Murder at the Fair

It was like looking into a Fabergé egg last February when Vanity Fair published its loving but completely disturbing recreations of famous Hitchcock movies.

Here on beautiful, perfume-scented pages were carefully wrought miniatures — a photo tribute in which present-day movie stars had been inserted into instantly recognizable stills from Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, each tableau a bit terrifying in its minute exactness. (View the entire spread .)

The reader of these present pages (a soulmate, I feel, with many hours communing with silver shadows in the dark) will understand my sense of — is violation too strong a word, or titillation too frivolous? — confusion then, when I saw film moments I grew up on, eerie Hitchcockian mise-en-scenes whose hypnotic power can still grab me today, even after a lifetime of multiple viewings, reimagined into something rich and strange, a Mashup for the ReMix Generation, a sort of race-record cover version, with very pretty, very clean personnel — and no soul.

Take the photo of Jodie Foster, at right, impersonating Tippi Hedren in The Birds . It neatly conveys the blasphemous charm of Vanity Fair’s born-again confections, disquieting as much for the things they get “wrong” as the things they get “right.”

On the plus side, there is the technical bravura in the shot, as in almost all the Vanity Fair photos, a testament to the diligence and reverence that went into these modern reproductions: The weathered look of the backdrop, the steel-toned palette, the pink flesh stark against the blues — all bring mid-century Hitchcock thrillingly back to life. What is wrong, so instructively wrong, is the pleading, warmly human face of Jodie Foster.

This is not mid-century Hitchcock.

Though Tippi Hedren looks just as engaged in the original shot at right, you need to see her in action to realize how exquisitely arch, how posed and contrived her performance is. And this is exactly what Hitchcock wanted.

After Grace Kelly deserted him (as he surely saw it) for marriage to a minor princeling (Hitchcock was notorious for unhealthy infatuations with his leading ladies), the great director decided he wanted nothing more to do with stars if he could help it. Stars came with built-in associations, the baggage of past roles. They were vibrant personas that connected with audiences. Hitchcock, however, was picking up something new in the air. He wanted something radical: stars who didn’t connect, stars who conveyed a modern isolation.

The director now pointedly chose actresses who had a tendency to appear wooden and uninflected on the screen — limited actresses whose hollow resonances helped define his particular kind of morally vague blonde: Soulless, blank-eyed (think of Janet Leigh driving in Psycho ), they were embodiments of modern anomie, of existential emptiness.