Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a DoubtIs this Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie?  The Master thought so.  Of all the films Hitchcock made in his lifetime, this was his very favorite.  It combines many of his best filmmaking techniques, it is tremendously suspenseful, and the very heart of the movie is loss of innocence.  This review contains plot spoilers, so beware reading the entire summary below if you want to be surprised!

The opening credits show a ballroom with couples dancing to “The Merry Widow Waltz,” an image that will be reprised throughout the movie.

Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) lies on his bed in some nameless Eastern city, a pile of money laying on his bedside table.  His landlady tells him that two men have been looking for him, so he languidly gets himself together, goes downstairs and immediately loses the two men who are following him.  He sends a telegram to his family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them that he will soon arrive for a visit.

His niece, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) lies around her bedroom bored to tears with her life in the small town and wonders if anything exciting will ever happen.  Her father, Joseph (Henry Travers) can’t understand her, but promises that things will get better.  Charlie decides to send a telegram to her uncle Charlie hoping that he will come visit them to make things more exciting and she is stunned when the telegram from her uncle arrives–she calls it mental telepathy that they were thinking of the same thing at the same time.  Uncle Charlie’s sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is young Charlie’s mother and the family is completed with brainy little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and a younger brother.  When Uncle Charlie arrives by train, they are all excited to see him, especially Charlie who feels that they are like twins, partly because she was named after him and partly because he seems to bring that excitement that she really wants out of life.  During dinner that night, Emma begins to hum “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but no one can remember what it is called.  Uncle Charlie distracts them so that no one does actually give us the title.

Uncle Charlie gives everyone gifts, including a ring to Charlie that has an inscription inside, but one from someone else to someone else.  A neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn) shows up to discuss crime fiction with Joseph.  Uncle Charlie finds something in the newspaper that disturbs him.  He pretends to play a game with Ann where he tears up the section of the paper he was reading.  Stuffing it into his pocket, he goes upstairs, but Charlie is curious.  Claiming that they have nothing to hide, she steals the bit of paper, but can’t make anything out of it.  Ann tells her that the library is open until 9 PM, so Charlie runs down and finds the paper.  There is an article about the “Merry Widow Killer,” a man who marries rich widows and then kills them for their money.  When two government agents, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford), show up posing as a national survey team, Uncle Charlie gets nervous and refuses to have his picture taken, but Charlie agrees to go out with Jack to show him Santa Rosa and he admits that he is a detective on the trail of the “Merry Widow Killer.”   Uncle Charlie is one of two suspects they are investigating.

Suspicious and torn between family loyalty and fear that Uncle Charlie really is the killer, she proceeds cautiously.  When the suspect on the East Coast is killed trying to run away, it is assumed that the man was the killer, but Uncle Charlie begins to arrange “accidents” for Charlie, including a broken stair step and finally locking her inside their garage with the car running and the key in his pocket, trying to kill her with carbon monoxide poisoning.  The family all go off to a speech that Uncle Charlie is giving, so Charlie tries to call the government agents to no avail.  Later Uncle Charlie announces that he is leaving.  He has carefully arranged to run off with a family friend, who just happens to be a rich widow.

As the train moves off, he holds Charlie prisoner and tries to throw her off the moving train, but as the struggle, he loses his balance.  A little push from Charlie and he falls into the path of an oncoming train.  The final scene shows Charlie talking with Jack at Uncle Charlie’s funeral.  She remarks that Uncle Charlie thought the world was an evil place, but Jack tells her that there is only some evil in the world.

One can understand, especially from a thematic point of view, why this would Hitchcock’s favorite film of his entire canon.  The story develops Charlie’s arc from being an innocent, bored with her simple hometown life, to understanding that evil can lurk in the most unexpected places.  The viewer sees her grow as a person from an immature girl into a mature woman and that is always eminently satisfying.  But the film offers much more than this.  Uncle Charlie and Emma’s wistful view of the past as a beautiful waltz contrasts sharply with his perception that the world has grown into an awful place, full of stupid people who only eat and talk and display their jewelry.  His own bitterness at the world fuels his murder spree and when he sees his hope of that innocence of youth, his niece Charlie, turning cold to him, he can only respond with the despair that leads him to try to kill her.

In addition, the suspense is so finely crafted in this film that the viewer is pulled to the edge of their seat, waiting to see what happens to the girl Charlie.

The performances are uniformly good, but Joseph Cotton is magnificent as Uncle Charlie.  He leads us through all of his moods, from that painful yearning for innocence to the fear of being caught, to the despair of losing his niece’s good graces.  It is a powerful performance.  Teresa Wright is wonderful as the girl Charlie, capturing the essence of a soul at the turning point of her life between childhood and maturity.  Hume Cronyn is delightful as the family friend Herbie, who is always trying to find the perfect murder.  One of the best performances in the film is given by Patricia Collinge as Emma, who may miss the innocent past even more than Uncle Charlie and whose love of him creates the central challenge to Charlie’s struggle about revealing her uncle’s identity as the killer.

However, Macdonald Carey failed to make an impression on me as Jack.  Perhaps the character was written with too many contradiction or maybe I just didn’t buy his romantic interest in Charlie.  For whatever reason, his performance did not ring true for me.  It is the only blip in an otherwise great cast.

All of Hitchcock’s best film techniques are present in Shadow of a Doubt, some of them never more finely executed, and it will remain as one of the best films he ever made.  His best?  That question is still open for debate.

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938)Set in the fictitious European country of Bandrika, this 1938 British comedy-mystery  remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies.  Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder is truly funny, even the suspenseful parts.  Enhanced by Hitchcock’s own wit, it emerges as a truly entertaining popular film that reaches well beyond his normal confines of mystery and suspense.

A group of English tourists and businessmen is trapped at an inn in Bandrika by an avalanche that has covered the railroad tracks.  Young, beautiful Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) has been visiting her friends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart) before returning to England to marry a blueblood with lots of money.  She isn’t terribly excited about the prospect, but at the same time she can’t really find anything to get excited about.  Two apparently gay British businessmen, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are desperately trying to get back to England to see a cricket match.

Upstairs from Iris, a young English folk music enthusiast, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) has several Bandrikans clogging a folk dance.  Along with her neighbor, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess also returning to England, Iris complains about the noise and has Gilbert evicted from his room.  In retaliation, he comes to her room with his things and announces he’s moving in.  Forced to capitulate, she calls the manager and gets his room back.  In the meantime, Charters and Caldicott can’t get a regular room, so the manager has to put them up in the maid’s room, with the lewd suggestion that the maid will have to change her clothes there.  The two men are appalled and go out of their way to avoid seeing the young woman naked.

The next day on the train, Miss Froy befriends Iris who has been hit on the head by an object falling from a window.  The coach they are sitting in includes a Baroness and a magician.  After Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to discover that Miss Froy has disappeared.  The others seated in the coach deny having ever seen Miss Froy at all, so Iris begins to canvas the train trying to find anyone who remembers seeing the woman.  Along the way, she meets back up with Gilbert, who is determined to help her, even if he isn’t convinced that such a woman existed.  She meets Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), a Bandrikan neurosurgeon who tries to convince her that she’s been hallucinating, but she can’t let herself believe that Miss Froy wasn’t real.  When Gilbert sees a porter throwing out the trash and notices the brand of tea that Iris told him Miss Froy gave to them, he becomes convinced and helps her to turn the train upside down looking for her friend.  The trains stops to pick up a special patient for Dr. Hartz and Gilbert begins to suspect that Miss Froy has been substituted for the patient.

Part of what makes the movie special is the terrific chemistry between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.  A noted actor on the British stage, this was Redgrave’s first starring role and he definitely made the most of it.  His offbeat humor teamed so well with Lockwood that the two are completely engaging throughout the movie.  The rest of the cast is also quite good, but Radford and Wayne as Charters and Caldicott practically steal the show.  Their stiff British correctness, combined with their obviously gay relationship and obsession with cricket, despite the hijinks going on around them is hilarious.  In fact, the two went on to reprise their characters in other British movies after The Lady Vanishes.

Coming as it did, after several unsuccessful films, this major box office hit was what convinced American producer David O. Selzni,k to sign Hitchcock to a contract that would bring him to America and lead him to become one of the most respected directors in film history.

The Lady Vanishes contains many of the elements that were staples of Hitchcock’s movies: the uncertainty of relationships, a long train ride, slanted camera angles to emphasize important objects in the frame, long takes contrasted with fast montage, his fascination with spies, his fear of the police, and, of course, the humor that colored many of his later American films.  This film also carries more political weight than most of his movies, as it was made during the period of time that Chamberlain was capitulating Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the situation is alluded to obliquely throughout the film, but especially near the end when the English on board the train must make a decision to either capitulate to the Bandrikian government or to make a stand.  The one man who decides to capitulate is shot dead holding his white flag, while those who hold fast persevere.

The film showcases many of the great filmmaking techniques that Hitchcock had learned and mastered.  It was given a low budget and restricted to a very small studio at Islington.  No matter.  Hitchcock built one train car in the studio and shot virtually the entire train footage, which takes up most of the film, on his one set, using superb rear projection, camera angles, and masterful dissolves to keep the film moving and make it realistic.

With its great humor, charismatic cast, fine script, and showcasing most of the plot elements and camera techniques that were Hitchcock staples, this stands out among the best of his British films and one of his best films over all.

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.

Psycho

Psycho 1The line between suspense and horror is blurred anyway, but when director Alfred Hitchcock and screen writer Joseph Stefano adapted master horror writer Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho for the screen, and composer Bernard Herrmann was brought on board, they changed the horror film genre forever, creating ripples that are still felt by filmmakers today.

It began when Hitchcock read Bloch’s novel on a flight to England.  He immediately decided it would be his follow-up to the blockbuster North by Northwest and that it would be a stark departure from his acknowledged style.  Noting the success of low budget black and white horror films, he wondered what would be the effect if such a film was made by someone who really understood the cinema.  The first writer called in wrote a boring script that he immediately rejected, instead bringing in young Joseph Stefano to craft a completely original screenplay that was based only marginally on the book.  Stefano was in therapy at the time and they decided to center the film in a young man who was patently, homicidally, crazy. 

This movie is so well-known that I will discuss the entire plot in detail.

They decided to begin the movie from the point of view of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a Phoenix girl in her late twenties in a serious relationship with a man named Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a hardware store manager from a mid-sized Northern California town named Fairvale.  Caught in a situation of having to pay alimony to his ex-wife, Sam believes that marriage is impossible until he can get out of his financial crisis. 

Psycho 3In the first scene, in a Phoenix hotel room, we see Marion wearing a white bra and slip and Sam naked from the waist up.  They have just finished making love and discuss their situation.  Marion goes back to the real estate office where she works and finds that a client is giving them $40,000 in cash to hold for a purchase.  However, instead of taking the money to the bank, she goes home, packs, gets in her car and sets out for Fairvale, thinking that they money will give them the fresh start they need.

Along the way, she is menaced by a highway patrolman, ominous in his dark glasses.  She trades in her car and spends $700 of the money for a new one with California plates.  She drives into a thunderstorm and pulls over at the Bates Motel, a lonely spot on an old highway, with a mansion on the hill behind it and meets the proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).  A quirky, nervous young man, he volunteers to share his dinner with her.  In the back room of the motel office, surrounded by the stuffed birds that Norman works on as his hobby, she encourages him to leave and find a life for himself, but he protests that he is the only one who can take care of his mother, an invalid, who sometimes goes “a little crazy.”  As they talk, Marion realizes that she can’t solve her problems by running away and decides to return to Phoenix.  She has enough in her bank account to make up for the $700 she has already spent.

Norman watches her from a peephole as she undresses to take a shower.  As she scrubs herself, a fuzzy figure appears behind the shower curtain.  It is Norman’s mother and she mercilessly stabs Marion until she is dead.  Norman, seeing the blood on his mother, runs to motel room.  To cover up the crime, he cleans the room, moves the body into the trunk of Marion’s car (along with, unknowingly, the $39,300 remaining of the theft), and disposes of them all in a nearby swampy lake.

The next day, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) arrives in Fairvale, thinking that Marion must have taken the money to join Sam, but he has no idea where Marion might be.  A private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) shows up also looking for Marion.  Grudgingly accepting that Lila and Sam really don’t know where she is, he begins to check every hotel and motel in Fairvale with no luck.  However, at the Bates Motel, he catches Norman in several lies and decides that he will need to interview Norman’s mother.  When Norman refuses, Arbogast leaves and calls Lila and Sam from a public phone to tell them that he’s going to go back to the Bates Motel to interview the invalid mother.

Returning to the motel, Arbogast watches Norman head to one of the rooms to work and then goes to the mansion to interview his mother.  At the top of the stairs, however, she rushes from her room and stabs Arbogast to death.  After disposing of this second body, Norman puts his mother in the fruit cellar because he’s afraid that more people will come to investigate, even though she loudly protests the action.

Lila and Sam try to get the local sheriff, Al Chambers (John McIntire) involved, but he tells them that Mrs. Bates has been dead for more than ten years.  She apparently poisoned her lover and then herself in a murder-suicide.  When Lila tells him that Arbogast claimed she was still alive, the sheriff wonders who it was they buried ten years earlier.

Without any significant action by the sheriff, Lila gets Sam to join her in their own investigation of the Bates Motel.  They check in, then Sam keeps Norman busy in conversation while Lila goes up to the mansion to try to find Mrs. Bates, but Sam thinks that Norman has stolen the money and gets Norman all worked up to the point where Norman bashes him in the head and runs to the mansion to find Lila.  Upstairs in Mrs. Bates’ bedroom, Lila notices that the bed has been permanently indented in the form of a body.  As she’s getting ready to leave, she sees Norman running for the house, so she ducks down the stairs toward the root cellar.  Curious, she goes all the way down and sees Mrs. Bates sitting in a chair.  She touches the woman on the shoulder and when the body swings around, the mummified skull of the old woman stares at her.  She screams, then the old woman appears in the doorway with a butcher knife, but before she can attack Lila, Sam shows up and wrestles her to the floor.  As she falls, a wig comes off her head and we see that “she” is actually Norman dressed up in his mother’s clothing.  All this time, he as been impersonating her, even going so far as to use her voice in conversations with himself.

Psycho 2Much of the psychology of Norman’s dual personality is revealed by a psychiatrist, Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) at the jail who also tells them that the Mother has now taken full control of Norman’s body and that he will probably never be himself again.  We see Norman, right near the end, sitting in the jail, with a voice-over of his mother talking.  He sees a fly on his fingers and she says, “I wouldn’t even harm a fly,” as Norman grins maniacally.  The final shot is over the car being pulled from the swamp.

Eschewing the big budget color films of the day, he made the movie using his television crew, only relying on the skills of longtime collaborators George Tomasini for the editing and Bernard Herrmann for the score.  Probably the major breakthrough of the film was in building up the character of Marion Crane, getting the audience completely on her side, then killing her off barely 45 minutes into the movie, but there were other major departures from standardized cinema as well.  Showing her in a brassiere, lying in bed with Sam was extremely risqué for the time.  Hitchcock later had her in a black brassiere and slip, after she had stolen the money.  This was amazingly the first movie ever to show a toilet.  When Marion rips up her notes about the money, she flushes them down the toilet.

Joseph Stefano thought they were going to have a great film, but when he watched the rough cut, he became very depressed because it just didn’t look like it was going to work.  Hitchcock spoke to him very kindly.  “It’s just a rough cut, dear boy” he said.  The reason Hitchcock knew it was going to work was that the score was missing.

Although Bernard Herrmann wrote many great film scores for Hitchcock and other directors, the music for Psycho is by far his best and most effective composing.  In the history of cinema, there may never be a better match of action and score than the contribution of Herrmann to Psycho.  Very early in the process of composing the music, Herrmann made one critical decision—to use only strings in his composition.  The intense use of violins, cellos, and basses gives the action a depth that is astounding.  Most people remember the shower scene, but throughout the film, the music flies and dances, going dead silent at times, and pulsing organically at others.

The shower scene changed the American understanding of montage.  Shot over seven days, using 70 separate set-ups, the scene is a masterpiece of modern editing.  Some shots only appear for a few frames.  Hitchcock worked with Tomasini to put together an absolute tour-de-force in which it appears that Marion is hacked to death, without ever showing a knife piercing skin, without ever showing a bared breast.  In her book about the making of the film, Janet Leigh said that part of Hitchcock’s mastery was in allowing the audience to fill in the gaps.  By jumping all around in scenes that sometimes lasted less than a second, he created the illusion of the murder and allowed the minds of the audience to fill in the gaps.

Although the music and the editing contributed greatly to the success of the scene, what really set it apart was that it came so unexpectedly.  Never before had a director spent so much film time drawing the audience to a character only to have her viciously dispatched in a scene that lasts less than two minutes.

A case can certainly be made that Psycho is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but a case can also be made for many of Hitchcock’s movies.  What is beyond debate is that Psycho changed the course of horror movies forever.

Vertigo

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointAcrophobia is a perfect psychological ploy for a Hitchcock movie. Always fascinated with little psychological motivations, Hitchcock used fear of heights as the guiding principle of his 1958 movie Vertigo.  The plot, so detailed and involving, has become nearly iconic as the film has worked its way into the American psyche.  It will be discussed in some detail in this review, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please beware.

The film begins with a rooftop chase scene in San Francisco. A uniformed cop is chasing some criminal with Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) right behind him. Jumping from one roof to another, Scottie slips on the Spanish tiles and slides down, barely catching hold of a gutter to prevent himself dropping many stories to the pavement.  In an effort to help him, the cop climbs back down the roof and holds out his hand, but Scottie has entered a kind of fugue state where he is unable to respond.  Slipping, the cop falls to his death as Scottie watches with a kind of tunnel vision.

Diagnosed with acrophobia, Scottie, independently wealthy, decides to retire rather than take a desk job. He hangs out with his old pal, former fiance, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a former artist who now designs brassieres.  An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) calls Scottie and asks for a meeting.  A shipping magnate, Elster is concerned about his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a stunning blond who is obsessed with her great gandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who was courted by and bore a child to a very rich San Franciscan, who built a great house for her in what is now the Western Addition, then abandoned her.  She gradually went mad and eventually committed suicide.  At first reluctant, Scottie takes on the job of tailing her as a protective measure, as Elster thinks she might do harm to herself.  He follows her first to a flower shop where she buys a little nosegay of rosebuds, then to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in the Presidio, where she sits before a painting called Portrait of Carlotta, in which the mysterious Carlotta Valdez holds an identical nosegay.  Looking closely, he sees that Madeleine’s hair, done up in a bun that terminates in a distinctive whorl, exactly matches the hair style of Carlotta in the portrait.  Afterwards, he follows her to Mission Dolores, where she visits Carlotta’s grave, and, finally, he tails her to the McKittrick Hotel, which he later discovers is the home that had been built for Carlotta.

The next day, Midge takes Scottie to visit the proprieter of the Argosy Bookstore, who tells him Carlotta’s history. Later, he follows Madeleine to Fort Point, underneath the Western end of Golden Gate Bridge, where, to his horror, she jumps into San Francisco Bay, an apparent suicide.  He jumps in after her and saves her life.  Rather than returning her home, he brings her back to his apartment, undresses her, and puts her to bed, hanging up her clothing to dry.  Scottie passes through phases of becoming fascinated with her, to becoming obsessed with her, and finally falling in love with her.  They meet the following morning, going to Muir Woods, where he begins to drill her on what she remembers of her rambling and especially her dreams, one of which includes a memory of being at the Mission of San Juan Bautista.  Stopping at Cypress Point, they kiss passionately, then he brings her to the Mission, hoping that he will be able to confront her with the past and help her to move beyond it.

At the Mission, she emotionally begs him that whatever happens, he should remember that she loved him, then she runs into the church and climbs the stairs of the bell tower. Following, he begins to have his vertigo attack and cannot go all the way to the top.  He hears a scream and sees her body falling past a window and she dies in the fall.

Although he is cleared of any wrongdoing during the inquiry, he retreats into himself and is finally hospitalized with extreme depresson. Visiting him, Midge sees that he is nearly catatonic and the doctor informs her that it will be six months to a year before he can be released.  Skipping ahead, we see him visiting the places that Madeleine used to visit.  One day, he sees a brunette that looks so much like Madeleine that he follows her back to her apartment and introduces herself.  At first reluctant to see him, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), a shopgirl who works at I Magnin, eventually gives in and agrees to a date at Ernies, the restaurant where Scottie first saw Madeleine.  After he leaves her apartment, Judy relives the moment at the top of the bell tower and we see Elster throw his wife’s body from the bell tower as Judy screams.  It becomes apparent that Judy had been playing the part of Madeleine for Scottie’s benefit, so that Elster would have a reliable witness (with vertigo) who would swear that she committed suicide.  Still in love with Scottie, Judy decides to pursue a relationship with him.

Obsessed with the memory of Madeleine, he begins to dress Judy to look like her, going to the extreme of having her hair dyed blond and recreated the whorl at the back. When she dresses for dinner, however, she makes the crucial mistake of putting on Carlotta’s necklace.  Recognizing it, Scottie assembles the pieces of the puzzle.  He brings her back to the bell tower and forces her to go all the way to the top.  In the process, he overcomes his vertigo.  She confesses to being an accomplice to Madeleine’s murder, but when a nun comes up the steps, Judy screams and turns to run, falling to her death, the same as Madeleine.

James Stewart and Kim Novak both give brilliant, breathtaking performances in this film, which must rank as one of Hitchcock’s very best in a distinguished career of filmmaking. Stewart gives the best performance of his own career as Scottie, perfectly believable from beginning to end.

The cinematography by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks is excellent. As a long-time resident of San Francisco, I love the detail and love of landscape shown the San Francisco Bay area, from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio, Muir Woods, Cypress Point, and Mission Dolores.  It is stunning to see the city in all of its beauty in the late 1950’s.  Although many things have changed over the years, the essential beauty remains unchanged.  At one point in the film, Elster, talking about his return to San Francisco, remarks that the city isn’t what it used to be, but he doesn’t understand the basic timeless beauty to be found there.

The opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, provide a dramatic introduction to the movie. Beginning with a close-up of a woman’s face, the camera moves into and extreme close-up of the woman’s right eye, dissolving into the distinctive whorl, in vibrant violet, that becomes a repeated motif in the movie.  The costumes, by Edith Head, are gorgeous.  And, of course, the music by long time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann is great and illustrative of the action.

The screenplay, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the French novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, is the perfect Hitchcock vehicle.  The pacing of the film is nearly flawless, although it must be considered a little bit long.  As with most of Hitchcock’s movies, the first viewing is the most important because all of the details are just being discovered, but it is also a film that can be watched many times merely to study the technique. 

Painstakingly restored to its original Vistavision glory by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the DVD is simply stunning. It contains a special feature on the film’s difficult restoration process.  If there is one thing, however, that dates the film, it is the special effects depiction of Scottie’s dream after Madeleine has died.  Stewart’s head, framed against a pulsing stream of light and with evolving animation just doesn’t seem to work now.  It was state-of-the-art in 1958, but it doesn’t show well now.

Even with that flaw, the film remains one of Hitchcock’s finest.

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.

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.

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!