Retro Review: Feminine Sexual Threat Meets Avian Apocalypse: THE BIRDS Attack the Plaza Theatre in the Last Weekend of Alfred Hitchcock Month

Posted on: Nov 28th, 2012 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

THE BIRDS (1963); Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McCain); Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy; Fri. Nov. 30 – Sun. Dec. 2; Plaza Theatre (visit Plaza Theatre Website for showtimes and ticket prices); Trailer here.

Alfred Hitchcock, like a lot of thriller and horror filmmakers, always displayed an influence by Freudian theory. In THE BIRDS, he’s pared it down to one essential: all actions are motivated, most motives unconscious. Having first established that with the characters, he shows the same proves to be the apocalyptic secret behind the workings of the whole world.

Loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same title, THE BIRDS is Alfred Hitchcock’s only explicit foray into science fiction and fantasy. The screenplay by Evan Hunter (better known as crime writer Ed McCain) is awkward, but also ambitious. It’s Hitchcock’s immediate follow-up to PSYCHO (1960) and borrows from its device of a lengthy preamble, telling a story that proceeds along one narrative line until events outside the so-far-established frame of reference break that line, radically changing what the film’s about. When the main story arrives, it is disorienting and meant to be. Tippi Hedren plays a spoiled heiress who develops a crush on Rod Taylor which seems petulant – she wants to win his affection only to trump his mocking her – and a little creepy in its aggressiveness. She doesn’t know him at all, but stalker-like, she travels a long distance to arrive uninvited at his home.

Taylor lives in an island fishing community, and the first hint of the actual threat/main story comes is when Hedren is approaching the island by motorboat and a seagull flies into her, giving her a minor injury. That minor injury may have influenced Taylor in not immediately demanding she turn around and go home. So Hedren has a small opening and is not without wiles. Taylor starts to respond, but obstacles appear quickly. His clinging mother, Jessica Tandy, doesn’t like Hedren. Then there’s Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Pleshette, who surprisingly befriends Hedren, but also provides some insights into Taylor that suggests he’s as out-of-touch with his motivations as Hedren is.

The dialogue is a little strained, but covering interesting ground. It’s a love story examining people who don’t know why they do the things they do. It’s justifiably talky because every dialogue is a negotiation to establish one’s position in three-or-more-player power relationships.

This is also not at all what the film is about. As the threat escalates at an almost leisurely pace, the amount of dialogue decreases.

THE BIRDS attack Tippi Hedren and a group of children in one of the Hitchcock masterpiece's most iconic scenes. Universal Pictures, 1963.

What this film is about is the revenge of nature and the end of the world. The film won’t tell us why this inexplicable disaster erupts any more than Hedren can honestly explain her pursuit of Taylor. I don’t know if it was Hitchcock or Hunter who made the bold move to violate one of the fundamental rules of monster movies in their refusal to provide even a partial explanation for the events. It was ballsy though. I can’t think of another film driven by seemingly motiveless events that was anything but annoying, because in almost any other example, motivelessness is the same as incoherence. The original short story is ambiguous regarding explanation, but suggestive. The film, though, is completely opaque.

Maybe part of the success is that explanations are dangled in front of us, and they seem to make emotional sense, but clearly don’t make narrative sense. This is another of a string of Hitchcock films where ice-queen blondes appear to be the well from which all evil flows, but always Hitcock is always putting a modest twist on that easily misogynist interpretation of that “evil.” In VERTIGO (1958), Madeleine (Kim Novak) is bad, and drives a innocent man to obsession, but she’s not the main architect of the fiendish plot [Ed. note: Read our Retro Review of VERTIGO, which played last weekend at The Plaza, here]. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) Eve (Eva Marie Saint) is deceitful and part of the circumstances that put our hero at risk, but she is in on her deceit, she is serving a greater good and proves to be almost as much a victim of circumstances as our hero is. In PSYCHO (1960) Marion (Janet Leigh) is a criminal and a betrayer for sure, but none of her sins have any bearing on her fate.

Here, the apocalypse seems to arrive with Hedren, but as weird as she is, she does nothing that could reasonably provoke anything larger than Tandy’s jealous resentment. Moreover, as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the disaster is much larger than any of these lives or the geography we see in the film itself. When Hedren is accused of being evil’s harbinger by a hysterical woman, that seems only to reinforce the irrationality of the suggestion. But no other explanation is provided.

Semi-feminist writer Camille Paglia mined the irrational vein in search of meaning. She interpreted THE BIRDS as a celebration of the complex faces and threats female sexuality presents to a man, to the point that nature becomes an extension of that tension. She notes that more women play more pivotal roles in THE BIRDS than in any other Hitchcock film. The hero is defined by his relationships with his mother, younger sister (more like a daughter) and ex-lover, and that careful balance is thrown off by the appearance of Hedren. The disruption of the domestic balance is blown up to become the disruption of the balance of nature.

Once the bird attacks start escalating, each is paced and staged very differently from the one before, and this is where Hitchcock shows his true mastery. Every attack is remembered as a classic moment. Like Hedren sitting on a bench outside a school house waiting for Pleschette, a teacher, to take a break. Hedren lights a cigarette. We hear the children inside singing in unison. Hedren doesn’t notice what we can see over her shoulder, the playground jungle-gym gradually fill with hordes of silent crows.

Or like the largest attack, which, surprisingly, isn’t the last one. It features Hedren, who arrived at the island with caged birds, trapped in a cage-like phone booth while killer birds swirl around her (Hitchcock quite effectively put the camera inside the booth with her, so we shared the claustrophobia and shock of the assault).

And the climax, after the whole community finds itself under siege, and Hedren and Taylor’s family barricade themselves in his house. In the only scene taken directly from Du Maurier’s story, the attack becomes more frenzied, suicidal, and no defense can be adequate because there are so many of them, they are so small and there’s always another way in.

Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. Universal Pictures, 1963.

Two things come up in every review of THE BIRDS – Hitchcock’s choice to do without a conventional score and the landmark FX. Though there is no music per se, Hitchcock did use his favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, to create scary, synthesized bird calls to counterpoint the calculated silences. For this reason, THE BIRDS is the eeriest sounding of all his films.

Then there are the special effects. Simply put, what Hitchcock achieved should’ve been impossible with the technology of the day. It contains more than 370 separate trick shots. Every technique then imaginable was employed here including a slew of matte paintings, trained birds lured by feasts of fish and food scraps, mechanical birds, stuffed birds, and a scene during which Hitchcock literally threw live birds at Hedren (under those circumstances, the animals’ aggressiveness was probably sincere and Hedren’s fear wasn’t acting). The scene where the children are attacked on the road (this is part of the same sequence where the birds gather on the jungle-gym) involved most of the above, plus meticulous animations integrated into shots of live actors, through a complex “yellowscreen” process executed by Disney’s Ub Iwerks, who was one of the technique’s inventors. And then there were the two unnamed female artists who spent three months hand-painting seagulls onto tiny film frames for a scene that lasted less than 10 seconds.

David Thomson refers to THE BIRDS as Hitchcock’s “last unflawed film.” These two clips cover the jungle-gym attack of children sequence. I still marvel that this was done in the days before CGI:

watch?v=ydLJtKlVVZw&feature=relmfu

watch?v=hplpQt424Ls

Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr., is based in New York. This article is number 58 in a series of 100 essays he is penning, inspired by the British documentary THE 100 GREATEST SCARY MOMENTS (2003). It is reprinted with permission. The moment selected for the list can be found at the 1 hour, 38 minute marker. 

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Retro Review: Darkness in Daylight: The Plaza Theatre Descends into Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO

Posted on: Nov 19th, 2012 By:

VERTIGO (1958); Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes; Fri. Nov. 23 – Sun. Nov. 25; Plaza Theatre (visit Plaza Theatre Website for showtimes and ticket prices); Trailer here.

If the film noir is defined by its most typical set-up—that of a doomed man swept up in events outside his control, often by a manipulative female figure—then Alfred Hitchcock’s towering VERTIGO is that most rare of films noir. It trades the genre’s high-contrast black-and-white for rich Technicolor. It places its characters not in the dimly-lit nightshade world of seedy bars, backrooms and private dicks’ offices; but in art museums, redwoods forests and the sunny streets of San Francisco. In the world of VERTIGO, the shadows of night may still hold mysterious threats, but the stark light of day reveals their constant presence all too clearly. There is, truly, no escape.

In this film, James Stewart paired with Hitchcock for their final collaboration. Stewart had long been one of Hitch’s archetypal actors. Whereas Cary Grant represented the Idealized Man in his cinematic world, Stewart was the Everyman. Grant was the go-to guy when Hitch needed a lead that viewers would either want to be or want to bed. Stewart was the guy next door, bringing a down-to-earth sensibility to his roles, and much of the attraction of him as a lead in Hitch’s films was in seeing this average Joe rise above his limitations to triumph at the end.

In VERTIGO, however, Stewart’s average Joe is taken far away from next door; his obsessions and fears exposed as he is broken beyond repair.

Stewart stars as former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, whose vertigo and fear of heights manifest in a rooftop police chase and result in the death of a fellow officer. Stricken by depression, he has retired from the force and struggles to overcome his fears. He is enlisted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, to trail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom he claims has been possessed by the spirit of the long-dead suicide victim Carlotta Valdes. Scottie witnesses Madeleine attempt to kill herself by jumping into San Francisco Bay and rescues her. They then become ensnared in an obsessive and doomed romance that can only result in death, a break with sanity, or both…

James Stewart and Kim Novak in VERTIGO. Paramount Pictures, 1958.

Kim Novak perfectly essays the role of a most unusual femme fatale: manipulative without being forceful, cool and reserved yet with a barely-concealed sexuality, strong yet fragile. However, Barbara Bel Geddes (whom viewers would later come to know as “Miss Ellie” Ewing on the TV series DALLAS) is perhaps the most overlooked character in the film: Scottie’s long-suffering ex-girlfriend Midge, a bohemian clothing designer, who represents the polar opposite of Madeleine. Where Madeleine is cool, Midge is warm. Where Madeleine is perfectly poised and elegant, Midge is natural and almost frumpily grounded. And where Madeleine represents everything that will tear down Scottie, Midge represents that lost potential for true happiness. Madeleine may be an impossible ideal, but Midge is real, there, now. And her love and devotion to Scottie may be the only path for his salvation, but how can he see that path with the dream that is Madeleine beckoning him from just beyond his reach?

The film was a critical and commercial failure upon release. Some felt it was too long and too complicated for a simple psychological mystery. Hitchcock believed that James Stewart’s age was a factor in the film’s failure, and replaced him with Cary Grant in the following year’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST (four years older than Stewart, true, but eternally youthful). Many, however, were disappointed that this movie was not another romantic mystery along the lines of 1956’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. In fact, the mystery is practically subservient to the film’s depiction of obsession—it’s solved two thirds of the way through the movie. Hitchcock often referenced the term “MacGuffin”: the mechanical element that sets a story into motion, yet which is ultimately unimportant to the plot’s progression. In John Huston’s 1941 film THE MALTESE FALCON, for instance, it’s the titular sculpture. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it’s a cache of microfilm. In the case of VERTIGO, it’s the mystery itself. The whys and wherefores of how Scottie has become obsessed with Madeleine are not important; his fears and obsessions are, instead, the focal point, and how they emerge and re-emerge during the course of the story are what carries us along the inevitable path to the film’s particularly noir conclusion.

However it was dismissed in the past, in more recent years VERTIGO has been reevaluated. Beginning with Robin Wood’s seminal 1965 work HITCHCOCK’S FILMS, critics have paid closer attention to the film and what it attempts to accomplish. Many have come to regard the film in retrospect as Hitch’s most personal work: a fully-realized exploration of his own obsession with a particular “type” of woman, embodied in Grace Kelly, and his need to craft the images of his actresses to fit this particular model. This was an obsession, as depicted in Donald Spoto’s THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS and the HBO original film THE GIRL, which would be ultimately destructive to his professional relationships with women. But despite the speculative personal aspect of VERTIGO, most have come to realize that as a film on its own merits, that it stands as a masterpiece. Indeed, it has topped the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll as the greatest film ever made.

VERTIGO’s relative failure at the time meant that preservation wasn’t as much of an issue. Thankfully, the film was meticulously restored by film historian Robert A. Harris and his team, using materials ranging from the original camera negatives (which Harris notes “looked hideous”), to damaged black-and-white color separation masters, to fuzzy film prints as many as eight generations removed from the original negatives. Using all of the materials at their disposal (including a preserved green paint sample from a model of car featured in the film which was utilized for color timing), Harris and company worked miracles, producing an almost immaculate presentation of what many consider Hitchcock’s true masterpiece.

To see such an important film, preserved and restored so well, presented on the big screen is a treat to be savored by any film fan, whether casual or hardcore. And this treat is available at the Plaza Theatre for one weekend only. Some things simply should not be missed. Don’t let this one pass you by.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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30 Days of The Plaza, Day 29: Vintage Vertigo That’s Not Just for the Birds: Hitchcock Takes Atlanta by Storm at The Plaza and the Strand This November!

Posted on: Nov 1st, 2012 By:

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

With November upon us and the gusts of the coming winter already chilling our bones, what better time than now to pay tribute to the king of spine-tingling thrillers, Sir Alfred Hitchcock? Thanks to the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta and Marietta’s Earl Smith Strand Theatre, you can spend some quality time this month with the Master of Suspense in his preferred setting: on the big screen and even better – remastered and in high definition!

Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre’s series promises special guests and vintage Hitchcock interview footage before each screening (show times TBA). They kick off the month with 1948’s James Stewart-starring ROPE, showing November 2-4. Hitchcock’s first color film, ROPE was based on the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb “perfect murder” scandal and seemingly unfolds in one continuous take. (Actually, it was shot in 10 shorter segments, with editing trickery covering up the fact that the cameraman would have to change the film magazine every 10 minutes.)

Up next is the film that ushered in what is now considered Hitch’s golden age—1951’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, showing November 16-18. The tense story of two men—played by Farley Granger and Robert Walker—who agree (the former, however, unwittingly) to “swap” targets of murder, the film contains some of Hitch’s most inventive and still-studied optical effects.

The Plaza follows this with a weekend of VERTIGO, showing November 23-25. Frequent Hitch collaborator James Stewart returns to star with Kim Novak in this 1958 tale of madness and obsession. A critical and commercial flop at the time of its release, the movie today is acknowledged as one of Hitchcock’s most personal films and topped the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll as the greatest film ever made.

The Plaza closes out the month as THE BIRDS attack the coastal city of Bodega Bay from November 30 to December 2. The 1963 film stars Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, and was based both on a Daphne du Maurier short story and an actual case of birds infesting a California town. Though it was scored by Hitch’s frequent composer Bernard Herrmann, you’ll note that no actual music (aside from schoolchildren singing unaccompanied) is heard. Instead, Herrmann layers the soundtrack with electronically-created bird noises.

The Earl Smith Strand Theatre opens this month’s continuation of its series (all events begin at 8 p.m.) with a November 2 screening of THE BIRDS (tickets here). The pre-show entertainment starts with organist Misha Stefanuk (of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society, or ACATOS) accompanying vocalists Kennedy Bastow and Cierra Ollis.

On November 16, the Strand brings us what is perhaps Hitchcock’s best-known film, 1960’s PSYCHO (tickets here). The story of a boy (Anthony Perkins), his mother and the girl who threatens to come between them (Janet Leigh), the film was shot at the studios used for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and was independently produced by Hitchcock on a small budget. The famous “shower scene” took an entire week to shoot and contains 77 different camera angles.

The Strand closes its Hitchcock series with 1959’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST (tickets here). Cary Grant comes as close to playing James Bond as he ever got in the role of Roger O. Thornhill, one of the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue’s advertising world, who finds himself mistaken for a secret agent and pursued across the country. Besides the film being recognized as one of Hitch’s best (and on a personal note, I’d say it’s also his most fun), GQ magazine voted Cary Grant’s gray suit (which he wears almost throughout the entire film) as the best suit in film history.

So escape the frosty autumn air this November for some big-screen chills and thrills with these Hitchcock classics. And keep your eyes peeled for Hitch’s cameos!

Editor’s Note: Remember every time you shell out a few bucks to see a classic movie on the big screen, you are keeping the theatrical experience alive in vintage independent cinemas that are Atlanta-area historic treasures. ATLRetro will be running separate reviews/essays on some of these films. 

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

 

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