thought,” McGilligan said. “It doesn’t strike me as a serious film. It might be good, the performances might be good, but the ideas of the film sound kind of funny. It’s based on a good book, but they drag everything into it, including taking stuff from my book. It’s more of a hodge podge of entertainment.”

Although McGilligan has not seen the movie, he already sees some flaws in the way the film presents events in Hitchcock’s life, most notably an alleged affair between his wife Alma Reville and the screenwriter of “Psycho.” The affair, which McGilligan researched and brought to the fore, was not in the source material for “Hitchcock.”

“(The filmmakers) adopted it and put it into their film out of context and out of chronology,” McGilligan said. “In other words, I’m writing about it taking place in the 1940s. They put it in 1960 because they are creating this hodge podge fiction. If I were an ordinary person, I wouldn’t care. As a historian, I am offended.”

For McGilligan, a film that went in the direction similar to the recent biopic “Lincoln” would be a better presentation of the real Alfred Hitchcock. McGilligan said a serious character study of the famous director would be “profoundly interesting, moving and valuable.”

“I think in the case of ‘Hitchcock’, there’s not an attempt to present the real Hitchcock,” McGilligan said. “There’s an attempt to present an entertaining film revolving around the making of ‘Psycho’ and a suped-up idea of Alma’s love affair with the screenwriter. To me, that’s the wrong way to go.”

In addition to “Hitchcock” and “The Girl” being released this year, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” was named the best film of all time by the Sight & Sound critics’ poll this year, Hitchcock’s first film as a director – “The Pleasure Garden” – premiered last year in London after being restored, and his first film with a credit – “The White Shadow” – was found in New Zealand after it was thought to be lost.

McGilligan said there is not a definitive answer as to why 2012 has seen such a resurgence for the director. But various waves of new Hitchcock material seem to have created a domino effect.

“After his death, there was a period of quiescence while the films, which were owned by Universal, were restored and rereleased theatrically,” McGilligan said. “That started a little wave. After that was video, DVD and now Blu-Ray. And the centenary fell during that period of time, and additional books got a lot of attention, including mine.”

McGilligan said that as time goes on, people start reflecting more on Hitchcock, leading to material that deals with his life and works. Today, people still revere him for his work and are making films to pay homage.

“A lot of avenues of research and thought about him opened up, and people started to think of him differently and maybe even more nostalgically than before,” McGilligan said. “So we look back on someone like that now as not only someone who still has something to say to us in his film, or just entertain us, but as someone who is an exemplar.”

Despite filmmakers looking back to Hitchcock as inspiration for their work today, McGilligan believes people still respond to Hitchcock’s movies because they are entertaining and the subject matter appeals across generations.

“Not all, but most of them are about some convergence of sex and violence – sometimes domestic violence, sometimes political violence and terrorism,” McGilligan said. “Those are always very modern concerns. Every generation is interested in those. They are modern ideas, and he was a very subversive, modern filmmaker.”

According to McGilligan, Hitchcock’s efforts to make each film his own still resonates with people today.

“In sly ways, he fought censorship, and in sly ways, he fought the producers,” McGilligan said. “He was determined to make his own mark on whatever film he was making. And that mark was a very strong personality, ideas of what was entertainment and evolving sex and violence … and always with something that nobody can replicate, which is the Hitchcock humor, a dark humor with sly innuendos.”

McGilligan said many directors today aspire to reach the level of sophistication of a Hitchcock film.

“You either see Hitchcock’s influence in their work – somebody like Spielberg – or you see someone who has absorbed that and moved on to doing something different,” McGilligan said. “You see the lessons of Hitchcock in the best filmmakers today, and they all want to make a film that’s that well thought out and controlled scene by scene.”

To McGilligan, no other director has the level of fame of Hitchcock. Besides being a recognizable brand, the director is famous for 10 or 15 films and has a name familiar to people around the world.

“He’s the only film director before 1970 about whom you can make a film called ‘Hitchcock,’ or you can have a T-shirt that says ‘Hitchcock’ or even just have a picture of his face and go anywhere around the world and everyone immediately knows what it is and they have an idea of what kind of film Hitchcock makes,” McGilligan said. “In terms of film directors, there is no one like him.”