Alfred Hitchcock Enters the Cold War with “Torn Curtain”

27 02 2011

“From the moment when [Paul] Newman tells Julie Andrews, “You go back to New York; I’ll go back to Sweden,” the public cannot fully believe him because we’ve allowed them to see other cues to his strange behavior. Nevertheless, all that had to be accurately worked out because you’ve got to be fair to the audience who will be seeing the film more than once. The picture’s got to be able to stand up to a double check.” – Alfred Hitchcock

In 1966, Alfred Hitchcock directed his fiftieth picture, “Torn Curtain,” a cold-war drama starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. The film, a labyrinth of plot twists and fake outs, presented Hitch with numerous challenges from all sides, and yet, for the most part, he was able to accomplish his goals and deliver a picture that entertains and even thrills.

Newman plays Professor Michael Armstrong, a physicist who’s on a cruise to Sweden with his assistant/fiance, Sarah Sherman, played by Andrews. Although the ship’s heating is not working, the couple is keeping warm in Armstrong’s bed, but when a cable is delivered to the room, Armstrong begins acting strangely, much to Sarah’s confusion. In Copenhagen, at a scientific conference, Armstrong skips out on a speech he was to deliver, telling Sherman that he has to fly to Oslo. She learns from a hotel employee that he is in fact going to East Berlin, and decides to follow him. En route, and under the suspicious gaze of their fellow passengers, the couple argues about Armstrong’s mission. Sherman believes that he plans to defect, while Armstrong is furious that she followed him.

Hitchcock shows the rift between Andrews and Newman with the shape of the room, which splits the image, and by putting her in light and him in shadow.

In Communist territory, Armstrong meets several contacts who grill him on his intentions; satisfied that he’s left the U.S. because funding for his missile project was cut, he meets another contact on a farm. This man is a representative of a spy group called Pi, who has pledged to help Armstrong escape to the West again after his real mission is complete. But Armstrong’s East German handler, a man named Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), tracks his charge to the farmhouse. Gromek intends to bring Armstrong back to Berlin, but Armstrong and the farmer’s wife kill him so Armstrong can escape. The scene is violent, harrowing and purposefully drawn out; Hitchcock wanted his film to contrast the other spy films of the day, like the James Bond movies, by showing how difficult it can be to kill a person.

Armstrong returns to Berlin on his own, continuing the vetting process that will clear him to meet with the man he’s after, Professor Lindt. Sherman, still in the dark, can’t understand why Armstrong is willing to betray the U.S. He pulls her aside and explains that he’s only doing it to get a formula from Lindt that will enable him to finish his project, and so, Sherman rejoins his cause.

In a classroom at the university, Armstrong tricks Lindt into giving away the formula – the movie’s McGuffin – by pretending to make mistakes in his own work. But after revealing the secret, Lindt hears the announcement that anyone seeing Armstrong is to detain him. Lindt picks up a phone to call the authorities, telling Armstrong not to leave the room, but of course Armstrong is gone before the old professor can finish dialing the phone.

With the help of a sympathetic doctor, Armstrong and Sherman try to escape Berlin. First, they go to a ballet where they are to meet a contact, but they are spotted in the audience by the prima ballerina, who had seen them fighting on the airplane earlier. Armstrong starts a panic by yelling “fire,” then leads Sherman to a door where they meet their contact, Mr. Jacobi, who brings them to a garage where they board a bus full of Pi operatives. The bus is to take them to another contact, but they are first attacked in the countryside by soldiers turned highwaymen; they’re rescued by something even more dangerous: a police escort. In a country where travel is strictly controlled, the police are fully aware of the bus schedule, so when the real bus scheduled to run at that time shows up on the road behind the Pi agents, it’s only a matter of time before the police figure out that one of the vehicles is a fake. The inexorable chase ends in a city, where the Pi agents scatter; only an old woman who boarded the bus unaware of what was going on is caught.

In this city, Armstrong and Sherman are accosted by a colorful, exiled Polish countess who promises to help them get out of the country if they will sponsor her for asylum in the U.S. She gets them to their next contact, who puts them in baskets on a ship heading for Sweden. But the ballerina is on this ship, too, and when she sees someone wishing the baskets good luck, she calls for help. The baskets were just a red herring, though – Armstrong and Sherman had already gotten out and swam to shore, out from behind the Iron Curtain at last. The movie ends as it began, with Armstrong and Sherman trying to stay warm under a blanket.

Although the ballerina represents one of the more implausible bits from “Torn Curtain” – she seems to be everywhere Armstrong and Sherman go, and even manages to recognize them while she’s onstage in the middle of a performance – one could also see her as a comic, even absurd, element of the movie.

That same absurdity is seen in the ineffectiveness of the East German police, who continually let Armstrong get away and do whatever he wants. In reality, Armstrong would have been under continuous armed guard, and quite probably imprisoned, before he could ever meet with a top scientist, but this is not reality – it is Hitchcock’s world of cinematic fantasy. Like “The 39 Steps,” like “The Lady Vanishes,” like “North by Northwest,” the film is not meant to be realistic or even, necessarily, entirely believable.

This is a good thing, because Paul Newman is not at all convincing as a nuclear physicist. He’s earthy and brash, and an odd fit for the role. Hitchcock, after making two movies with very little star power, was pushed into casting Newman and Julie Andrews in the movie, and he had problems with both. Hitchcock didn’t particularly like them for the roles, and he never warmed up to either. Andrews simply did not appeal to him – one might imagine that she reminded him of the British actresses of his early days, whose reserved manner kept them from revealing their real personalities on camera.

Newman offended Hitchcock by continually criticizing the script and questioning his role. Unfortunately, the script was not fully developed when the film started shooting to accommodate Andrews’ schedule; even Hitch was not satisfied with it, and it lacks the sparkle of his usual work. (The Italian screenwriters Age and Scarpelli, writers of “Big Deal on Madonna Street” and Hitchcock’s collaborators on the unproduced film “R.R.R.R.”, had complaints about the script that reflected Newman’s own concerns.) The dullness of the dialogue is at odds with Hitchcock’s directing, which keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a light touch that suggests comedy. “Torn Curtain” was written by Brian Moore, based on an idea from Hitchcock himself.

Andrews’s presence created another issue for the director. Universal Studio executives from had asked for a pop music score, and even hoped that the movie would feature a song for Julie Andrews to sing; after all, she had just won an Academy Award for “Mary Poppins,” and had been introduced to the world in “The Sound of Music.” After granting composer Bernard Herrmann carte blanche for the past ten years, Hitchcock approached him this time with those requests, and while Herrmann agreed to them at first, he instead created his normal, dramatic, dark score – and no pop song. The score may have been brilliant, but it was not what Hitchcock wanted, and so he was fired. Hitch then brought in a new composer, John Addison, to quickly score the film. The result veers from innocuous to, at times, almost silly-sounding; Addison even accents Hitchcock’s cameo with a few notes from the theme song to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” calling altogether too much attention to it. Herrmann, meanwhile, would never work with Hitchcock again.

With two lead actors whom Hitchcock did not particularly like, the director instead turned his attention to some of his secondary characters. “Torn Curtain” is populated by European actors, two of whom really stand out. Lila Kedrova, playing Countess Kuchinska in a rainbow of colors, hams it up as she demands a quid pro quo for her help, while Wolfgang Kieling plays Hermann Gromek like a modern Peter Lorre, smiling and turning on the charm while showing off his command of American slang.

The film was shot on location as well as on sets in Hollywood. While touring Europe to shoot the exteriors that would give the film its feeling of authenticity, Hitchcock also recorded street sounds; it’s a trick he used in “Rear Window,” and it pays off here, too, adding an extra dimension to the illusions of the film.

“Torn Curtain” includes several typical Hitchcock set pieces, like the chase in the East Berlin museum, the scene at the opera house, and the chase on the bus. Despite the deficiencies of the script and the odd casting, Hitchcock still builds tension like no one else.

The critics were not kind to “Torn Curtain” when it was released. Like “Marnie,” the movie was out of step with its competition; audiences wanted the slick espionage of “James Bond,” but Hitch delivered something grittier, yet no more believable, than Bond.

Hitch had even tougher competition than 007 at the time. His own movies were being shown on television and rereleased in theaters. “Torn Curtain” could not measure up to earlier triumphs like “Notorious” or “Strangers on a Train,” to name just two. While “Torn Curtain” has its merits, it lacks the polish and the style of many of Hitchcock’s films from earlier years – and, of course, audiences and critics generally remembered the best of his work, forgetting lesser thrillers like “Young and Innocent,” to pick a movie that might be closer to the quality level of “Torn Curtain.” Still, “Torn Curtain” boasted two very hot stars in Newman and Andrews, and the movie was a hit.

With this trailer, Hitchcock at last gets away from presenting the movie himself, as he had for “Psycho,” “The Birds” and “Marnie.” Instead, we get a trailer that emphasizes the action and the breathless pace of “Torn Curtain.”


Alfred Hitchcock’s Two TV Rarities

23 02 2011

Besides seventeen episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and one episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” Hitch directed just two other television programs. The first, which was shown on September 30, 1957, was from the new series “Suspicion,” and like the “Suspense” radio series of the previous decade, Hitchcock directed its first episode, and in fact served as executive producer.

The hour-long story is called “Four O’Clock,” based on a story by Cornell Woolrich and starring E.G. Marshall as Paul, a clock and watch repairman who owns a small shop in a middle American town. Paul is a tightly wound man who has a reputation as being brusque but very good at his job. As the episode begins, we see him methodically working on an alarm clock: wiring it in some strange way, plugging it in, and using it to detonate a small charge.

His thoughts tell us that he’s planning something – he suspects something to do with his wife. Going home that evening, he sees bits of evidence that someone else has been in the house, and he decides that it’s a man. His wife is having an affair, and now he’s ready to kill them both by blowing up the house. His observations have told him that the man, whoever he is, comes by the house every afternoon – so Paul is going to set the bomb to go off at four o’clock.

The next night, Paul tries to give his wife a chance to confess, but she admits that she “had a good time” that afternoon, Paul can’t believe how calm she is. The next day, he slips into his basement during the day and sets up the bomb – but when he hears a noise from upstairs, he discovers that he’s being robbed. The thieves catch him, then gag him and tie him to a pipe in the basement where he can see the clock as it ticks down to the explosion. (As a side note, one of the thieves in Paul’s house is played by a young Harry Dean Stanton.)

Paul tries to get loose, but can’t; he also fails when he tries to break the ropes by rubbing them against the pipes. Upstairs, he hears his wife and a man, but listening closely, he realizes that it’s her brother. She’s been hiding him because he’s ex-convict, and she hasn’t worked up what to say to Paul about him coming to live with them. Paul tries to get their attention, but he can’t make enough noise, and soon, they decide to go to his shop to meet him.

Time continues to tick down, and Paul grows more and more frantic. He’s unable to get the attention of the gasman, and a small boy who peeks into the window is too small to explain to his mother that the man in the basement is in trouble. His thoughts scream that he’ll do anything to be free and safe. As Paul struggles and four o’clock grows closer, the ticking of the clock gets louder and louder and his heart pounds harder and harder.

We cut away to the outside of the house, where a crowd has gathered. In the basement, doctors are fitting Paul with a straightjacket as he mumbles to wife that he doesn’t mind if she takes a lover, only, he begs her, “Don’t leave me… don’t forget about me.” A copy trips over the power cord that’s connected to the timebomb, pulling it out of the wall. He looks at the setup and asks Paul’s wife if she could turn on a light so he can see whatever it is, and she says no, she can’t, because she blew a fuse in the basement that morning.

In this story that recalls Hitchcock’s 1936 movie “Sabotage,” it’s no surprise that the master of suspense keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as four o’clock gets closer and closer. There’s an absurdity in the situation, too, as Paul realizes how foolish his predicament is and pleads with anything and everything, even the clock itself, for help.

On April 5, 1960, the series “Ford Startime” broadcast Alfred Hitchcock’s one and only color TV episode: called “Incident at a Corner,” it starred Vera Miles and George Peppard and was set in another non-descript American town. The show begins outside a school, as an elderly crossing guard attempts to stop an oncoming car. The driver blows past his stop sign and parks, and a woman, Mrs. Tally, gets out. She’s late for a meeting at the school, but the crossing guard says that he has to report her to the police for not stopping. She is furious at this and berates him as a teacher listens to what’s going on.

Hitchcock pulls a mini “Rashomon” here, showing the scene over and over from several angles, and it’s in the final replay of the scene that we see another car nearby. A woman gets out of that car, hiding her face and rushing into a house, while her companion, an older man, watches Mrs. Tally yell at the crossing guard. Once both are inside, we hear the woman tell her companion that she knows that crossing guard, and that he’s going to give her away if she recognizes her. The man, played by Jack Albertson, reassures her, saying he’ll take care of the crossing guard.

Later, we see Vera Miles, playing Miss Medwick, granddaughter of the crossing guard. She’s tutoring a young man in math, but after receiving a phone call he abruptly leaves. Medwick’s fiance, played by George Peppard, joins the family to celebrate the old crossing guard’s birthday, but the party is interrupted by someone from school who has stopped by to tell old Mr. Medwick that he can’t be a crossing guard any more, because he’s been accused of getting too close to the little girls.

The story begins to examine the nature of rumor mongering, as the Medwick family begins to argue about how – and if – they should fight these rumors. On the one hand, it seems like there’s no real way to fight back, as they are only rumors. On the other, Peppard (not sure of his character’s name) insists that they have to clear the old man’s name if he’s going to continue living in their town.

Peppard and Miss Medwick take it upon themselves to talk to the school’s principal and the head of the PTA, who had received an accusatory note calling Mr. Medwick a vicious old man. They then interview the teacher who had witnessed the incident, and who reported that Mrs. Tally had called Medwick “a vicious old man.” But when they confront, she haughtily refuses to admit any wrongdoing, although they’re sure that she wrote the note in the first place.

After visiting the other teacher again and learning that Mrs. Tally had never called Mr. Medwick vicious – she actually called him officious – they are at a dead end, until Mr. Medwick remembers the other car that had been nearby. They find the house and knock on the door, and Medwick does indeed recognize the woman inside: She’s from his hometown, and had been an underage “burlesque” performer years before. She had been afraid that he would start rumors about her, but now that it’s all out in the open, Medwick promises to keep her secret.

“Incident at a Corner” doesn’t bear many of Hitchcock’s typical hallmarks, although it does have an air of creeping dread. The most memorable moments are the various versions of the opening and the moment when, after he’s just been fired and accused of being a child molester, Medwick gloomily opens his front door as his family sings “Happy Birthday” to him. George Peppard is a particularly seething angry young man, although, of course, he’s wearing a suit and tie throughout.

Alfred Hitchcock Flashes Back with “Marnie”

19 02 2011

“What really bothered me about ‘Marnie’ were all the secondary characters. I had the feeling that I didn’t know these people, the family in the background. And I wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman. You know, if you want to reduce ‘Marnie’ to its lowest common denominator, it is the story of the prince and the beggar girl. In a story of this kind you need a real gentleman, a more elegant man than we had.” – Alfred Hitchcock

“Marnie,” released in 1964, was an odd movie for Alfred Hitchcock. Described by the director as a “sex mystery,” it is certainly a melodrama, one that was strangely out of step with its era. Starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, the film was based on a novel by Winston Graham about a woman who’s a compulsive thief and liar.

Hitchcock worked on the treatment for “Marnie” with writer Joseph Stefano, molding it into the story he wanted to tell. As always, Hitchcock pushed to get things past the censors; in that way, its racy content and violence are ahead of their time.

We begin with Marnie Edgar, her hair jet black, clutching a yellow bag under her arm as she walks confidently down a railroad platform away from the camera. At that moment, her employer, Mr. Strutt, is reporting to the police that his assistant has made off with thousands of dollars. While he makes his report, a client of his firm enters the office. This is Mark Rutland (Connery), who listens to robbery’s details with some pleasure, especially since Strutt had pointed her out to him before as “dressing up the office.”

Marnie checks into a hotel and washes the black out of her hair, then makes two stops: First, to ride her horse, Forio, and then to her mother in a dockside Baltimore apartment. Marnie and her mother quarrel, and Marnie seems on the verge of terror when she spots a vase full of bright red gladiolas, a terror that is expressed by Hitchcock by turning the entire screen red.

Taking up residence in Philadelphia, Marnie happens to land a job at Rutland Publishing, run by Mark Rutland, who, unbeknownst to her, is intrigued by this strange young woman he recognizes from Strutt’s office.

Marnie takes up bookkeeping, but again becomes extremely agitated when a drop of red ink lands on her sleeve. Rutland decides to get to know her better, and invites her to do some overtime at the office with him. But when a violent storm renders her almost catatonic, Rutland tries to comfort her, not realizing that his touch is not welcome.

Fearing that Rutland is getting to close to her, Marnie makes her move, slipping into an office and breaking into a safe. Hitchcock builds the suspense beautifully here, as we see Marnie on the right of the screen, opening the safe, and a cleaning woman mopping the floor on the left, getting closer and closer.

Rutland tracks Marnie to her stable and takes her with him, explaining that he could easily turn her over to the police – unless she agrees to marry him. Left with no choice, Marnie agrees, but on their honeymoon cruise, Marnie refuses to sleep with him, saying that she can’t stand to be touched by any man. Rutland tries to be patient with her, thinking that she just needs to warm up to the idea of marriage, but she becomes increasingly hostile, until, after several days, he refuses to take no for an answer and forces her to have sex with him.

Back in Philadelphia, Marnie attempts to act like a society wife, getting to know Rutland’s family, including a meddling sister-in-law (Rutland is a widower) who has been prying into Marnie’s past. She tells Rutland that his wife has been lying to him, that she has stolen more than once, and that her mother is alive in Baltimore.

Rutland tries to convince Marnie to visit a psychiatrist, or at least read some

Marnie has a nightmare, expressed in a red haze.

books on psychology to gain some understanding of her own behavior, but Marnie refuses. At a party, she runs into Strutt, who recognizes her. Rutland’s response to this is to blackmail Strutt by threatening to take away his business if he goes to the police.

Marnie joins a fox hunting party in Virginia, but the sight of a red jacket sends her into a panic, and she rides her horse wildly, until she finally jumps him over a high stone wall. The horse’s leg is broken, and, as if in a trance, Marnie shoots him.

Just after that, Rutland catches her in his house trying to steal money from the safe. He takes her to her mother’s apartment near the docks in Baltimore, where, as another thunderstorm rages, he makes her mother reveal what strange incident traumatized Marnie so badly.

In a flashback that stands out from the rest of the movie, we learn that the mother was a prostitute who catered to sailors on shore leave, and on a stormy night, a sailor tried to comfort Marnie. The mother fought with the sailor, thinking he was trying to molest her daughter, and Marnie came up behind him and killed him with a fireplace poker. It was the sailor’s blood that instilled a fear of red in Marnie. While we now understand her fear of red and her horror at being touched by a man, Hitchcock does not try to explain Marnie’s compulsion to lie and steal or her love of horses, which seem to be the only creatures she can relate to.

With the story out in the open at last, Rutland and Marnie leave the apartment as Marnie says that she’s going to try to make her marriage work.

It is, of course, difficult to get past the rape scene in “Marnie,” although Hitchcock shows almost nothing beyond Rutland’s intensely staring eyes; between this and the two instances of blackmail, Rutland is not very likable. But Sean Connery, then in his early years as James bond, is extremely charistmatic, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him. Hedren, still a novice as an actor, is sort of over the top, but it suits the character she’s playing.

The film also features Diane Baker as Rutland’s dark-haired, brazen sister-in-law, Alan Napier (better known as Alfred the butler from the Batman TV series) as Rutland’s father, and Bruce Dern as the doomed sailor.

Hitchcock began developing “Marnie” during the filming of “The Birds” as a comeback vehicle for Grace Kelly, who had expressed interest in the story. Unfortunately, several factors kept Kelly from taking the role, including an outcry from the people of Monaco at the idea of their princess playing a liar and a thief; also, when Kelly retired from acting she still owed MGM another movie, so coming back to make a movie for Universal would have been impossible. Hitchcock was understandably frustrated to lose Kelly, and offered the role to Hedren instead.

Hitch worked on the treatment with Joseph Stefano, writer of “Psycho,” then turned to Evan Hunter for the screenplay. Hunter could not get past the rape scene, though, and wrote a different version of the scene in which Rutland does not commit the rape; for his troubles, Hitchcock fired him, then brought in another writer, Jay Presson Allen, who carried out the director’s wishes in completing the story. Both Hunter and Allen have said that for Hitchcock, the rape scene was the most interesting thing about “Marnie.” Given Hitchcock’s impotence, it’s hard not to wonder if he were bringing to life his own sexual frustrations here.

From the start, “Marnie” feels old-fashioned; after several films with modern, flashy title sequences, this one goes back to the 1940s standby of credits on pages in a book. The story recombines elements of “Spellbound” – the disturbed protagonist who can’t control her actions – with the fascination with thieves from “To Catch a Thief.” But it’s the melodramatic staging, the theatrical thunderstorms, the purposely unrealistic psychotic episodes, that must have made it seem almost quaint in comparison with the growing realism of the 1960s. Even more out of place was the scene from Marnie’s childhood at the end of the movie, which felt like it had been pulled out of some German expressionist film, shot in a distorted, claustrophobic way, with every color in a sort of washed-out sepia palette.

Marnie’s problem with the color red drove Hitchcock to make some truly inspired color choices in the movie. Although Marnie’s red haze feels trite – it’s the same gimmick Hitch used in “Rear Window” when James Stewart holds off Raymond Burr with the flashbulbs, although it’s used metaphorically here rather than literally – the rest of the film is shot with subdued colors; the actors are clothed in gray, brown, cream and white. Red, when it is shown, stands out strongly, heightening the anxious mood of the moment.

After a run of three very successful, slick movies with plenty of excitement – “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds” – “Marnie” was a letdown for moviegoers, and the film was not a hit. Even Hitchcock seems less than certain of how to present “Marnie” in the trailer. He can’t seem to get a handle on what to say about it, and his flip attitude does not convey the darkness of the story.

“Marnie” marks the end of an era for Hitchcock; although he did not know it at the time, it would be the last time he worked with several of his key collaborators, including cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini and composer Bernard Herrmann. (For the fox hunting scenes, Hitchcock again got help from Walt Disney, who had developed a convincing fake horse an actor could ride in closeup.) Still, it is the fullest exploration of a damaged psyche in his career, following up on “Spellbound” and “Vertigo.”

Hitchcock’s powerful need to control Hedren’s performance and appearance led to clashes on the set; the two would never work together again. Diane Baker, who worked with Hitchcock just this once, explained that Hitchcock directed her not by giving her any insight into what her character was thinking or even doing, but rather by posing her, even arranging her expression with his fingers, then rolling film.

Next, Hitchcock’s run of box office disappointments continues with “Torn Curtain,” starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.

“The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” Makes Its Debut

16 02 2011

On October 11, 1962, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” made its debut with the episode “I Saw the Whole Thing.” This is the one and only episode of the series’ three-year run to be directed by Hitchcock, although he continued making his customary introductions every week throughout the series’ run.

In fact, this episode features significantly more Hitchcock than did the half-hour episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Hitch not only introduces the story and provides its denouement; he also appears at each station break to make snide remarks about the commercials.

Here, Hitchcock appears next to a house key that’s taller than he is, saying that he’s decided to open a “key club” (presumably, like a Playboy Club) that caters exclusively to women. The only male member will be him.

The story begins with a series of vignettes on a street corner, as a series of people are seen going about their daily routines: a young woman fends off a pushy friend while she waits for her boyfriend; a man tends his garden; a drunk finds a quarter and decides to enter a bar; a woman waits for a bus; and a man cautiously drives his car. Each person is distracted by the screech of brakes, and as the screech gets louder, each person shifts into a freeze-frame. We then see a motorcycle on the street, its rider lying nearby, as a sports car roars away from the scene.

The next day, a man called Michael Barnes (John Forsythe) turns himself in at the police station, saying that he was the driver. He makes a statement to the effect that he did hit the motorcyclist, lost his head and did not think to stop. Barnes, we learn, is a writer of crime fiction, whose wife is in the hospital due to complications from her pregnancy. He’s rather preoccupied with her and with the baby, as she’s miscarried twice before.

When Barnes learns that he is to be tried in court, he makes several calls to ensure that his wife won’t hear about it in the hospital. Meanwhile, he consults with his attorney, who is not a trial lawyer. That turns out not to be an issue, though, as Barnes is determined to defend himself in court.

The trial begins, and Barnes learns that the prosecution has called all five of the witnesses we saw at the top of this show. The prosecutor has testimony from all five that Barnes did not stop at a stop sign, putting him in the wrong. But as they each take the stand, Barnes, in his cross-examination, is able to that most of them only looked at the scene of the crash after they heard the screech of the brakes. Only one, played by pipe-voiced actor John Fiedler, refuses to budge from his testimony, despite the holes Barnes pokes in his story.

Finally, the prosecution rests, and the judge asks if the defense would like to call any witnesses. Barnes takes the stand to make a statement that while he’s very sorry for what happened, he is not guilty of any wrongdoing. However, he doesn’t realize that by taking the stand he has opened himself up to questions from the prosecutor, who asks him point blank whether he stopped at the stop sign. (Why Barnes’ councilor didn’t advise him of this pitfall is not clear – especially since Barnes should have been able to make a closing statement that would have had the same effect.)  Barnes tries to invoke the Fifth Amendment here, but the judge points out that since he took the stand voluntarily, he must answer the question. Barnes refuses to answer, and the judge threatens to cite him for contempt of court. Nevertheless, Barnes says he won’t answer, making himself look very bad in the eyes of the jury.

After Barnes checks on his wife in the hospital, we turns to a party, where young people are dancing in someone’s living room. The witness who had been waiting for her boyfriend when the accident occurred is there; she had admitted on the stand that he stood her up, and that she was so angry with him that she didn’t really see the accident at all. He meets her at the party, and she tells him about being a witness, and how the driver didn’t stop at the stop sign. But the boyfriend says she’s wrong – he was on the opposite corner, near the stop sign, and he saw the whole thing. The sportscar did stop. He never crossed the street to meet her after he saw her talking to another boy. She says he has to tell his story, but he doesn’t want to get involved. She insists, though, saying “The poor slob is gonna go to jail!”

Next, we’re back in court as the jury renders a verdict of not guilty. Barnes is thrilled, and he and his lawyer friend go to the hospital to see his new baby, who’s just been born. The lawyer says he’s glad about the outcome, but doesn’t understand why Barnes wouldn’t answer the question about the stop sign. Barnes explains that he couldn’t, not without committing perjury. It turns out that he wasn’t the driver; in fact, he wasn’t even in the car. It was his wife behind the wheel that day.

“I Saw the Whole Thing” engages the viewer nicely, as a good courtroom drama usually will. Forsythe, whom Hitchcock had directed before in “The Trouble with Harry,” makes a sympathetic protagonist. All through the episode, the viewer has to assume that he didn’t stop after hitting the motorcycle because he was so concerned about his wife, so the revelation at the end that he’s been protecting her all along makes us like him all the more. While it’s not a complex story – it certainly wouldn’t be enough to make a full-length feature from – Hitchcock does stretch out nicely, with a much fuller cast than any of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes he had directed.

Alfred Hitchcock Ruffles Moviegoers’ Feathers with “The Birds”

13 02 2011

“Something happened that was altogether new in my experience; I began to study the scenario as we went along, and I saw that there were weaknesses in it. This emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me. I began to improvise.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 feature film, “The Birds,” picks up on the story structure he tried out in his previous picture, “Psycho.” “The Birds begins as a light romantic comedy – in this case, about a young socialite pursuing a man – that veers into horror at about the one hour mark. “The Birds” does not reach the high standards set by “Psycho,” though.

The film begins in San Francisco, where Melanie Daniels

At the bird shop; nearby is a wicker birdhouse replica of the "Psycho" mansion

(played by newcomer Tippi Hedren) stops by a pet shop to buy a mynah bird for her aunt; she hints that she’s going to teach the bird to swear. While she waits for a clerk, she is approached by Mitchell Brenner (Rod Taylor) who seems to assume that she works in the store and asks about buying a pair of lovebirds for his kid sister. Daniels bluffs her way through, until Brenner reveals that he’s seen her in court, where she was on trial for a prank gone wrong.

Brenner leaves the store and Daniels decides to buy the lovebirds herself. She’s annoyed at how Brenner put her on the spot, but intrigued by him as well. She finds his apartment, but learns from a neighbor (Richard Deacon) that Brenner’s gone home to Bodega Bay for the weekend. Daniels drives north to Bodega Bay, then hires a skiff to cross the lake to Brenner’s home.

After slipping into the house undetected and dropping off the birds, Daniels hops into the boat and motors back to town. On the way across, a seagull swoops down and claws at her. Brenner, having driven around the lake to meet Daniels, helps her into a restaurant and patches up her wound. The locals are perplexed by the attack, but it’s only a hint of what’s to come.

Daniels befriends Brenner’s kid sister, who wants her to come to her birthday party, the next day; she also gets to know Annie Hayworth, Brenner’s ex-girlfriend and the local schoolteacher, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Hayworth explains that the biggest obstacle in winning Brenner’s affections will be his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy, wife of Hitchcock’s longtime friend, Hume Cronyn).

At the birthday party, a game of blindman’s bluff is ruined when a flock of crows descend upon the children, who barely manage to escape harm. The inexplicable violence escalates; Lydia finds a farmer friend dead in his bedroom, clearly killed by birds. Cathy returns to school, where another attack takes place, forcing the children to run into town as the birds tear at their hair and faces. In town, at the restaurant, people argue about what’s happening; an older woman who’s an amateur ornithologist insist it’s impossible, while a drunk (inspired to some degree by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, author of “Juno and the Paycock”) keeps saying “It’s the end of the world!”

Brenner, Daniels and the rest of the restaurant watch in horror as a man is attacked by birds at a gas station, leading to an explosion. (Hitchcock had learned the power of explosions in “North by Northwest.”) A woman at the restaurant screams at Daniels, blaming her arrival in town for the bird attacks. Brenner manages to get to Daniels’ car, and they head for the school, where they find Hayworth dead. Together, they rescue Cathy and head back to the Brenner’s house, where they board up the windows.

The birds won’t give up, though; they keep scratching at the boards into the night. While the others sleep, Daniels sits awake. A noise from upstairs draws her attention, and she wanders up to the attic, which is full of crows. They attack her, but the noise awakens Brenner, who rescues her from certain death. There’s a frightening montage as Daniels is attacked; this was one of the most harrowing part of shooting the movie, as Hedren spent days having life birds, as well as stuffed ones, tossed at her.

With Daniels in shock, Brenner guides her, along with his mother and sister, into the car. A radio report says that the bird attacks have decimated the town, and advises listeners to get away from Bodega Bay. The car drives off into the distance, through a landscape crowded by birds.

The sudden ending of “The Birds” is just one of its problems. (I kept wishing for a final interior shot of the passengers in the car, in which Melanie Daniels could have turned to look out the rear window to say “Why? Why did they do it?”) Instead, there was no attempt to explain the birds’ behavior. In the original screenplay by Evan Hunter, there was a scene in which Daniels and Brenner talk about it, spitballing possible explanations; while they are not particularly serious or plausible, their attempts to puzzle out the situation might have given the viewer something to consider, at least.

The story is also hampered by the inhuman quality of the menace itself. Norman Bates, for all his murderous ways, is at least human and, in a strange way, sympathetic. But there is no way to identify with an attacking flock of birds.

Melanie Daniels also suffers in comparison to Marion Crane; where Crane’s story in the first half of “Psycho” is full of desperation and remorse, Daniels’ actions paint her as flighty and spoiled. Her effort to track down Brenner is ultimately inconsequential. If she hadn’t decided on a whim to find him, she would have stayed out of Bodega Bay. While there’s nothing wrong with a story about an innocent bystander pulled into a drama, Daniels is not particularly appealing; she’s attractive but coolly superior.

The script, too, is clumsy, and full of expository dialogue. Although it takes its name and premise from a story by Daphne du Maurier, Hitchcock did what he wanted with it, and in this case, he and Hunter built the entire story and cast around the situation. This was Hitchcock’s third and final adaptation from du Maurier, after “Jamaica Inn” and “Rebecca,” although he claimed no particular love of her work.

There are also those who fault Tippi Hedren for not being a strong enough actor for the lead role in this film; I found her more or less on a par with Kim Novak or Eva Marie Saint. Hedren was very inexperienced going into this film. Hitchcock had wanted Grace Kelly for the role of Melanie Daniels; he always preferred actors with strong personalities to hold an audience’s interest in his often underwritten characters. Hitch noticed Hedren on a television commercial and eventually signed the young, untried actress to a seven-year exclusive contract, putting her through extensive screen tests opposite Martin Balsam, including restaging scenes from “Notorious” and “Rebecca.” (These appear on the DVD and are worth watching, especially for the contrast between Hedren, who is trying her best to follow directions, and the very relaxed and confident Balsam.)

Hedren was the latest in a line of actresses who would disappoint Hitchcock, going all the way back to Nova Pilbeam from “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and including Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Vera Miles. Hitch continually looked for actresses he could count on to appear in his pictures whenever he summoned them. With Pilbeam, Bergman and Kelly, other commitments got in the way. With Miles, Hitchcock took the extra step of signing her to an exclusive contract, only to be frustrated by her pregnancy, which kept her from taking the lead in “Vertigo.” (To be fair, Miles did not end up enjoying her work with Hitchcock.) Hedren would only work with Hitchcock again in his next film, “Marnie,” and her work on “The Birds,” with days spent under attack from birds, would haunt her.

There are other issues with “The Birds,” too: The fact that Hedren wears only a single outfit through most of the film over the course of several days (although that outfit, designed by Edith Head, is certainly iconic); the inexplicable English accents of some of the cast, along with some unnecessarily formal dialogue; the leisurely pace of the film’s first forty-five minutes; and the fact that, despite the great efforts of Hitchcock and his collaborators, the birds themselves occasionally look fake.

Still, “The Birds” has its moments, and those seem to be what audiences remember about the film: The initial attack at the birthday party, the massing crows on the school’s playground behind Melanie Daniels, the birds’ attack on Daniels while she’s stuck in a phone booth. These are moments of genuine dread and terror that cannot easily be forgotten.

The avian threat of “The Birds” was brought to life through a number of techniques, making this film Hitchcock’s most challenging on a technical level. Hitch worked with Ub Iwerks, the Disney animator who first brought Mickey Mouse to life, to employ a traveling matte system that enhanced the effects. The soundtrack, too, contributed to the illusion. There’s almost no music in the movie. Instead, Hitchcock brought in Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman to electronically create birds screeches which would fade into scenes when the attacks were imminent. Those screeches are noticeably louder than the dialogue in preceeding scenes, heightening the attacks’ impact.

Even the trailer for “The Birds” misses the mark, with Hitchcock lecturing about “our friends, the birds,” for several slightly didactic, creepy minutes before we see Hedren or much of the movie. Hitchcock must have realized that with so little star power behind “The Birds,” he would have to sell it other ways. Feebly echoing the publicity stunts of “Psycho,” “The Birds” tied in to cross-country pigeon races. Hitchcock also played up his discovery of Hedren, a tactic that did not work in the long run. Here it is:

Next, Tippi Hedren returns for the complex psychological thriller, “Marnie,” also starring Sean Connery.

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