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HBO's The Girl puts a big hitch in the Hitchcock legend

Beauty and the beast redux? Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as leading lady Tippi Hedren in The Girl. HBO photo

What's it all about, Alfred?

But dead men tell no tales, and the "Master of Suspense" has been in the grave for 32 years. That leaves Alfred Hitchcock at the mercy of The Girl, a provocative HBO film drawn from his allegedly obsessive and abusive relationship with leading lady Tippi Hedren, who's still among the living at age 82. The one hour, 35-minute film premieres Saturday, Oct. 20th at 8 p.m. (central).

Starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller as the two principals, The Girl is in part drawn from Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto's 2008 Spellbound By Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies. In its pages, Hedren made her first public accusations that the man who discovered her also wanted to possess her sexually. And if she didn't succumb, he'd short-sheet her career.

The film begins with Hitchcock and his collaborative, plain-faced wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton) glimpsing Hedren in a TV commercial. He's basking in acclaim for Psycho but sees his next film, The Birds, as a perfect vehicle for a largely unknown, untrained blonde. In the pecking order of this 1963 horror-fest, they'd be the real stars and Hedren their main point of attack.

"Hitch," as he prefers women to call him, is soon plying a bowled-over Hedren with expensive wine, dry martinis and witty repartee, all with Alma's approval. She knew the drill. Hitchcock was ever in search of blonde goddesses for his films, and Hedren had the added advantage of being not only beautiful but malleable. Or so it seemed to him.

The Girl has a terrific scene in a restaurant where Alfred and Alma inform her that she's been chosen to star in what he calls "my most ambitious movie ever." Both Hedren and Alma weep with joy. "I'll make you so proud of me," she says. "I'll be putty in your hands."

But during a subsequent rainy day in which filming's on hold, Hitchcock sees Hedren engaged in happy conversation with The Birds' assistant director, Jim Brown (Carl Beukes). It arouses both his jealousy and his appetite for her. And so he pounces, kissing her roughly in the back seat of his chauffeured car until she fights him off.

(HBO publicity materials say that Brown corroborated Hedren's version of events during an interview shortly before his death with The Girl's screenwriter, Gwyneth Hughes. The film is directed by Julian Jarrold, whose credits also include Becoming Jane and Brideshead Revisited.)

Jones, who also portrayed Truman Capote in the 2006 feature film Infamous, looks very much the part of Hitchcock with a little prosthetic assistance. At base level, the famed film director comes off as a sexual predator with a companion fondness for ribald limericks. But Jones also brings out the desperately lonely, self-loathing side of him. And in his own twisted way, he also remains devoted to Alma.

Miller (Stardust, Alfie) convincingly plays Hedren as an ambitious but moralistic beauty. At the red carpet premiere of The Birds, she basks in the full Hollywood treatment with Hitchcock on her arm.

"So you see, it was worth it. The pain and the fear and the loneliness," he tells her. Besides his advances, the indignities included being pecked by real-life birds in take after take after take while Hitchcock appears to be enjoying himself in his director's chair.

They went on to make Marnie together after Grace Kelly became unavailable. That film included a rape scene at the hands of Sean Connery, who is seen only briefly from the back and is played by an unbilled actor. The Girl's epilogue, as does Spotto's book, hail Marnie as the sagging Hitchcock's last "masterpiece." He made just four more films, the last Family Plot in 1976.

Hedren, mother of actress Melanie Griffith (who's portrayed as a little girl in the film), was held to her seven-year contract by Hitchcock after refusing to submit sexually to him however and whenever he wanted. She had few credits of any import after Marnie and in 1994 succumbed to the made-for-TV movie The Birds II: Land's End.

The Girl is basically a two-year snapshot in the lives and times of an acknowledged genius director and the blonde beauty who came to him out of the blue. It diminishes him and elevates her. Whether that's what he deserves is debatable. But real truths invariably come out, and this is a film that convincingly rings with them. The chills and horrors that Hitchcock delightedly visited upon audiences unfortunately did not stop there.