E

 Edge of TomorrowEdge of Tomorrow

Using the same plot device as Harold Ramis’s temporal breakthrough script Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow gives a more plausible rationale for a person living the same day over and over again, but couches the story in a science fiction action adventure format.


An Education - MulliganAn Education

An Education is both a very scary and ultimately very satisfying movie.  Any film that balances tension in such an evocative way deserves attention and this one more than most.  Fortunately, it got it in the form of three Academy Award nominations in 2010, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress.


ElizabethtownElizabethtown

If ever there was a candidate for a movie that needed a Second Look, it is the 2005 Cameron Crowe romantic comedy-drama, Elizabethtown.  Crowe wrote and directed the film, which features music by his wife, Nancy Wilson, one-half of the musical duo Heart.  As romantic comedies go, this is a very smart one, always entertaining, and deeper than it probably should be. 


amy-adams encxhantedEnchanted

Walt Disney Pictures has given us a most enchanting film in this entertaining blend of animation, CGI, and live action.  Released in 2007, Enchanted was written by Bill Kelly and directed by Kevin Lima with an eye toward both parody and reverence toward the Disney classic animated movies.  It contains wonderful songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and sparkles with good humor.


English PatientThe English Patient

The English Patient is a highly overblown World War II romance. Based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje, the movie was adapted and directed by Anthony Minghella.  It tells a rather choppy story that uses lots of flashbacks to flesh out (literally) the illicit romance between cartographer Count László de Almásy and the wife of his benefactor, Katherine Clifton.

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D

Descendants Clooney and WoodleyThe Descendants

Although this movie might not be suitable for all ages because of language and some adult situations, it is nonetheless a family movie.  It deals with the issues people face, both as parents and as children, and ultimately it addresses the responsibility of generations to their family.  George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in the beautiful film set in beautiful Hawaii.


Devil-Wears-Prada-3The Devil Wears Prada

Based on the novel The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger, the 2006 film of the same name brings a great deal to the table, namely moral, ethical, and economic issues usually absent from a comedy more concerned with appearance than reality.


Dial_M_For_Murder_Grace KellyDial M for Murder

It might be easy to plan the perfect murder, but actually doing it is something else entirely.  That is the theme of Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie adapted by Frederick Knott from his own successful stage play of the same name.


shailene_woodley_divergent-wideDivergent

Adapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, this 2014 movie is remarkably faithful to the original book, which is both good and bad.  Shailene Woodley is brilliant as Tris, the Abnegation girl who is diagnosed as Divergent: she’s not only Abnegation, but also Erudite and Dauntless.  At her choosing ceremony, she chooses Dauntless and begins a life of courage and risk.

French Kiss

 

Sometimes the charm of two charismatic actors with great chemistry, combined with a smart, talented director, can make even the most banal of screenplays work to perfection. Such is the case with Lawrence Kasdan’s 1995 romantic comedy, French Kiss.

Kate (Meg Ryan) is a history teacher whose fear of flying goes far beyond what most of us would think of as terror, but she has a serious problem that involves flight. An American history teacher, she is engaged to Canadian Charlie (Timothy Hutton), residing in Toronto on a Resident Visa and waiting until her Canadian citizenship comes through before they get married.  Charlie is a doctor who is about to fly to Paris for a medical convention and he begs her to come with him, even though she isn’t supposed to leave the country because of citizenship issues, but the point is moot because Kate just can’t board a plane.  When a great house becomes available, they go to look at it.  Charlie fears it will be too expensive for them, but Kate reveals that she has a considerable savings that she hadn’t told him about yet.

A few days later, Charlie calls her in a drunken stupor and reveals that he has fallen in love with a French girl, Juliette (Susan Anbeh) and won’t be coming home. In spite of her fears, Kate decides to board an Air Canada flight and go to Paris to get him back.  The guy sitting next to her, Luc Teyssier (Kevin Kline) is a French thief who is illegally smuggling a small American grape vine back into France in order to create a new hybrid wine.  However, tucked into the cheesecloth padding the root ball is a stolen diamond necklace.  Luc begins an argument with Kate to distract her from her fear of flying, plying her with little bottles of liquor he has stolen from the flight attendants’ cart.  He hides his vine in her travel bag so he can successfully smuggle it back into France.  At customs, he meets his old friend Inspector Jean-Paul Cardon (Jean Reno), whose life he once saved.  Returning from a vacation, Jean-Paul gives him a ride with his family so he can inspect Luc’s bags to make sure he isn’t smuggling anything.

Kate goes to Charlie’s hotel to find him, but a smarmy desk clerk won’t reveal his room number to her. Another petty thief, Bob (François Cluzet), tries to hustle her as she sits on a sofa in the lobby waiting for Charlie to come down.  When she sees him kissing Juliette, she passes out and Bob steals her bag.  Luc arrives, passing Bob at the door, to discover Kate passed out on the floor.  He revives her and when he realizes that Bob has her bag, he takes her, steals a car, and drives to Bob’s apartment where they find he has already disposed of everything but her bag and the vine.  Thinking he has now recovered the necklace, they leave, but have an argument on the street and separate.  Kate goes to the American Embassy to get a duplicate passport, but they stonewall her because she is a permanent Canadian resident.  At the Canadian Embassy, they won’t give her a duplicate Resident Visa because she was once arrested for possession of pot.  Alone, penniless on the street, she reluctantly returns to Charlie’s hotel.  In the interim, Luc has searched the root ball of his vine and finds the necklace is gone, so he goes back to Bob who proclaims that he didn’t take the necklace, that it must still be in Kate’s bag.

When Kate makes a scene at the hotel, the desk clerk tells her that Charlie and Juliette have gone to the south of France where they intend to get married, so she sets off for the train station. Bob arrives at the hotel to fleece more guests, but is arrested by Jean-Paul who is interrogating him trying to find a “big fish,” a more important criminal.  At that moment, Luc arrives and forces the clerk to tell him where Kate has gone.  Bob points out Luc to Jean-Paul and tells him that Luc has stolen a diamond necklace.  Jean-Paul now chases Luc to the train station where they lose him.

Aboard the train, Luc finds Kate and volunteers to help her get Charlie back, so he can buy time to inspect her bag. Over the next few days, both of their affections begin to turn toward each other as Luc tries to help her reunite with Charlie, even though he now loves her himself.  She reveals that she actually has the necklace and slowly gives in to her feelings for Luc.

Although the screenplay by Adam Brooks is certainly not a ground-breaking story, Kasdan does a marvelous job of telling it. The cinematography and editing are both terrific and they aid determined performances by Kevin Kline, who is almost always brilliant, and Meg Ryan, who, despite a few hammy scenes, is her usual charming self.  The two of them bring a lot of chemistry to the romance, which is essential in a romantic comedy and their performances take a simple story and make it memorable.  France has never looked so good on film, not just Paris, with both gaudiness and grit, but the countryside and vineyards of Luc’s birth really shine, not to mention the French Riviera.

It is a tight, fast moving film that engages the viewer constantly during the one hour and 51 minutes of length. Colorful, skillfully directed, with wonderful, engaging cast, this is one romantic comedy that should be on your shelf.  I highly recommend it!

The French Connection

French ConnectionIf you are looking for the meaning of life, this movie is not for you. Indeed, if you are looking for any meaning at all, this is not your movie.  Rather, it is a completely kinetic film.  Directed by William Friedkin, it echoes the French cinema of the 1950’s, which itself echoes the American gangster films of the 1930’s.  It is all movement and action, with practically no dialogue, moving in a steady arc of energy toward a violent ending.

In Marseille, a powerful French drug dealer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) sets up a major deal in the United States by bringing in a famous French television star, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), to be the front. An undercover policeman following him is assassinated by his heavy, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi).  Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two narcotics policemen, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are sick of all their small busts and are looking for a big score.  Noticing that a local small-time hood, Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife Angie (Arlene Farber) are courting the mafia, they begin to tail the couple and find that they are leading a double life, running a small neighborhood deli by day and carousing at night.  As they follow the Bocas around, they see Sal make a connection with Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), a suspected big-time drug trafficker.  From their sources on the street, they find out that the city has been pretty dry, but a big connection is supposed to be arriving soon.  With this information, they convince their boss to wiretap the Bocas and find themselves saddled with Federal involvement, in the form of a man named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who blames Popeye for the loss of a policeman on a different bust.

When the French arrive, they beef up their operation, putting permanent tails on both the Bocas and the French, but Charnier loses Doyle in the subway and flies to Washington to meet with Boca, who tries to stall him because Joel Weinstock is worried about the police. Charnier is determined that the deal will go through on his timetable.  Back in Brooklyn, Nicoli attempts to assassinate Doyle, but misses.  As he roars off on an El, Popeye follows him on the street using an appropriated automobile in a chase that comes off as one of the best ever done in film.  Nicoli loses control of the situation and shoots several operators on the train, then escapes when the train collides with the one in front of it, but Doyle is waiting below.  When Nicoli attempts to flee, Doyle shoots him in the back.

Henri Devereaux has brought his car, a Lincoln, to New York, so Doyle impounds it and they tear it apart looking for the junk, finally finding it in the rocker panels. Replacing it, they put the car back to together and return it to Devereaux, who loans it o Charnier as a part of their deal.  Charnier drives the car to Wards Island where the dope–several hundred pounds of world class heroin–is extracted from the rocker panels and replaced with the cash that Weinstock pays for it.  The dope is hidden in the old factory, but when Charnier attempts to drive back to New York, the bridge has been blocked off by Popeye, Cloudy, and the police.  Charnier returns to the Island, but a shootout follows in which Doyle follows him into an abandoned building and accidentally shoots the Federal agent.  Charnier escapes and most of the hoods get off, but the one innocent man, Devereaux, gets prison time.  Doyle and Russo get reassigned off of the narco squad.  As the French might say, “this is life.”

Any student of chase scenes or the building of tension in a movie can look to The French Connection almost as a textbook because it is done brilliantly.  The kinetic nature of the film won it a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman).  It was nominated, but did not win, other awards, but neglected was the great score by Don Ellis.

For me, though, it just didn’t add up to anything. No real theme is explored, no light is shed on the dreary, meaningless lives of the cops or the dealers.  Hitchcock would have admired the extreme lack of dialogue and the way the tension built, but there is nothing to carry away with you except that life sucks.  I can recommend this movie to film students and to those whose only value in cinema is kinetic energy, but there is no depth.  It is a one hour and forty minute thrill ride, full of action, but with no meaning or real entertainment value whatsoever.

C

 Calendar-Girls-001Calendar Girls

Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.


 Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-CapoteCapote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood.  The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.


Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne Autumn was the last western film in the great career of director John Ford.  Released in 1964, it was the first big Hollywood film to portray Native Americans as human beings, people who were not only more than primitive savages to be killed and driven off their lands by the white man, but people who were victims of the bigoted and corrupt government of the United States of America.


 Chocolat VienneChocolat

Most things that are good are not necessary bad.  In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are quite without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.


 John WayneThe Cowboys

This 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.  When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market.


To Have and Have Not

to-have-and-have-not-bacall-bogart“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”

One can only an imagine an audience in New York in 1944 sitting back with a gasp and then collectively going, “Whoa!”  From her first moment on screen, Lauren Bacall lit up the cinema with her smoky voice and burning eyes, somehow keeping cool, almost mocking, while at the same time beckoning.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that future husband Humphrey Bogart was the man she was looking at.

Although To Have and Have Not started out as an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, it ended up as a movie made to capitalize on the huge success of Casablanca and Bogart’s sudden and overwhelming popularity.  Much of the film echoes the former movie with great success.  Instead of Morocco, the movie is set in and around the Caribbean island of Martinique, part of the French West Indies, Bogart is a skipper of his own boat, rather than a bar owner, and the French underground is once again recruiting him to their cause of fighting the Nazis. This time, however, he doesn’t go for the foxy wife of the French freedom fighter, but rather the lost little American nightclub singer.

Skipper Harry Morgan (Bogart) has been hanging out in Martinique taking sportsmen out into the ocean for deep sea fishing.  Accompanied by his alcoholic assistant, Eddie (Walter Brennan), Morgan has hired his boat out for the last two weeks to a fellow named Johnson Johnson (Walter Sande), who owes him $825.  When Johnson blows his chance of hooking a big marlin, he decides to call it quits and Morgan asks for his money.  Johnson tells him that he will have to get it from the bank the next morning and they agree to meet at 10:30.  Returning to his hotel, the manager, a man they call “Frenchy” (Marcel Dalio), begs Morgan to help the French underground with a clandestine operation, but he refuses because the danger is too great.  As they talk, a sultry young American woman, Marie Browning (Bacall), steps up to his door and asks for a light.  That’s where the real fun begins.  Right from the beginning, Morgan gives her the nickname “Slim” and she comes back with “Steve” and that is what they call each other from then on and there is no doubt whatsoever that these two are going to get together.

A group of French patriots visit Morgan trying to convince him to help them, but he still isn’t having anything to do with them.  Later that evening in the hotel restaurant, Slim sings along with piano playing songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and flirts with Johnson, eventually picking his pocket.  Morgan catches her.  Up in his room, they look through the wallet and he discovers that Johnson has a plane ticket for 6:30 the next morning and a fistful of travelers checks.  Figuring that Johnson was trying to skip out on him, they confront the man, but a gunfight breaks out between the police and the underground characters and Johnson is killed before he can sign over the traveler’s checks.  Strapped for money and with Frenchy demanding the hotel bill get paid, Morgan agrees to go to another island and pick up resistance leader Paul de Bursac (Walter Surovy).  When he and Eddie get there, they discover that de Bursac has brought his wife, sultry Helene (Dolores Moran).  As they head back to Martinique, they encounter a patrol boat.  Morgan raises his rifle to shoot at the boat and de Bursac, not realizing he’s firing at the spotlight, tries to stop him.  In the gunfire exchange, de Bursac gets hit in the shoulder.  Hiding in the basement of the hotel, Morgan removes the bullet and helps him to recover, with Helene hovering over him.  This makes Slim jealous and intensifies her passion for Morgan.

With everything coming to a head, Morgan decides it’s time to get out.  But how?

The nicknames Slim and Steve are really cool.  It turns out that director Howard Hawks and his wife, Nancy Keith, used to call each other by those nicknames.  It was Nancy, in fact, who saw Bacall’s photo in Harper’s Bazaar and pointed out the 19 year old model to Hawks, who was looking for somebody new.

Originally, Howard Hughes owned the rights to Hemingway’s novel, but sold them to Hawks, who had always wanted to do a movie based on a Hemingway book.  According to the documentary which accompanies the 2003 DVD, A Love Story: The Story of ‘To Have and Have Not, Hawks told Hemingway that he could make a movie of the famous writer’s worst novel, which Hawks believed was To Have and Have Not.  Getting the green light from Warner Brothers, he hired well-known Hollywood screenwriter Jules Furthman to draft the screenplay.  With objections from the Roosevelt administration that the book was politically sensitive regarding Cuba, they brought in William Faulkner, who moved the location to Martinique and made other wholesale changes that rendered the book almost superfluous as source material.

The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall isn’t the only thing going on in this film.  Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael are great together.  Hoagy performs his own composition, “Hong Kong Blues,” co-written with Stanley Adams, and he plays with the little house band on a song called “The Rhumba Jumps,” that was co-written with Johnny Mercer.  Bacall sings one song in the movie, “How Little We Know,” another Carmichael and Mercer composition.

In spite of all of the similarities with Casablanca, this movie has a completely different feel to it.  The former film was pinned on the past love of the Bogart and Bergman characters and it burned with the passion of lost loveTo Have and Have Not is the antidote to that: it is love found and it carries all of the positive energy of that love.

This is not a great film, but it is an iconic film.  And it is undoubtedly a fun movie, one that be watched over and over without one’s brain breaking apart with deep thought or worrisome agitation.  The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, in their first movie together, finding each other, is more than enough to sustain this film through the years.

B

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946The Best Years of Our Lives

The stark reality of surviving life after war is best faced with the aid of friends and loved ones and that is story that is told in this 1946 film which remains one of the best films ever made.


The-Big-Sleep Bogart BacallThe Big Sleep

This 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel remains one of the best films ever made for a variety of reasons.  Start with Chandler’s novel, written in a unique voice and style, that delved into the underworld of big city vice, using dangerous and edgy behavior that were normally hidden from the public eye: pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality.


 Hitchcock The Birds 02The Birds

I was thirteen years old in 1963 when I went to a movie theater to Alfred Hitchcock’s latest move, The Birds, and I can still remember the effect it had, the tension it engendered, the thrill of fright, and my jangled nerves when I left the theater and stepped out into the sunlight.


 the-blind-side-22-550x366The Blind Side

The Blind Side, written and directed by John Lee Hancock, is a biographical drama that tells the story of how Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a rather large African-American, gets adopted into a white family, defeats his educational issues, and goes on to develop into a terrific left tackle on the football field.


Breakfast ClubThe Breakfast Club

Yelling one minute, giggling the next, while cool music plays throughout.  Welcome to The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ 1985 comedy-drama about five teenagers confined to a Saturday detention in the Shermer High School library in Shermer, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.


 renee zellweger bridge jonesBridget Jones’s Diary

Based ever so loosely on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this 2001 British romantic comedy directed by Sharon Maguire is full of hits and misses.  The hits are all punches thrown between the two men who seek Bridget’s attention and the misses are all those single women who wish they had a choice between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.


bright-star cornish and wishawBright Star

Written and directed by Jane Campion and based on the John Keats biography by Andrew Motion, this 2009 film is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen and it captures one of the most touching romances in history.  It takes its title from one of Keats’ most moving poems, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.”


Broken Arrow Stewart PagetBroken Arrow

This 1950 movie was one of the first to portray western Native Americans in a balanced manner and carries as its message racial equality and peaceful relations between Indians and Anglos.  Based on the popular novel, Blood Brother, by Elliott Arnold, the film adaptation by Michael Blankfort dramatizes the historical relationship between Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) and Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler).

The Birds

Hitchcock The Birds 01I was thirteen years old in 1963 when I went to a movie theater to Alfred Hitchcock’s latest move, The Birds, and I can still remember the effect it had, the tension it engendered, the thrill of fright, and my jangled nerves when I left the theater and stepped out into the sunlight. Based on the novella of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, it is one Hitchcock’s best films. When I watched it again over fifty years later, I was surprised that it created exactly the same effect as when I saw it in a movie theater for the first time.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) stops into a pet store in downtown San Francisco on a Friday afternoon to pick up a minah bird as a gift, but it hasn’t arrived at the shop yet, so she writes down her name and address for delivery. As she stands at the counter, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), asks her if she can help him. He’s looking for a pair of lovebirds as a birthday present for his little sister. Pretending to be a clerk, she shows him around the store, making up stories about lovebirds, even though she hasn’t the slightest idea what they look like. When a bird accidentally escapes, he traps it under his hat and addresses her by her name. A lawyer, he had actually recognized her from the first, but wanted to show her what it was like to be the butt of a practical joke. Angered, she follows him to the street, gets the number of his license plate, and calls her father’s newspaper to get his address. She then purchases a pair of lovebirds and tries to deliver them to his apartment, but a neighbor informs her that he will be in Bodega Bay all weekend visiting his family. Undeterred, she decides to deliver them there and drives the sixty miles north the next morning, Saturday.

Finding out that the Brenner family home is directly across the bay, she decides to take rent a motorboat and make a surprise delivery by sneaking up on the house from the water, but she doesn’t know his sister’s name. A local store owner directs to her to home of the school teacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). When the two women meet, it is obvious that Annie is sizing her up as a rival for Mitch’s affections. The sister’s name is Cathy, so Melanie makes out a card, gets in her boat and sets out across the bay. Seeing Mitch go out to the barn, she sneaks inside, leaves the birds with a note and returns to her boat. She watches as Mitch goes back inside then comes outside, surprised and looking around for her. He spots her in the boat and as she goes back across the bay, he gets in his truck and drives around to meet her. As she nears the dock, a gull shoots out of the sky and scratches her head badly enough that she is bleeding. Mitch takes her into the Tides restaurant to clean and bandage the wound. His mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) meets Melanie rather coldly, but everyone is curious about the bird attack.

When Mitch smugly remarks that she drove all that way to see him, Melanie lies and says that she was actually coming up to see her old friend Annie. Mitch invites her to come to dinner that evening and she meets Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who begs her to attend her birthday party the next day. Melanie likes Cathy immediately, but Lydia seems to be almost jealous of her budding relationship with Mitch. As they sit down to eat, masses of sparrows fly down the chimney and fill the house. Mitch opens the windows and doors and tries to shoo them out. After they have fought them off, Melanie returns to Annie’s house to spend the night. As they discuss Annie’s former relationship with Mitch, a gull crashes against the door and dies.

On Sunday morning, she attends the birthday party, intending to drive back to San Francisco immediately afterward, but the party is attacked by a flock of gulls, diving and purposely trying to injure the children. As the family recovers from the attack, Melanie is persuaded to spend the night there. The next morning, Monday, Lydia goes to a nearby farm to investigate a problem she is having with her chickens, but discovers that the farmer is dead, his eyes picked out and his home destroyed by birds. In a panic, she returns home and the sheriff is called in. Mitch leaves with him to investigate further, but Lydia is so worried about Cathy at school that she sends Melanie to pick her up and bring her home.

At the school, Melanie waits for the children to finish their lesson. As they sing a children’s song, she waits outside, smoking a cigarette in front of the jungle gym, which slowly fills up with crows. Alarmed, she goes inside and she and Annie organize the children to leave in a mock fire drill. As the move down the road, the crows take flight and attack them as they run toward the village. Inside the Tides, she calls her father to alert him to the danger in Bodega Bay and everyone becomes concerned about the situation. A local fisherman reports that one of his boats was just recently attacked by gulls. An ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) tries to tell them that it is impossible for birds to work together in such a way, but if they did, there was no way humans could fight against the millions of birds in the world. A mother, with two young children, is panicked by their discussion and tries to flee, but the birds attack again, knocking over a man filling his car with gas. As the gas runs down the street, another man, lighting a cigar, ignites it and cars and the filling station all explode in fire as the birds corner Melanie in a telephone booth. Mitch gets her back into the restaurant and the mother accuses her of bringing on the bird attacks, crying out that none of it started until her arrival.

Hitchcock The Birds 03The attacks of the birds steadily escalate into an unforgettable conclusion to the movie.

When Hitchcock hired Evan Hunter to write the screenplay, he told him that the only thing there were keeping from du Maurier’s story was the title and the menace of the birds. With that freedom, Hunter moved the location from England to Northern California, an area that Hitchcock loved. The two of them then worked together to create an original story. The decision was made early on that they would make no attempt to explain the strange behavior of the birds, but Hitchcock suggested the scene where the townspeople discuss the situation.

The Birds follows Psycho in Hitchcock’s chronology of films and he had strongly considered not using a score for the previous film, but eventually worked with his musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann in making his shocking fright film. For The Birds, he called in Hermann as a consultant, but actually used electronic sounds (by Sala and Remi Gassmann) and silence to create the terror in the film. All of the sounds of the birds are semi-artificial. They are natural bird sounds that have been input a mellotron-like keyboard system and played directly into a sound recorder. This was highly experimental for the time and a stark departure from the heavily scored films of the day.

The story is developed in pure Hitchcock style. It begins very lightly, with a comedic feel to it, an almost like the screwball comedies of the 1940’s, with a flighty society woman and a straight-laced lawyer, but it gradually becomes serious as small incidents with birds escalate into the terrorizing attacks that build steadily in intensity until the very end.

With the exception of a few uncertain moments from the young Veronica Cartwright early in the movie, all of the performances are very natural and believable, even Tippi Hedren who was acting in her first movie. Rod Taylor’s character wasn’t written with any depth, so he stands out as a man who reacts to the situation around him, which makes him a typical Hitchcock hero. Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette both bring incredible nuance and detail to their characters and so does Tippi Hedren. The women are created with the deepest detail, not only in this film, but in most of Hitchcock’s movies.

The technical detail and difficulty makes this a very unusual film for the master of suspense. Although he normally used the “blue screen” effect so that he could shoot most of his films in a studio, under controlled lighting, almost all of the effects using birds, both real and mechanical, were “sodium yellow screen” effects used in the film’s print, created by Ub Iwerks of Walt Disney Studios. In addition, he used many matte paintings that were printed into the final cut. For instance, in the scene where Hedren takes the boat across the bay, the entire village of Bodega Bay in the background is a painting. The same technique was used in the famous shot of the burning village from high above, with birds in the foreground. Part of the screen is live action on a limited stage, part is filled in with matte painting, and then the birds were actually painted onto the negative. All of these effects were quite radical for the day and today could all be done effortlessly using computer generated CGI effects.

The DVD contains a wonderful documentary called “All About the Birds” in which many of the principals, including Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, and Veronica Cartwright are interviewed. Evan Hunter provides great insight into how he developed the script with Hitchcock, technical wizards explain the special effects, and the original ending is discussed in some depth, using pages from Hunter’s original script. Hedren also discusses the psychological effect of how Hitchcock shot the scene in the upstairs bedroom using real birds that terrorized her and exhausted her to the point where she could no longer perform. That incident was featured in the derivative film, The Girl, which portrayed Hitchcock as a lustful man who inflicted that terror on Hedren for her refusal to have an affair with him.

The film will always have a place among the most frightening films ever made. Watching it at home on DVD, even on a big screen television, will never duplicate the effect it had in a theater full of people, all grasping their popcorn, gasping, sitting on the edge of their seats and even screaming, at times, together.

Nevertheless, it packs a huge punch and I highly recommend it!

Rear Window

Rear Window - James Stewart and Grace KellyA nation of Peeping Toms.

That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.  His left leg is encased in a great white cast bearing the inscription, “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.” He’s been housebound for six weeks recovering from an accident that occurred in the middle of a raceway as he attempted to photograph a racecar breaking apart.

Not only is he broken apart, but a long, slow pan at the opening of the film shows a camera lying in pieces in front of the photograph he took. The small apartment is full of his equipment, past photos, and magazine spreads, and presents a kind of homey messiness in the middle of New York City.  His entertainment is watching his neighbors. rearwindowloop2Through the back window, he can see several little adjoining patios and up to four stories of the apartment houses that abut his. It is a little world of its own. Across the way, Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn) fantasizes about having a romance, while directly above her traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) argues with his invalid, bedridden wife. On the top floor, a man and his sleep outside in the sweltering summer heat.  They have a little dog that they let down into the patio in a basket on a pulley.  To the left, a young dancer, Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) exercises and fends off a spate of young admirers, while right below a middle-aged sculptress works on her latest project. At the upper right, a songwriter struggles to find a melody, while frequently entertaining his friends in show business. And on the far left, a newlywed couple honeymoons with the shade drawn most of the time.

Rear-Window-pic-2Jefferies hates his confined existence, but he has to live with the cast for one more week. After learning his trade in the Army taking photos from an airplane with his buddy Doyle (Wendell Corey), he is accustomed to traveling the world and putting himself in danger to get his award winning photographs. It is his life and he loves it. Unfortunately, he is in a serious relationship with Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a fashionista who works in one of the big stores downtown. Convinced that their lifestyles are too different for anything to work between them, he puts her off. She’s simply too perfect for him. Beautiful, worldly, she seems unreal, but she loves him and is willing to sacrifice her safe, cozy world to be with him.

One night, as Jefferies dozes in his chair, he hears a glass shatter and a woman scream, but is too tired even to look out his window. Later, it begins to rain and he stirs himself, noticing Thorwald leave in the middle of the night with his sample suitcase, not once but twice. In the early morning hours, as he dozes we see Thorwald and a woman leaving their apartment. The next day, he sees a change in the accustomed pattern.  The shades are drawn across the way and he can’t see Mrs. Thorwald, but later he sees the man cleaning a saw and a knife with a long, curved blade and his suspicion turns into a belief that Thorwald killed his wife. At first, no one believes him, but when Lisa sees the mattress rolled up and a trunk tied together, she also becomes convinced and finally Stella comes around. The only one who doesn’t believe that a murder has occurred is Detective Doyle.

The film contains everything Hitchcock does best and it is therefore the best example of all of his filmmaking techniques. In addition, it is a first rate suspense film with great comic relief that induces edge-of-your-seat tension. In other words, it’s a really good movie purely on its own merits.

Based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich, the story unfolds in a confined space. The script, written by John Michael Hayes in conjunction with Hitchcock, initially contained one scene outside this confined space, at the office of his editor (Gig Young), but faithful and creative Assistant Director Henry Bumstead pointed this out to Hitchcock and the scene was not used in the final cut, although Young’s voice is heard over the telephone. By restricting the scene to Jefferies’ apartment and only what he can see through his rear window, Hitchcock has confined the universe to just one small area and everything you need to see is present and accounted for.

The world is further narrowed to just two points of view. The first and most significant point of view is that of the audience. Like a voyeur, we are allowed to see into Jefferies’s private life, his affair with Lisa, the care given him by Stella, his arguments with Doyle, and his phone calls, but nothing else. We are in the position of looking through our own little window into his life. The second point of view is Jefferies’, as he peers into the courtyard and the windows of his constricted little universe. Only once in the film are we allowed to see something he doesn’t–and that is when Thorwald leaves his apartment in the early morning accompanied by a woman. Jefferies is asleep when that happens. It is a little thing, but it makes us realize that Thorwald may have actually taken his wife away, rather than killing her. It implants a little seed of doubt that Jefferies may be wrong.

Part of the point that Hitchcock makes with this restriction of point of view is that we are all constricted, each in our own way. Jefferies is literally constricted. He cannot move from his chair. Lisa is constricted in that she is tied to a man who is pushing her away and it seems like the main event of her life takes place in this little apartment. Doyle is constricted because he can’t investigate something on such restricted circumstantial evidence.

The only evidence of the outside world is in one narrow view of the street and in the people who come and leave from his own apartment and those of the other characters in his rear window. Those connections are tenuous. Miss Lonelyheart is looking for romance, but the only man who responds to her wants her only for sex. Miss Torso can’t accept a steady man into her life, but we don’t discover why until the end of the movie. The songwriter is restricted by the creative process. And Thorwald is restricted by his wife and he takes violent action to escape to freedom.

The movie also says a lot about human relationships, as described above, and the relationships between men and women. Jeffries and Lisa are the prime example of two people who are miles apart in view and who find a common ground through the action of a murderer. Only when Jefferies sees that Lisa can be adventurous and take chances does he truly reveal his love for her. Even though she appears ready to embrace his adventurous lifestyle, she makes a statement for her feminity in the end.

But the best of this movie lies in the camera work and the way Hitchcock moves point of view through the lens. He uses the camera relentlessly to build suspense, moving in a steady arc that starts slow, languid almost, and accelerates into rapid montage by the end of the movie. The comic parts are organic, derived from the situation and the characters’ natural involvement with the story. When I saw this movie on its first run in theaters, I was moved by the shared tension of the audience in the theater, each person so involved in the story that we all seemed to react as one person as it raced toward its conclusion.

At the end of the film, you want to go outside and breathe fresh air, to walk around see what exists beyond your four walls.

Every element of the movie works, including the sound. Although it begins with a jazz score, denoting Greenwich Village in the 1950’s, and there are snippets of score dropped in throughout, most of the movie sound appears natural: the songwriter’s piano, the babbling of neighbors, the laughter of children and the traffic in the street. It is all slightly muted, as if we are hearing what Jefferies hears.

If I had to recommend one Hitchcock movie–and only one–for everyone to see, this would be it. It is absolutely representative and might very well be his best film.