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The Birds (1963)
Innovative & memorable; 'Jaws' with brains; aviary good film!
(The following review contains a few mini-'spoilers'; if you've yet to see the film, please be warned -- and please *DO* see it!)
In 'The Birds', Hitchcock showed us yet again why he was without contest the most innovative Hollywood director of his era, perhaps of all time. Just as 'Psycho' spawned the 'crazy serial-killer' genre, 'The Birds' laid the egg for the whole 'nature gone crazy' theme -- everything from killer bees to 'Jaws' and the toothless 'Piranha'. The premise of the film is perfectly ridiculous, even laughable, but Hitchcock, using all his panache, cinematizes it in a way that's not only original, but intelligent, believable and unforgettably haunting.
Consider these innovations: There's no musical score (at all!); a wide-open, very 'Euro' indecisive ending without 'THE END' credits (still customary in 1963); and the characters never scream, even at the most horrifying moments. Hitch evidently thought there was already enough *bird* 'screaming' on the eerie soundtrack. Also unusual is that the characters never say 'hello', 'goodbye' or similar greetings (except once, where someone says 'hi' to a bit player) and the dialogue is also, for the most part, nicely naturalistic; they say 'thanks' instead of 'thank you', for example, which was quite unusual for a 1963 film of this type. They often say something and nobody replies; or they just don't say anything, cut straight to next scene, and Hitch knows the aud are smart enough to draw the right conclusions (e.g. when Lydia returns from finding Fawcett's body).
I never quite understood how the birds could kill Annie while inflicting so few scratches on her body; presumably their M.O. was asphyxiation by sheer
numbers. (A bird stuffed in Dan Fawcett's mouth would've explained this; his pecked-out eyes where an unnecessary grossout in an otherwise tastefully gore-moderated film.) Thank God they were sparrows/crows and not vultures or eagles!
Mitch believes Melanie needs urgent hospital care following the attic attack frenzy, but she still looks perfectly doll-like even when dishevelled and distraught, apparently suffering no more than a few minor cuts and one slightly tattered lime-green Edith Head suit! Mitch was obviously talking about acute psychiatric care there. Indeed, he acts more like a shrink than a lawyer the whole movie long, their one kiss is more like a peck (as if the movie needed any more of those) and he seems more fascinated by Melanie's neuroticism than her eroticism.
Speaking of which... Am I alone in detecting that Hitch is (possibly) hinting at an attraction between Melanie and Annie? The scenes between them are one of the most interesting aspects of the movie; especially how Annie eyes up the cute doll-like Melanie and her tone of voice when they first meet. This 'frisson' persists (for me, anyway) even after we know Annie is hetero since she had a relaysh with Mitch. Is this just my male fantasy? No, as with so many things in Hitchcock movies, I think it's there to pick up on, if you want. Suzanne Pleshette gives a fascinatingly subtle, controlled performance. What a no-nonsense, even 'butch' gal Annie is! Dig her wonderfully hardboiled vocal style! The preternaturally primped and poised Tippi Hedren looks like the sex kitten who got the cream as the pampered Melanie, drifting rudderlessly yet a dab hand at inland navigation, while Rod Taylor is required to do nothing except look manly, distant and repress the odd emotion now and then. In fact, it's interesting to watch this movie and focus just on the superb and unpredictable dialogue; the nuanced way the characters interact with each other (the result, quite naturally, of nuanced, accomplished acting perfs); and especially for the psychological complexity of Melanie. Now how many horror films can you say that about? "'The Birds' is cunning!" might've made a good tagline.
No birds were harmed during the making of this motion picture. However, some of them got pretty mad at being tied to Tippi's Edith Head suit, saying that wasn't specified in their contract, and went utterly 'berdserk' when later denied their per diems for the inevitable shooting overruns. (No, they weren't acting...their resentment was for real. The line about their brainpans not being big enough was the final insult. Apparently, they were paid peanuts. And they'd requested *sunflower seeds*!!)
Tippi Hedren, if you know anything of what she had to endure (quite apart from a rather unflattering dress) certainly *WAS* harmed during the making... She reportedly almost had a nervous breakdown after having live birds thrown at her all day (quite literally) in the attic frenzy scene. Maybe her zombielike state at the end of the movie didn't involve much acting!
The movie also marked the beginning, and sadly the end, of the lovely Ms Hedren's meteoric career -- 'Marnie' and some nondescript B-movies/made-for-TVs excepted. (She fell out of favour with Hollywood after an acrimonious rift with Hitch while shooting 'Marnie'. They weren't on speaking terms for over half of production. It's an open secret that Hitch was besotted with Tippi (though of course there's no suggestion he was *EVER* unfaithful to his beloved wife Alma with *ANY* woman), and Tippi felt he wanted to control her entire life.) Did Tippi name her daughter 'Melanie' (Griffith) in honour of this, her greatest ever role? Who knows.
After watching 'The Birds', you'll keep some incredible images forever -- a cast of thousands that's much more impactful than 'Ben Hur', not to mention the ultrafeisty Ms Pleshette and so-easy-on-the-eye-it's-unreal Ms Hedren -- but no longer will you use the cliché 'our feathered friends' lightly.
In short: Aviary good film indeed! Definitely deserves to be above #233 in the IMDB all-time ranking. I only wish I'd been alive to see Hitchcock's films when they were released to feel their full contemporary impact. And this is a long review (and I've only said 10% of what I wanted to), but it *IS* well within the 1,000 words maximum. :-)
I find it amazing nobody has yet commented on this film, which it's certainly impossible to ignore (just like any other Russ Meyer fare).
So I'm not going to comment either. I won't talk about how ignored Russ Meyer is as a genuine auteur or how misinterpreted his films are by the vast majority of critics. And I won't mention how I think Russ Meyer has a great talent for writing dialogue with deep, philosophical implications (though some people would never know it).
If I have one complaint, it's that the film (or filmette) is rather too short at only 70 mins US, 63 mins Deutschland. Those poor Germans had fully 10% of the movie slashed, and one wonders why; it was rated 18 or X anyway, and though the film has "adult themes" (in case you didn't notice) it's in no way "pornographic" (for that matter, neither is ANY Russ Meyer film, in my opinion).
The most entertaining aspect of the movie is undoubtedly the unique style of acting. Actually, I don't think the acting in this movie (or for that matter ANY Russ Meyer movie) is "bad". It's just self-consciously mannered in a style that immediately tells you, as soon as you switch on the TV, that you're watching a Russ Meyer movie. Russ worked hard (I'm sure) to coax such performances from his interesting casts. There is no other director I can think of whose work is so strongly styled that it's immediately identifiable as one of his films. When you watch a Russ Meyer film, you enter a parallel universe much stranger than reality.
The Mummy (1999)
Imhotep? More like Impotent...
You have gotta admire the chutzpah of Universal in releasing the movie in this state. They should never have wrapped this Mummy. Unlike some of the artefacts, the movie as a whole looks decidedly unpolished, and one leaves the theatre feeling mildly entertained (only about 10 minutes of the film are actually boring), but with a sense that it could have been so much more if only a little attention had been given to the writing, editing and overall ambience.
I saw this movie in Barcelona where it's rated for kids age 7 and up. (It was rated as high as 15 years in some countries.) So, it seems only the Spanish appreciated its true target audience (and yes, Spain's version was uncut). It's a pity that the movie had to be quite as childish, wacky and simplistic as it was. But that's demographics for you. The cartoon-characterlike mummy was not the least bit chilling (although, not being a preteen, maybe I'm not qualified to comment). Imhotep? More like Impotent. However, a nice touch was to see Americans as arrogant villains for a change. Arnold Vosloo is better than I expected, however, as the human Imhotep, even if the only emotion he's asked to convey is sheer arrogance. I'd have preferred Billy Zane (to whom he bears a remarkable resemblance in some scenes), who may have brought more subtlety to the role. Rachel Weisz is competent enough, though she can't play drunk, and (strangely!) becomes noticeably better-looking as the film grinds on (she looks less tired than at first, anyone else notice?), though I'd have preferred Catherine Zeta-Jones (who wouldn't?) Brendan Fraser is, unfortunately, just plain bland and decidedly un-French. He looks too young, and not rugged enough, for this role. He's an excellent actor (e.g. Gods & Monsters) but just goes through the motions here.
Most of the glib one-liners failed completely, not just because I was watching the movie dubbed in Spanish (I understood about 95% of it), though I doubt the original US dialogue was much more scintillating. I'm afraid it's grade-school stuff, as usual.
On the effects (which of course is what the movie is all about), there's very little to say. They're effective (sorry), but not surprising. Unspecial f/x. The same effects, such as the scarab beetle swarms and skin bulging, are very overused. I wonder how much money that saved? After seeing an effect once, it has much diminished impact the second time. Which perhaps explains why I was noticing boom mikes, cameras (yes!) and other anomalous background things instead of being totally gripped by the action. I liked the opening panoramic scene of ancient Egypt more than the mostly mundane f/x thereafter.
While the film obviously doesn't take itself seriously (nor should it), the acting is mostly too camp (especially the effete Brit Jonathan and the nasty stereotype of the fat greedy Arab) to avoid oversilliness. That really diminishes the mystical and suspenseful atmosphere that the film should have derived from its lavish sets. As a result, the big money spent on production design was essentially squandered. The film has very little atmosphere and appears strangely sterile and subdued. You keep hoping it might pick up, but it never does, retaining a bland tone throughout; even the climax is unthrilling; an empty spectacle.
Conclusion: They should have spent a few million less on sterile sfx, hired some decent script doctors and donated the remaining millions to the preservation of GENUINE Egyptian cultural artefacts.
(Oh, and I wonder how Imhotep could see anything throughout the entire movie, considering he stole the eyes of that American guy who could barely see the hand in front of his face without his glasses?)
North by Northwest (1959)
Simply Magical Moviemaking
Possibly the greatest ever thriller, NbNW combines terrific acting, dialogue, cinematography, music and storyline. But the real standout is the editing. If there was ever a film that merited the cliché "a nonstop thrill ride", it's this one. The pace never slackens. I particularly like how it cuts straight from the Mt Rushmore face to the train bunkbed. I hate the anticlimactic, overlong, hokey endings of most thrillers. The final scene (scenelet) is very short, romantic dénouement, à la James Bond. How refreshing.
Oh, the champagne dialogue in this movie is simply premier cru, darlings! Eve: "You don't believe in marriage." - Thornhill [indignant]: "But I've been married twice." - Eve: "See what I mean?" Or take this repartee... Vandamm: "Seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the FBI, and a little more from the Actors' Studio." - Thornhill: "Apparently, the only performance that'll satisfy you is when I play dead." - Vandamm: "Your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you."
The dialogue is also very risqué for a 1950s film in places. In the dining car, for example, Thornhill: "The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her." This thinly-veiled propositioning of Eve/Eva for sex, which sounds banal these days, would have been outrageously shocking to its original 50s audience. Likewise, "I'm a big girl." - "Yeah, and in all the right places, too." A cliché now, but imagine its impact then. "I've heard nothing but innuendoes," says Vandamm at one stage. He's right; there are plenty in this movie's verbal and visual imagery.
This dialogue, and the general production design, conspire to create product that, unlike other Hitchcock thrillers like Rear Window and Psycho, doesn't appear dated now. The design is ultramodernist, which is reflected in the architecture of the locations like the NYC UN HQ and the Rushmore lodge.
A convoluted plot is usually the result of bad scripting or an attempt to mask a movie's deficiencies in other areas. As usual, Hitchcock keeps the plot dead simple and doesn't complicate matters by trying to explain. It's just some kind of meaningless Cold War spy thing. This perfectly suffices, for it's quite incidental to the thrilling chase that forms the core of the film. What seem like hokey, incredible contrivances, such as Eve's coming on so strong to Thornhill in the dining car (when we think her unaware that he's not a real murderer) are soon enough fascinatingly demystified. (She's in cahoots with Vandamm, or, as we later find, an undercover agent trying to expose him!)
Fantastic performances from Cary Grant, James Mason, Eva-Marie Saint and a much-underused Martin Landau. If there's one criticism, it's that Cary Grant is preternaturally unflappable as the urban sophisticate plunged into a living nightmare. He always retains his self-assured, even arrogant, panache and never panics. In fact, with that ever-present twinkle in his eye, he seems to be getting perverse enjoyment from his own misfortunes. However, his modulated performance remains just the right side of comicality.
Eva-Marie Saint is camera-loved as the lethal seductress. She seems the perfect Bond girl. Had her star risen a few years later, I'm sure she'd have been captivating Connery. In fact, this movie shows that Hitchcock could have directed James Bond. It's no secret Bond's film incarnation was modelled to some extent on Cary Grant's supersuave persona in this film.
A young-looking Martin Landau is effective as the menacing sidekick, although it's only in the final scene in the Rushmore lodge that he has any quality screen time or lines. James Mason underplays the role of the polished, oleaginous villain perfectly. His very British voice and demeanour conveys menace by suggestion, not overt declaration. He too, like Saint, would have been ideal in a Bond film. He doesn't sound ridiculous mouthing lines like, "A bit naughty, using real bullets!" [my paraphrase]
[Continuity: In the scene in Eve's hotel room, Thornhill calls for the valet to sponge and press his suit. He's told it'll take 20 minutes and a guy comes to collect the suit a minute later. He pretends to take a shower, whilst Eve absconds. Thornhill leaves immediately, and he doesn't return to the hotel. However, in the next scene, we see him wearing the same suit, perfectly sponged and pressed. There's no way he could have returned to the hotel to collect the suit.]
puerile pseudoscience... pelagic & pathetic
This is a truly incredible film - by which I mean it isn't the least bit credible. Anyone who knows anything about diving or oceanography (or for that matter, science in general) will howl at the dozens of mistakes and improbabilities.
In a small, Beatles-style yellow submarine that seems barely big enough for 4 testosterone-fuelled men's men and one pretty woman, our heroes are required to travel around the ENTIRE WORLD and place 50 earthquake sensors at strategic points on the seafloor to create a warning system of the impending destruction of the earth by seismic forces! They manage to do this in just one month! The sensors are "anchored" to the seabed by making them explode!
The first sensor is placed at the bottom of a trench 6 miles deep. The guy (for some reason I've forgotten) actually leaves the sub in his diving suit! At this depth, his entire body would implode instantly from the pressure. Incredibly, the seabed at this depth is light and swarming with fish! In reality, it would be totally dark and devoid of life.
At one point, they are in a very rich area of ocean, where the "minestrone" of available food biomass attracts millions of fish. We get the warning that "little fish attract big fish", so we expect maybe a 20-foot shark... But no, the sub is attacked by a mutant conger eel that must be at least 100 feet long! It totally dwarfs the sub. This is so ridiculous, as you can tell from the way it moves it's just a very tiny eel in a tank. In the exterior shots of the sub, it's so obviously just a small lightweight model in a fishtank. The special effects budget of this movie must have been nil.
The best line is this movie is when Shirley Eaton's character says of the female sex, "We have men to thank for our freedom, but sometimes we don't know how to handle it!" I think this was in response to the suggestion that women lead men on sexually, sometimes to their downfall. Well, she may be a scientist, but at least she isn't some crazy feminist! ;-) This film is so dated in general, it's amazing it was made as recently as 1966! There's a palpable mid-to-late 50s feel. The woman is there for the sole purpose of creating tension with the men who lust after her and fight among themselves. In fact, most of the movie's drama comes from the effect this bimbo scientist has on her crewmates' testosterone levels. She is actually wearing stiletto heels when she boards the submarine.
The end of the movie is the most hilarious part. The sub is half-buried by a volcanic rockfall, so the captain suggests blowing the buried half off with dynamite to free them! They all accept this rational-sounding theory without complaint. Dozens of sticks of dynamite and plastique are wired INSIDE the sub. They blow the back half of the thing clean off and stay safely sealed in the bridge compartment. How ridiculous! But the front of the sub is still not free! So Lloyd Bridges must venture outside and burn through what looks like a 6-inch cable using a flare! They have to "equalize the pressure" inside the half-destroyed sub by opening the hatch, while trying to prevent too much water rushing in! They're running out of air fast, yet deem it sensible to waste bottled O2 on the pet guineapigs.
The crew take about a minute to return from the seabed to the surface. Conveniently enough, there's a chopper already there to rescue them! The joy that other viewers must have experienced (in realizing this film was finally over and they could do something worthwhile instead) was not shared by me. I realized that, with such a rapid ascent and no decompression chamber onboard the chopper, they would all certainly die an agonizing death from decompression sickness. Ah well.
The movie totally lacks suspense or thrills, but is mildly enjoyable for its unintended humorousness. David McCallum's performance as the menacing and creepy blonde European type you can never trust is, as usual, entertaining.