JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

The Birds Is Gone

I received several queries as to why The Birds (1963) didn’t make my Hitch favorites list. While there are lots of things I like about The Birds, it suffers from a very anemic script by Evan Hunter.

So much to explain there. I’ll start with the movie and its strengths.

The Birds contains some of Hitch’s greatest special effects, and while they could be easily surpassed by today’s CGI effects, they hold up well for their time. They never take you (or at least me) out of the movie. And some of the scenes are absolute classics, such as the gasoline fire at the filling station with that aerial view (or birds’ eye view, if you will) of the scene.

The birds’ eye view of the gasoline fire in The Birds

It has one of my all time favorite Hitchcock scenes where Tippi Hedren’s character is waiting outside the schoolhouse while the children are inside singing. On the soundtrack we hear the children’s subdued voices as the teacher takes them through seemingly endless verses of the song, while Hitch’s camera develops a rhythm of cutting back and forth between closeups of Tippi and the monkey bars that are gradually attracting some crows. First one crow, then a couple more in the next shot, and still a few more in the next. Then the camera remains on Tippi for a longer time period as the audience is wondering what’s going on behind her. Finally, she notices a lone bird up in the sky as it flies lower and lower, and she turns just in time to see it land on the monkey bars which are now filled with thousands of crows, as are the neighboring rooftops and every surface in sight.

I also like Hitch’s decision to not use a regular musical score but instead to fill the soundtrack with electronic sounds and bird sounds. Very effective.

So, yes, there’s a lot I like about the movie, and I probably should have at least given it an honorable mention.

Tippi Hedren waits at the school, oblivious to the birds slowly amassing behind her in The Birds

Oh, but that script!

Evan Hunter, in his slim volume, Me and Hitch, has said that after many conferences with Hitch, they decided to start the movie as a screwball comedy and then have it transform into horror. That might have worked, but Hunter had no experience writing screwball comedies, and what he came up with just isn’t very amusing. But what’s worse, all the exposition that occurs in the first 45 minutes of the film (and there is a lot of it) essentially has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. There’s no payoff.

Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren share martinis in the worst scene in The Birds

Also, there’s a scene that might be one of the worst scenes that Hitch ever filmed. Hunter claims he didn’t write it and that he tried to stop Hitch from filming it but failed. It’s the scene between Tippi and Rod Taylor that takes place during the children’s party. Rod and Tippi climb onto a mound with their martinis (martinis at an afternoon children’s party!) and toss a bunch of non sequitur lines at each other. What makes it especially bad is it looks like it was shot inside a studio set because the actors cast multiple shadows.

That said, there is at least one scene that is extremely well written. I’m referring, of course, to the scene in the diner when the ornithologist played by Ethel Griffies comes in. That scene is another classic.

Ethel Griffies as an ornithologist who knows her birds

Now lest the reader gets the impression that I’m dumping unfairly on Evan Hunter, I want to add that I’m a big fan of his writing under both of his nom de plumes. His birth name was Salvatore Albert Lombino but he legally adopted the name Evan Hunter in 1952 because of prejudice (real or imagined) against people with foreign sounding names. He wrote under both that name and Ed McBain, and I’ve read and enjoyed most of the novels he wrote under both names.

And one more thing. Evan Hunter apparently wrote a lot of the book Me and Hitch from memory without reference to contemporaneous notes or dairies, or without checking on easily checked facts. And he describes a script that he wrote for Hitchcock’s television show, Appointment at 11. Almost everything he says about that script and the way Hitch introduced it on the show are wrong, as a recent viewing of the episode revealed.

My Favorite Hitches

I’ve gotten into a bit of a Hitchcock mood and for some reason I wondered if I could name my top five favorite Hitchcock films. Somewhat surprisingly they came to me in a flash without having to think about it. Here they are in the order in which they were made:

Notorious (1946)

Rear Window (1954)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) the remake with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day

North by Northwest (1959)

Psycho (1960)

But when I tried to round out the list to a Top Ten, I was stymied, as no other five films of his stand out for me the way these do. But if pressed, I guess the following five might make it, although in a different mood on another day I could very well pick out five different ones.

The 39 Steps (1935)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Frenzy (1972)

Family Plot (1976)

With honorable mentions going to

Young and Innocent (1938)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Dial M for Murder (1954)

It will be noted that To Catch a Thief (1955) and Vertigo (1958) don’t make my list at all. Those are usually highly regarded, especially Vertigo, which many directors tend to fawn over as his best work. In the case of Thief, I’m pretty much bored by the plot and the characters, and Vertigo, although it certainly has its moments, doesn’t really grip me the way it does most famous movie directors. Perhaps because I’ve never become obsessed the way the central character does.

Grounds For Justifiable Homicide

I just listened to a 2015 episode of The Incomparable Old Movie Club where the good fellows discussed two of Alfred Hitchcock’s less appreciated films, 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt and 1948’s Rope.

You have to be looking pretty closely to see Hitch’s cameo right after the opening credits

I needed no convincing on the first movie, as I’ve long considered Shadow of a Doubt to be a masterpiece, but my two viewings of Rope had left me feeling much as Hitch himself felt about it: an interesting experiment but ultimately a failed one. After listening to the podcast and hearing all their enthusiasm for the film, I decided to give it another viewing.

The movie is based on a British play by Patrick Hamilton which was inspired by the Leopold/Loeb case of 1924 (or rather the Loeb/Leopold case as it was referred to in those days). Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were wealthy, over-privileged gay lovers in Chicago who fancied themselves intellectually superior persons, and they thought that gave them the right to kill whomever they wanted. And of course, being so superior, they would commit the perfect murder. Of course, they were caught immediately, and during the course of the first “trial of the century” Orson Welles, I mean uh, Clarence Darrow managed to keep them from receiving the death penalty.

A fictionalized version of the case was eventually published in 1957 as Compulsion by Meyer Levin and made into a movie of the same name starring the aforementioned Welles.

The color cameras used for filming Rope were huge

Anyway, long before Compulsion, which was a realistic portrayal of the case, although it changed all the names, Hamilton’s stage play took the main premise of two gay lovers who commit a “perfect murder” because they are “intellectually superior” to create a suspense drama where the central characters commit the murder at the start of the show and then stuff the body into a trunk in the center of the stage. That trunk remains visible to the audience throughout the rest of the play as the two gay lovers host a party, seemingly daring their guests to discover the body in the trunk.

Jessica Tandy’s husband Hume Cronyn worked with Hitch to develop a motion picture treatment from the play, and that was eventually turned into a screenplay by Arthur Laurents, whom you may know better as the author of the libretto for the musical Gypsy.

Hitch wanted to keep the feel of the stage play by giving the illusion of having the movie filmed in one long continuous take, thus keeping the trunk with the body in it foremost in the audience’s collective mind. He did this by carefully planning the movie (as he always did anyway; that was the part of movie-making that he most enjoyed), and breaking the 80 minute feature into ten shots, none longer than about ten minutes.

The walls of the sets could break away to let the equipment through as the actors moved around

Mostly he disguised the cuts by having the camera move in for a closeup of someone’s back or some inanimate object, but there are a few actual standard cuts as well.

Since Hitch was famous for his technique of montage (basically that means cutting from one clip to another), this new style of working seemed to go against everything he had learned from a lifetime in cinema. For example, one of his standard techniques would be to show a person walk into a room with the camera facing the actor who is clearly seeing something. Then cut to the object that the actor is looking at, followed by another cut back to the actor to get her reaction.

Another challenge with this new style of filming was the huge color cameras then in use (this would be Hitch’s first Technicolor film), and the network of thick cables lining the floor that the actors would have to seamlessly navigate around. He had his set constructed with walls that could be moved out of the way to make room for the cameras to follow the actors as they moved from room to room. This was long before the days of the Steadicam.

I had long read about the film, but it was out of circulation for years, so when it was re-released to theaters in 1984, I was eager to see it. And I was disappointed. It just didn’t seem very suspenseful.

Cut to the mid 2000’s when I got it on DVD, and my opinion didn’t change.

So yesterday, after listening to that podcast, I gave it another view, and while I’m still not as enthusiastic as the fellows on that podcast were, I think I know what my problem is.

It’s Jimmy Stewart.

I think Jimmy Stewart was miscast in Rope

He’s just wrong for the part of the former teacher of the gay lovers of John Dall and Farley Granger, and whose philosophy has inspired them to commit the murder. There’s supposed to be a sub-text that Stewart’s character is possibly gay himself and may have had an affair with one of the lovers in the past. Also, it becomes clear that Stewart’s “philosophy” which inspired the lovers was really meant more as tongue in cheek repartee, not genuine moral guidance. Stewart doesn’t have the light touch to bring this off.

But Cary Grant would have. And Hitch originally wanted Grant for the role, but Grant, who actually was gay, didn’t want to have anything to do with a role or a film with a gay subtext. Given the standards of the time, of course, there is no mention of the word “homosexual”, only the most indirect implications of it.

So there it is. My problem with the film, I think, is the casting. Other people do seem to really enjoy it just as it is. And there is much to like. It’s certainly worth seeing at least once, even for none Hitchcock lovers.

I suspect that the average film-goer might not even notice the experimental way that it’s filmed unless it’s pointed out. And there are excellent performances by the entire cast, really, even Stewart, once he gets past the former teacher part and morphs into a Columbo-like detective role. And when the camera comes to rest on the trunk as the maid gradually removes the objects that have been sitting on it, in preparation for opening the trunk to place some books inside it, some of the old Hitchcockian suspense comes to the fore.

While I tend to give Hitch’s films at least eight stars out of ten, I only gave this one seven. Still pretty good.