Wednesday, May 16, 2012

For the Love of Hitchcock :: Trailer Park :: This One's for The Birds...

After a chance encounter in a San Francisco pet shop results in a flirty dust-up between an insolent socialite (Hedren) and a hard-nosed lawyer (Taylor), the smitten lady, in perhaps a spoiled childish snit, clandestinely pursues the man back to his hometown of Bodega Bay, with an alleged peace offering consisting of a pair of caged Love-Birds. Things seem quiet enough in this bucolic hamlet, but strange things soon start occurring, beginning with our visitor losing a chunk of her scalp to a dive-bombing seagull as she putters across the waves. Things begin to escalate from there, with a rash of unexplained deaths. And, as a huge flock of birds begins to mass and circle closer and ever closer to the unsuspecting town, only the stranger seems to realize the avian angle to these atrocities. Alas, by the time the others catch up it may already be too late for everybody...

Ya know, for a guy whose name is so synonymous with fright flicks I find it strange that out of his entire oeuvre, The Birds is Hitchcock's only true horror movie. (Sorry, to me, the likes of Psycho and Frenzy are just intense, nails-raking-on-a-chalkboard mystery yarns with horrific overtones. And if not that, then the blackest comedies ever made.) The Birds was the third Hitchcock movie based on a Daphne du Maurier story (-- the others being Jamaica Inn and Rebecca), and it was adapted into a screenplay by Evan Hunter -- better known to a lot of folks as crime-novelist Ed McBain.

Originally intended to only be a half-hour episode for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but, when the residents of Capitola, California, were besieged by a flock of seagulls in August of 1961, their brains turned to mush by Domoic acid poisoning, causing them to slam into rooftops and windows while the streets piled up with fallen carcasses, Hitchcock decided to cash-in on the free publicity and expand the teleplay into a feature film. And thanks to some clever advertising campaigns and that brilliant theatrical trailer, it allowed the director to let the expecting audience squirm, knowing exactly what was coming, for almost half the damned movie before the bird-shit really started to hit the fan. (And is it me, or do the attacks get more intense and savage the closer Hedren gets to *ahem* "hooking up" with Taylor?)

While were on the subject of savage intent, making her big-screen debut, Tippi Hedren sure had a rough welcome to Hollywood. The entire sequence where she's attacked in the attic took almost a week to shoot; seven consecutive days with several of Ray Berwick's (not so) trained birds tied to her wardrobe; constantly scratched and pecked, and in one instance nearly losing an eye. When it was finally in the can, the production was shut down for another week while the actress recovered in hospital from nervous exhaustion.

And though Bernard Hermann is listed in the credits, the film has no score to speak off; just ambient sound, with the bird calls channeled and intensified by Oskar Skala on a contraption called The Mixtrautonium to near ear-splitting levels. Almost fifty years later, the F/X in the movie hold up remarkably well -- thanks in part to Disney Studios and Ub Iwerks, whose expertise in the sodium vapor process allowed them to ditch the ineffective blue-screen technique when combing all the elements into one master shot.

And speaking of Walt Disney, I'll end this by relating a personal anecdote: A couple of years ago, when my entire clan visited the Magic Kingdom, one morning as my brother and I walked along the boardwalk of our hotel, munching on some donuts, a flock of seagulls swarmed around us, seemingly growing larger and more brazen with each step, until one of them swooped in and snatched the half-eaten pastry right out of my brother's hand as he raised it to take another bite! I looked at him. He looked at me. And I quickly bogarted what was left of my donut before things got any uglier.

Keep watching the skies, folks. Keep watching the skies.

This post is part of the For the Love of Film Blogathon, a new age telethon to raise funds for The National Film Preservation Foundation to help bring The White Shadow (a/k/a White Shadows), an early silent film that a certain master of suspense did just about everything for except direct — assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, and set decorator, to the streaming masses and help defray the costs of adding a new musical soundtrack.

There’s no donation too small, folks. So please, click on the link above, wherever you see it this week and give what you can. Thanks. For more information, check out the group’s Facebook page. Big thanks, as always, to Ferdy on Film, The Self-Styled Siren and This Island Rod for throwing such a wide net for contributors. Until next time, then, I bid you all a good ev-ah-ning.

I’m participating. Are you?

The Birds (1963) Universal Pictures / P: Alfred Hitchcock / D: Alfred Hitchcock / W: Evan Hunter, Daphne Du Maurier (story) / C: Robert Burks / E: George Tomasini / M: Bernard Hermann / S: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies

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