Alfred Hitchcock Month: The Birds

poster-birds-the_02Last night, Turner Classic Movies aired its last slate of Hitchcock movies for their 50 years of Hitchcock class. Sadly all good things must come to an end. But fortunately Hitchcock’s films are readily available and we can continue studying the Master of Suspense for years to come. In conjunction with the class, I’ve been writing about some of my favorite Hitchcock films. The last one I will cover for my spotlight is The Birds. Far more than just a creature feature, The Birds is a chiller you can’t afford to miss.

The plot of The Birds is pretty simple. Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren, making her film debut) pursues potential beau Mitch (Rod Taylor) to the remote Northern California town of Bodega Bay after they have a chance encounter in a pet shop. But once Daniels arrive, birds suddenly start attacking people.

That’s it. That’s the set-up. But Alfred Hitchcock takes what could have been a B-horror movie with birds as the monster of the moment and makes it an absolutely chilling thriller. Right from the start of The Birds, we know this is going to be something we haven’t seen before. The opening credits are downright scary. There’s no score. Instead it’s the credits for the film shown amid shots of swarming, screaming birds flying past the screen. It gets your attention right away. For me it’s the scariest title sequence in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

What else makes the film scary? Well, the lack of exposition makes it pretty unsettling. There’s never any explanation given as to why the birds suddenly start attacking people. Some people may find that unsatisfying or lazy storytelling. But to me that just makes what’s going on more horrifying. Nature suddenly turning on us? That’s pretty frightening. It gives it almost the feeling of a Biblical plague. Instead of swarms of locusts we get flocks of birds. Along with the lack of exposition, there’s the fact that the birds attack at random. One of the scariest scenes in the movie is an attack on a school by some pretty nasty crow. The kids fleeing the schoolyard and being stalked by the crows is one powerful horror film moment. There’s also a scene where birds attack by flying in a house through a chimney. No place is safe.

The Birds also stands out to me because of how technically difficult it was to make the film. Back then they couldn’t bring up a million birds on a computer screen, so Hitchcock and his crew had to improvise. As Internet Movie Database notes about the attack on the school scene,

When the children are running down the street from the schoolhouse, extra footage was shot back on the Universal sound stages to make the scene more terrifying. A few of the children were brought back and put in front of a process screen on a treadmill. They would run in front of the screen on the treadmill with the Bodega Bay footage behind them while a combination of real and fake crows were attacking them. There were three rows of children and when the treadmill was brought up to speed it ran very fast. On a couple of occasions during the shoot, a number of the children in the front fell and caused the children in back to fall as well. It was a very difficult scene to shoot and took a number of days to get it right. The birds used were hand puppets, mechanical and a couple were trained live birds.–IMDB

Live birds, puppets, animatronics…imagine trying to get all those elements to work in one movie. There’s also a visually stunning birds eye view shot as the birds attack a local gas station while Melanie is trapped in a phone booth. And while I’m on the subject of technical difficulty, did you know The Birds has a Disney connection?

The use of standard blue screen techniques for doing matte shots of the birds proved to be unacceptable. The rapid movement of the birds, especially their wings, caused excessive blue fringing in the shots. It was determined that the sodium vapor process could be used to do the composites. The only studio in America that was equipped for this process was the Walt Disney studio. Ub Iwerks, who had become the world’s leading expert on the sodium vapor process, was assigned to this production.–IMDB

For those that don’t know, Ub Iwerks was one of the co-founders of Disney studios. Use that bit of trivia to impress your friends.

I love The Birds for a number of reasons, and they’re not all technical. Tippi Hedren gives a very strong film debut. Rod Taylor is solid as her love interest. There’s also a great supporting cast that includes Jessica Tandy. I also really appreciate the ending. *Spoiler alert!* Melanie, Mitch, and company leave Bodega Bay to get Melanie to a hospital. As they leave, there’s a wide shot of the countryside filled with birds. It suggests the terror isn’t over. The power of suggestion in that final shot is bone chilling.

One final note: The Birds was based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. She also wrote the novels that inspired Hitchcock’s Rebecca a Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier’s stories were perfect for Hitchcock.

 

 

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Alfred Hitchcock Month: The Wrong Man

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This month has been an interesting trip down memory line dissecting some of my favorite Hitchcock films. While I’m guessing most readers of this blog have seen Hitchcock staples such as Notorious, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, etc., bet not many have seen my selection for this week. While it has been overlooked in the director’s impressive body of work, it is definitely worth checking out. It’s The Wrong Man from 1956. It’s not a psychological thriller, a horror film, a spy thriller, or even a dark comedy Those are all types of films we often associate with the master of suspense. But The Wrong Man is a docudrama starring Henry Fonda. But don’t let the documentary style of this film put you off. It’s every bit as impressive as Hitchcock’s other masterpieces and showcases him as not just a successful mainstream director, but an artist who time and again takes risks.

Let’s cut to the chase (pun intended) and get the plot out of the way.

Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero¬† (Henry Fonda) is a string bassist, a devoted husband and father, and a practicing Catholic. He makes a modest salary playing in the jazz combo at the Stork Club. It’s barely enough to make ends meet. Finances become a little more difficult with the major dental bills his wife Rose (Vera Miles) incurs. Manny decides to see if he can borrow off of Rose’s life insurance policy. But when he enters the insurance office, he is identified by some of the clerks as the man who held up the office twice a few months earlier. Manny cooperates with the police as he has nothing to hide. Manny learns that he is a suspect in not only those hold ups, but a series of other hold ups in the same Jackson Heights neighborhood in New York City where they live. The more that Manny cooperates, the more guilty he appears to the police. With the help of Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), the attorney that they hire, they try to prove Manny’s innocence.–IMDB

Again we have the familiar Hitchcock motif of an ordinary person put in extraordinary circumstances. There’s also the common motif of a case of mistaken identity (Cary Grant’s character in North By Northwest is another great example of this). While The Wrong Man contains some familiar Hitchcock film elements, it’s anything but a typical Hitchcock film. What it proves is that Hitchcock can take as mundane of a setup as a police procedural and make it absolutely compelling. Let me explain why.

First of all, the casting of Henry Fonda is a stroke of genius. Like Jimmy Stewart, another Hitchcock film regular, Fonda is totally sympathetic and believable as a dogged every man. We believe Manny’s plight and root for him because he feels like a person we all know. The relatability factor is part of what keeps us coming back to Hitchcock’s movies. When the audience can easily set foot in the shoes of the protagonist, the film is already off to a good start. And in The Wrong Man, as usual, Fonda delivers a brilliant performance.

Another reason the film works is the overall look of the film. It was filmed in glorious black and white by Robert Burks. The lighting and framing give the film a stark, gritty realism that is perfect for the material. It has the feel of a great film noir docudrama. Think of The Phenix City Story from 1955, and you get an idea of what I’m talking about. One of the best looking scenes in the film is when Manny is taken to prison. Fun fact: it was filmed in an actual prison. Burks would work with Hitchcock on multiple occasions. His Technicolor work on Rear Window is absolutely exquisite.

There’s also the contribution of frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Like the cinematography of Burks, Herrmann’s music gives us the feeling that everything in the film is really happening. It isn’t as showy as Herrmann’s work on Psycho or Vertigo, and that’s exactly the right call. It would take us out of the action.

I don’t want to reveal all the twists and turns of the plot. That would spoil the fun. I’m guessing many people reading this will be first time viewers. Let me just say this: you will never be bored. The story is brilliantly constructed. It was even based loosely on the true story. The Wrong Man is brilliant because of the performances of the actors, especially Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. In the hands of almost any other director, this would have been a by the numbers crime drama. But Hitchcock makes the typically mundane unfold in a way that is absolutely spellbinding.

Alfred Hitchcock Month: Psycho

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Greetings, readers! I hope you’re enjoying my July spotlight on the Master of Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock. This week I have chosen to write about his iconic film Psycho. Today there is a whole genre of Psycho rip-offs called slasher movies. While occasionally a great one comes along (Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street come to mind), few have had the imagination or artistry as the film that spawned so many pale imitators.

The story, for the uninitiated, involves a secretary who embezzles funds from work and ends up at a motel where *spoiler alert!* guests check-in, but don’t check out.

Phoenix secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is fed up with the way life has treated her. She has to meet her lover Sam (John Gavin) in lunch breaks and they cannot get married because Sam has to give most of his money away in alimony. One Friday Marion is trusted to bank $40,000 by her employer. Seeing the opportunity to take the money and start a new life, Marion leaves town and heads towards Sam’s California store. Tired after the long drive and caught in a storm, she gets off the main highway and pulls into The Bates Motel. The motel is managed by a quiet young man called Norman (Anthony Perkins) who seems to be dominated by his mother.–IMDB

As you can probably guess, Marion doesn’t just go over to greener pastures and have a fairy tale ending. If you expect that, you’re obviously new to the world of Alfred Hitchcock. Now with the plot out of the way, let’s talk about why this film is so iconic.

It’s impossible to discuss Psycho without the famous shower scene. There are umpteen reasons why it’s scary. First of all, it comes out of nowhere. Marion just goes to take a shower to relax like many of us do at the end of the day. It’s so Hitchcock to take something so mundane and make us terrified of it: showers (Psycho), birds (The Birds), small town America (Shadow of a Doubt), casual conversations on public transit (Strangers on a Train)…the list goes on. Hitchcock had a real knack for showing us that the supposedly benign world around us has lots of creepy layers under the surface. The only director today who does that really well is David Lynch, especially in his films like Blue Velvet and his TV series Twin Peaks.

Another reason the shower scene is terrifying is the music Bernard Herrmann’s score is nothing short of brilliant. While Herrmann collaborated with Hitchcock on many films, there’s a good reason why Psycho is the one he’s most remembered for. His decision to use an all strings orchestra for the score was a masterstroke. The sound of the orchestra really makes the stabs of the knife feel real. The score also adds to the tension right from the opening Saul Bass titles. There’s a feel of chaos, menace, and urgency right from the word go. Bernard Herrmann was an absolute genius.

But there’s more to Psycho than just the shower scene. All the performances are absolutely stellar. Janet Leigh makes the most of her screen time, so that when she does meet her fateful end we’re terrified and on edge for the rest of the movie. If the star who got top billing is gone not that far in, who’s safe?

Anthony Perkins, in the role of Norman Bates, is simply one of the greatest screen villains of all time. When we first meet him as he’s talking to Janet Leigh at the motel, he seems like the boy next door. He’s shy, introverted, and has an every man charm. But as he strikes up a conversation with Marion over sandwiches in the parlor, we sense something about him is off. There’s the creepy stuffed birds he uses for decoration. But then there’s the dark tone that comes over him when he starts talking about his relationship with his mother. “We all go a little mad sometimes,” is not something that you expect to hear from a sane person. I also want to mention the supporting cast. It includes Vera Miles as Marion’s sister and the wonderful character actor Martin Balsam as a private detective sent to investigate Marion’s disappearance. There’s not one bad casting decision in this movie.

Psycho is also brilliant from a purely aesthetic standpoint. I could sit here and type up a laundry list of great shots from this movie. But let me just touch on a few favorites. There’s a chilling closeup of a police officer’s face when Marion is pulled over while on the run. That image really gets our attention. Even the seemingly good guys, in this case a public servant, seem like they’re not entirely benevolent. And how about all the scenes of Marion driving in the car while hearing what’s going on in her head? It creates an unbelievable sense of paranoia. And when she finally reaches the Bates motel in pouring rain, the way the lighting is done gives us a real feel of foreboding. I also like the shot of Norman Bates spying on Marion through a keyhole.

And there’s the iconic *spoiler alert!* death of Martin Balsam. It happens after the shower scene, so we’re not sure what to expect. It feels like the gloves are off. When Balsam walks up the staircase to talk to Norman’s mother, there’s a really creepy vibe from the soundtrack that makes us feeling like something bad is about to happen. But it’s not done bluntly with cymbal crashes and loud notes. It’s a gradual build up done mostly with dynamics. This technique also worked for Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, particularly in the love scene. As Balsam climbs those stairs, suddenly there’s a cutaway to a sliver of light coming from the doorway at the top of the staircase. Then we hear that music from the shower scene, and boom! Another dart to the heart. When Balsam gets stabbed, he falls down the stairs backwards, and it’s shot in a very surrealist way. The audience feels like it’s falling back with them. Very effective.

Psycho is not just a terrifying slasher movie. It’s just a brilliantly crafted movie period. The way the shower scene is shot and edited with Herrmann’s iconic score, the superb acting (not just from the leads, but all the small parts), and the way the whole movie makes us distrustful of everyday things like motels and showers. If you want to be scared, watch Psycho. If you want to see a great director in top form elevating what looks on the surface like exploitation material to an art form, also watch Psycho. In short: watch Psycho. Just make sure to shower beforehand. Afterwards you may never want to again. That’s how powerful a film this is.

 

Alfred Hitchcock Month: Strangers on a Train

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It’s now week two of my spotlight on the master of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock. Last week I wrote about Rear Window, my favorite from the director’s impressive body of work. This week I’ve chosen one of Hitchcock’s films that took me a few viewings to fully appreciate: Strangers on a Train. I think it took a few viewings to make my best list because the general idea of the plot felt so preposterous. Two people meet on a train and naturally end up plotting to swap murders. Who talks like that, especially to a stranger on mass transit? But as I saw more of Hitchcock’s films, I realized that one of his motifs is terrifying things happening in ordinary places. Once I got past that, I went along for the ride and I haven’t looked back. I now make sure to catch it whenever it’s on.

The plot, as I said, is a little preposterous. But once you just go with it, it’s a great thrill ride. Pro tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) ends up sitting next to psychotic socialite Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) on a train ride. While shooting the breeze, Antony tells Haines about his plan for a perfect murder. Both Haines and Antony have people in their lives they’d like to be rid of. For Haines it’s his wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers). whom he wants to divorce. For Antony it’s his controlling father (Jonathan Hale). Antony suggests that they swap murders: he’ll murder Guy’s wife and Guy will murder his father. That way each of them will have murdered a total stranger and won’t be suspected because it take their respective motives out of the equation. Haines walks away from the conversation dismissing the idea and not giving it much further thought. But what Haines doesn’t realize is that Antony takes his theory seriously and plans to go through with it.

I don’t think I’m giving much away to say that Antony delivers on his promise to off Guy’s wife. It sets the ball rolling for the rest of the plot. How Guy proceeds to work himself out of it is part of the fun of the movie. It plays on the classic Hitchcock motif of putting an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation through extraordinary circumstances. Farley Granger pulls off something remarkable with his performance. He makes Guy a sympathetic every man, in spite of the fact that he wants to divorce his wife and marry another woman. It probably helps that his wife is not very likable. That’s a testament to Kasey Rogers’ portrayal of Miriam.

There’s no way I can talk about Strangers on a Train and not gush about Robert Walker. Hitchcock’s films gave us many great film villains. But Bruno Antony is one of the best, right up there with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Walker is so convincingly unhinged that the performance has to be seen to be believed. One of the things that makes Bruno Antony such a chilling character is that he seems on the surface like such an amiable guy. He doesn’t foam at the mouth. He doesn’t wield an axe. He’s just a regular guy who thinks about the most bizarre schemes and absolutely believes them. Aside from their initial scene meeting on the train, which is creepy enough, there is a truly frightening scene at a dinner party. Bruno weasels his way into a swanky dinner party that Guy happens to be attending. While chatting it up with some of the party guests, he manages to work in his favorite topic: murder and mayhem. The sequence where he gets people to discuss and enact possible murder plots is one of the most intense moments in any film.

Strangers on a Train also works for some purely aesthetic reasons. There’s a lot of great imagery and foreshadowing in the film. The title sequence is an overhead shot of crisscrossing train tracks. Then Bruno suggests to Guy that they “crisscross” and swap murders. Strangers on a Train also has the distinction of containing one of my favorite Hitchcock shots. When Bruno stalks Guy’s wife to kill her at the carnival (a great scene by itself, especially the part where Bruno pops a little kid’s balloon to bring about misery just for the fun of it), in the process of strangling her, her glasses fall on the ground. Rather than showing us the murder up close, Hitchcock shows it happening through the reflection of her glasses on the ground. It’s a great touch. In the movies suggestion is often more terrifying. Today’s filmmakers could learn a lot from that concept. But I digress.

A few more things I want to mention. The final showdown is quite surreal. Without going into too much detail, it takes place on a carousel at the carnival. It’s one of the craziest finales to any film I’ve ever seen. You won’t forget it anytime soon. Finally, I want to mention Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. It gets overlooked amidst all his great scores. including The Thing From Another World and It’s a Wonderful Life. But it adds a great deal of tension to the film, especially in the third act.

Strangers on a Train is dark, twisted, and a lot of fun to watch. Once you see it you’ll never want to talk to anyone on public transit again. I know I avoid doing so like the plague. If a movie can make that strong of an impression, you’re doing something right.

Alfred Hitchcock Month: Rear Window

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Greetings, readers! This July I am participating in TCM’s Hitchock 50 course. In honor of the class and my love of all things Hitchcock, this month I’ll be discussing my favorite Hitchcock films. Now I won’t get to all of them because of my writings being weekly. But I’m sure to come back to my favorite director somewhere down the line. To kick things off, I’ll be covering my favorite Hitchcock film: Rear Window.

Alfred Hitchcock made many great films. So picking a favorite is difficult. But for me the most quintessential Hitchcock film is Rear Window. It has many essential Hitchcock themes: a mystery, ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, and moments of nail-biting tension.

The plot on the surface is pretty simple. Photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), is stuck in a wheelchair with a broken leg after an accident on the job. He spends his recovery days watching the neighbors in the apartments across the courtyard from him, much to the chagrin of his nurse Stella (the always entertaining character actress Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly). Eventually he catches onto some strange activity in the in the apartment of salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr, before he became known for playing Perry Mason). Circumstantial evidence leads Jefferies to believe Thorwald has murdered his wife. Did it really happen or is he just imagining it because he’s been cooped up in his apartment too long? When it’s discovered that Thorwald’s wife *spoiler alert!* has been murdered, it’s up to Jefferies, Stella, and Lisa to prove it. Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) doesn’t believe them until the very end. So much for getting help from the authorities.

One of the really fascinating things about Rear Window is the way it addresses voyeurism. Should Jeff be watching his neighbors in the first place? What does it say about viewers who get involved in the movie and, by extension, become part of the voyeur experience? There are some fascinating discussions about the ethics of all of this in the film. Are there rear window ethics? That question is one viewers will have to decide. Another remarkable thing about this film is that Jeff manages to be a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that he’s a peeping tom. If that’s not a testament to James Stewart’s talents as an actor, I don’t know what is. When Stewart worked with Hitchock, he went over to the dark side a lot. But yet he still managed to be as likable of an every man as ever.

There are a lot of reasons Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock film. There’s the great cast, the beautiful Technicolor cinematography by Robert Turks, the inventive story line, etc. But there’s also the fact that the film contains what is, for my money, the most Hitchcock scene ever filmed. Towards the end of the film, Jeff,Lisa, and Stella realize they need hard evidence against Thorwald. Lisa reasons that Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring would work. Lisa notices Mrs. Thorwald’s favorite handbag and jewelry has been left behind. That’s not something a woman simply going on holiday would do. The sequence that follows where Lisa sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment to get the ring is one that can’t be beat for suspense. She gets caught in the act by Thorwald, and Jeff and Stella are helpless to save her without giving themselves away. I’m tearing my hair out just thinking about that scene. But it’s a great and it leads to one of the most satisfying endings of any Hitchcock film.

I love everything about this film. It has a great screenplay by John Michael Hayes (working from a story by Cornell Woolrich), it’s tense, Franz Waxman’s score is innovative and unexpected, and the stars have great chemistry. Grace Kelly is not only great looking (rocking some of Edith Head’s finest costumes) but the way she gradually reveals the layers of her character is nothing short of brilliant. I’m not sure what more I can say about James Stewart. He’s the quintessential film every man. Whenever he’s on the screen you can’t wait to see what kind of journey he’s going to take you on. Raymond Burr has almost no lines, but he creates one of the most menacing villains in film history. Who knew Perry Mason could be so evil? Finally, I want to give a special shout out to Thelma Ritter. She was one of the greatest character actresses in Hollywood history. The banter she has with Stewart and Kelly is nothing short of priceless. It’s a great performance in a career filled with brilliant performances.

Rear Window is about as great of a thriller as has ever been made. If you’re new to Hitchcock or you want to introduce someone to classic films, it’s a great one to start with. One final note: the film was all done a set. As Internet Movie Database notes,

The entire picture was shot on one set, which required months of planning and construction. The apartment-courtyard set measured 98 feet wide, 185 feet long and 40 feet high, and consisted of 31 apartments, eight of which were completely furnished. The courtyard was set 20 to 30 feet below stage level, and some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high. The film was shot quickly on the heels of Dial M for Murder (1954), November 27 1953-February 26 1954.

So you could literally live in some of the apartments. Hitchcock’s attention to detail was really something. That’s just one of many reasons his films have endured.