Archive for The Birds

Legion

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on April 3, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being struck by the fact that in Scorsese & Schrader’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Jesus (who has drawn a magic circle, like Murnau’s FAUST) is visited in the desert by Satan, who takes not just three forms ~

A snake (which explodes); a lion (which fades away in a dissolve); a column of fire (which dissipates in a gust of wind) ~

Satan also appears via a series of cinematic devices ~

Tracking shot (snake). Scorsese doesn’t shoot this as snake POV — we’re at Jesus’ eye level, not the snake’s, gliding in. But when the snake rears up to address the Messiah, the camera rises also, as if representing the POV of a much bigger, unseen snake.

Cut (lion). Before we see the (rather gentle, wise-looking big cat, voiced by PEEPING TOM scribe Leo Marks), there are two cuts taking us closer to Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, moving straight down the line at him, no angle change, kind of like the Frankenstein monster’s first appearance, or the eyeless farmer’s discovery in THE BIRDS. There’s a (rather appropriate) horror movie theme developing here…

Crane (fire). The camera swoops down majestically just before the Lynchian flame-column appears.

I have no coherent theory to offer here. Other than that Scorsese’s restless imagination and bulging repertory of cinematic tricks compels him to emphasise not the similarity of the three visits (one character, visited by another, three times) but their difference (since similarity is taken care of by the Aristotelian unities at play: time, place and action are consistent, as are theme and character).

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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.

After the Cat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-614526If you have enjoyed this image, may I recommend Chickens in the Movies by Jon Stephen Fink.

TO CATCH A THIEF is, at times, more than lightly likable. Hitch was on a roll, and if this movie sets him fewer technical and conceptual challenges than his most ambitious works, it nevertheless shows him at such a peak of skill that he and his team can’t go five minutes without achieving a beautiful effect.

Hitch had bought David Dodge’s book for Transatlantic — I wrote here of a precursor to the story — to make as an independent movie, but finally made it as part of his Paramount deal. Cary Grant, a one-time acrobat himself, must have been the first and only choice to play John Robie, acrobat turned cat-burglar turned resistance fighter, now very comfortably retired. And Grace Kelly to play opposite him, naturally.

Fiona hadn’t seen this one in a while, so we watched together. Just as we were enjoying the way the opening titles slant off on the diagonal, following the angle of the shop window, Hitch pulls a fast one, tracking in on the tourist slogan — and we well remember those Cote d’Azur landscapes, so the gesture seems quite unironic — and then he cuts to a screaming woman slathered in expensive face cream, and thence to the subject of her distress, an empty jewelry case — and we’re OFF.

2catch12catch2Fiona couldn’t stop laughing at this Eisensteinian joke for at least a minute afterwards.

Cary Grant, who’s brown as a nut, which makes sense given his choice of retirement home, but is perhaps a bit extreme for Technicolor to cope with in night scenes, is scarcely required to perform any activity more athletic than pouring a brandy, but convinces us of his gymnastic prowess just by the way he crosses a room, Cary Grant, I say, pulls a fast one and eludes the police in a cross-country chase (filmed by helicopter, still a fresh and surprising approach at the time) actually performed by his housekeeper — in the first of a few trick substitutions in John Michael Hayes’ script — Cary Grant, I say again, is rather wonderful here. The plot requires him to catch the real jewel thief plaguing the South of France, in order to avoid arrest himself, which is excuse enough for some light comedy and glamour. It’s odd that any excuse at all should be needed, but somehow it is.

2catch4The caged bird on the bus recalls those love birds leaning into the curves as Tippi speeds along in THE BIRDS… but that’s later. Cary seems to almost notice his director…

Shoring up the comedy is John Williams, sometimes cited as the actor who worked for Hitchcock more than anyone else, although I really must do the math sometime and compare him to John Longden or one of the other forgotten British players from the early days, and then Jessie Royce Landis and Grace Kelly, but first there’s the slight hiccup of the French contingent.

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I have no problem with Brigit Auber, whose French accent is just thick enough to be cute — any thicker and we’d be struggling to maker her out and she’d be struggling to act through it. Her gamine look is tres charmant, although that hairdo only looks really good when she’s wet, as Fiona pointed out. The rest of the time it has an unfortunate air of the tonsure. I wonder Hitchcock didn’t snap up Bardot, but Auber, fresh from Duvivier’s SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS, is very good. But poor Charles Vanel couldn’t speak English to save his life, so apart from the pleasing Clouzot connection (he made LES DIABOLIQUES the same year), he kind of wrecks his bits. A more dynamic physical presence might have helped too, to serve as a convincing suspect for the Cat. Another odd thing — when Vanel speaks French, he uses his own voice, which means both his timbre and acoustics change whenever he shifts to English.

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It’s the Cary Grant – Grace Kelly chemistry that carries this one, and if you’re immune then the movie will certainly have its longeurs. Hayes writes terrific chat, but sees no reason to have his characters shut up, so the talk goes on a bit. The carnival chase Hitch sliced from the story to save the budget is a loss that’s somewhat missed, I feel. Instead we get what seems like ten minutes of Cary Grant and John Williams discussing the plot over quiche lorraine — a dish which has rather lost its aura of exotic romance, I fear.

But some of the dialogue is very good indeed, especially in the celebrated picnic scene. Grace, having stolen a kiss from Cary at her hotel room door (Fiona reckons this was probably Grace’s real-life technique: pounce, but with class), and helped him escape the police in a high-speed chase along winding mountain roads (basically rehearsing her own death, you can’t help but feel) in a fake car that swivels back and forth as the rear-projected scenery unspools behind them, has now rumbled that he’s Robie the Cat and not Mr Burns, the Oregon logger (Grant: “I must remember to yell ‘Timber!’ occasionally.”) and they spar stylishly over chicken legs in what’s largely a single take, interrupted only by the closer view for the embrace at the end.

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I’d like to lay to rest the idea that the actors improvised this scene — Hitchcock seems to have put this about, explaining that he was so relaxed on the Riviera with familiar actors, that he allowed them to go off the script, contrary to his usual practice. Well, the scene looks to me like a studio insert, for one thing, and for another, the dialogue is extremely tight. I like improvisation as much as the next man, as long as the next man isn’t actually John Cassavetes, but generally it needs to be edited down, and that clearly hasn’t happened here. And we know from elsewhere in Grant’s career that he’s a rather brilliant improv comic, but I still harbour grave doubts that he could pull this one off. And I’m even less inclined to believe Grace could. I think the reason they’re both excellent in this scene is that they have a very fine, very precise script to work off, and that they may have added the odd line, but scarcely enough to make a fuss about, except that it’s Hitchcock and so that’s unusual.

I very much fear that the improvisation story was put about by Hitch to downplay Hayes’ contribution. Hayes would begin to think of himself as an essential part of the team, and reported that when Variety referred to “the next Hitchcock-Hayes project” Hitch couldn’t stand it, and broke off their successful collaboration.

Still, we can all agree it’s a fun scene. Along with the catty battle in the sea at Cannes, it looks like the most fun Cary’s had in a Hitchcock film since the light comedy opening of SUSPICION.

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The big love scene — again using the emerald green light he’s used to signify nights when the Cat is about (movie nights are usually blue, but moonlight is colourless, so green seems just as good a choice) — Hitch intercuts Hayes’s racy dialogue with a fireworks display erupting into orgasm. This displeased the censors, so Hitch placated them by toning down Lyn Murray’s score (Murray would introduce Hitchcock to Bernard Herrmann, thereby making an immeasurable contribution to cinema, and doing himself out of a job, although as a busy TV composer he scored thirty episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including I Saw the Whole Thing, the only episode directed by Hitch). The use of colour, lighting (with Grace’s head fading into shadow, the better to illuminate her jewels and decolletage), special effects, music, dialogue and performance, and that green glow, makes this almost a precursor to VERTIGO’s famous hotel-room tryst, although the emotions are not nearly as dark and complex. If you simply say “fireworks-orgasm,” it sounds a bit silly, but it’s sublime.

And then Jessie’s jewels are stolen and Grace goes off Cary — not for being a thief, but for sleeping with her and betraying her. It’s the closest the film gets to actual emotional darkness, but Hitch and Hayes play it for laughs. Incidentally, I had to keep reminding myself that Grace is supposed to be a spoiled heiress with emotional problems. Her eagerness to join Cary in his supposed career as international mystery burglar is pretty reprehensible, I guess, but she’s so charming and self-possessed, I couldn’t see her as a brat. Fiona thought she was delightful too. Fiona has quite a male brain in some respects (she had it measured once, her brain’s maleness, I mean) so she could totally see the appeal: rich, classy, elegant, beautiful, funny and an easy lay. Aspirations to a life of banditry are easy to overlook when you have all that going for you.

Hayes, a wizard with the verbiage, admitted to being less strong on construction, and it’s possible there’s a flaw in this one. After the one-legged waiter gets offed by cops — the only killing in the film — Cary is exonerated, which effectively lets him out of the story altogether, if he wants. Only a desire for the truth keeps him around. According to the “rules” of classical screenwriting, this is exactly what one doesn’t want to happen. At the second act curtain, the protag and anatag are, strictly speaking, supposed to be locked into their oppositional courses, with no way out possible. This primes the audience to expect an exciting climax in which stuff will get settled, once and for all. Here, the tension is lifted considerably, since Cary is no longer a wanted man, just when it should be intensified. But the effects of Hayes’ violating this gimmick are somewhat interesting.

If we see the film as a romantic comedy, the situation is more tense than if it were a thriller. Cary falls out with both leading ladies, and Hitch switches the focus to Grace Kelly’s character more overtly than he has done so far. The fact that Grant no longer needs to solve the case means he also no longer needs to hang out with the hot rich girl (such demands Hitch places upon his leading men!) and so the love story could end badly. The second benefit Hitch gets from lifting the cops’ suspicions off Cary is that at the end, when he’s picked out by a spotlight on the roof of the villa, he’s suddenly the prime suspect again and his jeopardy is intensified by being a sudden and extreme worsening of the situation.

This sequence, in the aftermath of a fancy dress ball, is not the only thing that makes me think that the movie directly inspired THE PINK PANTHER. The whole plot motor is essentially the same, with a famous and glamorous cat burglar whose inimitable style is copied by an impostor. So Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. If the action climax is a little flat, the movie still gets by on charm and accumulated goodwill, and the return to Cary’s hilltop villa is welcome because it’s one of the loveliest locations in cinema. This movie is as refreshing as a holiday… is supposed to be.

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I don’t generally hold with altering and mutilating old movies, but can I suggest adding a title at the end of this one: “Jessie Royce Landis Will Return In — NORTH BY NORTHWEST!” She deserves the build-up.