Where on earth would Hitch go after a masterpiece like Psycho? He chose to return one of his favourite authors for inspiration, Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca and Jamaica Inn) in his first attempt at paranormal horror.
The story revolves upon one spooky speculation: what if, for completely unexplainable reasons, all the billions of birds of the world started to attack humankind?
But, like all the best disaster horrors, Hitchcock keeps us waiting before we get to the full on avian attacks. The first half of the film is dedicated to character development and gradually building sense of menace before he unleashes the full feathered fury.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), travels to the deadend hamlet of Bodega Bay to play a flirtatious practical joke on Mitch (Rod Taylor) who she met in a San Francisco bird shop. Melanie starts to get close to Mitch, despite his protective mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and befriends the local school teacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette). They are startled in the middle of the night by a loud thud of a gull killing itself by flying against the front door.
“Poor thing,” remarks Annie, “Probably lost his way in the dark.”
“But it isn’t dark,” responds a puzzled Melanie, “There’s a full moon.”
DUN DUN DUNNN
From then on, it’s full on Birdageddon, with our heroes trapped in the epicentre. Inevitably, a few of the special effects have dated somewhat. But the film succeeds because the build-up to the attacks is just so damn good. You can’t help but get the sense that there must be some pattern or purpose to it all…but Hitchcock’s masterful execution doesn’t provide you with any easy answers.
The Birds was the film debut for Tippi Hedren, who Hitchcock picked up after seeing her in a commercial for a diet drink called Sego. His alarmingly possessive treatment of her will be covered in more depth when we get to Marnie, but for now let’s just say that it ain’t pretty. Despite the behind-the-scenes trauma, she’s a magnificent onscreen presence. Hitchcock had been searching for a leading lady to fill the void left by Grace Kelly’s departure and in his eyes Hedren was even greater still. He could well be right.
In many ways Psycho is a victim of its own success. As Hitchcock’s most well-known film, many of the iconic scenes, lines or plot twists are often familiar to modern moviegoers through parody and reference long before they see the film. The shock felt by original audiences has been softened by general pop culture awareness.
But those who know some of Psycho’s more famous moments, but have never got around to watching it, are missing out. It’s Hitchcock’s most famous film for a simple reason. It’s his best. And it remains the greatest horror/thriller ever made. But if there is anyone reading this who’s still totally in the dark about the plot details, don’t worry. I won’t spoil anything.
After stealing $40,000 from a client, secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) skips town and heads across country to join her lover, Sam (John Gavin). She begins to panic about her decision and stops off at a lonely motel for the night, owned by the awkward and shy proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Back home, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) becomes concerned and teams up with Sam and a private detective (Martin Balsam) to get to the bottom of Marion’s disappearance. But the truth behind the Bates Motel proves to be worse than they could have ever imagined.
Psycho is perhaps the most skilful example of directorial control over the audience. Hitchcock perfectly balances how much he shows with how much he leaves to your imagination, both in terms of visual depiction of the horror and in terms of plot revelations. The astounding delicacy of the film’s delivery means that even though Hitch misdirects the audience, you never feel cheated for being misled.
The rising tension in film’s first act is aided by career-topping performances from star Janet Leigh and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose slicing violins make the heart race each time you hear them.
And then there’s Anthony Perkins. It is perhaps sad that his career never escaped the shadow of Norman, but when his performance towers this high it’s not hard to understand why that is. From the way he clenches his jaw to his nervous stutter and crooked smile, he’s a wonderfully subtle blend of creepy and charming.
Psycho is the kind of masterpiece that reminds you why it’s brilliant each time you watch it.
Hitchcock’s next film The Mountain Eagle (1926) is lost. Sad for Hitchcock fans, but not for the great man himself who declared it to be “awful”. We’ll just have to take his word for it and move along to the second of his surviving films: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.
Hitch considered it to be his first “true” film and it’s easy to see why. While The Pleasure Garden took its time to build up to the grisly murder, The Lodger jumps straight in with a vivid opening shot of a screaming victim.
Filmed in “blue tint-o-vision”
What we’re witnessing is the handiwork of a “Jack the Ripper” style murderer, known as the Avenger, who attacks vulnerable blonde women under the cover of night-time fog.
Amid the panic, a pale and haunted tenant called Jonathan (Ivor Novello) moves into the spare room of a Mr. and Mrs. Bunting. He becomes increasingly close to their daughter Daisy (June Tripp), the girlfriend of Joe – police detective on the Avenger case (Malcolm Keen).
A face you can trust
The Lodger is the first of Hitchcock’s films to explore the fetishistic sexuality which would go on to dominate much of his later work. Jonathan turns the pictures of women in his room to face the wall as he can’t bear to look upon them and can never resist staring at Daisy’s golden curls.
But it’s not just our creepy lodger friend who hints towards a relationship between sex and death: “When I’ve put a rope around the Avenger’s neck,” declares Joe, mimicking a noose motion, “I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger.”
Nothings gets the girls like religious imagery
As the intimacy between Daisy and Jonathan builds so does the tension; added to by distorted angles, long shadows and claustrophobic lighting.
When the tension finally breaks in the film’s climax Hitchcock employs a final twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming first time I saw it. Not half bad for 1927. Even silent film skeptics might find themselves seduced.