Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Six - Two late masterpieces made at Universal-International

The Birds
Having gone thus far with Psycho, Hitchcock’s next film The Birds (1963) represents an even greater attack on audience/spectator complacency. A film whose special effects are executed on a breathtaking scale in the scenes where the birds attack, it is in the end an apocalyptic masterpiece. The disruptions to the flow of narrative and center of audience identification is carried a step further in The Birds where the stability of the characters’ known world is engulfed by a natural disaster (act of God?) through progressively intensive and baffling bird attacks.

Each of the film’s leading characters is confronted with moral/personal dilemmas coinciding with these attacks. Hitchcock invests the visual device of the fade-out with an almost moral beauty at several key points in the narrative which leave each of the characters grappling on the horns of these dilemmas. These interior struggles, externalized and expressively underlined through the device of the bird attacks, are impressively realized by ensemble playing of a very high quality. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and particularly Jessica Tandy all create faultless, finely shaded characterizations. Tandy is one of the most impressive of a long line of dominating mother figures in Hitchcock’s work. Hedren’s debut is astonishingly committed.  Quite aside from the physical rigours and dangers of subjecting herself to dealing with the preternatural bird attacks, the sequence in the attic being terrifying enough for the audience observing her ordeal, Hedren brings just as much intensity to her beautifully realized conflicts with the human characters as well, especially in her scenes with the formidable Tandy.

Finally note that The Birds contains one of the most stunning images in any Hitchcock film, the justly celebrated high-angle bird’s-eye view of Bodega Bay township, a concentrated picture of a world falling apart.

Marnie (1964) was the last great Hitchcock work. I hated it initially and went along with those short-sighted critics who excoriated it for its so-called naivety both on a formal level (the oneiric back-projection, old-fashioned sets mingling with location work, direct use of red filters to signify an emotional block, reminiscent as it is of the patterns that trigger Gregory Peck’s disturbed responses in Spellbound (1945), and of course the use of zoom lenses for melodramatic emphases). On a script level, its psychological explanations hadn’t progressed very far from the kind of simplistic explanations characterizing 40s movies like Hitch’s own Spellbound and Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948).

Based on the fetish idea that a man is obsessed by the desire to go to bed with a thief, the film now appears to this viewer far more unsettling than is suggested by its detractors. Indeed, from this historical perspective it looks better with every viewing. The formal elements of Marnie are not naïve but consciously and sophisticatedly thought out; the back-projection, for example is another of Hitchcock’s subjective techniques instrumental in portraying the dream-like atmosphere surrounding Marnie herself and establish her dislocation and distance from the real world. The use of filters and zooms further express Marnie’s subjective responses to reality. They also signal to the spectator the complex moral dilemma of a victim turned victimizer. Tippi Hedren is again perfectly cast in the role: her chillingly glacial expressions of alienation are central to the film’s impact. Sean Connery joins James Stewart as one of Hitchcock’s frighteningly unwavering obsessive males. Like Scotty in Vertigo (1958), he is determined to rescue and “recreate” Marnie whom he employs, is robbed by and finally marries. Even her frigid responses on the honeymoon are no deterrent to this man who is determined to solve the mystery of Marnie or go down in the attempt.

This is one of the most visceral of Hitchcock experiences with its lush romantic Herrmann score, its slick (sometimes a little too slick) soap operatic screenplay, and its highly emotive set-pieces: “Just wait until you’ve been victimized”, an irate Martin Gabel utters just as Marnie enters the house, white as death, having just had to destroy her beloved horse Forio. Indeed, Marnie’s victimization is very moving at all levels. Outside of Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt (1942), I think it’s the most perfectly realized and sympathetic role written for a woman in a Hitchcock film. Right up to the final confrontation with Marnie’s mother and what is revealed in the flashback it triggers, Marnie is a wholly engrossing and morally complex work that rewards multiple viewings.

Hitchcock's personal appearance in The Birds

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