Monday, January 11, 2010

This is for The Birds...

Landing in The Underworld today is the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds. Hitch, a fan of author Daphne Du Maurier (he also filmed Jamaica Inn and Rebecca), used her concept, if not her actual story, to depict a small town that is besieged by all types of birds, possibly prompted by the arrival of an outsider. To play the outsider, he used a protégé his wife had spotted in a soft drink commercial and who he groomed heavily for screen stardom, Miss ‘Tippi’ Hedren (Hitchcock wanted her billed with the apostrophes.) She was part of a massive publicity campaign that involved everything from countless photos to many public appearances, including ones in which doves were released en masse.

Never explaining exactly what got the birds’ feathers ruffled, he showed some suspicious people jumping to the conclusion that the attacks were Hedren’s fault while also allowing for other reasons including the fact that maybe the birds were just sick and tired of people! (Wryly suggesting another cause, he has a waitress keep hollering for an order of “fried chicken” during a tense discussion among diner patrons over why the birds want everyone dead.)

Opinions vary somewhat on the virtues of this late-career Hitchcock suspense film. Some find it to be a symbol-laden masterpiece, others a dull drama with occasional flashes of shock and still others a mixed bag of thrills, lessened by a stiff leading lady. To me, this is a mesmerizing, layered gem of a film with all sorts of great dialogue, set pieces and special effects.

Though Hedren was not a seasoned actress in this, her debut, she is a sleek, chic, attractive performer. Her voice is a sophisticated purr, her posture and grace are magnificent and her hair is a testament to the wonders of Aqua Net. (And who else could ever cross her legs like that?!) Despite her inexperience as an actress, she is a compelling and witty personality. She is not Grace Kelly (Hitch’s first choice for virtually everything, but now ensconced as the Princess of Monaco), but who she is is pretty darn fine as well.

Rod Taylor is a charming, delightful counterpoint to her cool beauty. Their repartee is frequently amusing. Mr. Taylor was close to the apex of his handsomeness here. Though he has no shirtless scenes, this photo from the same general time frame shows off his hirsute good looks. I remember watching the film in the early 90s and noting how timeless the army green cargo pants he has on are. He, of course, didn’t wear them low on his hips as we do now, though!

There is so much going on in this film it can be watched over and over and OVER again. Watch as Hedren (in a theme Hitchcock used throughout his career, but which was fully realized here more than ever) begins decked out with all the accoutrements of a glamorous lady and is gradually stripped of all her trappings and accessories until finally she is nearly unrecognizable. One by one she is shed of her scarf, her gloves, coat, necklace, etc… until she’s down to the basics. Far from having to "act" frightened of the birds, Tippi was so ravaged and beaten down by the time the climax was filmed that she not only almost lost an eye, but also had to be given bed rest for several days due to nervous exhaustion.

Notice how Taylor is surrounded and "hen-pecked" by the women around him. Hedren is circling, sizing him up as a mate, his ex-girlfriend Suzanne Pleshette is clearly not over him and has a barely concealed jealous streak, his mother Jessica Tandy clucks about over him, wanting him to help her with her life as a widow and his sister Veronica Cartwright is forever chirping at him for one thing or another. He is fighting off real birds as well grappling with the "birds" (British slang for girl) in his life and in his home.

Miss Pleshette felt all along that she should have been cast as Melanie Daniels (the Hedren role) and made no effort whatsoever to ingratiate herself to Hedren or to anyone else, really. She rarely, if ever, gave interviews about the film and took no part in any of the retrospective featurettes for the Special Edition DVD. While it is true that she could have played the part and, perhaps, might have even done it better, she never stood a chance as long as she had black hair. Hitchcock, especially by this period, was all about the blondes. My favorite Pleshette shot is the one of her glaring at Hedren as she drives away, her hair all ruffled like a mad hen.

Hedren’s green, Edith Head suit is legendary and she wears it so much in the film that sometimes people forget that she appears in the first scene in a dark one. She starts off the film in a pet store surrounded by birds in cages, demonstrating an ignorance of them and not a great deal of care. However, before the film is over, she has been caged more than once herself (complete with the torturesome pecking--a reversal of the act of humans sticking their fingers and other objects into birdcages all the time.) The only birds that don't rebel are the unabashedly romantic touch.

There are some odd stretches of dialogue between several of the characters that aren't easily understood (i.e.--Pleshette and Hedren's conflicting discussion of Tandy, Tandy's bedridden chat with Hedren), but most of the film has fascinating exchanges, never more so than in the extended diner sequence. An array of people (including the terrific Ethel Griffies as a stuffy ornithologist) debate the possibility of a bird assault, only to see soon after firsthand how powerless humans can be when confronted by nature at full force.

Some of the imagery is unforgettable, such as Tandy's horrified reaction to a bird-ravaged corpse and her dust-ridden exit from Dan Faucett's farm. Also, once seen, few people can forget the rush of chickadees down the fireplace chimney and into Taylor’s living room.

Then there’s the jungle gym at the school. Hedren waits outside for the children to finish an agonizing song before she can ask teacher Pleshette for permission to take Cartwright home to a fretful, distraught Tandy. As she alights on a bench, smoking, the playground fixture behind her is shown with a bird on it. As she smokes a cigarette, an occasional bird or two comes to perch on the jungle gym. When she notices one coming that way, in particular, she rises and turns to face an army of crows waiting to peck and claw their cardigan and bobby sox-clad set of victims!

I’ve never been fond of children. Unless they are blood relatives or the spawn of good friends (and sometimes even then!), I usually have precious little use for them. So it is a mixture of horror and glee for me when the birds feel the need to, not once, but twice, zero in on the youth of the town!

With the village residents completely at a loss as to what has caused this holocaust, they begin to suspect anything new and different that might have ticked off their feathered (former) friends. Doreen Lang, as a nervous visitor herself, has one of the all-time great crack-up scenes as she lays into Hedren following an attack.

There is a deliberate quality to the pacing and story, which puts some people off. Indeed in this channel-surfing era, it is sometimes hard for some to wait for things or to let a film's mood sweep over them. Hitch does continue to drop little hints for the viewer to hold on and that something’s coming. When things start to break loose, it is well worth the wait.

Occasionally, some of the effects shots look dated, but in many cases it is still unsettling. One might never glance at a flock of crows quite the same way after seeing this movie! For my part, birds have always held a sort of creepy quality and that was enhanced after seeing this film. However, it was when I saw Jurassic Park that I really began to let birds unnerve me. In that film, it was posited that they are descended from dinosaurs and once I saw the similarities, I was further removed from any chance of wanting one around me. Occasionally, I’ve come upon a mass of migrating birds and it’s unfathomable to think of what it would be like if they got it into their heads to attack us. One bird might not seem so scary. A thousand is another story!

The relationship between Hitch and Hedren would only last through this film and half of the next one, Marnie, before it all went south and ended with acrimony on both sides. Hedren has since put her ill feelings aside and embraced her connection to him and, truly, her association with him did give her a place in one of the greatest man vs nature thrillers. Her iconic look in the film has been the subject of many things from photo shoots to parodies to even reproduction in a mass-produced Barbie doll! And if you think I don’t want this thing, you’re crazy! I haven’t given in and bought one for myself, but the temptation lies there constantly. Trouble is, I’d have to get it out of the box and mess with it, for I share Hitch’s obsession with glamming things up and then picking them apart.


TJB said...

Terrific, insightful, entertaining review of one of my favorite films! I don't find the pace dull at all, and on a completely superficial level, I must have Melanie's mink coat and Mercedes convertible.

I think 'Tippi' Hedren's lukewarm reviews had more to do with Hitch's unnerving, no-holds-barred publicity campaign, which pretty much demanded that the press make her a star, than on any shortcomings in her performance. For a first-timer, particularly, she does a splendid job.

Ken Anderson said...

This is really great. I especially like your observation on how Taylor is "henpecked"!
The photos, the do a great job of combining raw data with subjective analysis of a film you clearly have fond feelings for. I hope you don't mind that I linked this article to my own "The Birds" post. I really enjoyed reading this.
Another "The Birds" fan!

Poseidon3 said...

Far from minding, I'm quite flattered that you'd send people to this post. Thank you! Anyone out there who loves "The Birds" is welcome in The Underworld. I still have trouble turning away from it if I come across it on TV, it's that fascinating to me.

Frederic Kahler said...

Happy birthday to TIPPI HEDREN!

petercox97 said...

i am befuddled that there were countless wardrobe tests for the birds and yet gorgeous tippi is confined to that one ripe pale green outfit. i don't get it, hitch.

i love the way tippi says yes to pleshette during their first exchange. i don't how to describe the cadence, but i adopted it years ago and many people remark about how i say the word yes. truth be told, i stole it from tippi. all they have to do is to watch the birds and they will recognize it.