Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Movie: The Birds (1963)

When we heard that Turner Classic Movies would be showing Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS with Tippi Hedren in attendance, we had to go. We don’t get many movie stars in this neck of the woods. They’re all up in Vancouver. Although Rosemarie did once see Ethan Hawke coming out of our local supermarket. We never figured out why he was there. The produce selection is good, but not two-time Oscar nominee good.

Ms. Hedren (suddenly I’m Larry King – “Ms. Tippi Hedren for the hour”) looked every inch the movie star. She was literally dazzling; every time she moved in her chair, the light bounced off a different diamond. She was also wearing the pin depicting three birds in flight that Hitch himself presented to her when he signed her to a contract more than forty years ago.

TCM host Robert Osborne led her through a spirited interview. She was marvelously self-effacing, saying that Hitch wanted an unknown for the lead in THE BIRDS because any established actress would have known not to take the part. She told some wonderful stories about Hitchcock’s technique, but was also very forthright about the director’s obsession with her, which went far beyond their onscreen collaborations. Hitch wanted to control how she dressed, what she ate, what books she read. Osborne asked if Hitch’s wife Alma knew. Ms. Hedren said she did, and that she was very sorry about it. Ultimately, Ms. Hedren had to tell Hitchcock that she was uncomfortable with their relationship and didn’t want to work with him anymore. He accepted that – but also refused to allow her to act in other films. “For years, directors and producers came up to me and said they’d wanted me for a role, but Hitch wouldn’t allow it,” she said. “The worst was when I found out that Francois Truffaut had wanted to cast me. I’d never heard a word about it. That one hurt.”

Osborne is too much of a showman to let the conversation end on a down note, so he asked Ms. Hedren about the wildlife refuge she’s run for decades and her daughter Melanie Griffith. He closed with some kind words about Evan Hunter, who took the film’s premise from Daphne DuMaurier and concocted the screen story himself.

Then, on to the movie. I’ve seen THE BIRDS more than any other Hitchcock film, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. The attack scenes are brilliant, executed with a chilling indifference. The lack of explanations – and the inconclusive ending – are still deeply unsettling. But that first hour of half-baked psychology is awfully slow.

The sound in the theater was first-rate. Loud enough to make me shield my eyes, lest they be pecked out next.

You never know who’s going to show up at these things. There was the celebrity hound in our aisle, who shouted out allegedly witty remarks to Ms. Hedren and then left before the movie started. And the contingent from the Art Students’ League who decamped en masse about twenty minutes in. And the musky-odored gent ahead of us in line, who was there because “movies cost too much, and I heard this one’s free.”

Then again, there was the man who queued up behind us, took one look at the crowd, and said, “Lot of Rod Taylor fans, I guess.” You, sir, made our evening.