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 the mould of Lifeboat and Rope, Hitchcock placed another physical limitation on his own work in Rear Window. The camera remains almost entirely within the confines of a small New York apartment, gazing out into a courtyard overlooked by other apartments in the largest indoor set Paramount had ever produced.
Photographer Jeff (James Stewart) is unable to leave his flat as he recovers from a broken leg. During his resentful idleness, he passes the time peering at his neighbours. What beings as a bit of nosiness, takes on a more suspicious tone when Jeff suspects that one of his neighbours (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. With the help of his stylish girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), they dig further into this menacing mystery.
Right from the start of his career, voyeurism has been a favourite Hichcock theme and it’s applied here expertly. As Jeff observes his neighbours he gives them his own titles – the Songwriter, Miss Lonelyhearts , Miss Torso, the Newlyweds etc. – and infers things about their personalities and lives based on the little he sees. These characters have their own small narrative arcs throughout the film, but there’s always the possibility that we, like Jeff, have imposed our assumptions on their lives. “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says Stella disapprovingly. Everybody’s guilty. None more so than the avid cinemagoer.
Rear Window is a damn near flawless film. The casting is sublime, with Stewart and Kelly giving the best performances of their entire careers. If there was one role Kelly could absolutely hit out of the park it was the ice-queen with a heart of fire. Lisa initially appears voguish and picture-book perfect, but once she gets caught up in Jeff’s murder theory she’s as excited about it as he is and doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty. Indeed, thanks to Jeff’s injury, he relies on Lisa and Stella doing all the actual investigating for him.
The cinematography is also magnificent. There are more iconic and sinister shots than you could shake a stick at and the use of diegetic sound – occurring naturally from within the world of the film as Jeff would hear it – is the most effective use of sound in Hitchcock’s entire career, apart from maybe The Birds.
It’s simply one of the best films Hitchcock ever made and one of the best films of all time.
I first saw Psycho at the impressionable age of 12. It gave me nightmares for weeks. My Dad, ever a comforting parent, would leave nighttime notes under my door from the Bates Motel staff stained with blood (ketchup).
Despite (or because of?) the trauma, even since then I’ve been a huge fan of The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In my teenage years I sought out his must-see classics – North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Birds, etc – but I never got round to watching many of his more obscure films. It’s time that changed.
Starting on July 1 I’ll be giving my thoughts on a different Hitchcock flick every day from his first finished film The Pleasure Garden (1925) to his final feature Family Plot (1976). From the masterpieces to the pieces of shit.
The murders, the blondes, the MacGuffins, the twist endings, the director cameos, the overbearing mothers, all covered here on Folding Seats. This is going to be a complete Hitchcock marathon. A Hitchcock-a-thon.
Countless critics and filmmakers have already written extensively on Hitchcock’s films. Practically every frame has been analysed ad infinitum. This marathon doesn’t hope to contribute anything new or significant. It’s merely a fan’s notes.
A brief disclaimer. I’ll be looking at feature films only, so don’t expect any commentary on his wartime propaganda shorts or any of his TV episodes on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I also won’t be covering the 1930 revue comedy film Elstree Calling, since Hitch only directed the “linking segments” between sketches, or Mary since it’s just the German version of his 1930 flick Murder!.
Other than that, I’ll be watching everything in Hitchcock’s directorial canon. By my count, this comes to 52 films.
52 films. 52 days.
Let’s do this.
See you on July 1.