To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

Dial M for Murder

Dial_M_For_Murder_Grace KellyIt 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.

The film opens by showing us the double life led by Margot (Grace Kelly).  We see her first with her husband, Tony (Ray Milland), as she reads a Times article announcing arrival of American crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) on the Queen Mary, then segue to a steamy kiss between her and Mark in the same flat that she shares with her husband.  Through their dialogue, we learn that after meeting Margot and Mark exchanged letters, all of which she burned but one, which she kept with her.  She decided to break it off with him after Tony gave up his professional tennis career to spend more time with her, but then one day her purse was stolen.  She received a blackmail letter from the thief demanding money in exchange for the evidence of her unfaithfulness, but the culprit never returned the letter.

Mark comes home and tells them that he can’t go to the theater with them as he’d planned because of a business meeting, so he sends them off together.  After they leave, he calls a man about buying a car and asks the man to stop over to see him.  When the man, Mr. Swann (Anthony Dawson) arrives, Mark reveals that he’d known him back at Cambridge and was aware that he’d stolen some funds at the time.  In fact, Mark has been following him closely and has substantial information on the man’s criminal career, including a few current schemes.  He explains that when his tennis career was over, he was not well off financially, but that Margot is independently wealthy and that she’s named him in her will as the benefactor of her fortune.  He tells Swann about noticing his wife’s letter, then stealing her purse himself and sending her the blackmail requests.  Removing the letter, he casually drops it to the floor and Swann picks it up.  He then tells Swann that he wants him to murder Margot or he will reveal all he knows about the man’s criminal activities.  When Swann threatens to take the matter to the police, Mark tells him that since his fingerprints are now on the letter, he can claim that Swann was the blackmailer and was trying to extort money from him.  When Mark offers to pay him a thousand pounds for the deed and then explains his foolproof plan, Swann agrees to commit the murder the next evening when Tony will take Mark to his club for men-only party.

Things immediately begin to fall apart the next night as Tony tries to maneuver Margot into following his plan, then Swann bungles the murder.  He is not a professional killer and uses a clumsy scarf to try to strangle her.  She fights back and plunges her scissors into his back.  He falls on the scissors driving them further into his body and dies.  Then the movie becomes all about Tony trying to salvage himself and establish that Margot murdered Swann when he threatened her with the letter.  Unfortunately, for him, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) is suspicious when the clues just don’t add up.

This is one of Hitchcock’s best suspense films and stands out from the rest because the audience is placed in the murderer’s shoes almost from the beginning.  The suspense is generated from our misplaced sympathy for Tony’s attempts to cover his tracks and we both fear and hope that he will be caught.  It is a masterpiece of suspense filmmaking.

Ray Milland is perfect as Tony.  His suave and compliant demeanor covers his cold-blooded plan for murder and we feel his tension as the plan unravels and then changes, as he works to cover his tracks and convince everyone of a different reality.  Grace Kelly is her usual beautiful self, so easily winning the audience that we hate and regret our sympathy for Tony.  Robert Cummings is fine in his supporting role.

The color, in the restored print used for the DVD, is excellent and allows Hitchcock to weave his spell beautifully with Robert Burks’ stunning cinematography.

Dial M for Murder is a classic of the suspense genre and must be ranked among Hitchcock’s greatest achievements.

Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain 3Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  I will discuss the plot in detail, so there will be spoilers.

American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) arrives in Copenhagen with his fiancée, colleague Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) to attend a conference.  Receiving a call that a book is waiting for him at a local book store, she picks it up for him.  Taking it into a toilet at the hotel, he reads a secret message telling him to “Contact π.”  His behavior disturbs Sarah and when she discovers he has changed his plans and will be flying to Stockholm, she decides to follow him, but he isn’t going to Stockholm, he’s actually boarding a plane for East Germany.  In a state of shock, she watches as he defects, stating to the press that he was disappointed that the United States shut down his missile program and he plans to develop an anti-missile system in Leipzig with Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) that will end the threat of nuclear war.  They have been shadowed by Professor Karl Manfred (Günter Strack) who arranged the defection.

Michael is angry that Sarah has followed him and repeatedly tells her that she should go back home while she can, but the East German government asks her to stay and work as Michael’s assistant.  Despite her disillusionment, Sarah decides that she loves Michael enough to stay and support his work.  At the time of the interview, he is informed by East German Security that he has been assigned a security watchdog, Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who is to follow him around and watch his actions.

The next morning, Michael leaves the hotel and hops a bus.  Gromek follows him on his motorcycle to a museum where Michael tries to lose him.  Going out the back, he hails a cab and gives the driver an address.  At a farm outside Berlin, Michael has the cab wait while he meets an American agent (Mort Mills) who is under cover as a farmer.  It turns out that π is an escape network and Michael is going to attempt to get information from Professor Lindt that will aid the United States in their own anti-missile system.  Before he can leave, Gromek shows up.  Seeing the π symbol in the dirt where Michael had drawn it for the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell), Gromek interrogates him.  As Gromek attempts to call the authorities, the farmer’s wife throws a pot at him and Michael attacks him.  As they fight, she stabs Gromek with a knife and they wrestle his head into an oven.  She turns on the gas and he dies.  Indicating that she will bury both Gromek and his motorcycle, Michael leaves.

In Leipzig, Michael is about to be debriefed for Professor Lindt when state security bursts in with the news that Gromek is missing, so they decide to debrief Sarah first, but when confronted with revealing American secrets, she can’t go through with it.  Speaking to her alone, Michael finally reveals to her that he is on a spy mission and gets her cooperation.  The cab driver (Peter Lorre, Jr.) sees the missing Gromek’s picture in the paper and comes forward, telling the police that he drove Michael to the farm.  When they arrive, the farmers are gone, so they commence digging and find the motorcycle 

After Michael gets the formula he is looking for, he and Sarah begin a convoluted escape route that includes assistance from a university clinic physician Dr. Koska (Gisela Fischer) and another man from π (David Opatoshu), eventually landing them back in East Berlin.  Their instructions call for them to go to a  post office and along the way the meet exiled Polish countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) who wants them to sponsor her to the United States.  Their escape plan calls for them to go the ballet where state security hunts them down.  Michael’s only resort is to yell “Fire!”  During the ensuing chaos, they are taken backstage and put in ballet trunks for shipment to Sweden, the ballet’s next stop.  As the trunks are about to be offloaded, the lead ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) blows the whistle and a guard shoots up the trunks, but they are the wrong trunks.  Michael, Sarah, and their rescuer have jumped into the water and swim safely to shore.

Normally, Hitchcock’s scripts have been worked over for many months, if not years in advance of shooting.  In this case, the script by Brian Moore was not ready.  Both Hitchcock and Newman knew it and Hitch sought additional help with the dialogue, but the studio had foisted Julie Andrews on him as his leading lady and she had a very short window to film the movie, so they went ahead with a faulty script.  It did not help that longtime Hitchcock collaborators Robert Burks (cinematography) and George Tomasini (editing) had both passed away, so he was working with people he wasn’t completely certain of.  He also had a falling out with his longtime musical director, Bernard Herrmann, and even though Herrmann scored part of the film, Hitch fired him and had John Addison complete the work.

The second problem in the film is that the climax occurs when Michael finally gets the formula from Professor Lindt, but the film continues on for nearly forty-five minutes after that as the elaborate escape, done with Hitchcock’s usual sense of suspense, plays out.  It simply goes on too long and it should have been edited down to fifteen or twenty minutes tops.  It makes the movie drag exactly where you don’t want a movie to drag.  At two hours and eight minutes, the film feels like it goes on forever.

That being said, the movie also contains the best scene Hitchcock ever filmed: the killing of Wolfgang Kieling by Paul Newman and Carolyn Conwell. 

Although both Herrmann and Addison had written music to accompany the gritty scene, in the end Hitchcock opted to only use the natural sound of the three people in their life and death struggle.  We hear grunts, scuffling, and very little dialogue as the two men struggle with each other.  Hitchcock intercut the scene as montage, so the viewer gets glimpses of arms and hands, short close-ups of faces, and two-shots of the struggle.  Almost forgotten is Conwell’s terrific contribution to the scene.  They can’t make any loud noises because the cab driver is still waiting outside, so they can’t shoot him.  She tries to stab him, but in the struggle the knife only goes into his shoulder, the blade breaking off and blood soaking his shirt.  She takes a shovel and bangs his knees to make him go to the floor.  Kieling gets both of his hands around Newman’s neck and tries to choke him, but Conwell begins to drag them across the floor, her face sweaty and creased with the exertion.  In the final moments, Hitchcock shoots the scene from above the oven and we see Newman and Conwell gasping for air as Kieling’s hands go through the paroxysm of death, fighting against the gas and gradually giving in, eventually resting with no movement at all.  If feels like an absolutely real death.

The reactions of Newman and Conwell afterward is just as important. As they regain their breath, the viewer can see the emotional scars of the act of killing: the trembling, the sweat, the redness of their faces, the disbelief that they have just taken a man’s life. 

It is overpowering cinema. 

When I first saw this movie in a theater in 1966, that scene haunted me and I have never forgotten it.  I think it has a much greater impact than the shower killing in Psycho, which is generally considered Hitchcock’s best murder scene.

There are other wonderful things in the movie to delight film students and Hitchcock fans.  The scene in the museum, for example, where Hitchcock never shows Gromek following Michael, but we hear the echo of the pursuer’s footsteps.  The tension on the bus on the escape back to East Berlin is almost unbearable.

However, even with all of the wonderful techniques of Hitchcock at his best, the film as a whole has too many problems to be considered one of his best.  A flabby script, lenient editing, and way too much time at the end all work together to sink this movie.  In fact, in the canon of films that Hitchcock made in America, it must be considered one of his least successful.

North by Northwest

north-by-northwest Samt and GrantMistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.  This review assumes the reader has already seen the film, and thus reveals many plot details that might spoil the movie for a novice film viewer.  Beware!

New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is about to conclude another busy day when he is kidnapped by two vaguely eastern European men (Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein) and taken to a mansion in the country. An erudite Englishman, whom Thornhill assumes is the estate owner, Mr. Townsend (James Mason) has mistaken him for a George Kaplan, a mysterious man who moves about the country making short stays in hotels before moving on.  Townsend recites Kaplan’s complete itinerary, demanding information from him.  When Thornhill tells him of his real identity and refuses to cooperate, Townsend tells his henchman, Leonard (Martin Landau) to kill him.  They force a bottle of bourbon into Thornhill, then put him behind the wheel of a stolen car and aim it at the ocean, but Thornhill revives just enough to avoid the plunge and leads them on a wild car chase.

Arrested for drunken driving, Thornhill calls his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and tries to explain about his kidnapping. On a return trip to the mansion, Mrs. Townsend tells the police that he was there for dinner, got drunk, and went off on his own.  Thornhill then takes his mother back to the hotel where Kaplan was staying and they find evidence of his presence, but none of the hotel employees have actually seen Kaplan.  When Townsend’s flunkies show up, Thornhill grabs a taxi and goes to the United Nations, where he discovers that the real Townsend knows nothing about his adventures.  As he speaks to Townsend, Leonard sneaks up and stabs the diplomat in the back, leaving Thornhill holding the knife.  A photographer takes a picture, then Thornhill drops the knife and runs off.

Hitchcock usually includes a scene in his movies where the audience learns something that his hero doesn’t know. In North by Northwest, that scene occurs in a Federal Government building (FBI? CIA? Hitchcock never says) where a group of executives led by the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) ponder Thornhill’s predicament and wonder if they should help him.  Kaplan, you see, doesn’t actually exist.  They created him in order to make the spies think that they were closing in on them, while actually they are simply trying to get them to reveal information.  They decide to allow Thornhill to sink or swim on his own.

Knowing that Kaplan’s next stop is in Chicago, Thornhill boards a train, the 20th Century Limited. With no disguise but dark glasses, he should be easy to spot, but the beautiful blond, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) appears and hides him in her private room.  While the porter is putting down the bed and Thornhill is hiding in her toilet, she slips a note to Luther Vandamm (James Mason), the man who had posed as Townsend earlier.  In Chicago, she pretends to help him by calling Kaplan to set up a meeting, but she gives him instructions to take a bus into the country.  That is where the famous scene with the crop-dusting plane occurs.  Waiting on the side of the highway, surrounded by bleak, empty fields, a small plane dives him, trying to run him down and spraying deadly poison on him.  He makes it to a field, then runs back onto the highway, stopping a tanker truck, which the plane then proceeds to hit, causing an explosion.  Stealing a pick-up left idling by a local, he returns to Chicago and goes to Kaplan’s hotel only to find out that Kaplan had checked out and left before Eve could have possibly talked to him.

Now that he knows she is working for his enemies, he goes to confront her at an art auction, only to find Vandamm and his henchmen. Disrupting the auction, he is able to save his own life by getting arrested.  Diverted to the airport, the police deliver him to the Professor who explains that Eve is actually working for the government, gathering information on Vandamm, and that Thornhill has now endangered her life.

North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreFollowing the villains to Rapid City, South Dakota, Thornhill and the Professor have set up a little scene in the restaurant at Mt. Rushmore where Eve shoots him with a gun loaded with blanks, but when he finds out that Eve will be leaving the country with Vandamm, he eludes the Professor and goes off on his own to save Eve, resulting in the famous final scene at Mt. Rushmore where Thornhill and Eve clamor over the president’s faces running from Leonard and the others with a statue filled with microfilm.

At two hours and 16 minutes, this should feel like a very long movie, but Hitchcock keeps the tension building so that viewers will not notice the passing of time. Even so, I wonder if it couldn’t have been cut a bit to bring it down to a more realistic length.  As with most of Hitchcock’s films, there isn’t much in the story, but action and suspense.  When Ernest Lehman wrote the script, he definitely wanted this to be the best Hitchcock film of all time and there may have been a certain amount of collusion from all of Hitchcock’s collaborators to make this movie his “masterpiece,” resulting in a greater length than usual.  It is Hitchcock’s longest running film and although it was stunning at the time of its release, in retrospective, there are many other films that would better fit the description “masterpiece.”

Although Hitchcock pulls all the right strings to keep the audience involved, I thought that Cary Grant really just mailed in his performance. Aside from a few moments early in the film, I really didn’t care what happened to him.  Eva Marie Saint was considerably better, bringing a level of nuance that was involving, but Mason, Landau, and all of the other actors seemed to be on automatic pilot.

The opening credits by Saul Bass are quite captivating, especially with the music of Bernard Herrmann behind them. This may be one of Herrmann’s best scores for Hitchcock as it does much of the work of keeping the film moving along.  The cinematography by Robert Burks and the editing by George Tomasini, both long time Hitchcock collaborators are terrific.  The widescreen color by Vistavision is magnificent.

What makes the film most memorable are the two iconic scenes, by themselves kinetic masterpieces: the scene in the fields with the crop dusting airplane and the scramble across the President’s faces at Mt. Rushmore. The scenes between Grant and Saint on the train are also very sexy and quite suggestive for their time.

North by Northwest deserves its place as a iconic Hitchcock film and it should be seen anyone who is a fan of suspense movies, Hitchcock or 1950’s Hollywood. It is an outstanding film and it definitely has its place in film history.  Even so, I would not call it Hitchcock’s ultimate masterpiece, as Ernest Lehman called it, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” 

In fact, Hitchcock’s very next film, Psycho, would leave a much deeper impact on his audience.

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!