THE MANXMAN (1929): “I’ve promised myself to him, but I’ve given myself to you.”

THE MANXMAN – 1929 – British International Pictures – ★★

B&W – Silent – 81 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Carl Brisson (Pete Quilliam), Malcolm Keen (Philip Christian), Anny Ondra (Kate Cregeen), Randle Ayrton (Caeser Cregeen), Clare Greet (Mother).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, based on the novel by Sir Hall Caine

Cinematography by Jack E. Cox

Welcome to the machine:  For much of his tenure at British International Pictures, Hitchcock felt like a cog in a machine.  While he made several good films during these years, he frequently had no choice in his assignments, taking whatever the studio gave him.  This was one of those cases.

The novel was very well known, so Hitchcock could not stray too far from the source material.  Even though this movie does not have much of Hitchcock’s signature style in it, there are still brief moments where he was able to incorporate some of his trademark visual flair.

The story set up is rather trite; a basic love triangle.  Pete loves Kate, but he is a poor fisherman, and Kate’s father says he’s not good enough.  So Pete heads off to South Africa to make his fortune, asking his good friend Philip to “look after” Kate while he’s gone.  Kate promises Pete she will marry him upon his return.  Philip is a deemster (a Manx judge) and very well off.   He is perhaps a little too good in his role of protector, and he and Kate begin to fall for each other.  Hitchcock employs a clever visual using Kate’s diary to show how she and Philip grow closer together over time.

Eventually a false report of Pete’s death arrives from South Africa.  Kate and Philip can stand it no longer, and they sleep together, inside the town mill.  This being a very early silent film, the sex had to be implied.  All we see is a kiss, shot from a distance and in shadow, then a cut to the mill wheel spinning, and a fade out.  The rest is left to our imagination.  But to an audience of the time, the implication would have been clear.

Despite Hitchcock’s dislike for location shooting, there are some beautifully lit and framed exterior shots scattered throughout the film.

Kate and Philip learn that Pete is not dead, and will return in a matter of days.  Kate also  discovers that she is pregnant with Philip’s child.  Philip cannot bear the thought of hurting Pete, even though he is in love with Kate, so he insists that she marry Pete.   They do marry, and she raises the baby as Pete’s.

Kate is unhappy, and eventually flees, leaving her child behind, and attempts suicide.  She is fished from the water and brought before the deemster, who is of course Philip.  During this courtroom scene, Hitchcock found an opportunity to use his subjective point of view, as Kate’s father pivots his head from Kate to Philip, and back again, putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

 

The movie ends with Philip, Kate and baby leaving town, while being derided by the townsfolk.  And the last shot mirrors the first, as Pete heads back out in his fishing boat.

Hitch on the shelf:  John Maxwell, the head of British International Pictures, was so disappointed in the finished product that he shelved The Manxman.  After Hitchcock’s next movie Blackmail became a hit, and after a successful screening for the press, The Manxman was finally released, to moderate success in Britain.

Source material:  The movie is based on an 1894 novel of the same name by Sir Hall Caine.  Caine’s book was immensely popular in Britain and the United States, selling over half a million copies (a rather large number for those days).  The movie retained the general plot of the novel, involving the love triangle between Pete, Kate and Phillip.  The novel had a much greater depth of detail.

It is not an easy read by today’s standards, one reason being that it includes a lot of colloquialisms from the Isle of Man, which can make the dialogue tough to follow at times.  It is a very well constructed book, and an engaging if familiar story.  There are much deeper Biblical overtones in the novel.  Just before Kate surrenders herself bodily to Philip in the novel, she plucks an apple from a tree and offers him a bite (bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, there).  And poor, dear Pete is one of the most generous and long-suffering characters in fiction.

It is a little frustrating to read, because both Kate and Philip are presented with many opportunities to come clean at an earlier point, but they persist on their path until things are irreparably damaged for all concerned.  In the novel, Philip is to be named Governor of the Isle of Man at the end, and at the ceremony he confesses his relationship with Kate, and steps down from his position.

Recurring players:  Carl Brisson starred in The Ring as boxer “One Round” Jack.  Malcolm Keen had appeared in both The Mountain Eagle and The Lodger.  Anny Ondra would star in Hitchcock’s next film Blackmail.  Clare Greet, Hitchcock’s favorite character actress from his British period, also appeared in The Ring, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, and Jamaica Inn.

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo to be found in The Manxman.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the ensuing years.  Even in his conversations with Truffaut, he was quick to dismiss it.  Here is the sum total of his comments:

The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one…it was a very banal picture…the picture was the adaptation of a very well-known book by Sir Hall Caine.  The novel had quite a reputation and it belonged to a tradition.  We had to respect that reputation and that tradition.  It was not a Hitchcock movie.

Definitive edition:  Like most of Hitchcock’s early British films, The Manxman is in the public domain, which means several different versions of varying quality are available for home viewing.  The best version currently available is to be found on the Lion’s Gate 3-disc “Alfred Hitchcock Collection” boxed set.  Also included are 4 other titles from Hitchcock’s early British period.  The picture quality is decent, and there is an accompanying piano score.  There are no extra features.

 

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Me and Hitch by Evan Hunter

ME AND HITCH by Evan Hunter

1997 – Faber and Faber Ltd. – 91 pages

Evan Hunter was much better known by the pseudonym Ed McBain, which he used to pen dozens of novels, primarily crime fiction and police procedurals.  He was an accomplished author when Hitchcock reached out to him to write the screenplay for The Birds.  Almost a quarter-century after his dealings with Hitchcock, Hunter wrote a small volume relating his experiences working with the master of suspense.

The book in written in a light, anecdotal style, and at just over 90 pages it absolutely breezes by.  The biggest surprise to me is how dismissive Hunter is about The Birds.  He makes it quite clear that he thinks the film is not that good, and thinks that Hitchcock is partly to blame, for editorial decisions made in the writing process.

Hunter doesn’t mince words, as you can see from a couple of examples (italics are the authors):  “The trouble with our story was that nothing in it was real.  In real life, birds don’t attack people  and girls don’t buy lovebirds to shlepp sixty miles upstate for a practical joke…Even if the script had worked – which it didn’t – Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor were no Grace Kelly or Cary Grant.  But Hitch never gave it an honest shot.”

He doesn’t save all of his disparaging comments for the leads in the picture:  “Jessica Tandy played the part of the mother like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights, one of the few bad performances she ever gave in her life.”

Wow!  Strong opinions indeed.  Evan Hunter also details  his writing of the first draft of Hitchcock’s next film Marnie, a job which he didn’t complete.  He was fired, and not by Hitchcock directly, but by his assistant Peggy Robertson.   Hunter had difficulty penning the rape scene; he felt the male lead would not be redeemable in the eyes of the audience afterwards.   The woman who replaced him and completed the screenplay, Jay Presson Allen, later told Hunter “You just got bothered by the scene that was his reason for doing the movie.  You just wrote your ticket back to New York.”

Evan also includes some correspondence between himself and Hitchcock, and also with Peggy Robertson.  Reading Peggy’s letters, one can see that she had a wit every bit as wry and sharp as her boss.  In one letter, she corrects a grammatical mistake in his letter to her, saying finally “No, please do not thank me for this lesson.  The fact that I am able to rectify even one small mark of illiteracy is reward enough.”

Although my views on The Birds differ mightily from Hunter’s, I thoroughly enjoyed this very slight, but engaging book.  Highly recommended for fans of Hitchcock.

Tippi: A Memoir by Tippi Hedren

TIPPI:  A MEMOIR by Tippi Hedren

2016 – William Morrow – 288 pages

(While this book is not specifically about Alfred Hitchcock, he is a significant figure in it, so I decided to include it here.)

Say the name Tippi Hedren to a film buff, and his or her first thought will likely be of Hitchcock’s The Birds.  After all, it is Tippi’s most iconic role.  After reading Tippi’s memoir, I now associate her with Hitchcock for very different reasons.  But more importantly, I know that her interactions with Hitchcock were one small chapter in a much greater, and more fascinating life.

Tippi begins the book with her early life, growing up in a small Minnesota town.  When she was a teenager, Tippi was approached on the street and asked if she wanted to model.  Tippi, who had no experience or desire to model, agreed, and ultimately parleyed this into a very successful and lucrative modeling career in New York City and Los Angeles.

Eventually, a television commercial she appeared in was seen by Alfred Hitchcock, who was taken by her appearance, and tracked her down.   Imagine Tippi’s surprise when she was invited to meet Alfred Hitchcock.  Not only did he sign her to an exclusive contract, he cast her as the star in his next movie, The Birds.

Tippi relates both the highs and lows of her time working with Hitchcock, and the lows (which have generated some publicity since the release of the book) make for unnerving reading to say the least.   On one occasion during filming, Hitchcock attempted to kiss Tippi while they were riding in the back of a car.  Tippi relates the harrowing experience of filming the famous attic scene in The Birds, which caused her to have a breakdown, and required her to take a week off from shooting to recuperate.

Tippi claims that after Hitchcock cast her as the lead in his next movie, Marnie, he became more aggressive.  Her is a brief portion of Tippi’s account of an episode that occurred in Hitchcock’s office:

     …he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me.  It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and more repulsed.  The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became.

This paints a pretty vivid picture, despite her reluctance to delve into specifics.  Suffice it to say, after completing Marnie Tippi Hedren never worked for Hitchcock again.  Interestingly, she still has kind things to say about him as a director and mentor.

Tippi talks about her charity work, and about her daughter (actress Melanie Griffith), but the bulk of the book is devoted to, believe it or not, lions and tigers.

Tippi and her second husband Noel Marshall, began adopting lion cubs, with the ultimate plan of making a film about people living with big cats.  The film did come to fruition after many, many years, a lot of money, and a few injuries from aggressive animals.  If you have not seen the movie Roar, I suggest you check it out.   The camera work is amateurish, but much of the footage is jaw-dropping.  There is no doubt that you are observing real people interact with real lions and tigers.

The bulk of the book deals with the big cats, and these chapters are charming indeed.  It’s surreal to read about a lion cub wandering through a Sherman Oaks neighborhood, or two lions peeking over a fence at the neighbor, or coming home to find three lion cubs dragging a king size mattress out a sliding glass door!  Eventually, Tippi and Noel would buy a compound, where the movie would be shot.  And that compound still exists today as Shambala, a non-profit preserve for big cats.  What began as a crazy idea about a film ended up becoming Tippi’s life work.    Tippi presents herself as a very grounded, and grateful woman, with an interesting life story.  This is definitely unlike any other Hollywood memoir I’ve ever read.  Recommended.

 

THE GIRL (2012): “Blondes make the best victims.”

THE GIRL (2012) – BBC/HBO FILMS – ★★★1/2

Color – 91 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Julian Jarrold

Featuring:  Toby Jones (Alfred Hitchcock), Sienna Miller (Tippi Hedren), Imelda Staunton (Alma Reville), Penelope Wilton (Peggy Robertson).

Written by Gwyneth Hughes

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Most fans of Alfred Hitchcock are aware of his obsession with his leading ladies.  He would cast them, mold them into his desired image, and charm them on the set and off, often engaging in playful banter.   This HBO film from a few years ago suggests that in the case of at least one actress Hitchcock crossed a line; that his banter became overt harassment.

The Girl deals with the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds and Marnie for Hitchcock.    Anyone who has read Tippi’s engaging autobiography of 2017 will recognize most of the incidents that make up the bulk of this film.

The film begins with Hitchcock reveling in the success of Psycho, and planning his next feature film.  He chooses The Birds, based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, and hires Evan Hunter to write the screenplay.    Hitchcock and his wife Alma are taken with an attractive young woman in a TV commercial, and Hitchcock brings her in for an interview.  This young woman is Tippi Hedren, who has years of successful modeling behind her, but zero acting experience.  Hitchcock gives her a screen test, and then signs her to an exclusive contract.

The director/actress relationship begins promisingly enough;  Hitchcock runs lines with Tippi, giving her acting lessons in the process.  Sienna Miller is very good in the title role as Tippi Hedren;  in the beginning we share her excitement and eagerness to do well.  Later, as things become more difficult, we feel deeply for her.  Toby Jones is a wonder as Hitchcock.  He completely loses himself in the part, and plays Hitchcock with real depth, and never crosses the line into caricature.   Imelda Staunton is equally good as Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator Alma Reville.

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Hitchcock is portrayed as having moments of jealousy, as well as petulant outbursts.  He also attempts to kiss and grope his leading lady on at least two occasions.  These scenes are difficult to watch, as they should be.  There is also an implication that Hitchcock exacted revenge on Tippi Hedren for refusing his advances by making the shooting of the film more challenging.   It is well known that Tippi Hedren spent a week shooting the penultimate attic scene in The Birds, having live birds thrown at her over and over again.  This film suggests that Hitchcock physically and emotionally traumatized her on purpose.

I’m not going to address the veracity of the movie’s claims in depth.  Regarding the sexual harassment, it is a shame that Hitchcock is no longer alive to address the accusations.  At the same time, I absolutely believe Tippi;  she has no reason to manufacture such claims at this point in her life.   Some of the other episodes in the film however, the suggestions that Hitchcock made the shooting more difficult on purpose, I find hard to swallow.   Tippi herself has said that the movie over-dramatizes some elements.  She says if it was really that bad all the time she would have left much sooner.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film for a Hitchcock fan is the recreation of several scenes from The Birds being shot by Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren.  The attention to detail by director Julian Jarrold and his technical team is impressive.

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Ultimately, this is the tale of a young woman whose Hollywood story had a fairy tale beginning that turned dark quickly, and her ability to overcome the obstacles in her path.  It is an entertaining film, despite stretching the truth in places.

The Girl is currently available to purchase on DVD and is available to stream on HBO streaming platforms.

MARNIE (1964): “Why don’t you love me, mama?”

MARNIE – 1964 – Universal Pictures –  ★★★

Color – 130 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tippi Hedren (Margaret “Marnie” Edgar), Sean Connery (Mark Rutland), Diane Baker (Lil Mainwaring), Louise Latham (Bernice Edgar), Martin Gabel (Sidney Strutt), Alan Napier (Mr. Rutland), Bruce Dern (sailor).

Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, based on the novel by Winston Graham

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Marnie has always been a somewhat divisive film in Hitchcock’s body of work.   The movie has ardent defenders, such as Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood, who goes so far as to say “if you don’t like Marnie, you don’t really like Hitchcock.”  There are also many Hitchcock fans, myself included, whose feelings are mixed at best.  It is a frustrating film;  there are many great sequences, but there are also moments that just don’t quite come together.  Much as Sean Connery’s character Mark Rutland played the amateur psychologist in the film, it is tempting as a Hitchcock fan to analyze the film, to ask “What is missing?  What is it that makes this film a ‘flawed classic’ as Truffaut called it?”

The story:  The plot focuses on a compulsive thief named Marnie.    She has an established a pattern of stealing from her employer, then changing her name and appearance, moving to another town, and doing the same again.  In between thefts, she visits her mother.  The mother/daughter relationship is strained to say the least.  Marnie’s mom is friendly, but there is no sense of affection.  Marnie also has a horse named Forio, apparently the only creature with whom she has formed an emotional bond.  Marnie finally meets her match when she steals from Mark Rutland, who tracks her down.  Instead of turning her over to the police, he basically blackmails her into marrying him!  We then learn that Marnie wants absolutely nothing to do with the touch of a man.  Mark begins to play amateur psychologist, trying to “solve” Marnie.  Finally, Mark forces Marnie’s mother to come clean with a story from Marnie’s childhood, which is the root of all of her problems.

The centerpiece of the movie is the so-called rape scene.  When Mark and Marnie are on their honeymoon,  Mark forcefully removes her nightgown, and she stands naked, cold and emotionless.  Later, he forces himself on her in bed.  Afterward he is apologetic.  Evan Hunter, who had written the screenplay for Hitchcock’s previous film The Birds, was initially hired to write this screenplay as well.  He struggled with the rape scene.  He felt that there was no redemption for Mark’s character after this scene.  Ultimately, he wrote the scene two different ways in his final draft;  one was the way Hitchcock wanted it and the other was the way he thought it should play out.   Shortly after submitting his alternate version of the scene, he was fired by Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s assistant.  The final screenplay was written by a woman, Jay Presson Allen, who claims she had no problem writing the scene whatsoever.

Ultimately, I think the problem with the scene is it goes too far.  When Mark removes Marnie’s nightgown, and sees her reaction, he immediately covers her with his robe.  If the scene had ended there, the impact would have been the same.  However, in forcing himself on her in bed, Hitchcock employs a subjective POV shot of Mark above, lowering himself down, as his face comes closer to the camera.  This shot is just too much.  Mark is violating the entire audience here.  It is uncomfortable to say the least.  While I don’t think this scene prevents the audience from liking Mark (after all, this is Sean Connery we are talking about), I do think the scene was not necessary.

Further, I question Mark’s motives with Marnie.  He claims to love her.  But the way he continues to try to analyze her does not play like a man trying to help the woman he loves.  Rather it plays like a man enjoying the role of armchair psychologist, trying to solve a problem that is vexing him.  This emotional disconnect is detrimental to the story.

The cast:  When this film was in the early writing stages, Hitchcock envisioned Grace Kelly in the lead role.  He went so far as to visit Grace, and actually got a verbal commitment from her to come out of retirement to play the role.  Ultimately though, Grace declined to appear in the film, which was a major blow to Hitchcock.   Had Grace appeared in the film, it almost certainly would have been a better movie.  But even Grace Kelly could not save a problematic script and some almost lackadaisical technical choices.  One wonders if Hitchcock was not already starting to lose interest when Grace Kelly bowed out.

Grace Kelly’s handwritten letter to Hitchcock, declining to return to the big screen.

Technical choices:  By the time Marnie was made cinema was changing in significant ways.  The French New Wave was helping to break down some of the staid stylizations that had been commonplace in movies.  Hitchcock loved to shoot on the lot, where he had complete control.  But many of the things that Hitchcock employed frequently, like back projection and matte paintings, were already starting to look old-fashioned.  For the street where Marnie’s mother lives, Hitchcock ordered a large matte painting of a ship to be placed at the end of the street.  This setting has a clear artificiality to it.  Some critics have called this a deliberate choice, implying that Hitchcock was returning to his German expressionist roots.  However, even Hitchcock himself admitted in an interview that the painted backdrop was “bad”.

The scene in Mark’s office, with the very expressionistic storm, and the tree crashing through the window, has a very artificial feel too.

Finally, every time Marnie sees the color red she has a strong emotional reaction.  For these scenes, Hitchcock colors the screen in a garish red, while a musical cue from Bernard Herrmann repeats.

Ultimately, these visual choices do not completely dampen the film’s experience, but they do give it a slightly tired, old-fashioned feel that is at odds with the emotional complexity of the story.

Hitchcock touches:  After focusing on some of the elements that are problematic, let’s look at what works.  After all, this is still a very solid film.  The opening sequence is great.  Marnie is introduced walking away from the camera, yellow purse tucked under arm.  An air of mystery is established.  Her change of identity is done in montage, showing only hands.  Finally she gets her big reveal as her head rises from the sink, and Herrmann’s score rises.    It’s a strong and memorable sequence.

All of the scenes at Rutland’s come off very well, employing many of Hitchcock’s trademark subjective shots, as Marnie and the viewer learn the ins and outs of the office, including where the combination to the safe is kept.  And the actual theft of the money is filmed ingeniously, with a “split-screen” effect, as the cleaning woman works her way down the hall on the left side of the screen while Marnie steals the money from the office on the right.

All of the scenes with Diane Baker as Lil work very well.  Hitchcock’s camera frames her face in many interesting ways.

Finally, the party sequence is fantastic.  Hitchcock borrows from himself, with a long, slow tracking shot down a stairway that reminds the viewer of a similar shot in Notorious, almost thirty years earlier.

Performance:   Tippi Hedren isn’t bad in the starring role, but somehow I just don’t quite feel as if she pulls it off.  Granted, it is a challenging role, but Marnie the character is not as good a fit for her as Melanie Daniels was in The Birds.  Sean Connery was well cast in his role, again a role that is very challenging.  The way the part is written, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for this guy.  The real stand out performances for me are Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother, and Diane Baker as Mark’s sister-in-law Lil.  Alan Napier is an always solid character actor, but he wasn’t given much to do with his part.

Source material:   Hitchcock’s film is based on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham.  The is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is written in the first person.   Being a man myself, I won’t comment on how “womanlike” the voice may or may not be (I leave that to the experts) but it is a very engaging read.  So not only did Mr. Graham decide to write a book from the point of view of a woman protagonist, but he also made her a thief with a troubled childhood.   The basic plot of the story is the same as the movie.  The book takes place in Britain, not the States.   There is also a psychiatrist in the novel, who Marnie sees basically to placate Mark.  In the movie, Mark became the amateur psychiatrist himself.   Also featuring prominently in the novel is a character named Terry, a cousin of Mark, who puts the moves on Marnie more than once, and ends up betraying her at the end, as a way of getting back at Mark.  His character was eliminated from the novel, and replaced with the Diane Baker character Lil.

Here is a small sampling of Graham’s writing, in this case the rape scene:

He grabbed my other arm, and my frock slipped down.  I felt an awful feeling of something that seemed to be half embarrassment and half disgust.  I was fairly shivering with rage.  One minute I felt I’d let him get on with his lovemaking and be like a cold statue dead to every feeling except hate, and just see what he made of that.  But the next I was ready to fight him, to claw his face and spit like a she-cat that’s got a tom prowling round her that she doesn’t want.

Recurring players:  Tippi Hedren had just starred in The Birds.  Bruce Dern would later star in Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot.  Henry Beckman, who plays a detective, had earlier played a prisoner in The Wrong Man.  Edith Evanson, the nearly-deaf cleaning lady who doesn’t hear Marnie, had earlier played the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson in Rope.  Kenner Kemp and Bert Stevens (extras in the party scene) had earlier appeared as extras in The Paradine Case and North by Northwest.  Louise Lorimer, who plays Mrs. Strutt, would later play Ida Cookson in Family Plot.  And Hal Taggart (man at racetrack) would later play an ambassador in Topaz.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes just at the 5:00 mark in the film.  As Tippi Hedren walks down the hotel corridor, Hitchcock exits a hotel room in the foreground, looking somewhat guilty.   One wonders what he was up to in that room!  He then glances to his right, looking directly at the camera for an instant.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock’s feelings about Marnie were mixed.  He did say the following in conversation with Truffaut:

What really bothered me about Marnie were all the secondary characters.  I had the feeling that I didn’t know these people, the family in the background.  Mark’s father, for instance.  And I wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman.  You know, if you want to reduce Marnie to its lowest common denominator, it is the story of the prince and the beggar girl.  In a story of this kind you need a real gentleman, a more elegant man than what we had.

I find these comments very interesting.  While this film has some issues, I certainly don’t think Sean Connery was not enough of a “gentleman”.

Definitive edition:  The 2013 blu ray release is the best version of the film available.  The picture quality on the Marnie blu ray is not great;  it is very grainy, and has some color issues as well.  This film could do with a proper restoration, which it probably won’t get, so this may be as good as it gets.  The 2 channel soundtrack is good.  Included is a 58-minute documentary, which includes interviews with Tippi Hedren, Diane Baker, Louise Latham, and Jay Presson Allen.  Also included are “The Marnie Archives” which includes production photos and vintage promotional material, and the original theatrical trailer.

THE BIRDS: Deconstruction of a scene – The death of a farmer

The Birds is full of scenes that are worthy of being broken down and analyzed.  Rather than the schoolhouse attack, or Melanie’s attack in the room at the end of the film, I wanted to take a look at one short but memorable sequence:  Lydia Brenner’s visit to Dan Fawcett’s farm.

I first became interested in Hitchcock at about the age of 10.  One of the local TV affiliates in Los Angeles used to air an “Alfred Hitchcock film festival” every year, with a different movie televised every night for a week.  I saw The Birds on television that week.  When it aired the next year, I watched again, and this is the sequence I was waiting to see.  At the time, I was fascinated by the image of the man with his eyes pecked out.  Later on, I realized how well structured the entire scene is, just like the rest of the film.

This sequence lasts around 2 minutes and 40 seconds, and features 21 editorial cuts, which means an average of 7.6 seconds per shot.  When you break it down to the individual shots, there is nothing average about it.

I call this a palindromic, or nesting doll sequence.  There is a series of shots that is later repeated, in reverse order, for a different dramatic purpose.

The scene opens on a dissolve from Melanie, into a long shot of Lydia’s green pick up truck approaching Dan Fawcett’s farm.  The camera remains static, forcing the viewer to follow the truck.  This shot lasts around 14 seconds.

Next the camera is set up in the driveway.  The truck passes in front of the camera, makes a counterclockwise half circle, and parks.  This shot lasts around 13 seconds.

Then Hitchcock cuts to a medium shot of Lydia exiting the truck.  The camera then pans left as she approaches George, a farmhand in front of a tractor.  They briefly converse in a perfectly framed two shot, then she walks up the path to the front door of the house.  This is all done in one shot with no cuts, in a shot lasting about 28 seconds.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a medium shot of Lydia on the porch where she knocks, looks in the window, and then enters the house.  This shot lasts around 10 seconds.

Next Hitchcock cuts to the home’s interior, as Lydia enters the front door.  She calls out for Dan, looks around, and then notices the broken teacups, which the camera zooms in on.  We see her reaction, then the camera pans left as she moves towards the hallway.  This scene lasts around 21 seconds.  Hitchcock described it this way:

Another improvisation is the mother driving up to the farm, going into the house and calling the farmer before noticing the wrecked room and discovering the farmer’s body.  While we were shooting that, I said to myself, “This doesn’t make sense.”  She calls the farmer and he doesn’t answer.  Well, a woman in that position wouldn’t push it any farther; she’d walk out of the house.  So that’s how I got the idea to keep her there by having her notice the five broken teacups hanging from the hooks.

Next the camera holds on Lydia as she walks down the hallway.  There is complete silence as she slowly walks to the end of the hall and looks left.  This shot last around 18 seconds.

Next the camera is inside the bedroom.  It cuts to a medium shot of Lydia moving her head into the room.  Now Hitchcock switches to the subjective point of view, as he so frequently did in his career.  We get a series of shots of Lydia looking, then we get a shot of what she is looking at.   The first shot of Lydia lasts maybe three seconds.  First she looks at the broken window, with a dead gull hanging in glass, for about two seconds.  Then we cut back to Lydia continuing to sweep her gaze from left to right.  After another three seconds, we cut to what she is seeing.  The general disheveled state of the room, with another dead bird on the bed.

After holding this shot for two seconds, we return to Lydia again.  The camera stays on her for about 4 seconds as she continues looking left to right, finally looking down.   We then cut to a pair of bloody feet, and torn and bloody pajama legs almost up to the knee.  The cuts continue to quicken;  this shot lasts only about a second.  Then we get the fourth shot of Lydia at the door, as she looks around it to see who is lying there.  This shot lasts maybe two seconds.  And then, we get the shot of Dan Fawcett propped against the wall, clearly dead, with his eyes pecked out.  Rather than zooming in here, Hitchcock does three quick cuts, taking us ever closer, until the last image is a close up of the bloody blinded face.  The three shots in total last around two seconds, with the last being the shortest.

Hitchcock calls this triple shot:

a staccato movement…I wanted a change from the zooming in…And another interesting thing about that moment, I never show the woman’s reaction to it.  I cut to the shoulder.  I never show her face.  I knew I couldn’t.  I knew very well I could never get an expression strong enough.

Next we get the series of reverse shots, mirroring the opening.  Just as the camera held on Lydia walking down the corridor, we now see her running from the room towards the camera, in a shot lasting five seconds.

Just as we saw Lydia approach George and walk up the path in one shot, we now get the reverse.  The shot opens standing just outside the gate to the house, with a little bit of George’s pant leg visible on the right.  Lydia comes out of the house, runs into a close-up two-shot with George, tries to scream but is inarticulate, then runs on.  This shot lasts around 11 seconds.

I would like to quote extensively from Hitchcock here, as he talks about the importance of both the sound and the visual, before we see our last mirror shot of the truck driving away rapidly in a long shot, leaving a trail of dust.

The soundtrack was vital just there; we had the sound of her footsteps running down the passage, with almost an echo.  The interesting thing in the sound is the difference between the footsteps inside the house and on the outside.  Did you notice that I had her run from the distance and then went to a close-up when she’s paralyzed with fear and inarticulate?  There’s silence at that point.  Then, as she goes off again, the sound of the steps will match the size of the image.  It grows louder right up to the moment she gets into the truck, and then the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish.  We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would. 

For the arrival of the truck, I had the road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away.  The reason we went to all that trouble is that the truck, seen from a distance like that, moving at a tremendous speed, expresses the frantic nature of the mother’s moves.  In the previous scene we had shown that the woman was going through a violent emotion, and when she gets into the truck, we showed that this was an emotional truck.  Not only by the image, but also through the sound that sustains the emotion.  It’s not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that’s like a cry.  It’s as though the truck were shrieking.  

In a film full of technically challenging scenes, this sequence is fairly standard.   But Hitchcock devoted a significant amount of time to this sequence, and that devotion is reflected in the final project.

THE BIRDS (1963): “Birds just don’t go around attacking people without no reason.”

THE BIRDS – 1963 – Universal Pictures – ★★★★

Color – 119 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tippie Hedren (Melanie Daniels), Rod Taylor (Mitchell “Mitch” Brenner), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Bundy).

Screenplay by Evan Hunter, from the story by Daphne du Maurier

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Sound Consultant:  Bernard Herrmann

After the massive success of Psycho, Hitchcock took some much deserved time off.  He eventually decided that his next movie would be about birds attacking the residents of a small town.  This would prove to be one of the most technically challenging films Hitchcock had ever made.

The plot is rather simple on the surface, and can be described briefly.  In a San Francisco pet shop a wealthy socialite named Melanie Daniels meets Mitch Brenner, a very handsome lawyer.  She is rather taken with him, and after their chance encounter  drives from San Francisco to Bodega Bay, to leave a birthday gift of two love birds for Mitch’s sister.  She ends up spending the weekend with Mitch, his possessive mother, and young sister Cathy.  She also meets Cathy’s school teacher Annie, who used to date Mitch and still has feelings for him.   In the midst of this, common birds (seagulls, finches, crows) begin attacking the people of the town en masse, for no apparent reason.  Ultimately, Melanie and the Brenners are fighting for their lives.

What most people remember about The Birds are the attack sequences, but equally important are the quiet conversational scenes that act as a buffer between the moments of action.  This is one of the most carefully structured and choreographed films that Hitchcock ever made.  Let’s take a closer look at that structure.

A Hitchcock meet cute:   The opening scenes, which take place in a pet shop, are very cleverly constructed.  We meet Melanie Daniels, who is in the store to pick up a bird that she has ordered.   In walks Mitch Brenner, who mistakes Melanie for an employee and asks her questions about birds.  Specifically, he wants to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister as a birthday gift.   Melanie decides to play along, to comic effect.  Ultimately, we learn that Mitch, an attorney, knew who Melanie was all along and was playing her, and the audience.

At this early point in the film, we hardly pay attention to the titular animals, although they fill the scene.  For here they are all in cages;  pretty and innocuous.  That will soon change.  Hitchcock had this to say about the scene:

At the beginning of the film we show Rod Taylor in the bird shop.  He catches the canary that has escaped from its cage, and after putting it back, he says to Tippi Hedren, “I’m putting you back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.”  I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterization as a wealthy, shallow playgirl.

Melanie is first angry with Mitch for fooling her, but she is attracted to him as well, so she buys two lovebirds, and drives up the coast to Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends his weekends with his mother Lydia and sister Cathy.  Shortly after arriving, she meets Annie Hayworth, Cathy’s teacher and Mitch’s former lover.  This is the first of many scenes in the movie to feature only women characters, in extended dialogue.  These scenes don’t pass the Bechdel test, because most of the conversation centers on Mitch, but it is worth nothing that in this movie a majority of the dialogue is spoken by women, and all of the major characters, with one exception, are women.

The dialogue scenes in this movie have some of the most precise shot compositions in any Hitchcock film.  Perhaps because of the frenetic energy of the bird attack scenes, he wanted to counterbalance that with shots of impeccable precision.

Melanie crosses the bay in a boat to deliver the love birds in secret, but she is spotted by Mitch as she is recrossing the bay.  He races in his car to meet her, and at this point Melanie is hit in the head by a swooping gull.

The first hint of menace has been introduced.  But of course this is just one bird, one isolated strike.  After this attack, Melanie is invited to dinner at the Brenner home.   Again, the shot composition in sublime.  Every aspect of the scene, from the lighting, set decoration, costumes, and blocking of the actors is perfect.  The second hint of something brewing is dropped here, as Lydia talks about her chickens not eating their food.

While watching the dialogue scenes, you can freeze-frame the movie at any point, and the shot composition will be as precise as a painting.

Melanie leaves the Brenner house and returns to Susan’s, where she is staying the night in the spare room.  Here begins a fascinating scene.  Melanie and Susan have a long conversation, talking about Mitch, and more specifically, about his mother Lydia.  Hitch would normally shoot a scene like this in a two shot;  here, he keeps them across the room, diametrically opposed visually as they are emotionally.  He cuts back and forth, from one to the other, not allowing them to share the frame until Mitch calls on the phone.  When Melanie speaks to him, we get this wonderful image.

Once again, a single image that tells the entire story.  Even though they the screen, they couldn’t be farther apart.  And then, they hear a loud noise at the door.  It is a bird, who hit the door and fell dead on the porch.  Finally, the two women are brought together in unison.

We have now had our third hint of menace from the birds.  And also a foreshadowing;  it is the terror of the bird attacks that will unite these two women.

The next day is Cathy’s birthday.  Mitch and Melanie have a quiet scene together, drawing them closer.  This is followed by the first concerted attack of the birds on the children at the party.  Nobody is seriously injured, but certainly everyone is shaken up.  Later that evening, a swarm of finches flies down the chimney and swarms the Brenner living room.

Hitchcock the improviser:   Here we will hear from Hitchcock, about how he changed the next scene in the movie on the day of shooting.

After the initial attack on the room, when the sparrows came down through the chimney, the sheriff came to the house to talk it over with Mitch…I studied the scene and found that the treatment was too old-fashioned, so I changed the whole thing.  The scene begins with the whole group of characters, the sheriff, Mitch, the mother, and Melanie, in the background, and the whole scene that follows is a transfer from the objective viewpoint to a subjective viewpoint.

Melanie looks at the mother and the camera now photographs Jessica Tandy going around the room, in different positions, to pick up the broken teacups, to straighten the picture…

The reverse cuts of Melanie, as she looks at the mother going back and forth, subtly indicate what she’s thinking.  Her eyes and gestures indicate an increasing concern over the mother’s strange behavior and for the mother herself.

The vision of the reality belongs to the girl, even when she crosses the room to say to Mitch, “I think I’d better stay the night.”  To go up to Mitch she has to walk across the room, but even as she’s walking, I keep a big close-up on her because her concern and her interest demand that we retain the same size of image on the screen.  If I were to cut and drop back to a looser figure, her concern would be diminished as well.  The size of the image is very important to the emotion, particularly when you’re using that image to have the audience identify with it.

The next morning, Lydia goes to a neighboring farm and discovers the man who lives there is dead, his eyes pecked out by birds.  (I will do a deconstruction of this scene as a separate piece).  When she returns home, she and Melanie have a scene together, which bonds them emotionally.  Lydia asks Melanie to go the school and see that Cathy gets home safely.

Here begins perhaps the most iconic scene in the film.  As Melanie sits on a bench outside the school, listening the children sing a song, crows begin to gather on the jungle gym behind her.  First one, then three, and so on.   Melanie does not notice the crows until there are there are dozens, filling almost every available space.

The children run down the street and are violently attacked.  When the birds cease their attack the children are sent home.  Melanie ends up in the diner, along with Mitch and several other people.  Again, we get a long scene of conversation to catch our breath between attacks.  This is a masterfully constructed scene.  Every character fills a role.  Hitchcock said “That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs.  The character of the drunk is straight out of an O’Casey play, and the elderly lady ornithologist is pretty interesting.”

Next comes another attack.  Each attack is larger and more violent than the previous one.  This one finds Melanie trapped in a phone booth, with birds striking all sides.  This is a reversal of the beginning of the film, when Melanie was surrounded by birds in cages.  As Hitchcock says:

…Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage.  This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery, and it’s also the beginning of her ordeal by fire, so to speak.  It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds.  Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside.

This attack sequence features an incredible “bird’s eye view” shot, which shows the entire village, a raging fire, then shows gulls as they begin to fill the frame.

Here is how Hitch described this scene:

I did that high shot for three reasons.  The first was beginning to show the gulls’ descent on the town.  The second was to show the exact topography of Bodega Bay, with the town, the sea, the coast, and the gas station on fire, in one single image.  The third reason is that I didn’t want to waste a lot of footage on showing the elaborate operation of the firemen extinguishing the fire.  You can do a lot of things very quickly by getting away from something.

After the attack subsides, a frantic mother in the restaurant accuses Melanie of bringing the wrath of the birds on the town.   The woman’s point is founded on post hoc ergo propter hoc logic.  The events didn’t start until Melanie arrived, therefore they must be tied to her somehow.  It is an interesting scene, which ends with the woman screaming the word “EVIL” at Melanie, and Melanie slapping her in response.

Next is the unfortunate death of Annie Hayworth, the teacher.  Hitchcock describes why he felt the need to have Annie die:  “I felt that in light of what the birds were doing to the town, she was doomed.  Besides, she sacrificed herself to protect the sister of the man she loves.  It’s her final gesture.”

Finally comes the last violent attack, as the Brenners are holed up with Melanie in their home.  They successfully keep the birds out. At the end of this attack, the power has gone out, and Hitchcock shows his German expressionist background as he shoots each of the three adults separately, with shots looking up at them, the ceiling visible behind them. 

Then, he brings them all together in a wide shot.

Later, as everyone is sleeping, Melanie creeps quietly upstairs.  She enters a room, only to find the birds have gotten in through the roof.   She is attacked violently.   Hitchcock shot this sequence in montage, in a deliberate evocation of the shower scene in Psycho.   This scene was shot over five days, with live birds, and left Tippi so emotionally drained that she had to take a week off from shooting to recuperate.  Watching the scene, one can understand why.

The movie ends ambiguously, with the Brenners and Melanie driving away, as seemingly thousands of birds sit quietly around them in an uneasy truce.

Performance:  As is typical of most Hitchcock films, the performances in this film are strong from top to bottom.  Hitchcock told Truffaut that he had some problems with Rod Taylor initially, but I think his performance is outstanding.  Equally good are Tippi Hedren, who was in her debut role on film.  Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright all give great performances as well.

Special effects:   When The Birds was released in 1963, it had more special effect shots than any movie in history.  Hitchcock knew that he would only be able to use live birds in select scenes.  He also has mechanical birds, cardboard cutout birds, and animated birds.  He also has several matte paintings employed in the films.  The technical aspects took months to achieve, beyond the practical photography.   The single shot of the birds descending on Bodega Bay has several distinct elements.  The fire and the people moving around it, were shot practically at Univeral Studios.  The remainder of that shot is a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  The birds were then added to the image in a process called rotoscope.  Hitchcock describes it:

Two old ladies spent three months copying each bird onto a plain background and then copying the silhouette.  When you double print you must have a silhouette first.  They used the travelling matte system.  It took them three months to do fifteen feet, ten seconds.  This footage was then printed into the scene.  You saw the birds going down over the town. 

Ub Iwerks and Hitch:  Alfred Hitchcock borrowed the skills of Ub Iwerks from Walt Disney studios for the trick shots of The Birds.   Iwerks was the pioneering animator who had invented a process for combining live action and animation called the sodium vapor process.  Indeed, many of the bird-in-flight sequences in the movie are animated birds, filmed using this process.

Hitchcock and sound:  Alfred Hitchcock chose to have no musical score for this film.  He felt that the absence of music would make the film more frightening, and he also had the idea of using the noises of the birds themselves as a type of score.  He did bring Bernard Herrmann in as a “sound consultant”, which shows how much Hitchcock valued his opinion, even in a film without music.   Hitchcock’s notes on the sounds of this movie are incredibly precise.  He has detailed notes on every single scene.  To provide one example, here is how Hitchcock describes the sounds he wants for the scene where the finches come down the chimney:

The overall sounds in this sequence should have a shrill anger as though the birds in their own particular way were invading the room and almost screaming at the occupants.  The quality of this sound should assail the ears of the audience to perhaps an almost unbearable degree.  It should not necessarily have volume, but the quality of the shrill notes should be something like the effect of the screech that you get if you scrape two pieces of metal together…Naturally accompanying this but in a much lesser degree, we have the sound of the little wings beating.  Perhaps there should be some sprinkling of thuds where birds hit the walls.

Trautonium:  Hitchcock did not want to just use practical bird noises, he wanted to manipulate and amplify them.  For this purpose, he went to Berlin and employed the skills of Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman on a device called the trautonium, a precursor to modern day synthesizers.   Sala was one of the original inventors of the trautonium, and he played the first one in 1930.  He continued to refine and alter it throughout his life.   So recorded sounds, in this case bird screeches, could be altered by the trautonium, which consists of resistor wires stretched over metal plates.  Sala was, in essence, playing the bird sounds.  Here is a clip of Oskar Sala playing this unique and fascinating instrument in the early 1990’s.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, a favorite author of Hitchcock.  This was the third du Maurier work to be adapted for Hitchcock (after Jamaica Inn and Rebecca).  The story is only about 40 pages long, and shares very little in common with the Hitchcock film beyond the premise of birds inexplicably attacking people for no reason.  The story’s protagonist is Nat Hocken, a farm laborer who lives in a cottage with his wife and kids.  The story is set in England.  The birds attack the family, who are holed up inside.  One small plot point that did make it to the screen is the death of a neighboring farmer.  The story ends ambiguously, with another attack beginning:

Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.

Recurring players:  Tippi Hedren would star as the titular character in Hitchcock’s next movie Marnie.  Malcolm Atterbury (Deputy Al Malone) was the man in North by Northwest who pointed out to Cary Grant “that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.” Elizabeth Wilson (Helen Carter) had a small uncredited role in Notorious.  And Doreen Lang (hysterical mother in diner) had earlier appeared as one of the women who mistakenly identified Henry Fonda as the robber in The Wrong Man, and as Cary Grant’s secretary Maggie in the opening minutes of North by Northwest.  

Academy Awards:  The Birds received one Oscar nomination, for Best Visual Effects, losing to Cleopatra.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early, at about the 2:16 mark.  As Tippi Hedren is approaching the entrance of the pet store, Alfred Hitchcock walks out leading  two dogs on a leash.  These Sealyham Terriers are Hitch’s own personal dogs,  Geoffrey and Stanley.

What Hitch said:   I’ve already included a lot of Hitchcock’s thoughts on this film, I will conclude with a couple of general thoughts he shared with Truffaut:  “…I think that if the story had involved vultures, or birds of prey, I might not have wanted it.  The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds…there’s a lot of detail in this movie; it’s absolutely essential because these little nuances enrich the over-all impact and strengthen the picture.”   In a 1963 interview with Cinema magazine, Hitchcock said “All you can say about The Birds is nature can be awful rough on you…The Birds expresses nature and what it can do, and the dangers of nature, because there is no doubt if the birds did decide, you know, with the millions that there are, to go for everybody’s eyes, then we’d have H.G. Wells’ Kingdom of the Blind on our hands.”

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu ray is the best version of this movie available to date.  The picture quality on this one is spotty at times;  it just isn’t as sharp looking as most of the other Hitchcock blu rays.  But overall, the picture is good, particularly on interior scenes.  There are numerous extra features, including a detailed 80 minute making-of documentary, a 14 minute featurette, excerpts from the Truffaut interviews, script pages and story boards of a deleted scene and alternate ending, Tippi Hedren’s screen test, two short newsreels, production photos and storyboards, original theatrical trailer, and two featurettes celebrating aspects of Universal Studios 100th anniversary.