Monday, November 21, 2005

A Fine Feathered Film

Last night I decided to crack the shrink-wrap on my new store-bought copy of ALFRED HITCHCOCK - THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION (Universal, $119.98) and was very pleasantly surprised to find that the attractive box is covered in burgundy-colored velvet. The presentation gives one the feeling of opening a gift package of Louis XIII de Rémy Martin cognac, and no other filmmaker deserves the comparison more.

The movie I felt most like watching to test these newly remastered waters was THE BIRDS (1963), which I haven't seen for awhile and was the subject of a recent interesting discussion on the Classic Horror Film Boards, in the "1960s and '70s Horror" folder. The gist of the conversation was, "Is it science fiction or not?" I can see where some might think so, but I would more readily categorize it as fantasy since there's no science involved, unless you side with the picture's resident ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies, who played Mrs. Whack in 1935's WERE-WOLF OF LONDON!) and consider that different species of birds don't typically flock together; then, I suppose, the story might represent some department of science fiction.

Well before I'd read much in the way of film criticism or analysis, I understood intuitively that the movie was a kind of allegory and that the bird attacks were somehow connected to the clashing psychic energies surrounding the characters of Melanie ('Tippi' Hedren) and Lydia (Jessica Tandy, whose performance struck me as particularly marvelous on this viewing). Since it had been some time since I'd seen THE BIRDS, my memory was that Melanie was herself the instigator, being something of a flighty character, wary of being caged, and that her mysterious relationship to the birds became most pronounced at the end, following her attack in the upstairs room. Just as she, in her shock, is easily disturbed, so must the Brenners guide her through the birds warily. There is something to this interpretation, I think, but it doesn't shell out quite so perfectly -- or so I see on refreshed acquaintence -- as do the birds' ties to Lydia, a widow who fears the coming of Melanie as a sign that her grown son Mitch (a pitch-perfect Rod Taylor) may leave her home without its core male strength. A gull swoops down to strike Melanie as Mitch prepares to intercept her at the dock where she is returning her rented boat; a gull crashes into the door of Annie Hayworth's (Suzanne Pleshette's) house after Melanie agrees to stay for Cathy's (Veronica Cartwright's) birthday party; Lydia persuades Melanie to pick up Cathy from the school house because she is fearful of another attack, which does indeed happen -- endangering Melanie, as well; at the Tides restaurant, the bird attacks cause a group of (interestingly, all women) customers to turn against Melanie and accuse her of being "evil" and attracting the birds to Bodega Bay; and I also find it relevant that Lydia is startled by a dead bird at rest on the portrait of Mitch's father, because she later describes her "weakness" as being instilled in her by a lifetime with a strong husband. Of course, during the birthday party, Melanie confides to Mitch that she harbors only angry feelings toward her self-absorbed, absentee mother, a confession whose contained emotion seems to immediately precipitate another attack on the children at the birthday party.

Thus, the most meaningful storyline of THE BIRDS (as I read it, anyway) is really about Lydia's acceptance of Melanie as a daughter, and Melanie's acceptance of Lydia as a mother. (There is a physical resemblance between Melanie and Lydia too, that doesn't exist in Mitch's earlier girlfriend Annie; it may well be the sign Lydia recognizes as indication that this is the woman Mitch will take seriously.) When Melanie emerges from her shock long enough to look up at Lydia at the end of the movie, their connection has the uplifting power of a happy ending before the film continues on to its final, uncertain shot, and we sense that Lydia has finally found her strength in the necessity to care for this more vulnerable creature. The lovebirds are, in a sense, these two -- two of a kind. Their truce may last, or it may not.

I love the fact that THE BIRDS continues to reward me intellectually, as well as viscerally, each time I see it. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the first time, with my mother and grandmother, on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES -- several years before I caught up with PSYCHO on television. People of subsequent generations can't appreciate the impact of that program, which was a very big deal in those three-network days, and I'm sure the movie was cut to some extent... but it was a major discovery for me, and I especially remember the excitement created in our living room by the playground scene as more and more birds were added to the jungle gym. Along with the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Eye of the Beholder," it was one of my earliest and most captivating encounters with film technique. It was almost certainly one of the starting points of my appreciation for film editing. (All hail George Tomasini, who also edited Rod Taylor's performance in THE TIME MACHINE.)

It's been 40 years since that night, and seeing THE BIRDS again -- for the first time on my HD widescreen set (the biggest I've ever seen it, which gave me a whole new appreciation of its uses of landscape and depth of composition) -- I was filled with absolute admiration. Yes, Hitchcock takes his sweet time telling the story, which would certainly never be tolerated in today's market (today's loss), but it's not tedium; it's remarkable technique, a master toying with his story the way a cat toys with a mouse before the kill, and making his characters and their relationships all the more real in the process. Consequently, there is not a single performance in the film that falls short; not only that, but everyone seems to have layers of backstory and their intimate conversations often fade to black on notes of wonderment -- offbeat, haunting chords in a minor key. Most significantly, this is a special effects movie and it's hard to imagine any of its effects being filmed with greater success or to greater effect today. To note that its dramatic impact was not buttressed by a musical score only adds to its achievement, though it is nevertheless one of the most sonically manipulative of Hitchcock's films.

So much to savor here: the way Mitch's discovery of Melanie's lovebirds prank is played out entirely in long shot, silent, with Mitch emphasized in the distance by his white sweater... Lydia's discovery of the shattered teacups in the neighbor's farmhouse (pictured above)... her discovery of the dead neighbor, a FRANKENSTEIN-like three-step cut closer into his gouged eyesockets, follwed by her silent flight from the house and reckless drive back home (again, in long shot)... Cathy feeling sick prior to the attack on the Brenner home and asking Melanie, rather than Lydia, for help (and the cutaway to Lydia, underscoring her notice of it)... Mrs. Bundy unable to turn around fully to face Melanie in the wake of the attack outside the Tides restaurant... and the way the lights suddenly go out in the Brenner home during the final attack. For the first time, I got a sense from watching the film on video how theater audiences must have jumped when this happened -- and also the trepidation they must have felt when Melanie guides her flashlight beam toward the PSYCHO-like flight of stairs leading to that fateful room on the second floor.

Furthermore, this viewing pointed out to me how much George A. Romero is indebted to this film, in particular. Hitchcock's "siege" picture, like Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, begins with the everyday, offers no explanation for the attacks, stages some memorable shots of Rod Taylor bracing the interior of his home against invasion (I love the moment when, having no rope, he trashes a living room lamp to rip out its wiring and secure a shutter), and the ending finds the survivors packing up into a reliable vehicle and moving out. This film's basic structure has served Romero well for four separate films -- and it's a testament to Romero's own resourcefulness that he's parlayed his borrowings into a whole new subdivision of horror fare, itself imitated by countless others.

Hitchcock's later films all have points of interest, even long stretches of bravura filmmaking, but THE BIRDS is the last produced of the films in this "MASTERPIECE COLLECTION" that seems to me an inarguable masterpiece. As time goes on, Hitchcock shows signs of becoming, in death, a kind of conscience of cinema. We may drift away from his movies from time to time, but they always remain a part of us and it's always refreshing and nourishing -- even enlarging -- to return to them. It's hard to think of areas on the map of cinema that he did not chart or extend in some way, and our appreciation of them speaks to our own lifelong growth as an audience.

May we continue to be worthy of him.

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