Archive for Evan Hunter

Alfred Christmas Presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2009 by dcairns

Before we run out of Hitchcock Year, I just wanted to run through the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the master, so I can say I’ve done ‘em.

Breakdown is a real mini-masterpiece, reuniting Hitch with two-time collaborator Joseph Cotten. There’s an extremely nice conflation of theme, character and plot in this one, which gives the impression of being a simple exercise in suspense and subjective camera. Many of the best AHPs do this: deceptive simplicity at the service of an idea.

Revenge went out as the series opener, bumping Breakdown into a secondary spot, purely because Hitch was so pleased with Vera Miles. She co-stars with Ralph Meeker in a very dark, upsetting little conte cruel, strong meat for 1950s TV.

The Case of Mr Pelham I’ve already discussed, and it’s a nice, inexplicable fantasy tale with Tom Ewell and Tom Ewell. Hitch’s intro and outro actually expand the story nicely.

Mr Blanchard’s Secret is basically comedy — I think Hitch was often drawn to these episodes as a way of working outside the thriller genre which his feature films committed him to. This is a tiresome, overplayed story, with a very annoying performance by Mary Scott as a crime writer (a frequent Hitchcock character/stand-in) with REAR WINDOW style suspicions about a neighbour. I found this so tedious the first time, I’m deliberately leaving it unwatched in Hitchcock Year. Because nothing should ever be really complete.

Maybe because it’s so dull, the episode escapes mention altogether in Charlotte Chandler’s filmography in It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

Back for Christmas is a marital murder romp (lots of wives and husbands get the chop in these things), undistinguished as a story but enlivened by the presence of John Williams, sometimes called Hitchcock’s most frequent star. Williams also crops up in –

Wet Saturday, a fairly delightful John Collier adaptation with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, another actor Hitch enjoyed greatly. Collier’s stories also graced The Twilight Zone, and one, The Fountain of Youth, got the experimental treatment by Orson Welles. If you haven’t sampled his short fiction, I highly recommend it. In amoral little comedies like this, Hitch’s outro is often used to placate the censor with a tacked-on “happy” or “moral” ending.

One More Mile to Go is another neat little suspense situation, referred to in my PSYCHO post. David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M) plays another sympathetic wife-murderer in search of a body of water to lay his wife to rest in, and pestered by a persistent traffic cop and a faulty tail-light. A lot of these pieces nicely balance the sympathies of the audience, as deftly manipulated by Hitch, with the demands of morality and censorship.

Perfect Crime is enjoyable enough, the story not being anything special, but the pleasure of seeing Hitchcock direct Vincent Price is a unique one.

A Dip in the Pool is a comedy with uncertain sympathies but a very nice twist. Keenan Wynn stars, and it’s nice to see Fay Wray in a supporting role. Spectacular stunt, also (above).

Poison — almost missed this one! Will watch it tonight and report back.

Lamb to the Slaughter is the famous one where Barbara Bel Geddes kills her policeman husband with a leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to his investigating colleagues. Even better than the idea suggests, although it is basically a typical Roald Dahl piece, stronger on its central gimmick that anything else. This shot of BBG seems to anticipate the end of PSYCHO.

The chair against the wall, the slow track in to a smile…

Banquo’s Chair is a fairly predictable story, in which a fake ghost is to be used to trap a killer, but the cast is magnificent: John Williams, Kenneth Haigh, Max Adrian. The VERTIGO echoes are amusing too, with impersonation, faked supernaturalism, a retired detective hero, and a Ferguson.

Arthur is a black comedy about a homicidal chicken farmer, with a lovely sinister and charming perf from Laurence Harvey, and the always-welcome Hazel Court.

Crystal Trench crams most of Fred Zinneman’s 5 DAYS ONE SUMMER into half an hour, with this tale of a woman waiting decades for her lover to be freed from the glacier in which he perished. Evan Hunter, preparing to take the job of writer on THE BIRDS, came by the set, and the block of ice shipped in nearly melted while Hitch entertained Hunter’s attractive wife.

Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is another incredibly drab comedy, with no bad-taste or homicidal element whatsoever — it shouldn’t have been done on the show, let alone by the master himself.

The Horseplayer could be said to have similar issues, but the religious setting is intriguing for Hitch, and the presence of Claude Rains (and Percy Helton!) means the piece can’t be considered a total loss. Quite enjoyable.

Bang! You’re Dead is another masterpiece, and a great note to end on. It’s not the last ever episode of Hitch’s show, but it’s the last he directed himself. The story is so nerve-wracking, Hitch dispenses with humour in his intro in order to justify the torture he’s about to subject us to. It’s a little gun-safety lecture wrapped up in another basic suspense situ: a small boy with a loaded gun. The small boy is Bill Mumy. As he aims the pistol at his mother, neither of them realizing that it’s a genuine weapon, the effect is both frightening and deeply shocking, almost blasphemous. Various parties are placed in danger as the story goes on, and the jeopardy mounts as the kid keeps adding bullets to the gun, so what starts as Russian roulette ends with the certainty of a shot being fired…

Hitch guesses that we don’t expect him have the kid assassinate his own mother, so for the climax he aims the pistol at the family maid. We’re calculating… is Hitch going to go through with this? He wouldn’t kill the other, that would be too much. But maybe the maid? After all, she’s not a family member, she’s not white, she’s not middle-class… You’d think the mother might produce the maximum suspense, but it’s the maid, because she seems more… disposable.

Hitch and his writers have thought it all through, of course.

British readers can support Shadowplay by shopping here:

Fancies and Goodnights (New York Review Books Classics)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 1 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 2 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents : Complete Season 3 [1957] [DVD]

Minnie Q. Thief

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by dcairns

Like THE BIRDS, MARNIE was released by Universal on DVD in the wrong ratio at first. This was the first time Fiona and I have seen it in widescreen.

MARNIE has an unusually protracted history for a Hitchcock film. Hitch had acquired the novel by Winston Graham around 1960 as a vehicle for Grace Kelly, who expressed her willingness to take time off from being a princess in order to star in it. PSYCHO screenwriter Joseph Stefano began work on a script, but when he was halfway through it became clear that Grace would not be available that year, so he stopped work and Hitch threw himself into THE BIRDS. After completing that project, finding Stefano unavailable, he brought BIRDS scenarist Evan Hunter on board, and Hunter produced a complete script (from Hitch’s fairly detailed scene breakdown) but balked at the idea of the hero raping the heroine. Hitchcock removed Hunter from the project and hired Jay Presson Allen, fresh from her success adapting Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the stage. At some point during this gestation, the people of Monaco let it be known that they would not accept their princess playing a sexually dysfunctional thief in a Hitchcock picture, so suddenly Grace was out and Tippi was in.

Winston Graham’s Poldark novels have been adapted by the BBC, and decorated the airwaves in my distant youth (the 1970s): Cornish bodice-ripping yarns, they were. Hitchcock is strangely connected to Cornwall by all the Du Maurier stories set there, although the one time he filmed there it was doubling for the Isle of Man  in THE MANXMAN. With MARNIE, as with THE BIRDS, the English setting would be rewritten for America.

Three films had been made previously in Britain based on Graham stories, including one by Ronald Neame (TAKE MY LIFE), a former camera assistant on BLACKMAIL, and one by Launder and Gilliat (SHE PLAYED WITH FIRE aka FORTUNE IS A WOMAN), the screenwriters of THE LADY VANISHES. Although it doesn’t quite come off, the latter film does seem designed somewhat on the Hitchcock model.

As has often been pointed out, the Hitchcock film MARNIE most relates to is SPELLBOUND: it’s a psychological detective story or, as Hitch says in the trailer, “what one might call a sex mystery, if one used such words.” Role reversal makes the woman the psycho-neurotic character, and imaginative writing changes the investigator from a shrink to a businessman and amateur zoologist (Sean Connery).

A shame Connery didn’t work with Hitch again! They got on extremely well. Hitch said: “He came early, knew his lines, and hit his marks. I was pleasantly surprised. He directed himself and you could always find him.” Connery later recalled that Hitch only offered two pieces of direction: “When I’m listening to another actor I have a tendency to let my mouth hang open, so he would say, ‘I don’t think the audience is interested in your dentistry, Mr Connery.’ And when I’m excited I have a tendency to talk too fast, so he would say, ‘Let’s try that again, only with a few more dogs’ feet,’ by which he meant pauses.”

Since Hitchcock next planned to make MARY ROSE, for which Jay Presson Allen again write the script, and since he planned to star Tippi again, and since the story takes place entirely in Scotland, it’s hard to resist the suspicion that Connery would have been offered a major role. But the failure of MARNIE, and the benign-seeming but ultimately strangulatory control of Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s former agent and now his boss at Universal, put paid to all that.

Theory: I don’t think Universal was ultimately very good for Hitch. They meant well, but by their very benevolence they were more restrictive than another studio might have been. Rather than trying to protect the Hitchcock brand, they might have trusted this highly successful, talented and commercially astute man — a major shareholder in the company but unable to make at least two of his dream projects, KALEIDOSCOPE-FRENZY and MARY ROSE.

After another personalized studio logo, the credits unfold to Bernard Herrmann’s strenuous, strident and anxiety-laden theme, which plays like a love theme with a mental block, lurching to spasmodic halts when it seems to aspire to Wagnerian orgasm: the music of tormented frigidity and suppressed longing.

The superb, Langian opening, with the sexy yellow purse tucked under Tippi’s arm (hey, at least it’s not a pink purse) and the angular jut of the railway station, then the dependably beady-eyed Martin Gabel (see and admire his single directorial outing, THE LOST MOMENT) barking “Robbed!” and a helpful cut to the empty safe.

Now, Hitch was increasingly anxious, one can deduce from his comments, about being “old-fashioned” — he’d stayed with the times and even moved ahead with PSYCHO, though in films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST he’d pursued classical rather than current fashions  to avoid his films dating. In interviews at the time he said that montage was now an old-fashioned approach, so the major safe-robbing suspense highlight of MARNIE was staged in a single shot. His falling-out with Bernard Herrmann on his very next movie was based around his desire that the music should provide “a beat and a rhythm” to appeal to the “young vigorous and demanding” audiences of the 1960s. So MARNIE’s precise, formalist opening, which could come straight from a British thriller of the 30s or a Lang one of the 20s strikes me as an odd note to strike.

MARNIE — an excellent film — was, and often still is, terribly undervalued because it is a film out of its time. Older directors can often make the best films, but they seldom make with-it ones, and attempts to do so are frequently embarrassing. MARNIE succeeds best when it is removed from the fashions of 60s film-making.

Why else is MARNIE thought of as, in William Goldman’s words, an awful, awful film? The dodgy matte paintings and fake process shots are often cited, and there is much to be said against them, no doubt, but that’s a pathetic reason to dismiss an entire film. And indeed, if we accepted it as a valid excuse, we’d have to dismiss practically EVERY Hitchcock film. In fact, these minor flaws are more glaring because Hitch had survived into an era of filmmaking that had moved out of the studio and abandoned the special effect as a means of achieving an outdoorsy feeling. So the problem is one of old-fashionedness, and need not concern us anymore, since every other film from 1964 is now old-fashioned too, in one way or another. As the man says at the end of BARRY LYNDON, “They are all equal now.” Except in terms of quality.

In terms of its script, Jay Presson Allen was as harsh about her job of writing for Hitchcock as Evan Hunter had been about his. She felt she wrote long, linear scenes, and had there been more time, more compression could have livened things up. I tend to agree, but the problem isn’t severe. Hitchcock’s weakness for “quirky” humour is evident in the dialogue, and I do blame him, as filteur if not auteur, of the lines.

SPELLBOUND: “You have mogo on the gogo!”

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: “He probably has his suits mended by invisible weavers.”

MARNIE: “I’m Minnie Q Thief!” and “I’m queer for liars,” and “The idea was to kill myself, not feed the damn fish.”

But these are all quibbles.

Marnie washes her hair, the basin fills with squid-ink, Marnie emerges blonde. Fiona scoffs. NO dye could achieve that effect and then just wash out. I ask if it’s bizarre, Hitch including a detail that half the audience would know was bogus. “Not that many women dyed their own hair back then,” mused Fiona. So maybe only the professionals would be scoffing in ’64.

Marnie’s mom’s house: Hitch was very specific about the whitewashed steps in front. Of course, the setting is utterly unreal, but this is intentional. Designer Robert Boyle, quoted in The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock by Steven Jacobs, said “Hitchcock was trying to get at something you couldn’t see. He was trying to tell a story of things that are not at all overt… He was trying desperately to really dig into the psyche of this woman.”

Having observed the surreal effect of ship’s masts jutting from above the rooftops with no sign of water, Hitch commissioned a painting of the background. To my way of thinking, the best way to achieve that surrealism would be by photographing the reality: I’d feel cheated in a modern film if the director resorted to CGI masts. But there’s something splendid about the painting, it has a primitive/naive quality, and the diminishing perspective with the ship’s hulk crammed in at the end mirrors the train station shot and adds to the film’s sense of constriction and confinement, forward movement but without a sense of freedom.

Again, a musical motif, the children singing in the street. The number of Hitch films WITHOUT some kind of recurring musical element that’s part of the plot is looking awfully small, as we look back on Hitchcock Year from December. Even some of the silents (THE RING, DOWNHILL) foreground source music.

Very bizarre perf from Marnie’s mom. And gray floral wallpaper: what a great design concept: all the patterns of nature, but with the life sucked out.

Casting: the allegation that the film is miscast in the only two roles that matter would be a devastating  fault if true. But Tippi has grown considerably in ability since THE BIRDS, and she has a great trick of letting her voice crack into shrill, little-girl panic when she yells. Connery is maybe the only man who could make Mark Rutland, the arrogant, over-privileged sexual blackmailer (and rapist) remotely appealing. Even more than the Bond films, MARNIE capitalizes on his ability to be both sympathetic and simultaneously a big swinging dick.

(I’ve been quoting plentifully from interviews in Charlotte Chandler’s It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A personal Biography, so here’s some more –)

Jay Presson Allen: “The casting of Sean was amusing. We didn’t know who to get for the part, an upper-class Southern man. [...] One day he said, ‘They’re making one of those Bond books, and I hear the guy who’s doing Bond is worth looking at. Let’s get some footage.’ So we got all this footage of this incredibly handsome young man with that thick Scottish accent. We looked at each other and just burst into laughter. ‘Let’s take him anyway.’ We had no regrets about that. He was darling.”

Fiona’s response to the young Connery: “Help!”

And Allen wasn’t fazed by writing the rape scene. She didn’t view it as rape, but as marital misunderstanding. Hunter worried about how to redeem the character of Mark for the audience. Allen decided to rely on star charisma. Hedren wondered how she could be frigid against Connery. “Fake it,” advised Hitch.

It’s quite a plot. It has been remarked, and perhaps with some justice, that having Connery’s character blackmail Marnie into marriage — so he can “tame” her by curing her psychological malady — opens up all this interesting stuff about how sick HE is (which Marnie helpfully points out: cue tiny eye-roll from Connery, as if to say “But of course, but we’re not talking about me.”) — which the film then doesn’t have time to get into. Marnie is cured, alright, but she’s now married to this controlling, twisted crazy man. Or has he been healed by helping her? He does find some compassion, I guess.

Hitch is actually somewhat evasive about whether Marnie is genuinely cured or just better informed at the end. And his treatment of the mother is very interesting — adding a touch of compassion here, then taking it away. She’s left alone at the end, a prisoner of her ideas of “decency.” There seems a real push-pull towards/away from sympathy.

Diane Baker sure is cute: again, as in THE BIRDS, I find the brunette more attractive than the blonde, but Tippi has come on as a performer  and isn’t threatened by Baker. And in fact, Baker, who regretted that her character didn’t really have an end note, just dropping out of the story, isn’t really necessary. She attempts to sabotage Marnie by inviting her former boss to a party, but he could easily have arrived by mistake, invited by Dad. Remove Baker’s character altogether and you could shave off ten minutes (the movie is excellent but perhaps a little long) without losing anything except some dull exposition where Baker has to overhear stuff, at enormous length, and become suspicious.

What else don’t I like? Not much. The suicide attempt is frankly absurd, and seems to suggest that Marnie isn’t that distressed and doesn’t really want to die, which is the opposite of the intended effect, as far as I can see. The problem with Mark raping Marnie is less that he does so — he’s something of a swine anyway — than that he’s promised not to touch her, and his motivation for this betrayal isn’t sufficiently clear.

Marnie crashing her horse is filmed by Hitch in a fascinating series of angles, the whole assemblage utterly artificial, and several of the shots containing blatant fakery. A real horse was photographed cantering on a treadmill against the rear projection screen, although in one early shot it seems to be standing still, looking around idly as the scenery scrolls past. If the sequence isn’t as electrifying as it ought to be, it has to do with George Tomasini’s cutting. He died shortly after this movie was released, and I wonder if he wasn’t ailing slightly already. Each shot seems to linger a few frames too long, performing its role in the sequence and then lingering on to break the flow and draw attention to its unreality. Even if the horse legs are stuffed and the rear projection is noticeable, the moment ought to work and be painful just by the power of montage. But it’s a little ungainly.

Against these flaws, and accepting the story’s dollar-book Freud, we have an intriguing story, strong leads, and some real cinematic frissons. The big safe robbery is exciting, with Hitch using a split composition to show the robbery and the threat of discovery in a single frame, and the various dream-psychosis effects are all fascinating.

The hand tap-tapping on the window — pan onto Tippi, who is DREAMING THE HAND — pan onto Connery in the doorway who is really there, but silhouetted to resemble the nightmare-mother. Exponential zoom tromboning the family home as if it were made of elastic. Red-outs flaring up along with surges of Herrmann’s freak-out music. Goofy zooming in and out on money, which is kind of daft, and reminds me of THE BURBS, which repeats the effect and also features Bruce Dern.

Marnie’s childhood hiome is located thanks to an unseen private eye named Boyle, a homage to designer Robert Boyle, who helped Hitch “find” all his houses.

That final flashback… one assumes, with symptoms like Marnie’s and a family history like Marnie’s, and the Freud angle looming over everything… one assumes a background of sexual molestation. Yet Bruce Dern seems like he’s trying to be a nice guy. It’s inappropriate, him fussing over the  daughter of the prostitute he’s just paid for, but he appears to mean well. Kind of odd — having seen THE NAKED KISS, I’m aware that Hitchcock could have implied sordid intent in the Dern character (and why cast Dern otherwise? Not meaning to be unkind, but… you know…) so it’s interesting that he makes the poor sailor basically innocent, and bludgeoned to death as a result of two unfortunate misunderstandings.

I found the ending moving, which is not something I’d say about many Hitchcocks. I think Jimmy Stewart achieves pathos via his concern for Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW and his disintegration in VERTIGO, but MARNIE aims for deep identification as one of its primary goals and I felt achieved it. Despite appearing outdated to audiences at the time, it also looks forward to developments in European art cinema, in its concern with subjective states of consciousness and the evocation of disturbed emotions through cinematic language. Hitchcock protects himself with a psychological detective story, but the memorable sequences remain mysterious despite the resolution.

Hitch and Horse and the recurring perspective.

The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock
Marnie

UK: Marnie [DVD] [1964]

Without Feathers

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by dcairns

Hitchcock slows down markedly after PSYCHO — at first because he spent a long time publicizing his monster hit, and then because he developed MARNIE for Grace Kelly, who proved to be unavailable for a year, and then because THE BIRDS was a more elaborate and technically complicated production than anything Hitch had attempted before. From here on, also, there seem to be more false starts, movies that never saw the light of day, screenplays that stalled, writers who fled into the night.

But this movie doesn’t strike me as the obvious start of a decline, not a bit, even if the structure is more flawed than the strong of masterpieces that came before it. Hitchcock seems to have greatly enjoyed working with Evan Hunter, despite misgivings all round about the script’s overlong opening and failure to fully integrate the human drama into the apocalyptic crisis. A letter from Hitch’s old collaborator Hume Cronyn, who was also married to BIRDS co-star Jessica Tandy, neatly skewers the screenplay’s failings — the character tensions have a way of dissipating, leaving nothing for the people to work through except the bird attack: our spoiled heiress heroine Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is already a largely reformed character, the possessive mother (Tandy) isn’t really so terrible. And learning these undramatic facts eats up pages of boring conversation: photographs of people talking. Had these character dilemmas been allowed to fester, they could have actually been resolved via dramatic action at the film’s climax — since they’d all been cleared up, the movie’s ending cause Hitch considerable anxiety.

Another novelty logo, following on from VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO. Hitchcock seems to be the only filmmaker messing with studio logos at this time. Apart from Tashlin. Here, the Universal globe floats in a milky void — the same blank screen of death Jimmy Stewart topples into in the Special Sequence of VERTIGO, perhaps? There may be apocalyptic overtones here. Death for Hitchcock = a blank white screen.

No Saul Bass — the magnificent team built up over the previous movies starts to slowly fragment. But the titles are very good indeed. Hitch, like Kubrick and Wes Anderson, seems to have had a favourite font, although his is more classical than their sans-serif Futura. Bernard Herrmann has an advisory role here, supervising the electronic bird noise score. As with the avian visuals, the soundtrack is a mixture of the real and artificial.

Tasha, our Siamese, reacts blearily to the sound of birds from the TV.

San Francisco — Tippi — small boy whistles. This is a recreation of the TV commercial Hitch first spotted Hedren in. At one point, he’d planned to open on a montage of faces looking upwards at the unexpected cloud of gulls: arguably a stronger opening than this. But maybe too strong? The birds have to slowly flutter into this story.

Departing from Daphne DuMaurier’s short story (this is Hitch’s third DDM adaptation, although he denied any special interest in her work), and seeking perhaps to replicate the structural whammy of PSYCHO’s act II change of direction, Hitch planned with Hunter to begin in screwball comedy mode, dropping in little bird references, then shocking the audience with the ferocity of the second half. Evan Hunter would later regard this as a mistake. Screwball comedy is hard — by the 60s, hardly anybody could do it anymore, and Hunter had no form in this genre. The pet shop scene (with primo Hitchcock cameo) is nice, but then the film devolves into a strangely plodding, procedural account of Tippi’s following Rod Taylor out to Bodega Bay to deliver some love birds. The birds leaning into the curves as Tippi’s Aston Martin whizzes along is possibly the funniest moment in the movie, but feels a little too broad. This may be the problem — screwball is such a stylized tone of comedy, a transition into numinous horror would be an utter clash if you did it properly. So we have a romantic comedy that daren’t be too comical. Which is why the movie picks up enormously when the horror starts.

Then there’s Tippi. I like her fine. Fiona, watching along with me, is more critical. The point where Fiona wins any argument is when Suzanne Pleshette enters the frame. Pleshette is just inherently more interesting. She occupies the eye. We want to know more about her. Turns out the character’s backstory isn’t too exciting, but we’d still rather hear about it than Tippi’s glamorous hi-jinks. (This is the Fiona-and-I “we”, not the royal Kael “we”, you understand.) They’ve done everything they can to dowdy her down, but she’s still more alluring than Tippi, and she’s unusual.

Hitchcock said he found himself pushing the film more towards Tippi’s character POV as he made the film, departing somewhat from his usual predetermined approach. This seems to work: use of POV makes the film seem more like a thriller in the early stages than it ought to, preparing us for the genre-switch. Tippi’s approach to Rod’s place by boat, her leaving the love birds, and her escape, are all shot exactly like a sincere suspense sequence, so that the birdstrike doesn’t totally come out of the blue, so to speak.

With admirable economy, the gull-swoop now gets Rod and Tippi together (unlucky for Tippi: with THE TIME MACHINE and ZABRISKIE POINT on his CV, he’s MR. APOCALYPSE). “It’s just peroxide,” says an attendant townsperson, tending the wound. “You ought to know what that is, judging by the state of you,” remarks Fiona, somewhat cattily, I thought.

So now we’re into “hang around and get to know the folks” mode. There’s Jessica Tandy, as Hitch’s third overbearing mother in as many films (admittedly, Mrs Thornhill, Mrs Bates and Mrs Brenner are varied in other ways) — Hume Cronyn warned that the possessive mom was something of a cliché in American culture at the time. The powerful mom weakens Taylor’s character, then turns out to be weak herself, and the conflict with Tippi fizzles out before the climax. Then there’s the extraordinary Veronica Cartwright, later a genius screamer in ALIEN and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHER (Philip Kaufman version — almost my favourite) who is a terrifying child: every facial feature seems locked in a deadly war of attrition with its neighbours. She totally grew into that striking visage. Here, it’s like it’s growing into her, or something, I don’t even know what I’m saying. Her dialogue, which seems kind of too young for her, kind of emerges in a slightly mechanical way at times, but my God she can freak out. Her hysteria is sensational. A taste of things to come.

And there’s more Pleshette, which is good. And little foretastes of doom, but we’re more than halfway and still waiting for the movie to start. Everybody did notice the script’s front-loaded lumpen-ness, but they couldn’t solve it. Then, all hell breaks loose, and as everybody knew it would, the movie starts to work. Hitchcock, facing the biggest technical challenge of his career, aces it.

The children’s party is good, nasty fun (after we get past the turgid scene between Tippi and Rod, written by Hitch himself, alas), but only a starter before the school mayhem. And the farmer with his eyes pecked out: rammed home by two cuts taking us closer and closer to the orb-less stiff, like James Whale’s intro of Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN. An editing strategy copied numerous times since, notably by Spielberg (who also re-popularized VERTIGO’s exponential zoom trombone effect). The whole farmer scene is knockout. Just the shot of Tandy in the corridor is stunning. And she arrives in a truck with no dust, calmly, and leaves in a truck belching smoke and dust and panic.

The cops are no use at all.

The church scene, coming after that interminable two-hander between Tandy and Hedren, gets things up on their feet again. Hunter had to write extra verses for that song the children sing as the crows gather behind Tippi. Dramatic irony — poignancy — suspense — Hitch’s old line about the bomb under the table, we the audience know it’s there, but they the characters don’t. Tippi innocently puffing away at her ciggie the while.

Special effects mayhem! Cutting so frenetic yet clean and clear, it distracts us from some of the very odd special effects — the fact that the kids aren’t actually running down a hill — or rather, some of them are, the ones farthest from the camera, but the closer ones are on a treadmill in front of a yellow screen (Disney’s sodium vapor process, as grisly as that sounds). In all the madness, there are a couple of fakey shots with hand-operated crows, but a hundred other bits of artifice fly past — literally, fly past — while we’re digesting the one dodgy bird.

It’s all admirably sadistic.

And then the real meat of the film, the diner scene. Evan Hunter was rightly proud of his writing here. John Russell Taylor points out that the drunken Irish doomsayer is derived from various characters in Sean O’Casey’s plays, and a bit from O’Casey himself: JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was worth it in the end. And everybody in that diner is an emblem of human attitudes in the face of disaster, from the bird expert (85-year-old Ethel Griffies, whom Hitch had seen on the London stage as a child, and made a mental note of: “Must work with her someday!”) to the hysterical woman who scapegoats Tippi. It’s like THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, and also it’s the inspiration for THE MIST: Frank Darabont and Stephen King spun a whole movie out of this one sequence.

Charles McGraw! I never even realized he was in it before. When you meet him in a diner, as in THE KILLERS, you know you’re in trouble. I never recognized him because his face, described I think by The Guardian‘s John Patterson as “as beautiful as a knife,” has softened with age, become NORMAL. A shame.

Chaos! I dig the exploding man, but I don’t particularly dig those short static cuts of Tippi watching the burning petrol flow. It’s an interesting idea but for me it doesn’t come off. If the cuts were shorter? They’re already unusually short… Of course, naturalistically, Tippi should be in motion, her head turning to follow the burning gasoline. The idea of presenting that fluid motion in a series of snapshots is dramatic and striking, but it feels awkward. Some people have looked at it and said that Tippi Hedren can’t act, but if the sequence seems unconvincing it can’t be blamed on her: the reaction shots seem strange because of the stylization, not the performance.

After the gas station explodes, the ultimate Hitchcock God Shot, from on high, looking DOWN on the birds looking down on the scene of their triumph. A multiple exposure effect, with the fire filmed on the Universal lot, a matte painting by Albert Whitlock supplying the landscape, and matted-in gulls.

Tippi in the phone box as all hell breaks loose does remind me unfortunately a little of the “panic” scenes in AIRPLANE, with everyone screaming and shouting — the possibility of a topless woman or a couple of fencers passing through frame seems imminent. But soon we are back in the diner for the conclusion of that little play.

And the final siege of the house is excellent — particularly this slow pull-back, which seems like a foretaste of Sam Raimi and THE EVIL DEAD. This is where the character stuff should get settled, and there are hints of it, but I think Hitch may have been saving something for the climax — which he chose not to shoot. So Rod’s final choice between his mother and his lover isn’t quite there. In fact, that conflict is then folded away by the attack on Tippi in the attic. Of course, there’s no reason for her to go up there, but I have a feeling that if you watched the film in a cinema, the question wouldn’t arise. When two watch it together on DVD, one will always ask, “Where does she think she’s going?”

And the reason the bird attack doesn’t get the same praise as the shower scene in PSYCHO despite being possibly more elaborate, more brutal and more elegantly made, is that the soundtrack doesn’t back up the shock effect. The fluttering of wings is neither gently enough to make a striking contrast with the violence, nor loud enough to reinforce it the way Herrmann’s score does in the previous movie. Plus, I do think the scene might have been better darker, with the shaking flashlight doing more to dazzle the audience. That kind of piercing  optical pain would really enhance the effect.

Fiona does allow that Tippi is excellent at being shellshocked in greige lipstick. Indeed, all the heroines do excellent shock and terror (only Suzanne is a tough cookie).

Escape — through an apocalyptic birdscape (in the name of realism, everything should be streaked and striated white, until it forms a blinding void like the one the Universal logo sits amid at the film’s start). Note the convertible. Hunter’s scripted climax would have had the birds attack the car as it races off along winding roads, pecking the roof to shreds to get at the tasty, expensive morsels within. At the last moment, some kind of Marnie-esque Freudian revelation, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, was added by Hitch, so that Tippi comes to terms with her absent mother just as the roof flies off the Aston Martin, and then they escape. The idea of a bird-dominated San Francisco, with our feathered friends lining the Golden gate Bridge, was discussed, but never seriously plotted as part of the script.

Hunter was horrified by the additional lines, but equally horrified by Hitch’s deletion of the ending (Note: Hunter had his problems with Hitch, and certainly was very critical of THE BIRDS, but he loved and respected the director and would have liked to work with him again). What does the ending, as it stands, say? I think as a kid I experienced it as an abrupt halt, almost SIMON OF THE DESERT style, abruption + incompletion. Sort of what Hitch seems to have intended. The widescreen DVD, however, has followed Hitch’s original wishes and removed the THE END title (I think that’s the case — or maybe that title was never there and it’s the final Universal logo he objected to? Anyone know for sure?). And my feeling this time, as we stray behind with the roosting birdies, os that they’ve won. Our fleeing humans have nowhere to go and can’t outrun the next attack, but that’s not even the point. This little spot belongs to the birds, and this is the wave of the future.

This, it seems, is exactly what Evan Hunter disliked, this sense of doom and hopelessness. Rarely has an ending in which a family drive off into the sunrise seemed so bleak.

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