Most of my contact with film theory is purely incidental. I try to avoid being saturated with theory and analysis as it completely changes the way you watch films, making it harder just to sit back and enjoy the show. Even so, I am aware that vast amounts of literature have been dedicated to the subject of the meaning of the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film. It’s a critical debate somewhat akin to literature’s search for Hamlet’s tragic flaw – e.g., the source material is so rich and open-ended that the matter will probably never be resolved to everyone’s liking. Being rather joyfully ignorant of the criticism, I know only some of the broad, high-level ideas of what the birds supposedly symbolize in the film – the most common arguments saying such things as they represent nature’s unwillingness to be subjugated, the struggle between repression and sexual freedom, etc. (I actually came across a very insightful blog this past year that summarized in one place all the major schools of thought regarding the meaning of the birds, but alas, it looks like said blog has since disappeared from cyberspace, leaving behind no trace.)

Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it a few times now and have started to notice new things, but I actually found myself with a somewhat critical mindset when I watched the film thebirds2.jpgwith Wifey this past weekend (by the way – it’s getting to be that time of year where more and more creepy films might be showing up on this blog) and was wondering quite a bit about this ever elusive meaning of the birds. In particular, I was pondering what connection, if any, there was between the bird attacks and the personal relationships of the film’s main characters. It was this line of thinking that really got me to thinking about how the concepts of space and boundaries are used in the film. At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are my two bits on the subject, which I’m sure have already been said more eloquently and in more detail elsewhere. . .

Have you ever noticed how much Hitch plays with space and boundaries in the film? The entire film is full of scenes of birds in cages, people hiding in the confines of cars or phone booths, people barricading themselves in houses and reinforcing the windows and doors, etc. From the very get-go, with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in the pet shop, the conversation deals with all the birds trapped in their cages – one of which Melanie accidentally releases, causing a little comedic foreshadowing of what will become a much darker theme throughout the film – i.e., the inability of these manmade boundaries to hold. This impulse of man to set boundaries is evident throughout the film – not only with physical enclosures, but also the psychological and social boundaries people try to set. The subplots involving Melanie and Mitch and his family all deal with variations of this issue. Is Melanie too free in her flirtations and would it be right for her to be more restrained? Is Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), too protective of Mitch, and is that better or worse than Melanie’s father, who abandoned her while she was still young? Bodega Bay itself is a geographic representation of this need for boundaries. It’s a town physically removed from the business of San Francisco (a city described at one time in the film as “an anthill up the foot of a bridge”), and the small hamlet is full of people highly suspicious of outsiders.

As is often the case in Hitchcock films, the conflicts highlighted in these subplots echo the main action of the film. Much as many of the characters try to enclose themselves within narrow social roles and closely guarded rules of propriety, birds.jpgthey also seal themselves indoors, trying to protect themselves from the viciousness of the bird attacks. In both cases, the film seems to come to the conclusion that such manmade boundaries – whether they be physical enclosures, social roles, or just the metaphysical lines of Linnaean taxonomy – are useless. Despite its self-enclosure and isolation, Bodega Bay is not safe from the chaos of the outside world. The birds do not stay in their little pigeon-hole man created for them in the power structure. The boarded up windows and barricaded doors cannot keep them out. Melanie is not as free-spirited and incapable of being a responsible mother figure as we thought she was. Nor is Lydia as heartless and cold.

At any rate, that’s my little ramble on the subject. I just did a quick browse of some of the existing criticism on the Web (it’s plentiful and not hard to find), and it doesn’t look like I’m that far off from what many others have said. Looking at space and boundaries is just one way of looking at what appears to be a major school of thought on the film – one that argues that the film demonstrates how man’s carefully constructed world is always just teetering on the edge of chaos. At any rate, I apologize for the long-winded analysis today. It’s just that The Birds is one of those films – like so many of the great ones – where it is so thought-provoking that it’s tough not to start forming elaborate opinions about it. It’s an interesting subject, and if anybody else has opinions about it, please feel free to share.

Saboteur (1942)

April 17, 2007

The more one watches Hitchcock, the more one notices how the director revisits certain themes and devices in his films over and over again. It’s almost as if he were one of those artists who sketches numerous studies of subjects in order to get used to their forms before incorporating them in new and exciting ways in the final masterpiece. (That’s not altogether an apt metaphor, since it implies that Hitchcock’s earlier works were just casual practice works that would eventually lead to bigger and better things – when, in fact, these earlier works often were just as good, if not better, than many of his later Technicolor wonders.) His 1942 film Saboteur is a case in point, as it follows the same basic plotline as The 39 Steps from 1935 and North by Northwest from 1959. In each film a case of mistaken identity leads a man on a cross-country journey, evading both good guys and bad guys along the way, as he battles to discover the truth and clear his name. A comparison of Saboteur with the other two – both among Hitchcock’s best – does not really reflect favorably upon it, as it has neither the originality and the literary and political punch of the earlier film nor the sophistication, wit, and polish of the later one. Nonetheless, Hitch obviously knew this plotline was a winner, and even though it might not be quite as good as the other two, it’s still a fun and clever film to watch.

Saboteur marked the first American film where producer David Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to another studio. saboteur.jpgBoth Selznick and Hitchcock were noted control freaks, and they simply could not work out their creative differences. Thus, Selznick loaned Hitch to Universal. Originally, the director was hoping to cast Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the leading roles (both of whom seemed like they would have been perfect for the parts); however, because of the usual studio politics and some budget restraints, he wound up having to use Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane instead. Though it doesn’t perhaps have the Hollywood heavyweights he wanted, there’s little doubt that Hitchcock was still working with a very solid cast, and the acting is good throughout.

Hitchcock’s direction, of course, is solid, although it’s pretty standard fare for him . . . with one notable exception. saboteur2.jpgThe climatic Statue of Liberty scene was revolutionary at the time, and left viewers and critics puzzled as to how it was shot. Hitch actually used a very innovative travelling matte shot to film this. I remember they actually had a demonstration of how he did this when I visited the Hitchcock attraction as a student at Universal Studios Florida many years ago (unfortunately, I think they’ve since gotten rid of this attraction). Basically, the process involved Hithcock starting with a camera close-up on the actor and then using pulleys to quickly pull it away from the actor as he laid back and flailed his arms to create the illusion of falling through the air. This footage was then superimposed upon separate Statue of Liberty footage to complete the image of the dramatic plummet. Wikipedia has an informative page on the basic matte process.

I’d have to say the weakest part of Saboteur is the script, which is kind of strange considering that Dorothy Parker helped co-write it. More than anything else, this is what keeps the film a slight level beneath The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. While most of the script is fine, skillfully combining suspense and humor in the manner most Hitchcock films do, but there are a few awkward scenes that seem to compromise the rest and give the film a somewhat clunky feel. Such scenes are either odd and melodramatic (the circus performers scene), over-the-top patriotic (the speech Robert Cummings makes to Otto Kruger after his capture), or both (the random blind man scene). Much of this is probably owed to the fact that this film was Hitch’s contribution to WWII propaganda, and such works typically have a forced feel to them. While I wouldn’t say these scenes ruin the film, they do serve as a distraction and really interrupt its overall rhthym.

One final note to this already too-long post – this film is somewhat strange to watch from a post 9/11 perspective. Its plots involving bombing plots and sabotage certainly seem relevant to today’s world. Things don’t seem quite as cut-and-dry as they did in the 40s, however, and the patriotic talk, while certainly inspiring on one level, also seems somewhat like hollow rhetoric on another. More than anything, I believe it is this rhetoric combined with the eerie resonance of the whole unable-to-trust-your-neighbor subplot that lends this film a somewhat unsettled atmosphere to today’s viewers.

I know it’s the usual disclaimer that seemingly opens any review of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but I’m going to say it anyway . . . This is not your typical Hitchcock film. smith.jpgMade in 1941 at the behest of his close friend Carole Lombard, this film represents Hitch’s one and only foray into screwball comedy (notice the qualifyer – he actually did make one other comedy in his career – the much darker The Trouble With Harry in 1955). The result is Mr. and Mrs. Smith, an underrated comedy from 1941 about a man named David Smith (Robert Montgomery) and his wife Ann (Lombard) who discover that a technicality has nullified their marriage from a few years previous. When David tries to have a little fun with this fact rather than immediately rectifying it, Ann becomes outraged and decides she’d be better off without him. David thus has to go to great and often humorous lengths to rewin her love.

Different as it is from his usual fare, Hitchcock devotees will still see traces of the director’s trademarks in this film. Even in Hitchcock’s most suspenseful films, humor usually has a prominent role in at least some of the scenes. One should not be surprised, then, to find that the same style of humor so often utilized in his suspense films is what shows up in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The comedy is at times full of suggestion and innuendo, much of it bordering on risque for the time. At other times, such as the scene in the Italian restaurant, Hitch relies on a more visceral, bodily sense of humor – the type that appears repeatedly in his films throughout his career. Not only that, but one will also find some of Hitchcock’s signature shots throughout the film – particularly those of the long fade-in and fade-out variety.

With that being said, there certainly is no guarantee that fans of Hitchcock will like this film. In fact, I have an old second-hand book on Hitchcock’s films at home – published sometime in the 80s, I believe – and it really just glosses over this film, saying Hitch did it as a favor to Lombard and was essentially just going through the motions. I think that’s a little harsh and is more a sign of the frustration of suspense fans in having to watch one of Hitchcock’s rare deviations from his usual genre.

Perhaps a better way to tell if you’re going to enjoy the film is to consider it less a Hitchcock film and more of a Lombard film. If you enjoy some of Carole Lombard’s other films – such as My Man Godfrey and To Be or Not to Be – then you will probably enjoy this one, although admittedly, this one is not nearly as original or zany as those two films. smith2.jpgBoth Lombard and Montgomery are great in it, as are some of the supporting cast like Jack Carson. The film is not one of the screwball masterpieces of the era, and the ending seemed a little forced to me (my wife – a sucker for anything screwball – probably disagrees with me here), but overall, it’s a fun little film with some really funny scenes (including the one where David is in the night club trying to make Ann jealous – that one was one of those so-funny-let’s-rewind-and-watch-again type scenes). Don’t discount this one just because it’s not the usual Hitchcock.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

October 26, 2006

Does anybody remember that 2005 Jodie Foster film Flightplan? We saw it in the theaters one weekend when my mom and grandmom were in town for a visit, mainly because it looked like the one all of us were most likely to enjoy. It was pretty good, but the real reason I bring it up here is because I remember discussing with H at the time how it seemed a lot of movies in that same vein (i. e., where the protaganist’s sense of reality is challenged and the viewer doesn’t know if it can be trusted or not) were all of a sudden coming out at once. lady2.jpgWell, it turns out our challenges to Flightplan‘s originality were well founded, but rather than comparing it to contemporary films, we should have been looking back almost 70 years earlier to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. When watching this 1938 film recently, I was surprised to find myself quite familiar with the story. While not exactly a remake, Flightplan certainly seems based on this earlier film, sharing the same basic plot and borrowing heavily from its storyline. I may have thought the Jodie Foster movie was pretty good, but the early Hitchock film, I’m happy to say, was even better. . .

The Lady Vanishes was the third film I’ve seen from Hitchcock’s early British career – the other two being The 39 Steps, which remains one of my favorites of his, and the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, which though not as polished as his later remake of the film, is nonetheless a well done film (plus it features the talents of Peter Lorre). Based on these three films, it’s easy to see why David Selznick was anxious to get Hitchcock to America. Hitchcock was clearly already a master of his craft, and his talent was recognized by both the public and by his peers (Orson Welles allegedly went to see The Lady Vanishes 11 times). In The Lady Vanishes, a young lady named Iris is injured just before boarding a train. Onboard, a kindly, elderly British woman named Miss Froy helps care for Iris, and the two soon become friends. Later, Iris awakes from a nap to find Miss Froy has disappeared from the compartment without a trace. Not only that, but the fellow passengers deny that Miss Froy was ever even on the train. Was Miss Froy a fragment of Iris’s imagination, or is this a carefully constructed conspiracy to cover up the elder woman’s disappearance?

This is an entertaining, quality film. It’s interesting because it has more humor in it than the typical Hitchcock, and in fact, the romance between the male and female leads gives the film several characteristics of a screwball comedy. The blend of supsense and comedy, to me, is indicative of a young (well, younger, he was nearly 40) director still experimenting with his style. He would continue this trend in the coming years, deviating from the work he’s best known for today in order to direct such films as the melodrama Rebecca in 1940 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, one of his rare comedies,  in 1941.

For all its comedy, however, it’s the mystery of Miss Froy that keeps us interested. As he did in The 39 Steps, Hitchcock relies on what he termed as a “MacGuffin” to move the lady.jpgplot along. This plot device can be loosely defined as that certain thing in a story that is obviously of some importance to the characters, but beyond acting as the motivating factor in the story, the exact form this thing takes is of little relevance to the story. Thus, we never know what’s truly at stake in The Lady Vanishes. Why is it of such importance to know if Miss Froy really exists or not? What broader issues hinge upon being able to answer this question? Beyond some vague notions of international intrigue, the viewer never really learns. Nor is it important. What is important is that these mysteries give Hitchcock the material he needs to unfold his tale, and it turns out to be quite an entertaining tale indeed. . .  

Suspicion (1941)

October 2, 2006

I watched two films this weekend – neither of which could accurately be described as horror movies, but both of which were suspenseful and/or creepy enough to be semi-appropriate for the Halloween season. suspicion.jpgThe first one was Alfred Hitchock’s Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. I had seen this film once before several years ago. My reaction had been lukewarm at the time; I had liked it but wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it. Returning to it now, however, I really enjoyed it. . . so much so that it made me wonder what was wrong with me the first time I saw it (I must have been having a bad day or something). This really is one of those black-and-white gems of Hitchcock’s early years in Hollywood, a time period which also saw the creation of such great films as Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious.

Suspicion follows the tale of a young lady, Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine), who falls for a charming young bachelor named Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant). The couple gets married and only then does the young wife begin to realize that, for all his charm, Johnnie is somewhat of a scoundrel who refuses to work but nonetheless incurs huge debts. What neither Lina nor the viewer knows is the extent of Johnnie’s character problems. How far is he willing to go to preserve his luxurious lifestyle? Would he be willing to murder someone for it? Perhaps even his young wife?

There’s no doubt that Johnnie is a scoundrel. The question is whether or not he is a fairly harmless scoundrel. Numerous suspicious circumstances arise, but they are always counterbalanced by Johnnie’s plausible stories. As a result, the viewer remains in a perpetual state of tension, unable to decide on the truth of the matter. The script is fantastic. One powerful device it utilizes (one familiar to readers of Shakespeare) is its mirroring of Lina’s predicament through a second character, Johnnie’s friend Beaky. Just as Lina joins Johnnie through marriage, Johnnie forms a union with Beaky through the incorporation of a business. Like Lina, Beaky knows of Johnnie’s faults; however (and once again like Lina), he is also is able to tolerate many of these faults because he believes Johnnie ultimately to be a good person at heart. Because of such similarities, when circumstances imply that Johnnie might have taken advantage of Beaky for his own personal gain, the viewer begins to suspect that Johnnie just might be capable of doing the same with Lina. Even with the growing suspicion that the viewer shares with Lina, the ambiguity remains and is in fact heightened with the film’s climax and resolution, so that one is never really certain what exactly is the truth.

Grant and Fontaine really bring this story to life. suspicion2.jpgWhile one might not be surprised to find that Cary Grant can play the part of the ingratiating charmer well, it might come as a shock to know he does an equally deft job with Johnnie’s more sinister qualities. Indeed, it is his ability to play both of Johnnie’s two faces that makes the film work in large part. I was even more surprised by Joan Fontaine. While I knew of her reputation as a fine actress, this is honestly the only film of her’s I have seen. She has a remarkable screen presence and brought great depth to her role. She would end up, in fact, winning an Oscar for her performance.

As always, Hitchcock’s direction is exceptional. One will notice he plays a lot of tricks with light and shadow in this film, trying to reflect Lina’s feelings towards Johnnie at any given time. Also, while I haven’t compared the films side-by-side, it appears that he got some practice for some of the shots he would use a few years later in Notorious, particularly some of the long shots done up or down the stairway. He does a remarkable job pacing and balancing the film, keeping viewers in a growing state of uncertainty that he intentionally leaves unresolved, leaving one to wonder even after the film’s conclusion.