Book Review: Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System

91HZkQT8icLPublisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Release Date: September 11, 2014

“Rarely when authors talk about Hitchcock’s filmmaking team do they address the contributions of his actors. There is little or no serious attention paid to them or any in-depth study of their contributions to his films… While actors are often the focus of the gossip surrounding Hitchcock’s life, the contributions and performances given are rarely approached with any seriousness…

…The memorable statement on livestock is an ironic one considering just how many iconic performances by some of Hollywood’s greatest stars he directed.” –Lesley L.Coffin (Introduction to “Hitchcock’s Stars”)

Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System tackles a topic that is rarely discussed in any amount of detail. Coffin’s text attempts to shed new light on Hitchcock’s method of using actors (or “stars”) in interesting ways throughout his career in Hollywood. Each chapter covers a different film. The early British period is ignored entirely, instead focusing only on the director’s career in the Hollywood studio system (1940-1976). Each of the director’s films from this period is discussed, with the notable exceptions being Topaz and Frenzy.

Coffin claims that she excludes these films because they weren’t made in American studios, and were shot outside of America (using foreign actors). This leads us to one of the book’s major problems. Her claim that Torn Curtain was Hitchcock’s final film for Universal is simply incorrect. Topaz would have never been made if Universal had not urged Hitchcock to make the film (instead of the un-produced Kaleidoscope/Frenzy project). It was very much a “Hollywood” production. While there was indeed a great deal of location work; some of this location work was in America. A good deal of work was also done in the studio. Frenzy was also produced for Universal (though it was shot in London with a British cast and crew). There are many other factual errors in the book that mar the text. This issue usually stems from her chosen sources. However, at times Coffin uses conjecture presented as fact. This is rather unfortunate, because her writing is fluid and enjoyable.

Many of the interesting discoveries found within the text might very well be true, but they come from “gossip columns” and similar sources from the period. These columns are interesting, but often misleading. Studios often fed false information to columnists (such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons). This gave the studio free publicity, and allowed them to keep the actual details from the public. It was also common for these columnists to invent information when sources couldn’t give them anything to write about. This means that some of these interesting tidbits of information might or might not be true. Coffin never questions the validity of her sources (or attempts to back them up with a second source). This is a small complaint, but the unquestioning reader may be led astray by some of this information.

Coffin’s knowledge of Hitchcock seems to stem mostly from texts by Donald Spoto. Because she never questions the validity of these sources (despite the fact that some of her sources directly contradict Spoto), her thesis is led astray. There are times that her own preoccupations overwhelm a wealth of other information that is never addressed. This means that the reader never has an objective view of the subject being discussed. (To be fair, this approach is almost certainly intentional.)

There is a lot to like about Coffin’s text, and the book was a noble undertaking. It is a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly nice to see that this particular topic is finally receiving a book-length treatment. It simply falls short of being absolutely “essential.”

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:59:29

Video: 1080P AVC (MPEG-4)

Main Audio: DTS-HD English Mono Master Audio (48kHz, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.37 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. This disc also comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

 ss14

“A very important thing about The Birds: I never raised the point, ‘Can it be done?’ Because then it would never have been made. Any technician would have said ‘impossible.’ So I didn’t even bring that up, I simply said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ No one will ever realize that had the pioneering technical work on it not been attempted, the film would not have been made. Cleopatra or Ben Hur is nothing to this–just quantities of people and scenery. Just what the bird trainer has done is phenomenal. Look at the way the crows chase the children down the street, dive all around them, land on their backs. It took days to organize those birds on the hood of the car and to make them fly away at the right time. The Birds could easily have cost $5,000,000 if Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn’t been technicians ourselves.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

INTRODUCTION:

One expects a text on The Birds to focus on the dynamics of the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his protégé, ‘Tippi Hedren.’ Unfortunately anything written about this relationship would be trumped by more famous texts by Donald Spoto. However, it would be a mistake to take Spoto’s account into consideration without looking at more responsible accounts that use evidence instead of hearsay and wild theory. The trouble with a Spoto text is that he is perfectly willing to ignore evidence that disputes his theories. Admittedly, Hitchcock’s publicity persona doesn’t help his case (and probably planted these theories). A 1962 article in The Hollywood Reporter announcing Hitchcock’s new contract player is an example of publicity that (purposefully) feeds into public perception.

“…In The Birds, I am introducing another young lady who happens to be blonde, Miss Tippi Hedren. But I am happy to say she is not the spectacular type of blonde who flaunts her sex. It is important to distinguish between the big, bosomy blonde and the ladylike blonde with the touch of elegance, whose sex must be discovered.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

It is probably Hitchcock’s fault if contemporary perception of the director is based on his publicity persona, but intelligent people should at least attempt to separate his persona from reality. To do this, one needs hard evidence rather than interviews and publicity items (especially if the interviewee is unreliable). Therefore, this article prefers to focus on the working relationship between Evan Hunter and Alfred Hitchcock, the prodigious special effects, and the film’s reception.

THE GENESIS

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is considered by many people to be one of the director’s best films. This is likely do to the fact that it is a considerable technical achievement, and paved the way for advancements in special effects photography. It is certainly an important film, but this reviewer does not include it on his list of best Hitchcock films. It is a flawed work that has moments of brilliance. It is the opinion of this reviewer that much of what is wrong with the film can be traced to the film’s script.

It was certainly a compelling concept, and Daphne du Maurier’s short story was a wonderful mood piece. Hitchcock probably became aware of the story when it was published in one of his anthologies. However, Hitchcock probably gained much of his motivation for making the film from an article in the “Santa Cruz Sentinel.” The article discussed a real life account of bird attacks. It was a signal to Hitchcock that The Birds should be his next film.

WRITING WITH EVAN HUNTER

Alfred Hitchcock originally asked Joseph Stefano to work with him on the script, but Stefano declined to participate. One can only speculate as to why Hitchcock eventually turned to Evan Hunter, but two of Hunter’s stories (“Number Twenty-Two” and “Vicious Circle“) had been made into episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957, and he had adapted the teleplay for “Appointment at Eleven” in 1959.

“[Appointment at Eleven] was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o’clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid’s drunk and trying to get drunker and obnoxious, and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.

This may have been in Hitch’s mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there’s no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some ‘artistic respectability’ with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock often preferred working with novelists and playwrights instead of screenwriters, so the decision to hire a novelist for The Birds wasn’t as unique as Hunter implies.

“The call came from my agent toward the end of August. I thought at first that Joan Harrison wanted me to adapt another story for Hitch’s TV show. But no, it seemed Hitch had purchased motion picture rights to a Daphne Du Maurier novella titled The Birds, and he wanted me to write the screenplay for the movie he planned to make from it. I told my agent I would have to read the story before I decided. In truth, for the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock on a feature film, I would have agreed to do a screenplay based on the Bronx telephone book.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Of course, Hitchcock planned to expand upon the premise of the original story.

“…When I spoke with [Hitchcock], he said ‘forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.’ He said, ‘That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.’ In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

It is easy to understand why Hitchcock vetoed Hunter’s original two ideas, both of which would have resulted in a very different picture.

“…The first of these was to add a murder mystery to the basic premise of birds attacking humans, an idea I still like. But Hitch felt this would muddy the waters and rob suspense from the real story we wanted to tell. The second was about a new schoolteacher who provokes the scorn of the locals when unexplained bird attacks start shortly after her arrival in town. In the eventual movie; the school teacher survived (but not for long) in the presence of Annie Hayworth. In the movie, the town’s suspicion and anger surfaces in the tides restaurant scene. But Hitch did not want a schoolteacher for his lead; he needed someone more sophisticated and glamorous…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Much of the trouble with the film lies in the approach that Hitchcock and Hunter agreed upon.

“I take full credit – or blame, as the case may be – for what I suggested to Hitch that afternoon: a screwball comedy that gradually turns into stark terror. The idea appealed to him at once. I think he saw it as a challenge equal to the one the birds themselves presented. I think, too, that he saw in it a way of combining his vaunted sense of humor with the calculated horror he had used to great effect in Psycho. …My own reference points were the black and white comedies I’d grown up with in the forties…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

One imagines that Hitchcock found another misleading first act appealing, but the “screwball comedy” opening isn’t nearly as interesting as the first 45 minutes of Psycho (1960). The tone of a “screwball comedy” is also very much at odds with the tone of a horror film. One could argue that there was a sufficient amount of humor in Psycho (1960), but gallows humor and madcap comedy are two very different things.

“When I first suggested ‘screwball comedy becomes terror,’ Hitch should have said ‘That is the worst idea I have ever heard in my life. Let’s move on.’ Instead, we marched ahead confidently, blithely trying to graft upon Du Maurier’s simple tale of apocalyptic terror a slick story about two improbable lovers confronted with an even more improbable situation – birds attacking humans.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hitchcock’s working methods with Hunter were similar to those that he employed with most of his other writers.

“… I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say ‘Tell me the story so far,’ and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That’s the first bird attack… But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock’s influence over the details and the final shape of the screenplay is evident in a lengthy letter that the director wrote to Hunter after reading the first draft. (This is after Hitchcock and Hunter worked out the story and the structure of the film in Hitchcock’s office.)

“…I have had the opportunity of going over the script a couple of times and in consequence, would like to make some further observations…

…The first general impression is that the script is way too long. This, of course, I know you are already aware of. However the consensus seems to indicate that it is the front part of the script that needs some drastic pruning. I will suggest some ideas to you later on in this letter.

Now the next prevalent comment I have heard is that both the girl and the young man seem insufficiently characterized. In endeavoring to analyze this criticism, I have gathered the impression ‘there doesn’t seem to be any particular feature about the young man himself to warrant the girl going to all the trouble she does in delivering a couple of love birds.’

Another comment about him was obviously misconstrued from the wording in the script – some people looked upon him as a shy, awkward young man. Now I think this was caused because the reader failed to appreciate the fact that his manner was awkward only because in our script he behaves self-consciously about wanting to purchase such things as ‘love birds’. When I reflected upon this, it looked to me as though the joke about buying love birds and the young man’s self-consciousness about it wouldn’t come off. In other words, people would say, ‘What’s difficult about buying a pair of love birds?’ After all, they are not contraceptives! …It could be that the whole scene is too mild for the young man to make any sharp impression on the girl at all.

Evan, would you please permit me to interpose here with an observation that I think we should look out for in this script and this scene in the bird shop is a fair example of what I mean. We run the risk of having in a picture what I call ‘no scene’ scenes. By this I mean that the little sequence might have narrative value but in itself is un-dramatic. It very obviously lacks shape and it doesn’t within itself have a climax as a scene on the stage might…

…Now we have a number of these in our present script. For example, in the newspaper office in the scene between Melanie and her father I feel the audience will get nothing much out of the scene. In fact, one of the comments made was that the father was just a stock figure whose relationship with his daughter seems fairly conventional.

Now at Bodega Bay I can clearly see that we do have one or two scenes with no particular shape. These are scenes of Melanie buying temporary garments and going to the hotel for a room. They really accomplish very little and account for some of the excessive length in the front part of the picture. I feel sure these could be eliminated so that the scene when she presents herself at the school teacher’s house with only a paper bag can be dramatically capitalized. This is to say that she explains her purchases and wish for a room – after the fact.

But here again her relationship with the young man must have a very solid premise for her going to the trouble of taking a room for the night…

…Now, Evan, there is, I am sorry to say, an almost unanimous comment that the interior of the church scene should go because, apparently to the script reader, the story does not progress at all. The scene outside the church, of course, serves a very good purpose for us. It brings our couple together again and sets up the children’s party.

Incidentally, at the children’s party I think Bob Boyle, our production man, had quite an interesting thought that it would be more interesting and, I am inclined to agree with him, that the bird attack might take place during the blind-man’s buff sequence so that we get a little blindfolded girl attacked. Of course, we could have the entrance of the cake about the same time.

Generally speaking, Evan, the rest of it seems to be in pretty good shape except perhaps for some pruning here and there.

Now for some other thoughts; in order to keep the suspense alive from the very beginning I do think we ought to punctuate the sequences with some more positive ideas that will keep the audience a little on edge in the matter of ‘birds’. And, I think we could start this right from the very beginning.

I know you had an idea of this when you had Melanie walking down the street and a flock of pigeons fluttered away. Now an audience might get some significance in this or they may not but somehow I think if we are going to put in ideas of this nature they should be a little less blurred. For example: How would it be to open the picture on a San Francisco street with a series of cuts of upturned faces, some stationary, others moving slowly along, and what they are looking at is an unusual number of sea gulls flying above the buildings of the city. We could continue the upturned faces until at last we come to Melanie also looking up and pan her right into the bird shop where she could make some comment to the woman inside who dismisses it with a remark to the effect that when the weather is bad at sea they often get driven inland. Another spot that occurs to me where we could have a sharp moment – at the end of the night scene between Annie and Melanie there could be the sound of a thump on the front door. They open it to find a dead bird lying there and the scene could fade out on this. This will also tie in with Annie’s last line in the scene. There are probably some other spots which lend themselves to this kind of treatment in the earlier part of the script. Incidentally, I still think that at some moment Annie should see the cut on Melanie’s head.

You know I’ve often wondered that the Audubon Society’s attitude might be to this picture. And if we have any fears that they might be a little ‘frowning’ we might find a spot towards the end where Kathy theorizes about ‘It’s all because we put them in cages, we shoot them down, we eat them, etc.’ This, of course, leaves only one other question as to whether the Audubon Society will frown at the birds having a revengeful nature!

Well, Evan, there you are. Until we have further conversations these are all the things that I can think to put down. Naturally there may be a few more things to be done. I’m still wondering whether anything of a thematic nature should go into the script. I’m sure we are going to be asked again and again, especially by the morons, ‘Why are they doing it?’ …” –Alfred Hitchcock (Letter to Evan Hunter, as printed in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

It is worth noting that all of Hitchcock’s notes on the rough draft proved to shape the final film. The scenes that he suggested to be cut were omitted, and the additions that Hitchcock suggested are included in the final film. Outside parties were consulted about the script. Both men found the script to be lacking sufficient characterization. Hitchcock would worry about these problems well into the film’s production. Of course, Evan Hunter was rather irritated with these outsiders having anything to do with the outcome of the script.

“What I did not know was that Hitch had already solicited comment on the script from Hume Cronyn, an actor who had received ‘adaptation’ credit on two of Hitch’s previous films, Rope in 1948 and Under Capricorn in 1949. Mr. Cronyn’s comments had arrived before my revisions. In his letter of January 13, 1962, he suggested that there was ‘still room for improvement in the development and relationship of the principal characters. The implied arrogance, silliness, and selfishness of the early Melanie may need heightening so that the change to consideration, responsibility, and maturity are more marked – and more enduring.

He was merely the first who – without my knowledge or consent – stuck his finger in the concept and his foot in the whorehouse door.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Alfred Hitchcock also sought the opinion of V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett’s involvement was more pronounced than Cronyn’s, and Hunter’s ego was sufficiently bruised by his influence.

“Unknown to me, Hitch had already sent the script of The Birds to an old friend of his, V.S. Pritchett, a short story writer who used to be the book review editor for the ‘New Statesman.’ …Pritchett wrote back. He said that audiences of The Birds would get the impression that they are in two different stories – in this case a light comedy and a terror tale – that do not weld together. While Hitch pondered this startling revelation that merely defined the entire approach to the film, he asked me to take another look at the final scene, with an eye towards giving it a deeper meaning and a stronger purpose.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter certainly had a valid point when he commented that Pritchett “merely defined the entire approach to the film.” However, it might have been a red flag to Hitchcock that this approach wasn’t working (at least not in the script’s then-current state).

PRITCHETT & ‘THE SAND DUNES’

Pritchett’s involvement would again aggravate Hunter during the film’s production.

“One morning Rod Taylor came to me. ‘Did you write this scene?’ he asked, and handed me some pages. I read the scene. It takes place on a hill above the Brenner house, just prior to the bird attack on the children’s birthday party. Melanie and Mitch are alone. Miraculously, he has a martini pitcher and long-stemmed martini glasses with him. He pours, they drink. Then Melanie pours out her heart… I was happy to tell Rod I had definitely not written that scene, and had not in fact seen those pages until the moment he’d handed them to me. ‘Well, were shooting it this morning,’ he said. Over my dead body, I thought, and went to find Hitch.

He was in the production trailer with Peggy. I asked if I might talk to him privately, and then showed him the scene Rod had given me. I said I didn’t know who’d written it but that it was totally inept and devoid of any craftsmanship, that no single speech in it logically followed the speech preceding it, that a first-year film student at UCLA could write a better scene, and that I would be thoroughly embarrassed if it were to appear in a movie with my name as screenwriter.

Hitch did a straight-faced little take. Then he said, ‘Are you going to trust me or a two bit actor?’ They shot the scene that morning. It is in the picture.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter credits Hitchcock for writing the scene, but the scene was in fact written by V.S. Pritchett. The scene attempts to give Melanie additional characterization (which was admittedly needed). Unfortunately, Pritchett’s approach is rather awkward.

THE DELETED SCENE

Many drastic changes were made to Hunter’s script during the film’s production. However, most of these changes were probably improvements. One significant case in point is the omission of a scene between Melanie and Mitch.

“…There was a love scene between the girl and the man that was eliminated. It took place after the mother went off to take the little girl to school. Melanie goes down, puts on her fur coat and sees the man burning the birds in the distance. She wanders off in his direction; she obviously wants to be with him. When he is through with his job of burning the birds, I showed him coming toward her and you can read on her face her desire to receive him. Then – suddenly – he turns around and goes into the house. What’s wrong? She’s disappointed and I put that in to stress that Melanie’s really keen on Mitch. A few minutes later he emerges from the house and says, ‘I’ve put a clean shirt on because the other one smelled of birds.’

Then we continued that scene in a light comedy note, with their speculations as to why the birds were behaving in that way. They joked about the fact that the birds have a leader, that he’s a sparrow perched on a platform addressing all the birds and saying to them, ‘Birds of the world, unite. You’ve nothing to lose but your feathers…

…The scene became more serious, winding up with a kiss. Then we went on to show the mother driving back from the farm, terribly agitated. She rolls up just as the couple is exchanging another kiss, and I put a slight wince in her expression. One doesn’t – at the time – know for sure whether that’s because she’s seen them in that embrace, but subsequent developments will indicate that was the reason. Now, since the love scene was suppressed, the dialogue in the following scene between the mother and Melanie is slightly different from what it was originally…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hunter was vocal about his objection to the scene’s omission.

“From what I understand, Hitch shot this scene. But he never used it, and its absence is sorely felt. Without this scene, no one in the film ever really questions why the birds are doing this, and if our leading characters aren’t even looking for answers, then the audience will demand them. Moreover, without the only scene in the picture that would have shown our screwball lovers finally kissing seriously and passionately, there is no climax – you should pardon the expression – to all their nutty sparring and running around. We haven’t the faintest clue as to why Mitch is suddenly calling her darling for the rest of the film. We are utterly baffled.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

To be fair, Hunter is overstating his case a bit. There are a handful of moments dedicated to the questioning of the reasons behind the bird attacks. The entire Tides Restaurant scene is devoted to this purpose. There is also at least one moment when Cathy asks why the birds are terrorizing them. It is certainly enough to get the point across to even the slowest member of an audience. It is also clear from the proceeding scenes that affection between Melanie and Mitch is growing. Film audiences are sophisticated enough to understand that there are a number of things that happen off camera. One gathers that Melanie and Mitch become friendlier towards one another while Lydia is at the Fawcett farm.

Hitchcock addressed his reasons for cutting the scene during his famous interview with François Truffaut.

“…I felt that the love interlude slowed down the story. Right along, I was concerned about the fact that the word-of-mouth rumors would make the public impatient. I was worried about the audience sitting through this part of the picture and thinking to itself, “Come on. Where are the birds? Let’s get on with it… Anyway, I felt that a prolonged love scene at that point might have irritated the public.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

IMPROVISATION

Such changes weren’t typical of Alfred Hitchcock. While the director normally preferred to have every minute detail planned well in advance, he found himself making many changes while shooting The Birds. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick discuss one example in their excellent book, “Scripting Hitchcock.”

“During production [Hitchcock] also created a scene that does not exist in the Hunter screenplay in which the unseen birds attack the Brenner House, one of the tensest, most frightening scenes in the film because the characters and the audience are forced to imagine the number and ferocity of the murderous attacks outside of the house as the threatening noise of the birds fills the soundtrack.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Hitchcock discussed the shooting of this scene in a number of interviews.

“I’ve always been afraid of improvising on the set because, although one might have the time to get a new idea, there isn’t sufficient time in the studio to examine the value of such an idea. There are too many crew people around… 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. For instance, the whole scene of the outside attack on the house by birds that are not seen was done spontaneously, right on the set. I’d almost never done anything like that before, but I made up my mind and quickly designed the movements of the people inside the room. I decided that the mother and the little girl would dart around to search for shelter. There was no place to run for cover, so I made them move about in contradictory directions, a little like rats scurrying into corners.

I deliberately shot Melanie Daniels from a distance because I wanted to make it clear that she was recoiling from nothing at all. What could she be drawing back from? She cringes back into the sofa and she doesn’t even know what she’s recoiling from.

Because I was so keyed up all of this came very easily and very quickly.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

According to Hitchcock, the most difficult aspect of shooting the scene was getting the proper reaction from the actors. However, he found a creative solution to this problem.

“We had a problem when we were shooting that scene to get the actors inside the besieged house to respond properly because we didn’t yet have the sounds of the wings and the noises made by the birds. I had a drummer put on the set, with a small side drum and a mike with a loud speaker. Whenever the actors played their scene, there was a loud drum roll to help them react.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE FAWCETT FARM

Lydia’s discovery of the corpse at the Fawcett Farm was also improved by Hitchcock’s on-set improvisation.

“Another improvisation is the mother driving up to the farm, going into the house and calling the farmer before noticing the wrecked room and discovering the farmer’s body. While we were shooting that, I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ She calls the farmer and he doesn’t answer. Well, a woman in that position wouldn’t push it any further; she’d walk out of the house. So that’s how I got the idea to keep her there by having her notice the five broken teacups hanging from the hooks.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock was occasionally inspired by real life events, which added credibility to a few of his ideas.

“While I was shooting in Bodega Bay, there was an item in a San Francisco paper about crows attacking some young lambs, and – of all places – right in the same locality where we were working. I met a farmer who told me how the crows swooped down to kill his young lambs. That’s where I got the idea for the gouged-out eyes of the dead man.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock employed an unusual method of cutting in this particular scene. There are three “staccato” jump cuts – each getting progressively closer to the dead man’s eyes.

“I did it for several reasons. I wanted a change from the zooming in, but I wanted to be prepared for censorship problems. If I ran into censorship anywhere – you, like so, you can tape it out you see. And another item interesting about that moment, I never show the woman’s reaction to it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

The scene is quite effective, and is one of the brilliant moments in the film. Of course, the soundtrack added to the scene’s impact.

“The sound track was vital just there; we had the sound of her footsteps running down the passage, with almost an echo. The interesting thing in the sound is the difference between the footsteps inside the house and on the outside. Did you notice that I had her run from the distance and then went to a close-up when she’s paralyzed with fear and inarticulate? There’s silence at that point. Then, as she goes off again, the sound of the steps will match the size of the image. It grows louder right up to the moment she gets into the truck, and then the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish. We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would.

For the arrival of the truck, I had the road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away…

…The reason we went to all that trouble is that the truck, seen from a distance like that – moving at tremendous speed – expresses the frantic nature of the mother’s moves. In the previous scene we had shown that the woman was going through violent emotion, and when she gets into the truck, we showed that this was an emotional truck. Not only by the image, but also through the sound that sustains the emotion. It’s not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that’s like a cry. It’s as though the truck were shrieking.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE TIDES RESTAURANT

Of course, many of the scenes were planned and written ahead of time. Evan Hunter’s favorite example is the scene in the “Tides Restaurant.” Various characters are assembled with Melanie, and are discussing various theories about the reason behind the bird attacks.

“…the scene in the movie that I feel is really mine is the scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist. There’s the drunk at the bar, ‘It’s the end of the world’. The fisherman who complains that the birds are playing hell with his fishing boats… That whole scene is like a one-act play, and I really love it. I wrote that after I left California, and I sent it to Hitch. And he shot it without a moment’s hesitation.” –Evan Hunter (‘Crime Time’ Interview with Barry Forshaw)

Alfred Hitchcock seems to share Hunter’s affection for the scene.

“That scene doesn’t necessarily add anything, but I felt that after the attack of the birds on the children at the birthday party, the small birds coming down the chimney, and the attack of the crows outside the school, we should give the audience a rest before going back to horror. That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs. The character of the drunk is straight out of an O’Casey play, and the elderly lady ornithologist is pretty interesting. …The scene is a little on the long side, but I feel that if the audience is absorbed in it, it is automatically shortened. I’ve always measured the length or brevity of a scene by the degree of interest it holds for the public. If they’re completely absorbed, it’s a short scene; if they’re bored; the scene is bound to be long.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE SOUNDTRACK

Hunter seemed disappointed most of Hitchcock’s decisions. As a matter of fact, many of the more brilliant aspects of the film were opposed by Hunter. For example, Hunter wasn’t pleased to hear that there wouldn’t be a traditional score for The Birds.

“We sat alone in the screening room, side by side, Hitch and I, watching the opening credits of the film. He had decided by then that there would be no score for The Birds. Unmindful of his artistic pretensions for the film, I told him I thought that would be a mistake; that music could subtly foreshadow dire events to come or stridently accompany bird attacks until we had the audience screaming. He said no. No music.

The titles had no music behind them. The titles had no music behind them. The screen was filled with fuzzy images of flying birds. There was the sound of wings whirring. There was the sound of birds squeaking and eeking. It was all very scary and portentous. Maybe he was right.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

It is this reviewer’s opinion that Hitchcock was indeed “right.” Could Hunter really not grasp the effectiveness of Hitchcock’s sound design, or is this simply another example of ‘bitter grapes’? The film’s soundtrack is one of the more thrilling aspects of The Birds. This isn’t terribly surprising. Alfred Hitchcock always paid meticulous attention to the sound design in his films.

 “After a picture is cut, I dictate what amounts to a real sound script to a secretary. We run every reel off and I indicate all the places where sounds should be heard. Until now we’ve worked with natural sounds, but now – thanks to electronic sound – I’m not only going to indicate the sound we want but also the style and nature of each sound.

For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds, we inserted the natural sounds of wings, but we stylized them so as to create greater intensity. We wanted to get a menacing wave of vibration rather than a single level. There was a variation of the noise, an assimilation of the unequal noise of the wings. Of course, I took the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all.

To describe the sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’ That’s what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to achieve that effect through the use of electronic sound.

For the final scene, in which Rod Taylor opens the door to the house for the first time and finds the birds assembled there, as far as the eye can see, I asked for silence, but not just any kind of silence. I wanted an electronic silence, a sort of monotonous low hum that might suggest the sound of the sea in the distance. It was a strange, artificial sound, which in the language of the birds might be saying, ‘We’re not ready to attack you yet, but we’re getting ready. We’re like an engine that’s purring and we may start off at any moment.’ All of this was suggested by a sound that’s so low that you can’t be sure whether you’re actually hearing it or only imagining it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE ENDING

The film’s admirable ambiguous ending was a Hitchcock creation that wasn’t in the script. Hunter had written a very different scene.

“Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car’s top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.

Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it’s covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they’re driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.

Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch’s sister says, ‘Mitch do you think they’ll be in San Francisco when we get there?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, honey,’ and that’s the last line of the movie.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

 Obviously, none of this is in the film.

“When I saw the movie for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art’s invitational screening a year later – and realized that Hitch had sacrificed my ending in favor of what he called ‘the most difficult shot’ he’d ever done, a composite of birds requiring thirty-two separate exposures against a matte painting – I was appalled. The very hip and sophisticated black-tie audience, was to say the very least, somewhat glacially polite in its reception. A stunned silence greeted the final complicated mosaic of what appeared to be 3,407 pieces of bird film. Later, when I saw the film in a commercial theatre, people actually turned to each other and mumbled, ‘Is it over? Is that it? Huh?’ I left before they realized I was the man who’d written the screenplay and mistakenly assumed the ending they had just seen was concocted by me… Hitch didn’t film the scene that I wrote because then he would have made a movie with a thrilling suspenseful ending. He wasn’t going for that. He was going for high art.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Perhaps Hunter was too close to the material. The ending is appropriately haunting (and more original) than the one devised by Evan Hunter. Hunter liked to condescend about the ending for the simple reason that it wasn’t his own idea. Hitchcock was rightfully fond of the ending, and liked to discuss it in his interviews.

“There are 371 trick-shots in it, and the most difficult one was the last shot. That took 32 different pieces of film. We had a limited number of gulls allowed. Therefore, the foreground was shot in three panel sections, left to right, up to the birds on the rail. The few gulls we had were in the first third, we re-shot it for the middle third, and for the right-hand third, using the same gulls. Just above the heads of the crows was a long, slender middle section where the gulls were spread again. Then the car going down the driveway, with the birds on each side of it, was another piece of film. The sky was another piece of film, as was the barn on the left, and so on. These were all put together in the lab.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock originally had another idea for an ending that wasn’t used.

“…I toyed with the idea of lap-dissolving on them in the car, looking, and there is the Golden Gate Bridge–covered in birds.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

SPECIAL EFFECTS

If the film is remembered today, this is largely due to the fact that the film pioneered many complicated special effects techniques. It was a huge advancement in what was possible to achieve at the time. Today, people can achieve even better results with very little effort, but this was not the case in 1963.

Alfred Hitchcock used the traveling matte process to produce many of the effects in The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock himself described this process in a lengthy article about the making of The Birds.

“…Let us assume that we’re going to photograph two men talking on the corner of Fifth Avenue, New York, and were shooting the picture in June, but the story requires a snow covered street… Now, say the picture isn’t going out until the following year. The first snows come to New York in November. The cameraman goes out and sets the camera up roughly where the two men have stood and photographs Fifth Avenue in the snow. That film is brought into the studio – the lab – and they work on what is called the optical printer. The first film that goes into the printer is the raw stuff – the unexposed film – and against that the negative of Fifth Avenue.

Now, a print is made of the two men in front of the white backing and is overdeveloped to such a degree that the two men become silhouettes. So you add that as a third film to go through the printer. Thus you have a raw film, Fifth Avenue, and this black silhouette of two men talking.

In the printer, the black portion of the men has prevented the light from going through, so that the only part exposed onto the raw film is Fifth Avenue around the two men. If you were to develop that film at that moment and run it on a screen, you would get Fifth Avenue and two white silhouettes. Of course you don’t develop it, you just rewind the film and start again.

Now, what is the negative of the two men? We shot them against a white background; therefore the white background in the negative is black. So you just put this negative and the already partly exposed raw film through a printer the second time and now you have the men being printed in the space provided for them – the unexposed portion of the film. That is what is called a traveling matte.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The film’s color cinematography introduced other challenges for Alfred Hitchcock.

“…We’re going to have children running down the street and we have the problem of overlaying the ravens. We had about thirty or forty ravens who were trained to fly from one perch to another in the studio against a plain background. But now were in color. So, in order to get a silhouette (we must have a silhouette, otherwise it will ghost – like two snaps on one film), we photograph in color against a yellow background (the same light that they use for fog lights on cars). This sodium light, as it is called, is a color that is the narrowest band on the spectrum of light and comes out black. It’s the only color that won’t photograph.

So now you have your colored image and a black background. At the same time there is a prism – a lens which makes two images. One goes through in color and the other is reflected through a red filter onto ordinary black-and-white film, so that you make your silhouette at the same time as you’re making your scene. So that when you put the two together you have the negative of the children running down the street and the silhouette of the birds printed first and the real birds afterwards. So they’re overlaid.
Now, you don’t hold that scene very long – you hold it for a flash. Then you go to a close-up op one of the children and you throw a live trained bird onto the shoulder of that child. And it’s the inter-cutting, the quick inter-cutting, that gives you the illusion of the scene in close-up and in distance and so forth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

One of the justifiably famous shots in The Birds was the shot of the birds descending upon the town. The point-of-view seems to be an apathetic God. The success of the shot belongs to many people, who worked tirelessly to bring Hitchcock’s vision of the shot to life.

“…Now, we didn’t have a full town out there, we had a dockside and so forth. So we put the camera on a hill of the studio where they were building a new car park. In our scene we had a gas station on fire and a trail of flaming gas toward a car park… But all the rest was nothing – we just marked it out with lines so that people could only run in a certain direction. The matte-artist painted a painting of the view above the harbor, except he blacked out the live portion – the flame and the people running. These two – live portion and matte – are printed together. So that now, when we look at it on the screen, it’s as though you’re in a helicopter or high up in a balloon. There’s a whole town, there’s a blaze, and people running.

Now the next problem: having the birds fly down. We hired an island off the coast and put a camera on a high cliff. We brought the gulls around with fish behind the camera and then threw the fish over the cliff – and with the camera on the beach below. When this film was shown we looked at it and there it was: a cliff side, surf, [and] beach, with gulls going down.

Now, two women took this film frame by frame – each little frame. Only fifteen feet in all, but it took them three months to transfer by painting each individual bird onto a plain background. They also painted the silhouette of each bird. And that’s the way the birds were printed over the scene and they were seen going down. That lasted ten seconds on the screen – we took three months to do it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The matte painting that Hitchcock mentions was the work of Albert Whitlock. This was only one of many matte paintings that Whitlock contributed to the picture.

RECEPTION

Despite an aggressive ad campaign, The Birds received a very mixed reception upon its release. Variety’s review hinted at the kind of reception that the film would receive from “important” critics.

“Beneath all of this elaborate feather bedlam lies a Hitch cock-and-bull story that’s essentially a fowl ball.

The premise is fascinating. The idea of billions of bird-brains refusing to eat crow any longer and adopting the hunt-and-peck system, with homosapiens as their ornithological target, is fraught with potential. Cinematically, Hitchcock & Co have done a masterful job of meeting this formidable challenge. But dramatically, The Birds is little more than a shocker-for shock’s-sake.

Evan Hunter’s screenplay, from Daphne du Maurier’s story, has it that a colony of our feathered ‘friends’ over California’s Bodega Bay (it’s never clear how far-reaching this avian mafia extends) suddenly decides, for no apparent reason, to swoop down en masse on the human population, beaks first. These bird raids are captivatingly bizarre and terrifying.

Where the scenario and picture slip is in the sphere of the human element. An unnecessary elaborate romantic plot has been cooked up and then left suspended. It involves a young bachelor attorney (Rod Taylor), his sister (Veronica Cartwright), their mother (Jessica Tandy), and a plucky, mysterious playgirl (Tippi Hedren) whose arrival from San Francisco with a pair of caged lovebirds for Taylor coincides with the outbreak of avian hostility…” –Variety (December 31, 1962)

Time magazine’s review followed with a similar review of the film that can be summed up with a single sentence; “The movie flaps to a plotless end.” The review seems to site Hunter’s “screwball comedy” opening as the source of most of the trouble with the film, as is evident in the opening paragraph.

“…With a shrieking din, the lettering of the titles and credits comes on, only to be pecked from the screen by a squadron of crazed starlings. Having hinted at the ornithophobic horror to come, director Alfred Hitchcock goes nattering on with an hour of some silly plot-boiling about a flirtatious society girl (Tippi Hedren), a lovelorn schoolmarm (Suzanne Pleshette), an Oedipus wreck (Rod Taylor) and a pair of lovebirds…” –Time (Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach’s review for “Film Quarterly” was a rather lengthy diatribe against the film. It would be ill-advised to take Callenbach’s opinions too seriously. His review is redundant, and rambles for the sake of showcasing his own intelligence (which is lacking). In this reviewer’s opinion, his use of the word “Dionysiac” instead of “Dionysian” discredits him. This is of course, if his audience hasn’t already stopped reading after he mistakes Vera Miles for Janet Leigh. His condescension is irritating, even when one agrees with his opinions. I understand that shortly after the review was published, the editor considered renaming the publication “Pretension Quarterly.”

“‘The Birds is coming!’ says Hitchcock on the posters, and we enter the theater with a pleasant chortle of anticipated horror. Ah that phallic symbolism!

The result is disappointing. The film has been made; it seems to me, on two mistaken assumptions. One is that a frightening film can be made in naturalistic color, and the other is that an attack by birds carries the emotional impact of a really horrific situation. There are other mistakes too — Tippi Hedren, an atrocious and atrociously directed child, and Hitchcock’s usual inability to dramatize affectionate relationships. But some of these might have been remedied.

No doubt Hitchcock’s reasoning was that the pastoral loveliness of Bodega Bay, rendered in soft color, would make us feel more attachment to the scene when it is abruptly threatened by thousands of attacking gulls and crows: so beautiful a little town, to have such a thing happen in it! Yet the effect is precisely the reverse: it reduces the scene to postcard dimensions, so that we care less rather than more, because it is only picturesque. The ratty motel in Psycho, by contrast, was a setting apt for the most extreme horrors; in itself it was a ratty motel only, yet quickly — through the lighting, the hole in the wall, the excellent playing of Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins — the film slid into an area of real emotional impact. The Birds never does. The trick work tries hard — with, reportedly, as many as five simultaneous super-impositions of various birds attacking. But the film has too many obvious loopholes. Above all, why does Rod Taylor, presented as an intelligent and experienced man, not devise with the townsmen — who are largely fishermen and obviously very competent about mechanical matters — any reasonable attempted defense? Who ventured to imagine that seagull beaks could pierce heavy planks? Such nagging mundane questions arise, obviously, because the film is unable to tap in, as a skillful thriller does, on unconscious fears. (Some women seem to be frightened by The Birds, but the general report is that it isn’t very scary; Psycho, on the other hand, terrified almost everybody, though its pseudo-psychiatric ending relieved the tension by being inadvertently comic.) A flock of attacking birds may be surprising, since we all have a somewhat rosy picture of the gentleness of birds, but they remain just a lot of attacking birds; they are natural, external forces to be combated somehow or other, or fled from; they do not share the potentially supernatural mysteries and terrors of those things which are human or inhuman. Hence when Hitchcock makes Tippi walk slowly up the stairs and enter the bird-infested room, it is not at all the obsessive action of Janet Leigh going down the stairs to Mrs. Bates in Psycho; her action leads not toward a psychic resolution of fears, but only to a bloody fight. (The discovery of the body of the feed-dealer, at the end of another corridor, is much more effective.)

Now Hitchcock reportedly concedes that the picture is somewhat allegorically intended. Certainly the McCarthyite grotesque of the mother who accuses Tippi of witchcraft has too many overtones to be neglected. The ending without an end title also, presumably, is intended to make one reflect upon fatal perils seemingly averted — when will the next wave of birds strike? (It is worth remembering that the military slang for missiles is “birds.”) Yet most such aspects of the film would have to be interpreted as cynical triviality if we took this seriously — the lovebirds as a token at the end? — the cops as the bumblers of Civil Defense? — or even the birds is irrational evil or dionysiac forces? No, it must be merely more of Master Alfred’s jokes, perhaps thrown in to insure respectful treatment in Cahiers du Cinema.

The trick work deserves special scrutiny in itself, since the picture is largely a tour de force on this level. Here too Hitchcock falls short. It is not easy to make us believe that birds, normally cautious and timid creatures, might attack men — who after all, even if they were armed with nothing but ball-bats or old 2×4′s, are among the earth’s most dangerous inhabitants. We therefore scrutinize the trick shots with great care: how exactly would birds behave in such a situation? And of course they don’t behave at all in the crucially necessary sense. They seem to fly by at more or less the correct angles to be attacking; they glide in a way almost lifelike enough to convince us; their beaks are made to slash (like the knife in Psycho) against Tippi’s outstretched stigmata-ready hands; their bodies bang into the glass of the telephone booth. Another Hitchcock gargoyle, a hermaphroditic bird-watcher, and skeptic, spells out for us the gigantic number of birds in the world — in which might lie real danger. But in fact, of course, we never actually see any single live bird unambiguously committing a hostile action, like standing there and visibly pecking at somebody’s eyeball. If we had, the effect would have been electric and genuinely horrible, for it would have clearly contradicted our stereotyped feelings about birds, and it is upon such unsettlements of our usual control reactions that the maker of horrific films must play. But since Hitchcock cannot accomplish this, he cannot really touch us, and we are left sitting there amused at good old Alfred’s ingenious but old-fashioned cutting tricks.

These tricks are deployed without the ease and verve of Psycho, moreover. Whereas Psycho is a sickening slide into ever more terrifying events, until the ridiculous psychiatry sets in at the end, The Birds uses up its excitement early, then tries to rise to what is only an anticlimax — the escape of the four individuals in the sports car. One expects, as they inch their way out of the house surrounded by thousands of quietly clucking gulls, that Tippi will yell in terror, or the child going back for the lovebirds will disturb the gulls, and that they will attack again, in a kind of doomsday fantasy which has been rather common in fiction lately. However, the four do get away — at least for now. It is hard to care much; one wonders idly what has been happening elsewhere, if anything. The radio has said that apparently the plague is only local. But nothing follows; the curtains close.

Visually the film is far from Hitchcock at his best. Some of it — like the boat ride Tippi takes across Bodega Bay — is downright clumsy; some is merely tedious, like the protracted conversation in the schoolteacher’s living room. There are inexplicably shaky tracking shots, and on the whole the film has the feel of being skimped both in the shooting and in the shot-planning. Tippi Hedren is a pretty blonde of very modest abilities, working here slightly below the Grace Kelly class level the film tries to ascribe to her. Rod Taylor is a large but emotionally featureless object, and the rest are routine characterizations signifying nothing.

As often in Hitchcock, there are a lot of irrelevant characters and details — a former lover of the hero’s, who is firmly established only to get her eyes pecked out while the child is watching; TV-level ‘sophisticated’ dialogue between hero and heroine; widowed anxious castrating mother, etc.

Worse still, the dialogue has a way of undermining the film. Somebody reports a past plague of gulls in a nearby city — or were they just lost in the fog? (At any rate, they flew away peacefully next day.) The radio reports, later in the film, seem to imply that the outbreak of bird attacks is a local matter — dreadful for the handful of people involved, no doubt, but not some great upheaval of nature. The police of the nearby county-seat are skeptical and rather make light of the whole thing. This accentuates our concern for the safety of the principals, but it detracts from the over-all sense of danger. A really skillful film frightener takes pains to make his dangers open-ended — there is no telling how bad things might get! — and suggestive of ultimate horrors and revelations; he avoids elements in the film which will narrow things down to even possibly controllable dimensions. Orson Welles’s Martian broadcast is still a model in these matters — it scared some 40,000 people into leaving New York City — and makers of films about Menaces would do well to study it. Hitchcock tries to play in this league and fails — predictably so, perhaps, for his forte is the projection of the personally murderous impulse. Psycho, in its own sick way, was a small masterpiece, despite its denouement. But a mess of inconclusive phallic symbolism like Hitchcock’s new film is — let’s say it once again — for the birds.” -Ernest Callenbach (Film Quarterly, 1963)

The review published in The London Times (aka The Times) provides us with a bridge between the negative and the positive. The review begins by lauding many aspects of production, but qualifies the film’s merits with a number of criticisms. In the end, it labels the film “second-grade Hitchcock.”

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock seldom fails to pull a surprise out of his sleeve, and his latest film is no exception. ‘The Birds is coming!’ scream the posters, and evil-looking black silhouettes hang over us; ‘It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made’, Mr. Hitchcock warns us (with characteristic ambiguity) from hoardings. So, naturally, we go along prepared at once to be scared out of our wits. And what happens? For the first three-quarters of an hour, virtually nothing. In his most insolently insidious fashion Mr. Hitchcock begins with throwaway social comedy shading little by little into drama… It is all very cool, and precise, and leisurely. And so it goes on for exactly 45 minutes. We know these people, from films and from life; we know where we are, and can prepare with reasonable equanimity for a fairly conventional thriller with, presumably, science-fiction touches.

Then the birds come. First one, a stray seagull which for no apparent reason swoops out of a clear blue sky and pecks the heroine. Then other little attacks here and there. Then suddenly a sort of collective frenzy which all at once seizes great flocks of otherwise harmless birds — the sort of birds one disregards and walks happily among on the pavements of any city in the world — and sets them tearing and clawing at a humanity totally unprepared for any such betrayal. For betrayal it seems. We are used to supposing that nature is there for us; “man superior walks amid the glad creation” and mere animals and plants know their places. But how fragile is the structure of our complacency; what would happen if something went wrong and the balance of power we so casually take on trust were changed overnight?

This is the theme of The Birds, and it is in general brilliantly handled. The old master’s skill in starting from the ordinary only to drop us terrifyingly into the extraordinary has seldom been better deployed. No traditional menace is allowed to intrude; there are none of the birds that normally frighten us, no suggestion that these birds have somehow acquired superior intelligence or are the agents of a superior intelligence. They are throughout just birds, ordinary birds, behaving as birds might given the one basic, by no means incredible assumption that something — some form of rabies, perhaps — might sweep, through them rather as myxomatosis did the rabbit population of the world. Once one accepts the possibility of this, all the rest falls into place as a cunningly unanswerable morality; the mushroom-shaped cloud may be the least of our troubles — that at least is part of our own house and we can, if we will, keep it in order; rather, we should remember that we occupy that house only on sufferance.

The conception of the film, then, is compelling.

What prevents it nevertheless from matching the most extraordinary of Mr. Hitchcock’s achievements — Psycho, Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry — is an occasional faltering in the execution. Though a lot of the process work needed to show the birds attacking is superbly done, there are odd shots which look so patently fake that they weaken our confidence in the whole. Then the cast seems, in comparison with those Mr. Hitchcock has lately been assembling, a trifle colourless: Mr. Rod Taylor’s lawyer hero is rather a dull stick and Miss “Tippi” Hedren, another of those cool-but-sizzling-underneath blondes that Mr. Hitchcock delights to feature in his films, is less appealing than many: one takes the point that she is not meant to be a very agreeable character, but at least the qualities she does have might come over more vividly. And finally the script (by Mr. Evan Hunter, vaguely suggested by a story of Miss Daphne du Maurier) does lie a little heavy, especially towards the end of the first movement, when all the characters spend too much time un-illuminatingly discussing their relations with their own and each other’s mothers.

But when all this is said, second-grade Hitchcock is still about twice as exciting as first-grade anyone else. There are marvelous ideas (like the irony of the heroine fluttering frantically, “caged” in a phone-booth by savage, blood-lusting birds) and always the sheer drive and discipline of his visual story-telling. And, to come back to the basics which still mean most to the average filmgoer when the name of Mr. Hitchcock is mentioned, it can be safely guaranteed to make even the most stout-hearted think twice the next time he starts casually to brush aside a couple of stray pigeons that cross his path.” –The Times (August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut was extremely kind to the film in his review for Cahiers du Cinéma, but admitted that the film “isn’t perfect.”

“…Hitchcock has never won an Oscar, although he is the only living filmmaker whose films, when they are reissued twenty years after their first appearance, are as strong at the box office as new films. His last film, The Birds, is admittedly not perfect. Rod Taylor and ‘Tippi’ Hedren are imperfectly matched, and the sentimental story (as almost always, husband hunting) suffers from it. But what an injustice there is in the generally bad reception. I am so disappointed that no critic admired the basic premise of the film: ‘Birds attack people.’ I am convinced that cinema was invented so that such a film could be made. Everyday birds — sparrows, seagulls, crows — take to attacking ordinary people, the inhabitants of a seacoast village. This is an artist’s dream; to carry it off requires a lot of art, and you need to be the greatest technician in the world.

Alfred Hitchcock and his collaborator, Evan Hunter (Asphalt Jungle), kept only the idea of Daphne du Maurier’s short story: seaside birds take to attacking humans, first in the countryside, then in the town, at the exits of schools, and even in their homes.

No film of Hitchcock’s has ever shown a more deliberate progression: as the action unfolds, the birds become blacker and blacker, more and more numerous, increasingly evil. When they attack people, they prefer to go for their eyes. Basically fed up with being captured and put in cages — if not eaten — the birds behave as if they had decided to reverse the roles.

Hitchcock thinks that The Birds is his most important film. I think so too in a certain way — although I’m not sure. Starting with such a powerful mold, Hitch realized that he had to be extremely careful with the plot so that it would be more than a pretext to connect scenes of bravura or suspense. He created a very successful character, a young San Francisco woman, sophisticated and snobbish, who (in enduring all these bloody experiences) discovers simplicity and naturalness.

The Birds can be considered a special-effects film, indeed, but the special effects are realistic. In fact, Hitchcock’s mastery of the art grows greater with each film and he constantly needs to invent new difficulties for himself. He has become the ultimate athlete of cinema.

In actual fact, Hitchcock is never forgiven for making us afraid, deliberately making us afraid. I believe, however, that fear is a “noble emotion” and that it can also be “noble” to cause fear. It is “noble” to admit that one has been afraid and has taken pleasure in it. One day, only children will possess this nobility.” -François Truffaut (1963)

It comes as a surprise that Bosley Crowther was another of the film’s champions.

“…Making a terrifying menace out of what is assumed to be one of nature’s most innocent creatures and one of man’s most melodious friends, Mr. Hitchcock and his associates have constructed a horror film that should raise the hackles of the most courageous and put goose-pimples on the toughest hide.

Whether Mr. Hitchcock intended this picture of how a plague of birds almost ruins a peaceful community to be symbolic of how the world might be destroyed (or perilously menaced) by a sudden disorder of nature’s machinery is not apparent in the picture. Nor is it made readily clear whether he meant the birds to represent the classical Furies that were supposed to pursue the wicked on this earth.

I prefer to suspect the latter, although it isn’t in Mr. Hitchcock’s style to inject allegorical meanings or social significance in his films…

…But whether or not it is intended that you should find significance in this film, it is sufficiently equipped with other elements to make the senses reel. Mr. Hitchcock, as is his fashion, has constructed it beautifully, so that the emotions are carefully worked up to the point where they can be slugged…

…Notice how clear and naturalistic the narrative elements are: a plausible confrontation, beautiful scenery, a literal enactment of a playful intrigue — all very nicely arranged.

Then, sneakily, Mr. Hitchcock tweaks us with a tentative touch of the bizarre. The plausible is interrupted by a peculiar avian caprice. A seagull attacks a young woman. Flocks of angry gulls whirl in the air. A swarm of sparrows swoops down a chimney and whirrs madly through the living room. And, then, before we know it, he is flying in shock waves of birds and the wild, mad, fantastic encounter with a phenomenon of nature is on.

There may be no explanation for it (except that symbolic one, perhaps), but the fierceness and frightfulness of it are sufficient to cause shocks and chills. And that is, no doubt, what Mr. Hitchcock primarily intends.

The cast is appropriate and sufficient to this melodramatic intent. …And those birds! Well, you’ve never seen such actors! They are amazingly malevolent feathered friends.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, April 1, 1963)

 Andrew Sarris also admired the film upon its release.

The Birds is here (at the Palace and Sutton), and what a joy to behold a self-contained movie which does not feed parasitically on outside cultural references—Chekhov, Synge, O’Neill, Genet, Behan, Melville, or what have you. Drawing from the relatively invisible literary talents of Daphne Du Maurier and Evan Hunter, Alfred Hitchcock has fashioned a major work of cinematic art, and “cinematic” is the operative term here, not “literary” or “sociological.” There is one sequence, for example, where the heroine is in an outboard motor boat churning across the bay while the hero’s car is racing around the shore road to intercept her on the other side. This race, in itself pure cinema, is seen entirely from the girl’s point of view. We see only what she can see from the rowboat. Suddenly, near shore, the camera picks up a sea gull swooping down on our heroine. For just a second, the point of view is shifted, and we are permitted to see the bird before its victim does. The director has apparently broken an aesthetic rule for the sake of a shock effect—gull pecks girl. Yet this momentary incursion of the objective on the subjective is remarkably consistent with the meaning of the film.

The theme, after all, is complacency, as the director has stated on innumerable occasions . . . As in Psycho, Hitchcock succeeds in implicating his audience to such an extent that the much-criticized, apparently anticlimactic ending of the film finds the audience more blood-thirsty than the birds.” -Andrew Sarris (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)

LEGACY

Today, The Birds is simply accepted as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important films. Because it is an important work that made advancements in what could be achieved on the screen, people consider The Birds to be of his best films. Donald Spoto even claimed that it is one of the director’s masterpieces.

“…The result is perhaps Hitchcock’s least accessible motion picture, for it reveals its richness like a demanding art novel or a complex symphony, only after considerable effort. Even ardent Hitchcockians among those mystified and disappointed by this picture, although The Birds is certainly among his half-dozen masterpieces and one of the purest, most darkly lyrical films ever created. Part of the problem may be Hitchcock’s refusal to compromise, for The Birds is nothing like the traditional narrative with a beginning, a middle and a firm conclusion… (Discussing The Birds with the author of this book, Federico Fellini called it an apocalyptic poem and affirmed it as his favorite among Hitchcock’s works and one of the cinema’s greatest achievements.)” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

While this reviewer does not subscribe to popular belief that The Birds is one of the master’s best efforts, it is an endlessly interesting work that rewards viewers with new revelations each time that it is seen. After all, second tier Hitchcock is still much better than most other films (especially these days).

ss20

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

 This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

collection page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork that improves on the artwork used for the various DVD releases of the film.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

menu1menu 2menu 3menu 4

There is very little room for complaint (especially concerning the individual release).

ss10

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Birds is a troublesome title to judge in terms of picture quality. The film is marred to some extent by the special effects photography. Some shots are naturally second, third, and even fourth generation images. Obviously, these images will not be as immaculate as one expects from Blu-ray transfers. This reviewer cannot hold this against the transfer, even if some of these images aren’t as pristine as one might prefer. The image is a bit softer than one expects in high definition, but much of this is due to the production photography. This transfer is vastly superior to previous DVD releases of the film, and warrants an upgrade. There is more detail evident in the transfer, and aliasing is less of an issue here. The picture contrast is also vastly superior than it has been in previous releases of the film. Colors seem to be accurately rendered, and black levels are deep and lovely. Some shots do exhibit a bit of unattractive noise, but these incidents do not represent the presentation in its entirety. There has also been a bit of digital tampering, and there is an occasional artifact. This is never distracting, but it is somewhat unfortunate. This transfer might not be great, but it is certainly a vast improvement. It would be a mistake to expect much more than this.

ss24

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The faithful DTS-HD 2.0 Mono Master Audio track is fabulous. Certain audiences might prefer a 5.1 mix, but this track best represents the film as it was intended to be experienced upon the film’s release. The sounds are always crisp and clear, and dialogue is always intelligible. The sound effects are full and have an aggression that one might expect in more modern films (even if they are focused through the front speakers). While a 5.1 mix would certainly be an enjoyable experience, this loss-less Mono track does the job admirably.

ss28

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

All About The Birds – (SD) – (1:19:49) –

Laurent Bouzereau’s feature-length documentary about the making of The Birds is incredibly comprehensive. It covers every aspect of production in explicit detail. The program was produced at a time when supplemental features were actually quite wonderful (instead of mere fluff pieces). Patricia Hitchcock, ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Rod Taylor, Veronica Cartwright, Evan Hunter, Ray Berwick, Robert Boyle, Hilton Green, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Harold Michelson, Howard Smit, Steven C. Smith, and Robin Wood all share memories, or provide their expertise about the film. The viewer will also hear Alfred Hitchcock discuss the film’s ending with Peter Bogdanovich. The disc would be worth its asking price if this were the only supplement included! This documentary is second only to Bouzereau’s similar program about Psycho… and it is a very close second.

The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie – (HD) – (14:23) –

This featurette is exclusive to the Blu-ray of The Birds, and is essentially an analysis of the film’s place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. The piece makes the argument that The Birds is the master’s “monster movie.” It is nice to have it included here, but it isn’t one of the discs better supplements.

‘Tippi’ Hedren’s Screen Test (SD) – (9:57) –

This footage from ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s screen test (featuring Martin Balsam) is an absolute gem. Alfred Hitchcock fans should find this footage to be absolutely essential, and will be thrilled to have it in their collection.

Suspense Story: National Press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:54) –

This newsreel includes a humorous speech that Alfred Hitchcock gave for the National Press Club. It is both interesting and enjoyable.

The Birds is Coming (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:17) –

This newsreel features footage that highlights pigeon races that publicized The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock and ‘Tippi’ Hedren witness the event.

Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Excerpts – (SD) – (13:58) –

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films.

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics – (HD) – (9:13) –

This featurette is essentially a commercial for the Universal catalog, and discusses the restoration of a few Universal films (including The Birds). The few nuggets of information that are related to the viewer concern the restoration process.

100 Years of Universal: The Lot – (HD) – (9:26) –

This featurette is essentially a fluff piece about the Universal lot, but it does include a few brief moments of interesting footage that makes it worth watching.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (5:11) -

The theatrical trailer for The Birds is an incredibly creative promotional film featuring Alfred Hitchcock discussing the history of man’s relationship with the birds. It is of course done with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. It is truly excellent, and this disc would be incomplete without it.

Deleted Scene – (SD) – (4:20) -

This deleted scene featuring Melanie and Mitch was shot, but no longer exists (at least not to anyone’s current knowledge). Therefore, the scene is presented as a sort of slide show with excerpts from the script and images from the scene.

Original Ending – (SD) – (3:40) -

Since the original ending was never shot, we are given a slide show presentation of script pages and conceptual sketches that illustrate what the ending would have been like.

Storyboards – (SD) – (24:21) –

Audiences are given a slide show comparing various storyboards with images from the film.

Production Photographs – (SD) -

Another slide show of production photos, stills, advertisements, posters, and other images is also included.

ss12

Final Words:

The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important efforts, and fans will want to include this Blu-ray in their libraries. The special features included on the disc are truly excellent, and the transfer is a definite upgrade from previous DVD releases of the film.

ss32

Source Materials:

Article (The Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)
Daphne du Maurier (The Birds)
Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 18, 1961)
Alfred Hitchcock Using Sentinel’s Seabird Story (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 21, 1961)
Interview with Evan Hunter and Charles L.P. Silet (MysteryNet)
Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)
Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)
François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)
Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)
Interview (Cinema, August-September, 1963)
Interview with Evan Hunter and Barry Forshaw (Crime Time)
Interview with Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich (1963)
Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)
Review (Variety, December 31, 1962)
Review (Time, Apr. 05, 1963)
Ernest Callenbach Review (Film Quarterly, 1963)
Review (The Times, August 29, 1963)
François Truffaut Review (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1963)
Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, April 1, 1963)
Andrew Sarris Review (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)
Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)
Tony Lee Moral (The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds)

Review By: Devon Powell

Book Review: The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds

Cover

Publisher: Kamera Books

Release Date: September 1, 2013

Those who have read Tony Lee Moral’s “Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie” will not be surprised to hear that his book about the making of The Birds stands as one of the better books about the creation of a single Hitchcock film. Moral covers his subject in exhaustive detail. The book begins with the genesis of Daphne du Maurier’s short story and works its way through the film’s release. Every stage of the film’s production is given equal attention using files from the actual production that are held at the Margaret Herrick Library, archival articles and interviews, personal interviews, previously published books on the director’s work, and other sources. Moral’s work will serve both the film scholar and the casual fan in equal measure.

One is especially appreciative of Moral’s understanding that it isn’t always wise to accept everything one hears or reads. He seems to question certain stories and comments made from individuals involved with the project. He often raises questions about the validity of some of the information he presents instead of accepting it at face value simply because it would make for an interesting story (or support an agenda). Moral makes an honest attempt to present multiple perspectives in a manner that leaves the conclusions up in the air for the reader to sort out. This is a very responsible approach to scholarship, and one cannot say this about a lot of texts that focus on Hitchcock.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Psycho

cover2

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. The exact same disc has recently been re-released with the same transfer, supplements, and artwork (minus the 50th Anniversary label). The only difference between the two releases is that the more recent edition comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

Steelbook Cover

There is also an upcoming Limited Steelbook Edition of Psycho scheduled for release on November 4, 2014. This release will contain the same transfer and supplements as the previous discs, but will be presented in a steelbook case with new artwork.

Steelbook Back Cover

For more a detailed review on all three releases:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition.

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Gone With the Wind – 75th Anniversary Edition

Gone With the Wind – 75th Anniversary EditionDistributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: September 30, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 3:53:14

Video: 1080P (VC-1 Video)

Main Audio: English Dolby TrueHD Audio (48 kHz, 16-bit)

English Dolby Digital Mono

Alternate Audio:

French 5.1 Dolby Digital
Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital
Spanish Dolby Digital Mono
German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Italian 5.1 Dolby Digital
Japanese Dolby Digital Mono
Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23 Mbps

Notes: This title comes with a digital Ultraviolet copy of the film.

This has been given a number of Blu-ray releases. Each of these releases is different in various ways. This edition contains all of the supplements that were included with the 70th Anniversary Edition (with the exception of the CD of Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind score), along with a brand new Blu-ray disc that features two new featurettes. The memorabilia included in this set is also different than that included in the 70th Anniversary Edition.

Screenshot 1

“I recognize, perhaps even more than you, the problem with leangth. I am prepared for a picture that will be extremely long in any case…” -David O. Selznick (Memo to Sidney Howard)

When Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood to make films with David O. Selznick in 1939, his employer was in the middle of another major production. That production would become one of the most beloved films of all time.

Gone with the Wind is the quintessential Hollywood epic, and remains history’s all-time domestic box-office champion ($1.6 billion – if adjusted for inflation), with more tickets sold than any other movie ever made. It is David O. Selznick’s magnum opus, despite the producer’s attempts to surpass the success of the film.

The production was originally helmed by George Cukor, but Selznick replaced the director with Victor Fleming shortly after the film began production. Despite a somewhat troubled production, the film was a hit with audiences and critics alike. It captured 10 Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (the first Oscar awarded to an African-American actor), Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Editing.

Despite evolving tastes (and heightened awareness of the troublesome sociopolitical elements in the film), Gone with the Wind remains one of the most well loved and influential films from the early studio system. The film is embedded firmly into our culture, and will likely remain there for many years to come.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, Warner Brothers has released a collectable package that should delight fans of the film.

Screenshot 2

The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Insert for the back of the package.

This beautiful Collector’s Set is housed in a numbered box (11″ x 8″ by 2 1/4″) with attractive film related artwork. Along with the 4-disc Blu-ray/DVD set (which is housed in the standard Blu-ray casing), fans are provided with a replica of Rhett Butler’s Monogrammed Handkerchief (which bears the initial RB), and a Music Box paperweight playing Tara’s theme with an image on top of the Rhett-Scarlett kiss.

Also included is a 36-page Companion Booklet entitled Forever Scarlett: The Immortal Style of Gone with the Wind. The book features an essay written by New York fashion designer (and Project Runway finalist) Austin Scarlett, and is illustrated with beautiful photos from the film.

The discs all have uniform static menus that are adorned with an attractive film related image.

Screenshot 3

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers often impresses with their excellent restorations and image transfers. Gone with the Wind is no exception. Unlike many studios, they tend to treat their back catalog of classics with the proper amount of respect and fanfare. Better yet, they offer exquisite Blu-ray releases of these titles.

While the silkscreen artwork on the disc might suggest a new transfer, the 75th Anniversary Edition contains the same transfer that was used for the film’s 70th Anniversary release. This should please fans, because the 70th Anniversary 8K restoration transfer was absolutely amazing.

This VC-1 image transfer exhibits a sharpness that is very often nonexistent on films from this particular era. The film’s original 1.37:1 transfer is maintained, and showcased in all of its glory. The image contains just the right amount of grain to betray Gone with the Wind’s celluloid source, but manages to remain at an attractive level that does not distract the viewer. Colors are usually brilliant and showcase Scarlett’s many gowns with the proper majesty. Some may find skin tones to look slightly jaundiced at times, but one can probably blame the source (and it is always to a minimal degree). The mise-en-scène is given a level of detail and depth that was never seen in previous home video transfers. Compression is never a problem in the transfer (as one might expect from a film of this length). Warner Brothers should give lessons to other studios on how to properly treat catalog releases. They can use this transfer of Gone with the Wind as a visual aid.

Screenshot 4

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This 75th Anniversary disc offers the film’s Original Mono soundtrack, as well as a 5.1 Mix in TrueHD. This should pacify the purists while also pleasing those who prefer the more dynamic mixes of recent films. To be honest, the 5.1 mix is rather modest. It probably wouldn’t aggravate purists as much as they might initially believe. Dialogue remains in the center channels and is consistently clear and clean. Surround channels add just the right amount of subtle depth during the films more epic moments. The hiss that washes over the film’s original Mono track is absent here. Better yet, the digital clean up didn’t noticeably disturb high end sounds. During moments where musical orchestration takes over, it can sound the slightest bit boxy (as it would in a mono mix). This is forgivable, because one cannot improve on the source elements. This is the best that the film has ever sounded on home video.

Screenshot 5

Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

This 75th Anniversary Edition might very well surpass the previous 70th Anniversary Edition release as far as supplementary material is concerned. In addition to the supplements included on the 70th Anniversary discs, fans are given a brand new disc of interesting extras.

DISC 1 (The Movie):

Commentary by Historian Rudy Behlmer

Thankfully, most of the supplements were reserved for the additional discs.

However, fans are given a Commentary track with Rudy Behlmer that surpasses ones expectations. Behlmer gives an extremely accessible lesson to viewers about the film’s production that never becomes overly dry or scholarly. The track should also please people interested in the differences between Margaret Mitchell’s source novel and film version. One might be hesitant to sit through a commentary track for a film that is nearly four hours in length, but those brave enough to do so will be richly rewarded.

Screenshot 5

DISC 2 (Special Features):

The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind – (SD) – (2:03:36)

This feature-length documentary was produced in 1988 by Daniel Selznick, L. Jeffrey Selznick, and Jonathan Wickham. It is interesting to note that David O. Selznick’s sons are producers on this comprehensive documentary on their father’s most famous film. The documentary won a Peabody Award®, which seems to be extremely well deserved. It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive glimpse into the background of this film (or any film). At over two hours in length, is much better than the usual EPK “making of” featurettes that have become the norm. Fans are given a very real glimpse into the film’s production as home movies, screen tests, and other related footage illustrate the interviews and narration provided. It is essential viewing for fans of Gone with the Wind!

Gone With the Wind: The Legend Lives On – (SD) – (33 min)

This short program focuses more on the film’s legacy than on the actual production of the film. It discusses the film’s profitable re-issues to theatres, the growing fan base, and the many collectors who have much more than a casual love for the film. It is always interesting, and works as a companion piece to The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind.

Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia de Havilland – (SD) – (38:43)

Olivia de Havilland turns out to be an extremely articulate storyteller. Here she takes viewers into a detailed account of her experiences shooting Gone with the Wind. It is certainly one of the many highlights on this disc, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year – (SD) – (1:08:20)

Many people consider 1939 to be the most outstanding year for the motion picture industry. Kenneth Branagh narrates this documentary that looks at some of the wonderful films to come out of Hollywood during these twelve months. The program is organized by studio, and gives us just enough contextual information for viewers to absorb the information in a useful manner.

Gable: The King Remembered – (SD) – (1:05:03)

Peter Lawford hosts this documentary on Clark Gable. It is slightly more comprehensive than one might expect, and is extremely interesting. Fans of the actor should be thrilled to have it included. It is really quite interesting.

Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond – (SD) – (46:05)

It is nice to see a program about Vivien Leigh included on this disc. Not only was the actress a major part of the film’s success, but she was also an incredibly interesting personality. Jessica Lange hosts this look into Leigh’s career. It is always engaging, but fans might wish for a more detailed and comprehensive account of her life. While we are given a relatively comprehensive account of her stage and screen work, her personal life is discussed as a mere subplot. Her illnesses are covered in enough depth to be interesting, but viewers are likely to yearn for more a more comprehensive look into these issues.

Movieola: The Scarlett O’Hara Wars – (SD) – (1:37:47)

The Scarlett O'Hara War2Moviola was a 3-part miniseries for NBC that aired in 1980. It was based on a book by Garson Kanin. The three parts were all quite different, and were titled The Silent Lovers, This Year’s Blonde, and The Scarlett O’Hara Wars. Each of the three episodes stands alone, and each has been shown as separate made-for-television movies. The Scarlett O’Hara Wars was the most popular of the three films, and is included here for fans of Gone with the Wind to enjoy. The story is about the infamous search for Scarlett O’Hara, and features Tony Curtis as David O. Selznick.

This telefilm certainly doesn’t replace the other features on this disc when it comes to actual information. However, fans of Gone with the Wind should at the very least enjoy it as a curiosity.

The Supporting Players – (SD) – (30 min)

Fans are given short video profiles of various actors that played supporting roles in the film. Each profile is approximately two to four minutes in length. While each profile is interesting, none are comprehensive. However, these little snippets do give viewers an appreciation for the film’s secondary cast members. It is nice to see that these wonderful performers weren’t forgotten.

The disc divides these profiles into categories (and sometimes subcategories):

At Tara:

The O’Hara Plantation in Georgia: Short profiles on Thomas Mitchell and Barbara O’Neill

Their Daughters: Short profiles on Evelyn Keyes and Ann Rutherford

The House Servants: Short profiles on Hattie McDaniel, Oscar Polk, and Butterfly McQueen

At Twelve Oaks:

Short profiles on Leslie Howard, Rand Brooks, and Carroll Nye

In Atlanta:

Short profiles on Laura Hope Crews, Eddie Anderson, Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell, Ona Munson, and Cammie King

Newsreel: Dixie Hails Gone With the Wind – (SD) – (4 min)

It is nice to see that a vintage newsreel is included that covers Gone with the Wind’s premiere in Atlanta, Georgia. Fans will thoroughly enjoy seeing all of the footage contained in this interesting newsreel.

Newsreel: Atlanta Civil War Centennial – (SD) – (4 min)

In 1961 there was a Re-issue of Gone with the Wind to commemorate the anniversary of the Civil War. This re-release saw a second premiere in Atlanta. Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and David O. Selznick attended the premiere and were captured in this newsreel covering the event. This particular reel is mostly silent, but remains interesting.

Restoring a Legend – (SD) – (18 min)

This featurette focuses on the UltraResolution restoration given to Gone with the Wind for its 2004 DVD release. It is included here because the UltraResolution process informs restoration procedures today. It is interesting to see how much effort goes into a restoration.
.
International Prologue – (SD) – (1 min)

While those who lived in the United States were aware of the basics of Civil War history, those in other countries were less knowledgeable about these things. To remedy this, a prologue was added to the release prints for foreign release. This prologue is included here for fans. It is interesting to see this included here.

The Old South – (SD) – (11 min)

This short was directed by Fred Zinnemann and released by MGM. A short introduction explains that it was produced to provide a cultural background for viewers of Gone with the Wind in foreign territories. It also warns that some of the scenes are racially insensitive. That might be the understatement of the century. However, this only adds to the interest of this short documentary on ‘The Old South.’ The film probably provides an accurate representation of the small minded attitudes of the era.

Foreign Language Versions – (SD) – (3 min)

After a short introduction, fans are provided with a few clips from the Foreign Language dubs of Gone with the Wind.

Trailer Gallery:

Original Theatrical Trailer (1939)

Civil War Centennial Trailer (1961)

70mm Reissue Trailer (1967)

Reissue Trailer (1969)

50th Anniversary Trailer

Warner Brothers has provided fans with short introductions that provide each of these trailers with contextual information so that we know exactly what we are watching.

Screenshot 7

DISC 3 (75th Anniversary Special Features):

Old South/New South – (1080P) – (26:50)

This featurette is a light-weight discussion by various “authorities” on the south. It discusses the somewhat naïve presentation of the south in Gone with the Wind, and compares the film’s depiction of slavery with the harsh realities of slavery. It discusses the civil war, and balances a quiet respect of southern culture with a practical criticism of the darker underbelly behind the culture. This never really penetrates the surface of the topic, but does manage to raise a lot of essential questions in the viewer.

The trouble is that the featurette digresses into a discussion of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans culture. While one understands why Katrina was mentioned, it seems to linger in this territory for much too long. It never quite meshes with the first half of the program.

Gone With the Wind: Hollywood Comes to Atlanta – (1080P) – (12:38)

This reviewer’s favorite of the two new featurettes is this raw footage from the Atlanta premiere. Much of this footage seems to have been prepared for the popular newsreels of the era. The footage is accompanied throughout with the film’s score. Much of the footage is silent, but some of these clips come with a soundtrack.

This is an interesting look at the sort of ballyhoo that Hollywood was once so very good at.

Screenshot 8

DISC 4 (Mini-Series DVD):

When the Lion Roars – (SD) – (366 min)

WHEN THE LION ROARSThis documentary mini-series aired on TNT over the span of three nights in 1992. Turner Broadcasting’s production surprisingly rises above the typical glitzy promotional approach that one might expect from such a production. Of course, Patrick Stewart’s narration is sometimes corny, and often naive. (Who can honestly prefer a time when stars were committed to slavish contracts that gave them very little say in their careers?) That said; the nostalgic atmosphere is probably appropriate for a documentary that documents the rise and fall of one of Hollywood’s most sensational studios.

The program is broken up into three segments, all running a little over two hours each, making the complete over 6 hours long!

The Lions Roar:

This first episode of the mini-series discusses the earliest days of MGM and covers the history of Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s origins, the studios earliest silent successes, Louis B. Mayer’s appointing Irving Thalberg as head of production at MGM, Thalberg’s success at MGM, the studios early stars, the rise of the talkies, and works its way to Thalberg’s 1936 death.

The Lion Reigns Supreme:

This second episode follows MGM’s next 10 years and features information on David O. Selznick’s success at the studio, Mayer as studio father (or tyrant), the next generation of MGM stars, various MGM craftsmen, various film series of the era, and the incredibly dark (but extremely successful) war years.

The Lion in the Winter:

This third episode discusses the studio’s downfall. The meat of the film begins in 1948, when the studio struggles through two successive years of financial decline. It then moves forward to discuss the introduction of Dory Schary as the studio’s head of production. Mayer finds that he differs from Schary (both politically and artistically), but Schary enjoys a number of successes. As time moves forward; Mayer is forced out of the studio, corporate takeovers ensue, and the studio becomes little more than a memory.

The documentary is surprisingly comprehensive, and anyone that has even the remotest interest in this topic will find that their 6 hours were well spent.

Screenshot 10

Final Words:

This spectacular Warner Brothers release has earned an enthusiastic recommendation. If Gone with the Wind isn’t already a part of your Blu-ray collection, this 75th Anniversary Edition deserves a place of honor on your shelf.

Review by: Devon Powell

For information on the new book on the making of Gone with the Wind, follow this link: http://hitchcockmaster.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/offbeat-book-review-the-making-of-gone-with-the-wind/

Offbeat Book Review: The Making of ‘Gone with the Wind’

The Making of ‘Gone with the Wind’Publisher: University of Texas Press

Release Date: September 1, 2014

Cinemaphiles have grown to expect certain things from “making of” texts. They expect the book to be a comprehensive and well researched account of a film’s production. They also expect a few photos to be found hidden throughout the text of the book. If the book meets these basic criteria, the reader is usually satisfied. However, it is a rare event when a book exceeds these basic requirements. Steve Wilson’s “The Making of ‘Gone with the Wind’” is such a book.

The book's elegant visual presentation is evident from the very first page.

The book’s elegant visual presentation is evident from the very first page.

Gone With The Wind is one of the most popular movies of all time. To commemorate its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2014, “The Making of ‘Gone With The Wind’” presents more than 600 items from the archives of David O. Selznick (the film’s producer) and his business partner, John Hay “Jock” Whitney. These items are housed at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Steve Wilson is the curator of the film collection at the Harry Ransom Center. These rarely seen materials (which are also being featured in a major 2014 exhibition at the Ransom Center) offer fans and film historians alike a must-have behind-the-camera view of the production of this classic.

Production drawings are only one of the items of interest that can be found in this compelling book.

Production drawings are only one of the items of interest that can be found in this compelling book.

Before a single frame of film was shot, Gone With The Wind was embroiled in controversy. There were serious concerns about how the film would depict race and violence in the Old South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. While Clark Gable was almost everyone’s choice to play Rhett Butler, there was no clear favorite for Scarlett O’Hara. And then there was the huge challenge of turning Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize–winning epic into a manageable screenplay and producing it at a reasonable cost. “The Making of ‘Gone with the Wind’” tells these and other surprising stories with fascinating items from the Selznick archive, including on-set photographs, storyboards, correspondence and fan mail, production records, audition footage, gowns worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, and Selznick’s own notoriously detailed memos.

Production documents are often shown along with the beautiful vintage photos, and they are fascinating to read.

Production documents are often shown along with the beautiful vintage photos, and they are fascinating to read.

This reviewer has never come across a more perfect book about the creation of a film. Wilson’s book goes beyond an incredibly comprehensive text and manages to be visually spectacular. Many people would call it a “coffee table book,” but these books rarely provides the reader with such a wealth of information.

Costume and make-up tests add to the book's interest as well.

Costume and make-up tests add to the book’s interest as well.

This book is essential for fans of Gone with the Wind and film historians alike. It sets a new standard for books of its kind. One can only hope that other publications rise to these standards.

Review by: Devon Powell

Book Review: The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock

Wrong House herdruk cover ISBN9789462080966 web

Publisher: Nai010 Publishers

Release Date: April 30, 2014

“Settings, of course, come into the preliminary plan, and usually I have a fairly clear idea about them; I was an art student before I took up with films. Sometimes I even think of backgrounds first.” -Alfred Hitchcock

Having worked as a set designer in the early 1920s, Hitchcock remained intensely concerned with the art direction of his films, which feature a remarkable collection of Victorian manors, suburban dwellings, modernist villas, urban mansions, and posh penthouses. Some remarkable single-set films, such as Rope or Rear Window, explicitly deal with the way the confines of the set relate to those of the architecture on screen. In this book, Steven Jacobs discusses how Hitchcock’s cinematic spaces are connected with the narrative, the characters, and the mise-en-scène of his films.

Perhaps the best description of the book comes from Jacobs himself (in the book’s introduction).

“In the process of creating cinematic space, phenomena such as lighting, sound, editing, camera positions, and camera movements can and should be interpreted as architectonic practices. As a result, this book not only deals with production design but also the way Hitchcock creates cinematic space by means of cinematic devices.

Nonetheless, this book takes Hitchcock as an architect… Apart from discussing the achievements of art directors, production designers, and set decorators, this book links these imaginary buildings to the history and theory of architecture.” -Steven Jacobs

Those who find the concept compelling should not be disappointed. Jacobs not only utilizes expert analysis to examine the architecture in the director’s work, he also includes reconstructed floor plans, film stills, and screenshots to illustrate his points. With the wealth of Hitchcock scholarship available, it is a wonder that this book wasn’t written sooner. Architecture obviously plays a vital role in Hitchcock’s work.

Two pages from the book.

Two pages from the book.

There are a few errors in the text (such as referring to John Ferren as John Ferrer, and listing Hitchcock’s subway cameo as occurring in The Lodger instead of Blackmail.) However, these errors do not overshadow the insights that can be found in the book. The casual reader might not find a lot to recommend this book, but the scholar should find it to be a very helpful resource.

Review by: Devon Powell

Book Review: The Alfred Hitchcock Story

418iVi9pMNL

Publisher: Titan Books

Release Date: August 19, 2008

Ken Mogg’s coffee table book is better than similar books about the director. The title might lead one to believe that the book is another biography, but it is really a tribute to the director’s film output. There are similar books about the director available, but The Alfred Hitchcock Story stands out for a number of reasons.

The text of Mogg’s book benefits from an easy to read style, and will certainly expand the reader’s appreciation of the films discussed. Readers should also be suitably impressed with the vast amount of photographs that are included on each page. I would venture a guess that readers will find at least a few photos that they have never seen before.

The book’s structure is somewhat unusual. It is broken up into five different units (The Early Years 1899-1933, Classic British Movies 1934-1939, Hollywood 1940-1950, The Golden Years 1951-1964, and Languishing 1965-1980). Each of these units includes a four page introduction written by Dan Aulier (who wrote Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, and Hitchcock’s Notebooks). These introductions provide the reader with a little biographical and ‘behind the scenes’ information that place the films in a certain period of the director’s career. This context enriches Moggs chapters on the individual films (which are usually either 2 or 4 pages in length).

Articles written by various other writers are also scattered throughout the book. These include:

“Behind the Scenes Collaborators” by Philip Kemp
“Hitchcock’s Cameo Appearances” by David Barraclough
“Hitchcock and His Writers” by Steven DeRosa (who wrote Writing with Hitchcock)
“Famous Locations” by Philip Kemp
“Hitchcock on Radio” by Martin Grams Jr
“Hitchcock and Film Technique” by Philip Kemp
“The Icy Blondes” by Philip Kemp
“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” by J. Larry Kuhns
“Remakes, Sequels, and Homages” by David Barraclough
“The Short Story Anthologies” by Martin Grams Jr
“Unrealized Projects” by Dan Aulier

Most of these diversions are either two or four pages long, and all of them should interest readers. I imagine that many Hitchcock enthusiasts will likely know a lot (if not all) of the information provided by the book, and some will likely disagree with some of Mogg’s theoretical analysis. In addition, both Mogg and Kemp have a tendency to relay other people’s so-called “research” without questioning it. Let’s face it, there are a lot of myths about Alfred Hitchcock that have no basis in reality (and even more that is questionable). However, there is certainly enough here to recommend the book to Hitchcock fans. The photos alone provide an adequate excuse to add it to one’s library.

Review by: Devon Powell

Book Review: Film Craft: Directing

9780240818580

Publisher: Focal Press

Release Date: June 8, 2012

The FilmCraft book series focuses on specific disciplines within the filmmaking profession using interviews from noteworthy professionals in the field. This volume by Mike Goodridge features interviews with 16 directors, and profiles of 5 other directors.

The directors interviewed in this volume are:

Pedro Almodóvar
Olivier Assayas
Susanne Bier
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Guillermo del Torro
Clint Eastwood
Stephen Frears
Terry Gilliam
Amos Gitai
Paul Greengrass
Michael Heneke
Park Chan-wook
István Szabó
Peter Weir
Zhang Yimou

The directors profiled are:

Ingmar Bergman
John Ford
Jean-Luc Godard
Alfred Hitchcock
Akira Kurosawa

There will certainly be those that question Mike Goodridge’s choice of directors, but it would be nearly impossible to include every relevant director in a single volume. The directors chosen come from very diverse backgrounds, making the individual interviews unique and valuable. Any reservations that one has are likely to fade once they start reading the book.

There is a wealth of conflicting information (and advice) related to the readers. The idea that holds the volume together is that there are as many approaches to directing a film as there are film directors. The one constant piece of advice is the importance of trusting and being faithful to one’s individual vision.

The featured directors talk passionately about their craft, and engage the reader immediately. The text is illustrated with wonderful photos, set drawings, and storyboards that make the book a visual treat. FilmCraft: Directing is truly addictive! It will be a treasured addition to the libraries of anyone who loves the cinema, and a wonderful inspiration for future filmmakers.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Vertigo

91Z3gQZ1mEL._SL1500_

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region Free

Length: 2:08:27

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio:

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)

DTS English Mono

Alternate Audio:

DTS French Mono

DTS Spanish Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.90 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

ss1

“Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to re-create the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around. What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blonde. James Stewart is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun. What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off. When he insists, she says, ‘All right!’ and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside. What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This dark statement is meant to illustrate the desperate sense of lust inherent in ‘Scottie’ Ferguson during the scene. Scenes like this one have added fuel to many of the myths written about the portly director. People might take issue with my use of the word myth, but the fact remains that there are a lot of myths about the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

In Truffaut’s famous interview with the director, Truffaut claimed that Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote ‘D’entre les morts’ especially for the director after learning of his interest in ‘Celle qui n’était plus.’ Henri-Georges Clouzot had purchased the property and turned it into Les Diaboliques (1955). Hitchcock was surprised by Truffaut’s claim, and denied that this was the case. Truffaut held firm. However, there is more evidence to suggest otherwise. Hitchcock was not the only one to deny this rumor.

“…But according to Thomas Narcejac, one of the book’s authors, this was never the case. He admits that Hitchcock and their writing team shared common interests, but in an interview conducted for this book, he maintained firmly that he and his collaborator never had any intention of writing a book especially for Hitchcock. The genesis of the idea for their second novel actually took place, much more provocatively, in a French cinema. As Narcejac was watching a newsreel, he felt he distinctly recognized a friend he had lost touch with during the war; the idea of discovering a lost acquaintance in such a way stayed with him, and it suggested the outline of a story.” -Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

According to Narcejac, this sort of thing was quite common in Europe after WWII.

“After the war there were many displaced people and families – it was common to have lost a friend. I began to think about the possibilities of recognizing someone like this. Maybe someone who was thought dead… and this is where ‘D’entre les morts’ began to take shape.” -Thomas Narcejac (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

 ss0

It would take a lot of effort and a number of writers to adapt the Boileau-Narcejac novel into a usable screenplay. In this adaptation a number of important changes were made. The most obvious of these changes was the setting. The novel took place in Paris and spans from the early years of WWII to the liberation. This aspect was quickly jettisoned in favor of [then] modern day San Francisco. (Of course, names were also changed and Americanized.) These are only the most obvious changes. A comparison of the book and the film will show that only the basic plot remains.

The book ends with the protagonist accidentally strangling the Madeleine/Renée character (Madeleine/Judy in the final film) after she finally confesses that she and the person he is trying to re-create is one and the same person. He then surrenders himself to the police, giving the dead Renée a tender kiss. Hitchcock and his writers make the protagonist more proactive and intelligent by allowing him to figure out the murder plot after he sees Carlotta’s necklace. This also allows for visual storytelling and a “subjective treatment” of the material.

Maxwell Anderson was the first writer to work on the film (without the benefit of Hitchcock’s help). Alfred Hitchcock was in Africa scouting locations for Flamingo Feather, a production that was abandoned shortly after the trip. When Anderson sent the director a rough draft titled ‘Darkling I Listen,’ it was found to be unusable. Some sources claim that it was incomprehensible, but it is more likely that it was simply not very interesting. Very little of Anderson’s work is evident in the final film, although there are certain locations in this draft that were used in the final film (such as the Golden Gate Bridge and San Juan Bautista).

After Angus MacPhail was unable to help the director work out a treatment, Hitchcock contacted Alec Coppel. On September 21, 1956 Coppel began working very closely with Hitchcock on the film’s construction.

“Hitchcock at once took him on a tour of likely San Francisco locations. Once Coppel had got the feel of the story, there followed a series of script conferences in October and November 1956, the results of which he consolidated into a patchwork document of 50 scenes, completed in early December. This lays out the story without dialogue, but often in great descriptive detail. When this was complete, Coppel spent several more weeks, before other commitments took him away, in developing this script, putting in what Hitchcock described as ‘dummy dialogue,’ most of it purely indicative and functional, a guide for later development.” –Charles Barr (Vertigo: BFI Film Classics)

ss2

Alfred Hitchcock was not entirely happy with the outline as it stood, but did feel that the project was finally taking shape. On December 4th, the director would write a letter to Maxwell Anderson requesting that the writer take a look at Coppel’s work and flesh it out into a proper screenplay. The letter was quite long and very detailed.

“…Now, Max, one final thing. I am really anxious to get mood, but not necessarily somber mood, into this love story. I don’t want us to get heavy handed with it. After all, Barrie’s MARY ROSE ha some of the elements of the first part of this story and, as you know, this quality was quite a fey one…

 …Please, Max, forgive me for being so long-winded about this, but this construction has taken many weeks of work with Mr. Coppel and myself, and I still wonder that after all the years of one’s experience why construction is such a hard job…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Letter to Maxwell Anderson as printed in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

Anderson declined to work on the script and Alfred Hitchcock finally settled on Samuel Taylor, who would add character dimension to the outline and make several other changes before finally finishing the screenplay.

“We had a talk and I said the first thing we have to do is make these people real. He said, ‘That’s what Jimmy Stewart said.’ The whole story is so unreal and so fantasized and you never touch reality at all. Therefore I have to create somebody who is completely in the real worlk who can test you, the man, so that you can come back to reality and say to the audience, ‘Is this a real world?’” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

Taylor created the character of Midge (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) and began fleshing out the script with Hitchcock.

“It was pure serendipity. We discovered as soon as we met that our minds worked alike and that we had a rapport. It seemed to be a rapport that didn’t have to be announced. So when we worked, especially at his house, we would sit and talk. We would talk about all sorts of things – talk about food, talk about wives, talk about travel. …We’d talk about the picture and there would be a long silence and we’d just sit and contemplate each other and Hitchcock would say, ‘Well, the motor is still running.’ And then all of a sudden we would pick up again and talk some more.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

ss12

There were times when Hitchcock’s health took him away from the project. The director underwent surgery twice. The first surgery was a hernia operation, and the second was due to complications with his gallbladder. When the director returned to the project, a significant change to the film’s construction was made. Up to this point, the murder conspiracy was not revealed until the very end of the film. With Taylor, Hitchcock decided to move this revelation earlier in the story.

“ Now, in the book, they didn’t reveal that she was one and the same woman until the end of the story. I shocked Sam Taylor, who worked on it, when I said, ‘When Stewart comes upon this brunette girl, Sam, this is the time for us to blow the whole truth.’ He said, ‘Good God, why?’ I told him, if we don’t what is the rest of our story until we do reveal the truth. A man has picked up a brunette and sees in her the possibilities of resemblance to the other woman.

Let’s put ourselves in the minds of our audience here: ‘So you’ve got a brunette and you’re going to change her.’ What story are we telling now? A man wants to make a girl over and then, at the very end, finds out it is the same woman. Maybe he kills her, or whatever. Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense… ‘ If we don’t let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on.

 ‘Now,’ I said, ‘one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, ‘I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?’ So, I said, ‘we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! Right then and there – show it’s one and the same woman.’ Then, when Stewart comes to the hotel for her, the audience says, ‘Little does he know.’

Second, the girl’s resistance in the earlier part of the film had no reason. Now you have the reason–she doesn’t want to be uncovered. That’s why she doesn’t want the gray suit, doesn’t want to go blond–because the moment she does, she’s in for it. So now you’ve got extra values working for you.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Taylor claims that this alteration was actually his idea.

“That’s a matter of my expertise as a playwright… and I kept saying to Hitchcock that there’s something missing. Then one day I said to him, ‘I know exactly what’s missing’ – I said, ‘It’s really a Hitchcockian thing.’ I was naturally being Hitchcock with him. I said, ‘This is not pure Hitchcock unless the audience knows what has happened,’ and he agreed.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

Whoever came up with the idea, Hitchcock was not completely confident about the decision. His doubts grew after the screenplay was finished. Taylor made a bid to have Coppel’s name removed from the screen credit and Coppel fought him (and rightly won). When Alec Coppel wrote the director about the dispute, the director’s doubt was solidified.

“…I am conscious of the new dialogue and the new character Midge (who does not amount to anything) – but if Sam Taylor had started with only the book as his guide he couldn’t possibly have arrived at this latest script.

Next time we meet I would like very much to know why you jettisoned the entire mystery of the novel, and our script when I left you, by telling the audience on page 112 the truth about Judy? I’m sure you had reasons – but it seems to me that after that exposé you can reach for your hat…” –Alec Coppel (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock as printed in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

ss11

Hitchcock’s uncertainty about the early reveal would last through the film’s post-production.

In the late 1990s, Herbert Colman remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s reluctance to give away the murder conspiracy.

“Well, there was quite a controversy… I wanted it in the final cut and so did Sam [Taylor]. Joan Harrison, the producer of his television series, got to Hitch and talked him into running it without the scene, and at that running it started a fight with Hitch and myself…

 Hitch and I stood face to face, arguing like hell about the film in front of everybody in the theater. They knew that Hitch was wrong, because Harrison jumped up and said, ‘This is the only way you should show it, Hitch.’ I took Hitch off to one side and continued to argue about it with him. Finally, our voices started rising, and everybody was sitting in the theater in absolute silence. Just the silence alone should have told Hitch it was wrong. We went to great expense to take it out; in the end, though, I won and it was put back in…

 …When he released the picture this way [without the confession], I had to call all the prints back that we had sent all over the country and re-cut the scene and redo the music and everything and send those out. In the meantime, Barney Balaban, the president of Paramount, who had seen the picture in its original form with the scene in, had gone back to New York and told everyone it was the greatest Hitchcock film.

 Just before the release date, between that time and the actual release date, Balaban, not knowing it was out, had a run-in with the critics in New York. They told him he was crazy – it was the worst Hitchcock film ever made.

He called us up in the studio and I thought we were all going too get fired – I thought the studio was going to get burned down. And he ordered that scene be put back, so I had to call everyone back in again and redo the whole damn thing.” –Herbert Coleman (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

The early reveal of the plot’s ‘big secret’ has been the topic of debate, but this isn’t the most interesting aspect of this beautifully layered film. Actually, Vertigo is so rich in its thematic content that putting one’s hand on the ‘most interesting aspect’ of the film would be nearly impossible (and completely arguable). Of course, the film’s merits were not evident to everyone at the time. To the studio suits, the film was simply an incredibly convoluted murder mystery. Of course, sophisticated audiences know that the film is so much more than this.

The production itself wasn’t entirely pleasant and there were a number of reasons for this. Alfred Hitchcock was never completely happy with Kim Novak, but this probably had much more to do with his personal temperament than with any disappointment with Novak’s performance. Disappointment coupled with an extreme dislike of confrontation colored his opinions. Alfred Hitchcock had originally cast someone else in the dual roles of Madeline and Judy.

“Do you know that I had Vera Miles in mind for Vertigo, and we had done the whole wardrobe and the final tests with her? …Paramount was perfectly willing to have her, but she became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that I lost interest; I couldn’t get the rhythm going with her again.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

7354

Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t happy about having spent money on costumes and production design that he would be unable to use. He also knew that he would have to alter his vision in order to continue with the project. However, one could certainly argue that Novak is a more appropriate casting choice, and that this stroke of bad luck was actually fortune smiling upon him. Of course, he may have never realized this.

Unused Portrait of Carlotta based on  Vera Miles.

Novak was Paramount’s first choice. Some scholars even theorize that Hitchcock was already having second thoughts about casting Miles in the role before the actress became pregnant. This could very well be the case. Kim Novak was under contract to Columbia at the time. This meant asking for a loan-out. Since none of the suits in Hollywood were crazy about the script, her loan-out was approved grudgingly (and with the stipulation that James Stewart would do a film for Columbia).

“I was under contract to Columbia. Harry Cohn called me in one day and said, ‘I’m loaning you out. It’s a lousy script but it’s a great director. You’re going to go over to Paramount.’ I can’t remember what I was shooting just before, but anyway that’s how it came about.

 You had no choice in the matter. I wasn’t shown the script or anything. It’s their deal. I had no idea what Harry Cohn was paid for making that deal. I think it was maybe a trade, because then Jimmy Stewart did a movie for Columbia. However they worked it out, I know I was still making $750 a week and walking to work. And I had to walk to Paramount which was further [away]…” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

When Novak finished reading the script, she was pleasantly surprised.

“…I identified with [the script] right away. I’ve never liked commercial movies, really; I’ve always liked strange movies [laughs]. But to me, that’s just the kind of movie I liked seeing, being part of. Something a little more involved. I like things where you have to work for it, you know what I mean? I like the way an audience has to be pulled in. If I’m going to do something, I would like someone to participate by having to work to try to figure out what’s going on in my mind. What am I thinking? And of course, that’s what Alfred Hitchcock does. He brings you, as an audience, into wanting to get into the characters. His characters are so deep and profound, there are so many layers. That’s what I really loved about it. I loved it because it was expressing exactly what I was living at Columbia Pictures, at the studio.” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

Life had prepared Novak for her participation in Vertigo. Galvin Elster’s treatment of Madeline, and Scotties treatment of Judy mirrored Cohn’s treatment of Novak.

“Of course, in a way, that was how Hollywood treated its women in those days. I could really identify with Judy, being pushed and pulled this way and that, being told what dresses to wear, how to walk, how to behave. I think there was a little edge in my performance that I was trying to suggest that I would not allow myself to be pushed beyond a certain point – that I was there, I was me, I insisted on myself.”-Kim Novak (to Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)

The conflict with Novak has been blown out of proportion, and most of it concerned the incredible costumes that were designed for the character of Madeline.

“…Before shooting started, he sent me over to Edith Head, who showed me a set of drawings. When I saw them, the very first thing I said was, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t wear black shoes.’ When she said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants you to wear these shoes,’ I said, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t mind.’ I didn’t think it would matter to him what kind of shoes I wore. I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors. The two things he wanted the most were those shoes and that gray suit. When Edith Head showed me that gray suit, I said, “Oh, my God, that looks like it would be very hard to act in. It’s very confining.’ Then, when we had the first fitting of the dress, it was even worse and I said, ‘This is so restrictive.’ She said, ‘Well, maybe you’d better talk to Alfred Hitchcock about this…’

…I went in and he said, ‘I understand you don’t like these black shoes.’ He asked me why and I said, ‘I tell you, black shoes always sort of make me feel I’m pulled down. I’ve always felt that your feet should be the same as the top of your head, so that you’re connected. Wearing the black shoes would make me feel as if I were disconnected.’ He heard me out. And then he said, ‘Fine. When you play the role of Judy, you will not have to wear black shoes. When you are playing Madeleine, you will wear them.’ When he put it like that — after all, he’s the director – I said, ‘Okay…’

…I really wanted the chance to express myself and he allowed me that chance. It felt okay because he had heard me out. He felt my reasons weren’t good enough, they weren’t right. I just wanted to be heard as far as what I felt. So, I thought, ‘I’ll live with the grey suit.’ I also thought, ‘I’m going to use this. I can make this work for me. Because it bothers me, I’ll use it and it can help me feel like I’m having to be Madeleine, that I’m being forced to be her. I’ll have it as my energy to play against.’ It worked. That suit and those shoes were a blessing. I was constantly reminded that I was not being myself, which made it right for Madeleine. When I went out of Alfred Hitchcock’s office, I remember his wonderful smile when he said, ‘I’m so glad we had this talk.’ I think he saw that this was going to be good. He didn’t say to me, ‘Now use that,’ he allowed me to arrive at that myself.” -Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)

Edith Head (who had designed the costumes) remembered the conflict, and wrote about it in her autobiography, Edith Head’s Hollywood.

“…I remember [Novak] saying that she would wear any color except gray, and she must have thought that would give me full rein. Either she hadn’t read the script or she had and wanted me to think she hadn’t. I explained to her that Hitch paints a picture in his films, that color is as important to him as it is to any artist…

As soon as she left I was on the phone to Hitch, asking if that damn suit had to be gray and he explained to me the simple gray suit and plain hairstyle were very important and represented the character’s view of herself in the first half of the film. The character would go through a psychological change in the second half of the film and would then wear more colorful clothes to reflect the change. … ‘Handle it, Edith,’ I remember him saying. ‘I don’t care what she wears as long as it’s a gray suit.’

When Kim came in for our next session, I was completely prepared. I had several swatches of gray fabric in various shades, textures, and weights. Before she had the opportunity to complain, I showed her the sketch and the fabrics and suggested that she choose the fabric she thought would be best on her. She immediately had a positive feeling and felt that we were designing together. Of course, I knew that any of the fabrics would work well for the suit silhouette I had designed, so I didn’t care which one she chose.” -Edith Head (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)

ss5

Hitchcock seemed to remember the event during his interview with François Truffaut, but he didn’t go into as much detail.

“Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with. You know, I don’t like to argue with a performer on the set; there’s no reason to bring the electricians in on our troubles. I went to Kim Novak’s dressing room and told her about the dresses and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the overall visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Madeline’s gray suit may have annoyed Novak, but the actress felt differently about Judy’s wardrobe.

“When I played Judy, I never wore a bra. It killed me having to wear a bra as Madeleine but you had to because they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you suddenly were not ‘in position.’ They made that suit very stiff. You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect. But, oh that was so perfect. That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role. It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again. I just felt natural. I had on my own beige shoes and that felt good. Hitchcock said, ‘Does that feel better?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, thank you so much.’ But then, I had to play ‘Madeleine’ again when Judy had to be made over again by Scottie into what she didn’t want to be. I could use that, again, totally for me, not just being made over into Madeleine but into Madeleine who wore that ghastly gray suit. The clothes alone were so perfect; they were everything I could want as an actress.” -Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)

Hitchcock was also probably also annoyed that the actress delayed the production.

“Kim Novak, who had already delayed production with a summer European vacation, now refused to show up for work on August thirtieth. She was holding out for more money – not from Hitchcock, but from Colombia, her home studio. Columbia immediately put her on suspension. The stakes were high – if the gamble by Novak and her agents didn’t work, she would lose both Vertigo and Bell, Book, and Candle with Stewart.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

This isn’t a stunt that would have appealed to Alfred Hitchcock. One of the reasons for his meticulous planning was to avoid inconveniences. Novak’s stunt likely worried the director a great deal. However, if Hitchcock was annoyed at Novak, he certainly never took it out on the actress during production. They simply did not associate with one another as friends.

“…I don’t know if he ever liked me. I never sat down with him for dinner or tea or anything, except one cast dinner, and I was late to that. It wasn’t my fault, but I think he thought I had delayed to make a star entrance, and he held that against me. During the shooting, he never really told me what he was thinking.” -Kim Novak (to Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)

The working relationship between Novak and Hitchcock was not dissimilar from the director’s approach with other actors.

“He really gave very, very little direction for your interpretation. He was extremely precise on rhythm and exactly where you moved because of his camera moves. But he really allowed you a lot of freedom as far as your reactions to whatever he set up for you. He wanted that fresh and real…

…He [said], ‘My dear, my dear, I hired you and that’s why I want you to do it. Just do what you feel, and I’ll tell you if it’s not right.’ I wanted to discuss it, but in retrospect I’m kind of glad because again, that was the sort of freedom. I’d go to Jimmy Stewart – because of my insecurity, I’m so insecure all the time – knock on his dressing room door. ‘Come on in!’ I’d say, ‘You know, I really wanted to talk to Mr. Hitchcock about this.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t worry. If he hired you, he likes what you’re bringing to the character; it’s all right.’ Hearing it from him made me feel good, because he is just the most amazing man I’ve ever known…” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

It has been written that Alfred Hitchcock tortured Kim Novak by shooting an exorbitant amount of takes. This particular myth is rather ridiculous and completely untrue.

“…As mentioned earlier, a double had done the jump into the real bay some months earlier; Novak was obliged only to float in the tank, waiting for Stewart to save her, for four takes (approximately forty minutes). The first take was ruined because Stewart’s hair looked wrong; in the next, he paused too long on the dive; the third didn’t match the previously shot footage of Scottie lifting her out. And in the fourth take, only camera A ran (there were two cameras covering this shot – one shooting from the top of the dock, looking at Madeline floating in the water, while the second covered Scottie diving into the water). Between the two cameras, the four takes were sufficient to cut together the scene, and Novak returned safely to dry land.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

In a 1996 interview, Novak discussed her difficulty shooting the scene.

“…I don’t know how to swim. And I’m very claustrophobic about not being able to breathe, catch my breath. He had me stand in the water and come up. It was in a tank, but still. There was someone under there, but I still had to put my face underwater. That was the hardest part of the movie for me and if that’s as hard as it gets, hell, that’s not bad.” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)

The fact of the matter is that four takes is an extremely reasonable number for such a scene. One might even say that is a very considerate number.

Luckily, most of the production challenges were creative in nature. These were challenges that Hitchcock relished. The famous ‘Vertigo effect’ is one case in point. The director had wanted the effect in earlier films, but wasn’t able to achieve it until Vertigo.

Vertigo 6 Stairs

“I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk and I had the sensation that everything was going far away from me. I tried to get that into Rebecca, but they couldn’t do it. The viewpoint must be fixed, you see, wile the perspective is changed as it stretches lengthwise. I thought about the problem for fifteen years. By the time we got to Vertigo, we solved it by using the dolly and zoom simultaneously. I asked how much it would cost, and they told me it would cost fifty thousand dollars. When I asked why, they said, ‘Because to put the camera at the top of the stairs, we have to have a big apparatus to lift it, counterweight it, and hold it up in space.’ I said, ‘There are no characters in this scene; it’s simply a viewpoint. Why can’t we make a miniature of the stairway and lay it on its side, then take our shot by pulling away from it? We can use a tracking shot and a zoom flat on the ground.’ So that’s the way we did it, and it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Today the effect is part of the cinematic language. In Vertigo, the effect was not simply a gimmick. It allowed audiences to identify with Scottie. A lot of modern filmmakers forget that these effects should always have a purpose and attempt to elicit an emotional reaction in the audience. This is what Alfred Hitchcock did best.

ss10

The scene where Judy is transformed back into Madeline in the hotel room is a perfect example of Hitchcock’s use of the visual to elicit an emotional reaction. This scene is almost visual poetry.

“Now, as soon as she comes out, he sees a ghost–he sees the other woman. That’s why I played her in a green light. You see, in the earlier part–which is purely in the mind of Stewart–when he is watching this girl go from place to place, when she is really faking, behaving like a woman of the past — in order to get this slightly subtle quality of a dreamlike nature although it was bright sunshine, I shot the film through a fog filter and I got a green effect — fog over bright sunshine. That’s why, when she comes out of the bathroom, I played her in the green light. That’s why I chose the Empire Hotel in Post Street — because it had a green neon sign outside the window. I wanted to establish that green light flashing all the time. So that when we need it, we’ve got it. I slid the soft, fog lens over, and as she came forward, for a moment he got the image of the past. Then as her face came up to him, I slipped the soft effect away, and he came back to reality. She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered — until he saw the locket — and then he knew he had been tricked.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

ss23

“‘As I remember, it was all process. We had them on a turntable. The rest was on a transparency,’ [Henry] Bumstead recalls. ‘The turntable can make you dizzy though.’ The footage film in San Juan Bautista faded into a slow pan of Judy’s hotel room to make the final process shot that was projected behind Stewart and Novak; the background resolved into a solid neon green as the shot ended. The impression thus created was that the camera was moving full circle around the lovers, when in reality it was the rear projection and the actors who were turning. The camera’s movement is limited to a gentle track backward, then forward once again.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

The result is quite effective. Scottie not only prefers illusion to reality, he embraces illusion passionately. It seems that every element of the film adds richness and subtext to these themes.

ss16

When one looks at the Saul Bass credit sequence (complete with animation designs by John Whitney), it is impossible not to think about the obsessive nature of Scottie’s character and the spirals inherent throughout Vertigo. The visual design of Vertigo is as close to perfect as one could ever imagine. For easy illustration, just look at the spiral motif in the film. They are everywhere!

The Golden Ratio

Spirals are not limited to the most obvious examples of Madeline and Carlotta’s hairstyles, the bouquet of flowers, and the tower’s staircase. They are even evident in many of Hitchcock’s shot compositions (since many shots in Vertigo owe a debt to the golden ratio). Fibonacci would be proud! The structure of the story itself is a spiral. Scottie falls in love with a woman (who is actually another man’s construct) and loses her to death. He then falls in love with the same woman (turning her into this same construct) and once again loses her to death. People who complain about the film’s ending fail to understand the film itself. The abrupt nature of the ending is essential to the very design of the film!

ss17

Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score for the film also seems to have a spiraling sound and this contributes to the film’s effect on its audience. Of course, Herrmann never really held the film in high regard.

“I felt Vertigo made one big mistake. They should have never made it in San Francisco -and not with Jimmy Stewart. I don’t think he was right for the part. I don’t believe that he would be that wild about any woman. It should have had an actor like Charles Boyer, or that kind. It should have been left in New Orleans, or in a hot, sultry climate. When I wrote the picture, I thought of that. When I do a film, if I don’t like it, I go back to the original.” -Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)

However, Herrmann’s opinions are debatable. The San Francisco location seems to this reviewer preferable to New Orleans. New Orleans is perhaps a more obvious location, but San Francisco offers a haunting aura to the film that avoids the cliché described by Herrmann. What better setting could there be for an acrophobic character than San Francisco?

screenshot

Of course, the film’s merits were not always appreciated. The film was not an overwhelming critical or commercial success. Critical opinion seemed to cross the entire spectrum. A few critics raved about the film, other reviews were mixed with qualified praise, and some were rather hostile.

Bosley Crowther wrote an overwhelmingly positive review for the New York Times.

“You might say that Alfred Hitchcock’s latest mystery melodrama, Vertigo is all about how a dizzy fellow chases after a dizzy dame, the fellow being a ex-detective; and the dame being — well, you guess. That is as fair a thumbnail digest as we can hastily contrive to give you a gist of this picture without giving the secret away. And, believe us, that secret is so clever, even though it is devilishly far-fetched, that we wouldn’t want to risk at all disturbing your inevitable enjoyment of the film.

If that recommendation is sufficient, read no further. Vertigo opened yesterday at the Capitol…

… What is this thing that invades the moody person of his loved one, the wife of another man? And how can he free her from this demon — and from her husband?
That’s all we will tell you! Now –

Second hint: This fascinating mystery is based upon a tale written by the same fellows, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote the story from which was taken that excellent French mystery, “Diabolique.” That film, if you remember, told of a terribly devious plot to simulate a murder that didn’t happen.

There! No more hints! Coming or not?

What more’s to say? Well, nothing, except that Vertigo is performed in the manner expected of all performers in Hitchcock films. Mr. Stewart, as usual, manages to act awfully tense in a casual way, and Miss Novak is really quite amazing in — well, here is a bit of a hint — dual roles. Tom Helmore is sleek as the husband and Barbara Bel Geddes is sweet as the nice girl who loves the detective and has to watch him drifting away.” –Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May, 29 1958)

The London Times also published a review that is quite positive, but terribly condescending. It underestimates the film completely and even goes as far as to complain about James Stewart and Kim Novak in their respective roles.

Vertigo, which is now at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, is not an important film or even major Hitchcock, but it entertains and is admirably photographed.

For the ingenuity of the story, the authors of the novel ‘D’Entre les Morts,’ on which the film is based, must have a considerable share of the credit; and ingenious, over-ingenious, as some may think. Vertigo certainly is…

… It would not be fair to say more, but the glimpse and feel of the supernatural are resolved at the end into the mechanics of crime, far-fetched though these may be. Mr. Stewart is at his best in his light, offhand moments with the commercial artist Midge (Miss Barbara Bel Geddes), who, with humorous resignation, dotes on him — nervous breakdowns and long, passionate kisses do not suit his casual style. Mr. Hitchcock tries hard to make Miss Novak act and, at moments, succeeds.” –Staff Writer (The Times, April 11, 1958)

Variety’s review was also rather mixed, offering only qualified praise.

Vertigo is prime though uneven Hitchcock and with the potent marquee combination of James Stewart and Kim Novak should prove to be a highly profitable enterprise at the box-office.

Stewart, on camera almost constantly throughout the film’s 126 minutes, comes through with a startlingly fine performance as the lawyer-cop who suffers from acrophobia–that is, vertigo or dizziness in high places.

Miss Novak, shop girl who involves Stewart in what turns out to be a clear case of murder, is interesting under Hitchcock’s direction and nearer an actress than she was in either Pal Joey or Jeanne Eagles.

Unbilled, but certainly a prime factor in whatever success film may have, is the city of San Francisco, which has never been photographed so extensively and in such exquisite color as Robert Burks and his crew have here achieved.

Through all of this runs Hitchcock’s directorial hand, cutting, angling and gimmicking with mastery.

Unfortunately, even that mastery is not enough to overcome one major fault, for the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long. This may be because: (1) Hitchcock became overly enamored with the vertiginous beauty of Frisco; or (2) the Alec Coppel-Samuel Taylor screenplay (from the novel ‘D’entre Les Morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) just takes too long to get off the ground.

Film opens with a rackling scene in which Stewart’s acrophobia is explained: he hangs from top of a building in midst of chasing a robber over rooftops and watches a police buddy plunge to his death.

But for the next hour the action is mainly psychic…Film’s last minute, in which Stewart fights off acrophobia to drag Miss Novak to top of bell tower, finds she still loves him and then sees her totter and fall to her death through mortal fright of an approaching nun, is a spectacular scene, gorgeously conceived.

But by then more than two hours have gone by, and it’s questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery…

…Frisco location scenes – whether of Nob Hill, interior of Ernie’s restaurant, Land’s End, downtown, Muir Woods, Mission Dolores or San Juan Bautista – are absolutely authentic and breathtaking. But these also tend to intrude on story line too heavily, giving a travelogueish effect at times.

Despite this defect, Vertigo looks like a winner at the box-office as solid entertainment in the Hitchcock tradition.” –Variety (May 14, 1958)

Of course, there were also critics that seemed to miss the point entirely. These individuals wrote scathing reviews of the film. The tone of these diatribes can be summed up in a single sentence from a review printed in Time magazine.

“The old master, now a slave to television, has turned out another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares.” -Time (June 16, 1958)

In a 2014 interview, Kim Novak remembered these reviews the most.

“Those things hurt… If I could go back now I would probably not read the reviews. But it’s hard not to because you want to improve. You feel like, well, they must know. Unfortunately, they don’t always know. History has proven they’re not right necessarily.” –Kim Novak (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014)

ss4

History has certainly been kind to Vertigo. Robin Wood’s 1965 essay about the film offers concrete proof that opinion can evolve over time.

Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock’s films the one nearest to perfection. Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form: it is a perfect organism.” - Robin Wood (Hitchcock’s Films, 1965)

  Donald Spoto was also generous in his praise for Vertigo, calling it “Alfred Hitchcock’s great masterpiece” in his book of essays about the director’s films.

“…But however much Vertigo indicts the tragic and the deadly, it remains a work of authentic beauty and grandeur, a film of astonishing purity and formal perfection in every element. Each line of dialogue, each color, each piece of decoration, each article of wardrobe, each music cue, camera angle and gesture, each glance – everything in this motion picture has an organic relationship contributing to the whole. Never has there been presented so beguilingly the struggle between constant yearning for the ideal and the necessity of living in a world that is far from ideal, with people who are one and all frail and imperfect. Vertigo is a work of uncanny maturity, authorial honesty and spiritual insight, and if its characters are indeed doomed to a tragic end – not one of them able to reach fulfillment of an earthly love – that is not due to Hitchcock’s contempt. It is, in the final analysis, a work of unsentimental yet profound compassion, and a statement of transcendent faith in what cannot be and yet what must, somewhere be true.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Perhaps the most important documented example of the film’s high esteem is the expensive restoration effort that Vertigo was given by James C Katz and Robert A. Harris. When this beautiful restoration was released theatrically in 1996, critics called the film a masterpiece. One such example is Janet Maslin’s review for the New York Times.

“The revival event of the season is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliantly schematic, endlessly fascinating Vertigo. Newly restored to its rich, deep hues by Robert A. Harris (who also restored Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus), this prescient 1958 spellbinder can now be admired as the deepest, darkest masterpiece of Hitchcock’s career…

…Nowhere else did Hitchcock’s perfectionism yield such feverish results, in an eerily perverse exploration of this director’s obsessive themes…

…With less playfulness and much more overt libido than other Hitchcock classics, Vertigo was always anomalous. And it has flaws that actually work to its advantage. Much of Kim Novak’s artificiality may have been unintended, but it suits the plot devilishly and works in stark contrast to Stewart’s great, entranced performance as a man who finds himself falling in every sense. And the appeal of Vertigo in the 1950′s was limited by the film’s perverse, disturbing power. That only makes better sense of it today.” –Janet Maslin (New York Times, October 4, 1996)

Newsweek’s David Ansen was equally impressed.

“When it was released in 1958, few people considered Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock’s best. Other Hitch movies were tauter, scarier, more on-the-surface fun. Vertigo needed time for the audience to rise to its darkly rapturous level. This month it reopens in a glorious 70mm print that’s been painstakingly restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. Now you can see Hitchcock’s greatest, most personal (and kinkiest) movie afresh, with a new digitalized soundtrack that brings Bernard Herrmann’s spiraling, haunted, ‘Tristan and Isolde’-infected score to the fore.

Why is this movie Hitchcock’s masterpiece? Because no movie plunges us more deeply into the dizzying heart of erotic obsession. Because in Jimmy Stewart’s fetishtic pursuit of mystery woman Kim Novak–whom he transforms into the image of the dead woman he loved–Hitchcock created the cinema’s most indelible metaphor for the objectification of desire. Because Stewart, playing a man free-falling into love, responds with a performance so harrowing in its ferocity it must have surprised even himself. Because Novak, that great slinky cat, imbues her double role with a mesmerizing poignance. Because the impeccable, dreamlike images of this ghostly Liebestod are so eerily beautiful they stay in your head forever. And because the older you get, and the m ore times you see it, the more strange, chillingly romantic thriller pierces your heart.” -David Ansen (Newsweek, October 20, 1996)

Roger Ebert also praised the film in the Chicago Sun-Times.

‘Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?’

This cry from a wounded heart comes at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo,’ and by the time it comes we are completely in sympathy. A man has fallen in love with a woman who does not exist, and now he cries out harshly against the real woman who impersonated her. But there is so much more to it than that. The real woman has fallen in love with him. In tricking him, she tricked herself. And the man, by preferring his dream to the woman standing before him, has lost both…

Vertigo (1958), which is one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made, is the most confessional, dealing directly with the themes that controlled his art. It is *about* how Hitchcock used, feared and tried to control women. He is represented by Scottie (James Stewart), a man with physical and mental weaknesses (back problems, fear of heights), who falls obsessively in love with the image of a woman–and not any woman, but the quintessential Hitchcock woman. When he cannot have her, he finds another woman and tries to mold her, dress her, train her, change her makeup and her hair, until she looks like the woman he desires. He cares nothing about the clay he is shaping; he will gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams…

…Alfred Hitchcock took universal emotions, like fear, guilt and lust, placed them in ordinary characters, and developed them in images more than in words. His most frequent character, an innocent man wrongly accused, inspired much deeper identification than the superficial supermen in today’s action movies.

He was a great visual stylist in two ways: He used obvious images and surrounded them with a subtle context. Consider the obvious ways he suggests James Stewart’s vertigo. An opening shot shows him teetering on a ladder, looking down at a street below. Flashbacks show why he left the police force. A bell tower at a mission terrifies him, and Hitchcock creates a famous shot to show his point of view: Using a model of the inside of the tower, and zooming the lens in while at the same time physically pulling the camera back, Hitchcock shows the walls approaching and receding at the same time; the space has the logic of a nightmare. But then notice less obvious ways that the movie sneaks in the concept of falling, as when Scottie drives down San Francisco’s hills, but never up. And note how truly he “falls” in love.

There is another element, rarely commented on, that makes Vertigo a great film. From the moment we are let in on the secret, the movie is equally about Judy: her pain, her loss, the trap she’s in. Hitchcock so cleverly manipulates the story that when the two characters climb up that mission tower, we identify with both of them, and fear for both of them, and in a way Judy is less guilty than Scottie.

The danger is to see Judy, played by Novak, as an object in the same way that Scottie sees her. She is in fact one of the most sympathetic female characters in all of Hitchcock… And Novak, criticized at the time for playing the character too stiffly, has made the correct acting choices: Ask yourself how you would move and speak if you were in unbearable pain, and then look again at Judy.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 13, 1996)

In 2012 critics and filmmakers would vote Vertigo as the #1 ‘Greatest Film of all Time’ in Sight and Sound‘s famous poll. 191 respected critics voted for the film, and 31 directors did likewise. This is perhaps the most obvious illustration of Vertigo’s growing appeal. The film is a rich and rewarding experience that changes over multiple viewings.

ss7

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

"The Masterpiece Collection" page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (you can see the artwork on the top of this article).

menu1

menu2

menu3

menu4

menu5

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

ss13

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080p transfer of the 1996 restoration print is impressive, but not perfect. Detail is wonderful and reveals textures and lines that weren’t as clearly defined on other home video releases. Clarity is wonderful, with only occasional digressions into slight softness. There is a fine layer of film grain, but this is a good thing. There aren’t any digital anomalies to annoy the viewer. Colors are quite wonderfully rendered (with only a few minor exceptions), and the picture exhibits appropriate contrast. There are moments when blacks feel slightly faded, but this never becomes a distraction. Any complaints one might have tend to be overwhelmed by the transfer’s more positive attributes.

7345

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix wins the award for best soundtrack in Universal’s catalogue of Hitchcock films. The mix was rather controversial upon the release of the film’s wonderful restoration in 1996. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz were forced to redo much of the soundtrack (based upon Alfred Hitchcock’s meticulous notes). Purists were quite upset. It is a marvelous job. Purists should be pleased to find that Universal has also included the films original mono track. The complaint here might be that it is not lossless. I suppose that one cannot have everything. It is certainly wonderful to see it included here in some form.

ss22

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

If Universal had included the wonderful restoration commentary with Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, this would be a near perfect collection of supplements. In its place, a featurette about the Lew Wasserman era of Universal is included. It does not amount to much. Fans will want to hold on to their DVD discs for this missing commentary track.

Feature Length Commentary by William Friedkin

One would probably rather have the Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz commentary included on this disc instead of this one. The track included various Vertigo participants (including Samuel Taylor) and was quite interesting. Friedkin offers an interesting enough track, but it is mostly a blow-by-blow of what is happening onscreen. One wonders why they asked him to provide a track for the film in the first place. He has made a few wonderful films, but he isn’t an expert on Vertigo. One might prefer Dan Auiler (who quite literally wrote the book on the making of Vertigo).

Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece – (SD) – (29:19)

This ‘original’ American Movie Classic documentary (produced when AMC actually aired classic movies) is narrated by Roddy McDowall and features a number of interviews with Vertigo participants (including Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Herbert Coleman, and Patricia Hitchcock, and others). A significant portion of the documentary is dedicated to the wonderful 1996 restoration. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz discuss (in reasonably comprehensive detail) what was involved in restoring this great classic.

It is a wonderful documentary that is somewhat different to the documentaries on most of Universal’s Hitchcock releases (which were directed by Laurent Bouzereau). Some of the other documentaries were slightly more comprehensive (others weren’t). It is very nice to see this documentary included here. It is one of the two best supplements on this disc.

Partners in Crime: Hitchcock’s Collaborators (54:49) – (SD) –

This documentary has four chapters. These chapters include; Saul Bass: Title Champ, Edith Head: Dressing the Master’s Movies, Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock’s Maestro, and Alma: The Master’s Muse. Each of these chapters is informative and entertaining. They are exceptional additions to this disc.

Foreign Censorship Ending – (SD) – (2:09) -

This is an ending that was tagged on to the film for its foreign release, and was probably never intended to be the film’s proper ending (though it was included in the shooting script). It is incredibly interesting and one of the most welcome additions to the disc.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (SD) – (14:17)-

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films.

100 Years of Universal Lew Wasserman Era – (HD) – (9:00) -

This featurette about Universal Studios during Lew Wasserman’s reign is an appropriate extra for a Hitchcock film (and even includes a clip of Alfred Hitchcock promoting the Universal tour). It certainly isn’t the best supplement here, but it is welcome.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:30) -

The ‘Original’ Theatrical Trailer was created with the intention of making the audience understand the meaning of the film’s title, while also exploiting the more sensational aspects of the film. It is an interesting artifact and fans should be grateful to have it included here.

Restoration Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (1:23) -

The 1996 Restoration Re-release trailer is included and is a welcome addition to the disc.

The Vertigo Archives – (SD)

‘The Vertigo Archives’ is essentially am extensive photo gallery that includes production photographs, stills, posters, advertisements, and production design drawings. Many of these are quite interesting.

ss26

Final Words:

Vertigo is a brilliant work that demands to be revisited. Universal’s transfer of the film’s 1996 restoration is not perfect, but it is quite good and improves upon previous releases. Do yourself a favor and take the plunge.

3529

Source Materials:

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (D’entre les morts)

Review (The Times, April 11, 1958)

Review (Variety, May 14, 1958)

Review by Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May, 29 1958)

Review (Time, June 16, 1958)

Variety (July 30, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Robin Wood (Hitchcock’s Films, 1965)

Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Kim Novak (Interview with Henry Sheean, 1996)

Review by Janet Maslin (New York Times, October 4, 1996)

Review by Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 13, 1996)

Review by David Ansen (Newsweek, October 20, 1996)

Kim Novak (Interview with Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)

Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)

Charles Barr (Vertigo: BFI Film Classics)

Kim Novak (Larry King Live, January 5, 2004)

Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)

Kim Novak (Save Hitchcock, August 31, 2012)

Kim Novak (Washington Post)

Kim Novak (Daily Mail, September, 2013)

Kim Novak (Orlando Sentinel, September 4, 2013)

Kim Novak (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014)

Review by: Devon Powell