Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Episode 42 - Alfred Hitchcock Presents

The Birds - Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the beautiful daughter of a successful newspaper owner, happens to be in a bird shop at the same time as a handsome lawyer by the name of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). When Mitch discovers that the store does not have any love birds in stock, which he hopes to buy a pair of for his younger sister's birthday, he leaves the store empty handed. Attracted to Mitch, Melanie goes out of her way to find a pair of lovebirds and buys them for him, however when she arrives at his apartment she discovers that he's gone to his mother's house for the weekend. Determined to give Mitch the birds, Melanie tracks his destination to a small coastal town called Bodega Bay and drives there with her gift in tow. After arriving, Miss Daniels rents a boat, drives it across the lake, leaves the birds at Mitch's mother's house, and makes a sneaky escape. However, Mitch sees her leave and drives along the road to meet her in town. Just before Melanie docks, however, a sea gull flies down and attacks her for no good reason. Then, before the townspeople know what to think, more and more bird attacks begin to occur. As chaos ensues, Mitch, Melanie, and Mitch's sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) take shelter in Mitch's mother's (Jessica Tandy) home. When broadcasts begin to come over the radio that the attacks are not limited to just Bodega Bay, the four of them begin to wonder if they'll survive the night. Everyone knows what to expect when going into a viewing of The Birds: bird attacks. That's what I was expecting as well, and that's what I got. However, the brutal pecking-out of eyeballs is not all that this film has to offer. This film is just as much (if not more) about the human characters than the birds themselves. In fact, the attacks don't even begin until almost halfway through the film. Director Alfred Hitchcock understood very well that in order to make the film's threat have an impact, he first had to make the audience care about the characters who were to be threatened. Much time in the beginning of the movie is spent letting us get to know Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner. Melanie is a playgirl who has led a privileged life and has had everything handed to her. Mitch, while also fairly well off, had to work hard to be able to afford his privileged lifestyle. The phrase "opposites attract" comes to mind. We are also introduced to an ex-girlfriend of Mitch's by the name of Annie Hayworth who is played by Suzanne Pleshette. Through her character we learn more about Mitch's controlling mother Lydia and the role which she plays in Mitch's life. By the time the feathers began to fly, I was so caught up in the lives of these characters that I had almost forgotten what movie I was watching. This is a testament to not only the abilities of the actors, but also of Hitchcock's ability to compose scenes involving long conversation that remain interesting and at all times continue to further the story. When the attacks finally do begin to occur, they are surprisingly impressive for such an old film. Hitchcock put off the filming of this movie for several years because he felt that the technology didn't yet exist to make the events believable, and the wait appears to have paid off. A style of green screening was used in The Birds that was newly invented and state of the art at the time, which went a long way in allowing Hitchcock to shoot in the studio (which was his preferred way to work) with the utmost believability that what you were seeing was occurring on location. Also of note is Hitchcock's well-documented love of matte paintings, a number of which appear in The Birds. The sound editing on this film was also state of the art at the time, and in my opinion is perhaps the aspect of the movie that had the most effect on the mood. The overwhelming sounds of squawking and flapping wings during the bird attack scenes were slightly disturbing to say the least. Moreso than the technical aspects of the way the film was shot, however, I was impressed with the genre-bending nature of The Birds. As I've noted, the beginning of the film is very character driven, not unlike a drama, but as we all know, The Birds is first and foremost a horror film. Yet I also had a strong feeling toward the end of the movie that it was leaning toward science fiction. My favorite parts of the film were the scenes in which a group of people are trapped inside a diner and discussing why the birds are attacking. There is a point when a bird expert in the film throws out a statistic describing how many more birds there are on Earth than humans, and explaining that if it ever came down to a battle between man and beast, man would be severely outnumbered. The mystery of the situation perfectly balances against the horror of the later scenes in the film because in addition to fear, confusion comes into play. The only part of the film that I was truly unsatisfied with is the very ending. After the climax, which at the time I wasn't even aware was the climax, the final few minutes of the film were a bit disappointing. I won't fault The Birds for not having an action-packed ending, but I really could have used just a bit more closure. Not necessarily closure to the situation, but at least to the characters. I won't say what the ending is, but I think you'll see my point if you watch the film, regardless of whether you agree with it or not.

Vertigo - San Francisco detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) was chasing a criminal across the city's rooftops with a fellow officer when he lost his footing and found himself hanging from a building's edge. The other policeman opted to let the criminal escape in order to help Ferguson, but fell to his death several stories below instead. From that day forth, Scottie Ferguson has had a fear of heights. He can begin to panic and lose his balance when he is no more than a few feet from the ground. Due to this condition, he quit the force. However he finds back on the job when a former college classmate asks him to trail his wife Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). He claims that she is inhabited by a ghost that makes her disappear into the city during the day. Skeptical of this theory, Scottie takes on the task and begins following the beautiful Madeleine as she makes several odd stops around San Francisco before attempting suicide by jumping into the bay. Scottie dives in after her, bringing her back to health in his apartment. Eager to get to the bottom of her sleepwalking-like state, Ferguson attempts to make sense of the visions Madeleine has in her dreams. Will Scottie be able to solve the mystery before she causes herself more permanent harm, and what does all of this have to do with Scottie himself? I had always just assumed that Vertigo was about a guy with a fear of heights. However, just as I discovered that The Birds is about more than being attacked by wildlife, I found Vertigo to be about much more than just the affliction from which the film gets its title. Vertigo is the first movie to use a type of filming technique sometimes known as "contrazoom" or the "trombone shot". This method involves zooming out with the camera while tracking forward to match the zoom speed. What this technique achieves is the appearance that objects in the foreground remain in place while the background seems to stretch away from the viewer, creating a psychedelic visual trick. Hitchcock used this maneuver twice in the film to display James Stewart's character's fear of heights to the audience. At the time this technique cost a considerable mount of money to achieve, which accounts for it's limited use in Vertigo, but has become a rather standard part of modern Hollywood's repertoire. For the most part I found Vertigo to be a standard noir-ish detective story revolving around a damsel in distress playing hard to get. It isn't until the unexpected twist later on in the film that I really became interested in Vertigo. James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson goes through a character change that caught me by complete surprise, and the film quickly goes from standard mystery fare to a dark work of genius. I've never seen Stewart play the type of role that Ferguson eventually becomes, and his performance in the latter part of the movie was haunting and delightful. In a way, Kim Novak's Madeleine takes a turn in the opposite direction of Scottie at about the same time that he makes his transformation. She begins the film as the stereotypical mysterious woman but ends up being a much more sympathetic individual. Contrazoom aside, I'd have to say that the performances of Stewart and Novak are what really pulled this film together more than anything. I wouldn't say that Vertigo is my favorite of Alfred Hitchcock's films, but because of the direction that the story goes toward the ending it remains near the top of the list.

Rear Window - L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photographer by trade. He has travelled to some of the most exotic and dangerous places on Earth, and it is when he is on jobs like these that he feels the most at home. It makes sense, then, that when he is injured while attempting to get a dynamic shot on the track of a car race, he loathes the idea of sitting at home with a broken leg. For several weeks Jeffries has sat in a wheelchair in his apartment with a restrictive cast on his leg and nothing to do with his time but observe the lives of his neighbors in the courtyard of his building which he can see out of his window. Over time he has gotten to know these people simply by watching them and becoming accustomed to their daily activities and relationships. Hence, Jeffries finds it odd when one of neighbors, a Mr. Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), begins acting strangely and his wife has seemingly disappeared. Suspecting foul play, Jeffries calls on the aid of a friend in the police department by the name of Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey). With no proof that anything out of the ordinary has happened, Doyle passes Jeffries' suspicions off as the result of an overactive imagination. However, when Jeffries tells his theory to his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), they take more of an interest in his story. The plot thickens as Jeffries, Lisa, and Stella take the investigation into their own hands, but none of them may be ready for what they find. Rear Window is an all around magnificent film. James Stewart is at the top of his game in this role. He spends the duration of the film in a wheelchair, but his devotion the cause of solving the mystery across the courtyard gives him enough character to work with that being essentially immobile was of no consequence. Kelly was also great in her portrayal of Jeffries' polar opposite who only wants to be with him. When she begins to take an interest in the goings-on at the apartment building, her face lights up the screen. She was like a kid in a candy store eagerly vying for her lover's affection by aiding his search for the truth. Raymond Burr, who for the majority of the film is just a small silhouette in a window, uses his body language to incredible success. He couldn't make much use of facial expressions, but was still able to express as many emotions as anyone else in the movie. Most incredible of all, though, was the direction of the film. Alfred Hitchcock really knocked it out of the park with Rear Window. The entire film takes place within Jeffries' apartment. The only time we see anything other than the inside of the room is when someone is looking out the window, and even then the shots are all from the point of view of someone sitting in the second floor of a building. If Hitchcock wanted to focus on something going on elsewhere in the building or in the courtyard, he did so by having one of the characters pick up a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telescopic lense and showed the events through their eyes. The camera never leaves the room, yet the setting never feels repetitive or stagnant. It is an incredible feat of moviemaking that he was able to achieve such a variety of shots and interesting scenarios all from this one vantage point. That is really the thing that makes this my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film of all time. It is so inventive and successful in it's ingenuity that I can't help but admire and adore it. All of these aspects of the film would mean nothing without a great concept and a script that properly conveys said concept, though, and Rear Window has just that. The plot keeps the viewer guessing right up until the very end whether or not a murder has actually been committed. Assisting the script along is James Stewart, who walks a thin line between obsessed and observant so that it is never quite clear whether we should believe his claims or not. Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying "there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it", and Rear Window puts this adage to use in a magnificent way. The suspense in this film builds to the point that the viewer can hardly bear it anymore. By the time the climax rolls around you will be so eager to find out the answer to the mystery that it will hardly matter what in fact the answer is anymore, as long as you know. In all aspects Rear Window is a great film, and a classic. If you haven't seen it, make a point to do so right away.

No comments: