Entertainment » Movies

’The Birds Is Coming’ (for One Day Only)

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Tuesday Sep 18, 2012

"The Birds is Coming," promised Alfred Hitchcock prior to the release of his 1963 apocalyptic thriller. It was a great publicity hook, and "The Birds" was an immediate hit with audiences; though was generally dismissed by the critics. ("Sorry," read the New Yorker; "silly," said Time Magazine.) Not that was unusual: Hitchcock was the great popular artist of American film, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a series of his greatest films ("Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Psycho") were generally dismissed by critics, but embraced by audiences.

"The Birds" was no exception. Hitchcock's most expensive (at $3.3 million) film to date, it grossed nearly three times that during that initial run. In the ensuing half-century, critics came around, many recognizing it as one of his best films; though must have its fans only know it from television viewings or in a video/DVD format.

But only in film classes or the rare repertory screening gave audiences the opportunity to see the film as it was meant to be seen: in a movie theater. This is why the upcoming screening this Wednesday night - a co-production of Fathom Entertainment and Turner Classic Movies - makes for such an occasion. Nearly 50 years after its release, the film will be shown in movie theaters in a restored print along with a commentary by the film's star - Tippi Hedren, and other interviews from the TCM archives with co-stars Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette conducted by Robert Osbourne.

Great timing

For Hitchcock fans, the timing of this screening couldn’t be better. Next month a BBC film "The Girl" will debut on HBO with Sienna Miller playing Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones playing Hitchcock that recounts the director’s obsession with his blonde star. (The film is based on Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto’s book "Spellbound by Beauty" by Donald Spoto, which, according to London’s Daily Mail, "portrays the director as a predator who demands sexual favours of his leading lady.")

Also Fox Searchlight Pictures recently completed shooting of a film based on Stephen Rebello’s book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. The film, directed by Britisher Sacha Gervasi, has been titled "Hitchcock" and is scheduled for a 2013 release.

And just last month "Vertigo," Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller, was picked as the Greatest Movie Ever Made in a poll of 846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors held by the British magazine Sight and Sound. (For the past 50 years, "Citizen Kane" topped the list.)

Birds-eye view

For me, though, the best Hitchcock is "The Birds," even more than "Psycho," "Vertigo," "Strangers on a Train" or "North by Northwest." It was a daring experiment: cast with largely unknown actors (introducing Tippi Hedren its poster read), it featured unique (and quite terrifying) special effects, a soundscape of electronic bird sounds instead of a conventional musical score, and -- most distressing to many -- no explanation for the calamitous events shown on screen.

Many found fault with its central story -- a romantic comedy-turned-horror movie -- in which San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (played by Hedren) visits a California coastal town in the pursuit of a handsome lawyer she meets casually only to find herself immersed in the birds’ attacks. What baffled many was that Hitchcock left the reason for the attacks open-ended -- was it some retribution for something brought on by the community, a physical manifestation of the psychological tensions between the lead characters or the onset of the End Times?

Hitchcock offers no answers; rather, simply and effectively depicts the beginning of the end. He even offers a glimpse of this conflict from the birds’ point of view, going hundreds of feet in the air to show a gulls-eye view of an attack. Then, in the final image - a car slowly moving down a road with what appears to be million of birds in wait - expresses both the fragility of its characters as they try to escape and their determination to survive.

Hitchcock blondes

In the ensuing years, the film grew in critical appreciation. Many argued the meaning of the bird attacks; others cited Hitchcock’s mastery of psychological drama. Some even wondered if the film was a darkly comic vision that systematically showed the destruction of the icy, assured Hitchcock blonde.

It’s an interesting theory. Hitchcock’s penchant for blonde leading ladies dates back to the 1920s, but by the 1950s it reached its apogee in Grace Kelly, the cool, patrician actress with society roots and poise matched with high fashion good looks. When Kelly retired from filmmaking (after three Hitchcock films), Kelly surrogates filled the role, beginning with Doris Day (the 1956 remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"), Vera Miles ("The Wrong Man"), Kim Novak ("Vertigo"), Eve Marie Saint ("North by Northwest") and Janet Leigh ("Psycho").

"You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films?" Hitchcock said in his famous interview with French director Francois Truffaut. "We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom."

Sexual harrassment?

Hitchcock had a complicated relationship with these actresses, especially in Hedren’s case as this recent report in the London newspaper the Daily Mail relates. Hedren told the paper that if sexual harrassment legislation was in place when she was working with Hitchcock, she’d be a very wealthy woman. "He ruined my career but he didn’t ruin my life," she told the paper.

Their relationship began when Hitchcock discovered the actress in a soda commercial in 1962. He signed her without even meeting and told her she was to star in the film he was planning, "The Birds." For Hedren, who had just moved to LA with her six year old daughter (who grew up to be actress Melanie Griffith), it was an actress’s dream come true.

It, though, turned into a nightmare during the shooting of the final (tenth) bird attack in which Melanie Daniels goes up into the attic, gets pinned behind a door and is viciously attacked. Though not as famous as the shower murder in "Psycho," it is considered one of Hitchcock’s most assured use of film editing to capture the terror of the moment.

At first, mechanical birds were to be used for the scene, which took a week to shoot; but when they didn’t operate properly, real birds were substituted. Some were thrust at her by animal trainers; others were attached to her by strings and elastic. When one cut her beneath the eye on the fifth day of shoot, Hedren had enough.

"By Friday afternoon, one of them was on my shoulder," she told Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz prior to a Chicago screening of the film earlier this year. "He’d been tied there," it was reported on the website the Chicagoist. "His claw got so close to my eye that I just said, ’Get me out of here, this is enough.’ I sat in the middle of the stage, crying. And I was under doctor’s care for complete exhaustion. And the doctor said, ’Well, we can’t, we have nothing else to shoot.’ Because if you look at that film, there’s hardly a frame that I’m not in. And the doctor said, ’No, she has to rest.’ ’But she can’t, she can’t, we have to get on with the film.’ And he said, ’What are you trying to do, kill her?’"

Destroying the icon

No, in "The Birds" Hitchcock doesn’t want to kill off his leading lady; instead shows her vulnerability in a darkly comic, even sadistic way. The reasons have been speculated - Hitchcock’s troubled childhood, his discomfort with sex, his evolved fantasy life; but whatever the struggles he had with Hedren, she proved to the last of his iconic blondes. He even redeemed her in his next - and final film - with the actress: In "Marnie" Hedren plays a troubled kleptomaniac who is saved by a concerned husband in the final frames. But not in "The Birds." When Melanie regains consciousness in the final scene, she waves her arms in a frenzy - it is as if she’s given into madness.

If somehow life and art got mixed-up between the director and Hedren during and after the shooting of "The Birds," the now 82-year old actress is able to admire Hitchcock’s creative genius.

"There are two different people there," she told the Mail in an earlier interview. "There’s the genius of the motion picture industry. He was brilliant in the choice of films to do, his direction and his production values.

"I wouldn’t even attempt to take that away from him. But as a man, I unfortunately witnessed a side of him that was very dark and one I did not want to be involved with."

NCM® Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) event series featuring four newly restored titles commemorating Universal Pictures’ 100th anniversary begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds" on Wednesday, Sept. 19. The series continues with a double feature on Wednesday, Oct. 24 with "Frankenstein" and "The Bride of Frankenstein" followed by a special 50th Anniversary edition of "To Kill a Mockingbird" on Thursday, Nov. 15. Each event will begin at 7:00 p.m. local time, with special matinees in select theaters at 2:00 p.m. The series will feature newly restored versions of the films created by Universal in celebration of its 100th Anniversary and will also include a specially-produced TCM introduction by film historian, author and TCM host Robert Osborne, who will take audiences behind the scenes for each of these American classics with unique insights into their making. To find a theater near you showing the film, visit the Fathom Events website.

Watch the trailer to The Birds:

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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