10/7/09

Hitch on the Hump: The Birds (1963)

When it comes to Hitchcock and Halloween, many people sum up his contribution to the horror genre with one word, Psycho. Let me tell you I love me some Psycho, and next week you’re going to hear all about that. Today is all about Hitchcock’s lesser loved horror. It was the follow up film to the stay at the Bates Motel. A film that would break new boundaries with its cinematography and soundtrack and feature a villain will reach further beyond the bounds of possibility than ever before. It was a clearly different film from any the Master of Suspense had tried before, but when he discovered the Daphne du Maurier story in a collection of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” stories, he had no doubt that he wanted to make The Birds.

It wasn’t the first time Hitch had used one of Ms du Maurier’s stories, 1939’s Jamaica Inn and 1940’s Rebecca were both based off her stories, but Hitchcock claimed to have no particular affection for the writer. When Francois Truffaut inquired about what drew Hitchcock to The Birds, he replied, “I only read the story once. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about.” de Maurier’s story was first published in her 1952 collection The Apple Tree, and it followed the story of one family in a costal community as the birds begin to attack. Much is made in the story of the birds coming in off the east wind, and many have looked at the story as an allegory for the threat of Communism.

After going through a couple of failed partnerships, Hitchcock recruited author Evan Hunter to pen the screenplay for The Birds. Hunter’s first novel, The Blackboard Jungle, had been made into a film in 1954. He would continue to write under his real name for many years, but he may be better known for the 87th Precinct series of books which he wrote under the name Ed McBain. Even the original idea that Hitchcock relayed to Hunter varied wildly from the book, but some scenes from du Maurier’s work were kept completely intact. The script, as was Hitchcock’s usual process, was written slowly after daily meetings with his writer. The director was exacting in what he wanted Hunter to change or remove, and few of the screenwriters big ideas hit the screen. The most important of those that did was the opening scene where the hero and heroine “meet cute” in a pet shop.

When it became a finished product, it became the story of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a self absorbed rich girl, who travels to Bodega Bay to peruse a lawyer that she found handsome. Once she arrives, she, and the whole town, begins to be plagued by random attacks by birds. Melanie and Mitch can’t get anyone to heed their warnings, and as time passes, the attacks get more brazen and more violent. There seems to be no way to stop them, and the sky continues to fill with more and more birds.

When Hitchcock was writing the film, he imagined the lead as his favorite leading lady, Grace Kelly, but he knew better than to think that the Princess would return. Instead he looked for an unknown he could mold and make into a new leading lady. After seeing Tippi Hedren in a commercial broadcast on the “Today” show (it may have been for Pet Milk, hair care products, or a diet drink as there are differing stories), the director asked the studio to track her down. Tippi was screen-tested, given a crash course in Hitchcock’s films, and even asked to come to his home to re-enact famous scenes from his films. Finally, the director convened a dinner with Ms. Hedren, producer Lew Wasserman, and Mrs. Hitchcock. Over the course of the meal, Hitchcock presented Hedren with a pin featuring three golden birds in flight, and also the lead in his film. He coached Hedren through every frame of the film instructing her on each reaction and movement, a fact that she well admits to. Hedren also said, Hitchcock, “gives actors very little leeway. He’ll listen, but he has a definite plan in his mind as to how he wants the characters to act. With me, it was understandable, because I wasn’t an actress of stature.” Her character is very much pitch perfectly portrayed, and though the director exerted control over the character, it took Tippi Hedren to give the performance which she does magnificently. Hedren would go on work for Hitchcock again in his next film, Marnie.

The film also boasts a very impressive supporting cast. Australian born Rod Taylor, who gives Mitch the same kind of swagger one would expect from Bruce Campbell these days, had been in the business for many years, and Hitchcock cast him as a stand in for his preferred leading man Cary Grant (It has also been mentioned that the director wanted Farley Granger for the role.) At age 80 he is still at work today, and many of you might have seen him recently when he portrayed Winston Churchill in Inglourious Basterds.

There are also two ladies who definitely bear mentioning when it comes to this film. The first is probably known best these days as the woman Morgan Freeman is trying to drive to the store. Jessica Tandy might be Miss Daisy now, but in 1963 she played Mitch’s mother with a heartbreaking possessiveness. Years later Hitchcock would tell this story about filming Jessica Tandy, the wife of his old friend Hugh Croyne, in one of the intense bird attack scenes. He got many laughs at parties when he described the warning he gave her before the birds were released, “Listen, Jessica, if one of them gets up your skirt, grab it! Because a bird in the hand….”

The second lady I should mention is Suzanne Pleshette as Mitch’s former flame, Annie Hayworth. Not only was Bob Newhart’s future TV wife extremely attractive, her character provided a great earthy counterpoint to Hedren’s spoiled rich girl. Melanie was a bad girl who got what she wanted; Annie was a good girl who rarely did if it all.

For The Birds, Hitchcock surrounded himself with a trusted team of collaborators, and many familiar faces were back at work on this film. Robert Burks was once more behind the camera, Edith Head designed the iconic green suit that Miss Hedren wore, and Bernard Herrmann worked on the soundtrack, well, kind of. The Birds would not have a traditional score with the only music in the film being a song children sing in class. Herrmann was tasked to work with Oskar Sala, a nuclear physicist and Trautonium innovator. What is a Trautonium? Well, I’m not sure exactly, but along with Trautonium composer Remi Gassmann, Sala and Herrmann created a soundtrack pairing natural and electronic bird noises. Hitchcock loved the result noting that, “We were really experimenting there by taking sounds and then styling them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would.” It is definitely true that the attentive viewer will be rewarded if he listens to this film as much as watches it. As good as the film looks, the sound design was only almost the best innovation Hitchcock brought to the film.

I say almost because there was one more technique that had to come into play to make The Birds the film that it was. At the time, traditional “blue screen” technology was as perfected as it could become, but the process left an obvious seam between film stock and the overlay. Hitchcock knew it would not do for his film, and he hired Ub Iwerks, a legendary animator and photographic expert who had done pioneering work with Walt Disney Studios. Iwerks served as the films “Special Photographic Advisor”, but what that really meant was that he was being paid to provide the sodium vapor process to combine the shots of the actors or setting with footage of the birds. Thus the scenes became a mix of real birds and multiple overlays of birds to swarm the screen. This process, which was devoid of any seam, gave the film going audience an impression that there were thousands of birds used in the film though in reality there were rarely more than 1000 birds on set at any time.

When it was released, The Birds was not the runaway hit that Psycho had been only three years earlier. The new film generated a lot of interest, but quickly was knocked down by critics who labeled it “inexpertly handled” and “silly plot boiling”. Only the Village Voice hailed the film calling it “a major work of cinematic art”, but the film was released to better reviews overseas. In the shadow of Psycho, it would be easy to dismiss Hitchcock’s killer bird picture as a misstep, but each time I view the film I find something new and wonderful in its tapestry.

While it may have shied away from much gore, what other American film in 1963 showed a man with his eyes gouged out so realistically? What other film balanced what boils down to a creature feature plot with a story filled with interesting and very human characters? I think you would be hard pressed to find another example. The Birds succeeds for the same way that other great monster movies do. The reasons behind their reign of terror are not important. What’s kept constantly on our minds is their presence. They are waiting. They can’t be negotiated with. They are The Birds.


Bugg Rating

2 comments:

  1. I think what doesn't work in the Birds is the love triangle - Annie comes across as far more likable than Melanie and her death and the subsequent happy end (on the relationship front) just doesn't work as well as intended.
    Several critics have remarked that the movie would be better without Hedgren's character in it or at least with an ending that sees Annie ending up with Mitch and I think part of the (relatively) disappointing succes at the box-office can be attributed to this

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think that is a fair estimation. Annie is never built us as a character enough, and her death scene (intended to be more gruesome) was unmemorable. The triangle that Hitchcock's film chooses to focus on it Mitch, Melanie, and his mother, and perhaps a change in focus would have made it a more commercial film.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...