MARNIE Deconstruction of a Scene: Marnie steals the money

Marnie is the first film in what I refer to as Hitchcock’s problematic trilogy.   This is a frustratingly flawed film, which nonetheless has many great moments and sequences.   I would like to break down the sequence in which Marnie (played by Tippi Hedren) steals the money from the safe at Rutlands.

The sequence runs just a couple seconds over five minutes, and contains 29 editorial cuts.  This averages out to 10.4 seconds per shot, which is a high number for a Hitchcock suspense sequence.   Sound is just as important as vision in this sequence.  Let’s see how Hitchcock did it.

If you’ve read my deconstructions before, you may have noticed that Hitchcock often opens sequences with a dissolve.  In this case the preceding scene fades to black, and he holds the black for two full seconds before fading in on this scene.

It is the end of the workday at Rutlands, and employees begin to file out.  Marnie heads to the ladies restroom.  Hitchcock does this in one shot lasting 26 seconds, tracking behind Marnie as she walks to the bathroom door.  The office is a hum of activity.

 

We next cut to the restroom interior as Marnie enters, and goes in a stall.  There are several women at the sinks, freshening their makeup and talking over each other in a constant murmur.  This shot lasts 10 seconds.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to the interior of the stall, which is impressively lit.   In many ways, this is the most important shot in the sequence.  Hitchcock holds this scene for 54 seconds, which is a long time for a scene which is visually static.  The key here is the sound.  As Marnie waits and listens, the sounds gradually diminish as the other women leave the restroom.  Finally there is complete silence.   This silence is important; there is no musical score in this scene either.

 

We then get an 11 second shot of Marnie leaving the stall, listening quietly, and exiting the restroom.   Hitchcock next cuts to the reverse with an exterior shot of Marnie coming out the restroom door.  This 3 second shot is the first quick cut in the sequence.

 

Here Hitchcock gives us the first subjective POV shots of the sequence as we see Marnie glancing around the office, and then cut to what she is looking at.  These are brief shots lasting only a couple of seconds.   We then get a 28 second shot that tracks with Marnie back to her desk, showing her getting a bag from her purse, and walking to the desk with the safe combination.  The emphasis here is on the key in her hand.

 

Next we get a close-up insert shot of the safe combination.  Generally insert shots of this type are very quick, a second or two at most, but Hitchcock lingers a bit here, giving us time to read the specifics of the safe combination, and to realize that Marnie is doing the same.

 

Next comes another 28 second shot which begins with the camera above Marnie’s head, one of Hitchcock’s favorite places to put the camera in a moment of tension.  The camera stays on her as she opens the door behind her and walks to the safe

 

Next up comes another fabulous shot:  a long shot showing both the office with Marnie on the right, and the corridor on the left.   The effect of the staging is rather like a split screen.  As Marnie takes the money out of the safe, we can see the cleaning lady mopping the floor on the right.   Hitchcock heightens the tension here by giving us knowledge that the characters on the screen do not have, and also by keeping us farther away in a long shot.   This shot is held for 47 seconds without a cut.

 

We then cut to a medium shot of Marnie at the office door.   We get two more subjective POV shots, as she looks first at the cleaning lady, and then at the stairwell, which is her means of escape.  We then see a medium shot of her feet as she slips out of her shoes, then slips the shoes in her coat pockets, one on each side.   It is important to point out that this sequence is still silent.  There has been no noise since Marnie left the bathroom stall.

 

Hitchcock then cuts on movement, as Marnie begins to slowly walk across the floor.  Here the cutting increases as the tension increases.  Hitchcock gives us a medium close of Marnie’s feet on the floor, then a close up of the shoe starting to slip from her left pocket.  He follows this sequence a couple more times, cutting from her feet to the shoe, with the cleaning lady now visible behind her.  These shots are all short, averaging around 2 seconds each.  Finally the shoe falls and hits the floor with a loud smack.  It sounds like a minor explosion.  Why?  Because it is the first sound we have heard in over three minutes.   This moment is why Hitchcock drained the sound from the sequence.  Surely the cleaning lady must have heard it?  Nonetheless, she keeps on mopping, her back to Marnie.

 

Marnie bends down, picks up the shoe, and quietly heads to stairs.  Here we get another brief split screen effect;  as she is starting to descend the stairs on the right side of the screen, yet another employee is approaching on the left.  And this employee comes up to the cleaning lady to speak to her.  We learn her name is Ruth, and we also learn that she is hard of hearing, which explains why she didn’t turn at the loud noise of the shoe hitting the floor.   What a great way to relieve the tension at the end of the sequence, with a slightly comic touch.  (Hitchcock buffs may be interested to note that this brief role of Ruth the cleaning lady was played by Edith Evanson, who had played the more substantial role of Mrs. Wilson in Rope 16 years earlier).

 

This great sequence then ends on a dissolve.   So in this case, Hitchcock created tension by employing all three of his favorite camera techniques:  the long take, montage, and the subjective POV.  But more importantly he used sound, or the absence of sound, to great dramatic effect, making this one of the most memorable moments in the film.

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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 Marnieyou 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.  Just 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 and 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 in Monaco, 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 novel 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 consistent;  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 (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 PsychoHitchcock 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 trouble 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 share the screen, they couldn’t be farther apart.  And then they hear a loud noise at the door.  It is a bird, that 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  town 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 were 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.  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 their cottage. 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 Manand 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.