Today we’ll examine the last Hitchcock masterpiece, and begin our discussion of his slow denouement. Though often criticized for their unevenness (especially after the phenomenal run of films which preceded them) these later works remain fascinating for various reasons (as you shall see soon enough). In most cases, any other director would have been considered a genius for crafting what, in the context of Hitch’s singular career, look like duds.
“I believe people are too complacent. People like Melanie Daniels tend to behave without any kind of responsibility, and to ignore the more serious aspects of life. Such people are unaware of the catastrophe that surrounds us all.” –Alfred Hitchcock
The Birds begins along the lines of a romantic comedy: The lovely and expensively dressed Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) walks along a San Francisco street when a man whistles at her. She turns at the sound to acknowledge the offender, wide-eyed and cocking her head to one side, then smiles before proceeding to a bird shop. There Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) mistakes her for the shopkeeper and Melanie plays along “helping” him find lovebirds for his sister’s birthday. Of course, she knows nothing about birds and when she accidentally lets a canary loose in the store, it is Mitch who captures and returns it to its proper place saying, “Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” He has been playing her as much as she had him, knowing her by her reputation in the society pages (and court system) as something of a trouble-making socialite. Turnabout being fair play, Melanie purchases the lovebirds after Mitch leaves and eventually drives out to the home he shares with his mother and sister in Bodega Bay, sixty miles away. It’s a long way to go to flirt with someone she just met, but such is the preposterous set up of a romantic comedy. Of course, only Melanie believes she is participating in such a benign joke. All this silliness belies the tension of the viewer who knows quite well that Hitchcock’s follow up to Psycho is no comedy.
The coy tone is quite suddenly disrupted when Melanie, so entirely out of place crossing the bay in a tiny boat dressed in her designer suit, heels and fur coat, is struck on the head by a swooping gull. There is a sense of humiliation in this moment, the sort that makes the viewer cringe and want to look politely away so Melanie, only a moment ago triumphant, now bewildered, disheveled and bleeding, can collect herself. It also furthers the connection with Mitch, but along more traditional lines: she is now the damsel in distress and he the hero.
Melanie’s stay in Bodega Bay extends from the intended few hours through the weekend, during which time Melanie’s relationship with Mitch progresses, as does her relationship with Mitch’s possessive mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his former girlfriend, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleschette), who lives in the town to be close to Mitch, despite their failed romance. Both women initially see Melanie as a threat, but as the bird attacks increase in scale and frequency throughout the weekend, the tension between the women dissolves and the focus sharpens on the birds: why are they attacking?
At every turn, Hitchcock refuses to meet viewer expectations, beginning with the derailed romantic comedy storyline, obviously, but also in our understanding of the characters. For example, Annie openly dismisses any Oedipal reading of the Mitch/Lydia relationship: “With all due respect to Oedipus, she’s not afraid of losing Mitch; she’s afraid of being abandoned.” As if to solidify this, we get a longish speech from Lydia about how much she misses her husband (and no mention of Mitch except as one of “the children”) after her trauma of discovering Dan Faucett’s mutilated body (his eyes have been pecked out, significantly). Of course, these speeches hardly preclude a psychoanalytic reading of the film and much has been written from this position about Melanie. Regardless of what sort of threat Melanie represents, the end result is the same, bringing her, quite violently, into submission under Mitch’s authority.
But the most obvious question of the The Birds — why are they attacking? — goes unanswered. Every theory is quashed almost as soon as it is put forward. Did Melanie’s presence in Bodega Bay bring this on? Is it the natural punishing Melanie’s “unnatural” representation of womanhood? This leaves out the innocent school children or even Dan Faucett, who is completely unknown in the film, and so is any supposed “crime.” Perhaps then the attacks are just nature rebelling against man and civilization, the wild reclaiming the domesticated landscape. This theory, too, seems to come undone in that the birds themselves are behaving unnaturally, not just in killing people, but in their interspecies flocking and “planned” attacks. Is it “the end of the world,” as the town drunk in The Tides restaurant keeps proclaiming? He is presented almost as comic relief to counter the mounting hysteria inside the cafe and is thoroughly dismissed by everyone within earshot.
And yet, this apocalyptic aside has some credibility, at least as a belief, if not a fact, when considered in light of two external circumstances. First, screenplay writer Evan Hunter’s memoirs and Hitchcock’s quote (above) about complacency. The drunk’s “end of the world” business is dismissed out of hand mainly because he said it. One has the sense he is a fixture in the cafe and from the reaction of the other patrons and the staff, they are accustomed to his ramblings and, likewise, to ignoring them. Supposing the drunk is right (it would hardly be the only point in this film that requires a suspension of disbelief), then the others are the most guilty of the complacency Hitchcock decries and are “unaware of the catastrophe that surrounds” them.
Second, when one considers the film in the Cold War context in which it was produced, the testing of nuclear missiles (referred to as “birds”) in the 1960’s and fear of a nuclear war, then an apocalyptic message is not far-fetched. Annie’s response to the birds accumulating in the schoolyard, lining them up to walk out in orderly rows, becomes reminiscent of air-raid drills; the hysterical mother in the cafe screams that everyone should go home and lock their doors and windows; Mitch makes sure the door is locked before the final attack on the house. All these are exercises in futility, pointless precautions that offer no protection from the birds. All this allows us to read The Birds as, in the words of one critic, “a cultural script of fear”.
It is this cultural fear in The Birds that resonates in a post-9/11 world. It certainly could be argued that an American/Western complacency was ruptured with that event and the ensuing chaos. The fear of an external and presumably undecipherable Other resulted in a range of reactions familiar in the patrons of the cafe: hide, analyze, dismiss, annihilate the enemy, proclaim the apocalypse. Again, this last one seems extreme. But then again, it was for us as it was for the townspeople of Bodega Bay: the end of the world as we know it.
Renée Scolaro Mora
‘Marnie’ and ‘Torn Curtain’
Hitchcock said in an interview that Marnie “is the story of a girl who doesn’t know who she is. She is a psychotic, a compulsive thief, and afraid of sex, and in the end she finds out why.” But at the beginning of this complex film, Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) is a delight, a beautiful and smart thief who can transform herself from a sexy brunette secretary in Pittsburgh, to a stylish if reserved blonde professional visiting her mother in Baltimore, to an eager redhead widow looking for a new job in Philadelphia. We see these transformations take place within a matter of minutes, complete with matching handbags and color-coded suitcases, as Marnie selects each new identity and social security card. We also see her stake out her next gig, figuring out office geographies and safe combinations also within minutes. Such pure cinematic pleasures, of heists in progress, of body transformation and deceit, of artifice and spectacle and surface, eventually have to be traded in for something different, depth and self-knowledge, memory, truth and authenticity. This growing up business is necessary, but it’s just not as much fun…
The problem is that Marnie gets caught by her latest boss, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) who realizes that she infiltrated his company in order to eventually steal the firm’s money, which she has done countless times before. Instead of taking her to the police he blackmails her into marrying him, and they embark on a promising honeymoon fueled by his considerable wealth and obvious fascination with her. But things do not go as planned. Marnie cannot stand to be touched by a man, not even her loving husband, and his frustration with her frigidity evolves into sadism, the need to observe and subdue her. He rapes her. Then, out of wonder at the wild thing he has caught or perhaps out of remorse, he decides to find out what makes Marnie so unknowable, so compulsive, and so obviously afraid of sex and men.
The final acts of the film strike a familiar if not downright clichéd tone for us now, and it is hard to remember that it was films like this that popularized the ways childhood trauma and repression are depicted in contemporary culture. Although both Marnie and Mark make fun of psychoanalysis, Marnie slowly relives her formative trauma in her mother’s dockyard rowhouse. Inside the daring adult woman is a frightened little girl, but inside the frightened little girl is an unexpectedly effective killer. I would warn you about spoilers here but you have seen this move before: the prostitute mother, the nighttime male visitors, the little girl awakened and moved from her warm bed, the dangers of sex, the violent drunken sailor, the fireplace poker, the mother who takes the blame for the murder, and the little girl who holds it all inside.
Marnie is a disquieting film, and the last collaboration of the classic Hitchcock team. Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s director of photography for more than ten films, and George Tomasini, his editor for nine, both died soon after its completion, while creative differences made this the last Hitchcock film with music by Bernard Herrmann. Despite its elegant cinematography and great performances, and despite the implicit promise that confession equals absolution (Hitchcock was raised as a Catholic, and the logic of confession proliferates as Marnie promises to confront all her victims) the film feels somewhat sadistic too, not just because of the controversial rape sequence, but also because the film insists on making Marnie, and us, look, look into the self, look into the past, re-live repressed trauma, and take responsibility. It’s as if we have to pay for our pleasures, in the now familiar “Bourne Identity” algorithm of combining the joy of heist and multiple identity plots with the insinuation of trauma, memory loss, murder. In contrast to the surface pleasures of Marnie’s early transformations, the quest for depth creates an uncomfortable equivalence between criminal infiltration, sexual penetration, religious confession and psychoanalytic self-narration. But Hitchcock also adds another now-classic dimension to the notion of psychoanalytic catharsis: inside the religious and proper cold mother, Bernice (in a subtle and touching performance by Louise Latham), is the former prostitute, purposefully withholding affection from her daughter and demonizing men and sex in order to ensure Marnie would grow up to be decent. “Decent?” Marnie asks at the end of the film, “Oh Mama. Well, you surely realized your ambition. I certainly am… decent.” The film may overtly thematize cool criminality and sexual frigidity, but at its core features other kinds of permafrost.
When you look at the five films Hitchcock made before this often overlooked political thriller — Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964) — it’s hard to argue with its status as a minor member of his oeuvre. Indeed, Torn Curtain suffered from so many pre-production problems that the famed filmmaker almost abandoned the project. First, the studio was adamant that Hitchcock hire “stars” — in this case, the recent Oscar winner Julie Andrews and established idol Paul Newman — while he had hoped to cast standbys Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. Then, both the director and the studio were unsatisfied with the script. Massive rewrites were needed just to get things started. Finally, a disagreement over the direction of the score severed the long running working relationship between Hitchcock and favorite composer Bernard Herrmann.
With the Cold War as a background, the plotlines was finally set in place. We follow famed American physicist Michael Armstrong (Newman), his fiancé and assistant Sarah Sherman (Andrews) as he suddenly “defects” to East Germany. Turns out, it’s all part of a plot to uncover Soviet secrets regarding anti-missile systems. After the death of a suspicious government security officer (and Armstrong’s involvement in same), the duo must make their way across Europe, using an escape network known as Pi, in order to get back to the West. Along the way, they stop off in Leipzig, make a mad dash through a crowded East Berlin ballet performance, and wind up as stowaways on a ship to Sweden.
For many, Torn Curtain is Hitchcock on autopilot. The performances are rote, the narrative elements ordinary, and the resolutions predicated on the frosty relations between America and the rest of Eastern Europe. What most people remember is the farmhouse confrontation between Newman and a character played by actor Wolfgang Kieling. Staged specifically to show how difficult it is to actually kill another human being, it stands out as one of the few sequences of showboating.
Hitchcock, always known for his meticulously planned suspense sequences, is frequently off-kilter here, his eye just not focused on bringing this story in smoothly. It could be because of the script problems, or the financial issues that came up during shooting. He was also unhappy with Newman’s Method acting and the lack of chemistry between his stars. Toward the end of his life, Hitchcock would muse that Torn Curtain was, perhaps, his most unpleasant directing job since his early days in the studio system.
The results speak for such discontent. While it’s interesting to see the filmmaker working within a more authentic, real world dynamic, his often stylized designs fail to wholly demystify the Iron Curtain concept. Perhaps the biggest problem here was the casting — no matter her accolades at the time, Andrews seems wildly out of place, and Newman merely does the best he can with what is, essentially, another patent passive Hitchcock hero. While he still had Frenzy to argue for his aging skills, Torn Curtain more or less signals the end of the Master’s reign. As impressive as his previous time in power was, that’s how ultimately underwhelming this effort remains.