Discussions of Cinema: Kathryn Bigelow

Hello my name is John Charet and I am the owner of this website Cinematic Coffee and today, I will be welcoming back Pamela Lowe Saldana, who is the owner of the website All Things Thriller. Today, we will be discussing the films of Kathryn Bigelow. We will discuss Bigelow’s style and themes as well as our personal five favorite films directed by her 🙂

PLS: Hi John. I’m settled in with a cup of coffee now and I’m ready to discuss when you are…

JC: Alrighty, let us get started. Kathryn Bigelow’s first film as director was one she co-directed with Monty Montgomery from 1981 entitled The Loveless. Both also wrote the script. The film was a biker drama starring a young Willem Dafoe with a conventional plot about a motorcycle gang causing trouble within a small town. It was good even though it suggests that better things were to come. The most interesting aspect of it for me was the neon look of it that foreshadows Near Dark. What is your take?

PLS: Yes, I looked this one up and watched it on YouTube. I liked it, though it had an amateur feel to it. It felt like it was unfinished. I liked the neon vibe to it, but it was very slow. I don’t know about you, but I thought The Loveless was more or less a new wave version of The Wild One, though not as good. But the slow burn and build up to a sudden blast of violence is definitely a Bigelow signature.

JC: It did feel like that in many ways which is why it can never be labeled a true classic. 6 years later in 1987 though, Bigelow directed and co-wrote Near Dark, which I consider to be her breakthrough film. Unlike a lot of vampire films of the day, Near Dark plays out like a combination of a Neo-Western and a horror film with elements of a crime drama thrown in for good measure. The rural Oklahoma settings prove my point and Adam Greenberg’s cinematography gives it that atmosphere. Also, let us not forget Tangerine Dream’s equally atmospheric music score.

PLS: I think she hit her stride quickly with Near Dark. I hadn’t seen it before, never heard of it. I can see where it has become a fan favorite and a cult film. It’s very atmospheric. The lighting is great and she ratchets up the tension and violence. In fact, I thought the violence was over the top–kind of a splatter-fest while the rest of the film is artsy and romantic. It was cool to see such a young Bill Paxton. I have an affinity for him, but he kind of over did it with the uber villain.

JC: The violence most certainly was over-the-top like a splatter-fest as you say. One perfect example of that comes in the bar shootout with John Parr’s song Naughty Naughty playing in the background. Whenever I hear that song, I think of Near Dark 🙂 Interesting enough, the word vampire is never uttered in the film based on my knowledge unless I missed something. The romantic relationship between Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Mae (Jenny Wright) is fascinating because it does not come off as cliched. The strangeness of this film is what makes it so brilliant. The Lost Boys may have been more popular that year (it was released two months earlier), but Near Dark stands out for me as the superior film. Nowadays when it comes to discussing vampire films, people talk about how underrated this is and they are totally right.

PLS: Well, I’m a big Lost Boys fan…I really liked Near Dark and I agree that it’s the superior film, but it doesn’t have the humor or sweetness of The Lost Boys…at least not to me. But, yeah, the bar scene is awesome and the whole contrast of light vs dark is very interesting and though it should feel like a cliche, it doesn’t. I think this is a stellar film.

JC: The Lost Boys is not a bad film and it is an interesting take on the vampire sub-genre, but Near Dark is just so enthralling in how it dissects it all. This does not completely feel like a horror film as I implied earlier. The blending of elements relating to the Western and the crime drama with those those of a horror film concerning vampires is just so intriguing and it is all executed perfectly here.

PLS: So, the first film from Katheryn Bigelow that I saw was 1990’s Blue Steel. She put a feminist twist on the action/thriller genre. To me, this is the film where she established the great opening film sequence and her realistic cinematography as film signatures. The convenience store sequence is riveting cinema. I love the tension and the camera work. I love the cinematography…and yet the film feels flat to me. Too contrived. She set me up with a great beginning but I was disappointed with the meat of the film. Though the ending was tense and suspenseful. There’s the signature violence and her preoccupation with rape, all heavy feminist themes but I thought Blue Steel was a let down.

JC:  Blue Steel is the first Kathryn Bigelow film to feature a female protagonist as it’s lead. Camera work, cinematography and that opening shootout are all fantastic as you imply. If the film feels flat, that is possibly because it plays out like an unpretentious B-thriller. I will say that compared to her previous film Near Dark, Blue Steel feels like a slight letdown, but standing on it’s own, it is anything but. I also agree that it’s “preoccupation with rape” is most certainly a feminist theme and Bigelow has tackled possible elements of feminism occasionally in future works.

PLS: I don’t know if you’ve heard of Ronnie Montrose, he’s a classic rock act. He had really great intros to his songs. They rocked, but then the rest of the song just never equaled the intro. That’s how I feel about Blue Steel. It has all the ingredients, I just don’t think Bigelow put them together effectively. I liked the Jamie Lee Curtis casting, but I didn’t like Ron Silver as the bad guy.
It’s a completely different film than Near Dark. But the cinematography and action sequences are familiar ties that bind the films together. I didn’t like this one as much as you do, but I see it’s potential.

JC: I have heard Ronnie Montrose and I love his music. The following year, Kathryn Bigelow directed Point Break with Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze. Unlike those last three films, Bigelow only directed this one. As with Blue Steel, it plays out as a B-action-thriller, but this one is a whole lot more fun. I love the action sequences whether it involves surfing or shootouts and the chemistry between the two leads could not be better. Gary Busey is just a riot as that head FBI agent. Your thoughts.

PLS: I love Point Break and I avoided watching it for years. Why? I’m not a big fan of Keanu Reeves or Patrick Swayze. This was before Bigelow was a big thing so I didn’t know that I was watching one of her films. All that said, I was pleasantly surprised and riveted by the camera work. Spectacular filming of surfing. My gosh, it’s gorgeous. Another thing that stands out to me about that film is the foot chase scene. It was really different. Here you had Reeves–a good looking, incredibly fit guy, and he’s huffing and puffing as he’s running, he barely gets over a fence and he’s clearly exhausted…I loved the realism of it. That juxtaposition against the gorgeous surfing and ocean shots…And then the parachuting scene…Wow! It’s a great action film.

JC: I will say that it is madly entertaining. Point Break was also the first Bigelow film to be both a commercial hit and a cult classic. That same year, Kathryn Bigelow and fellow director James Cameron divorced (1989-1991). Nevertheless, this did not stop BIgelow to revive a 1986 screenplay by James Cameron (with Jay Cocks co-writing the final product) resulting in 1995’s Strange Days. At the time, it was Bigelow’s most expensive film to date ($42 million). The film was a commercial flop, but has since gone on to become something of an overlooked gem. According to Wikipedia (read here), Bigelow wanted to explore themes of racism, abuse of power, rape and voyeurism within a science-fiction film blended together with that of a film noir. Bigelow also made allusions to the Lorena Bobbitt trial and the 1992 Los Angeles riots (read here). At first, it might look like Bigelow’s most compromised film to date given the fact that Cameron wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, but after viewing it all, it feels like an ambitious neo-noir that resembles the work of a partnership. While it does come off as Bigelow’s most polished work to date, it is also occasionally uneven like the majority of her previous work (with the exception of Near Dark). It comes close to being as masterful as Blade Runner, but it does not quite hit it’s target. I still admire it though.

PLS: Too much going on at the same time. Again, I feel this film was miscast. I’m a big Ralph Fienness fan and I like Angela Bassett, but not here. I wasn’t impressed with Julliette Lewis either–though she’s always hit or miss.
All that said, I love the opening sequence…The first person camera work/technique is amazing and it’s jarringly original. This is where Bigelow really makes her mark as filmmaker to me, the camera work. Nowhere in her cannon is it better, in my opinion, than in this opening sequence.
I like some of the themes: The emphasis on feminism, the bi/racial love story, the racial injustice is edgy and real at a time when we as a society were still tip toeing around this stuff. But then, you’ve got totally unnecessary nudity and over the top sexuality that is the antithesis of feminism to me…It’s kind of WTF.
And then there’s that squid thing that goes on the head of the characters…Too bizarre and awkward.

JC: The casting choices are hit-or-miss as you say, though Angela Bassett is the scene stealer in my opinion. James Cameron may be skilled at writing smart sci-fi action, he does not do so well with the super complex ideas behind it. Bigelow’s skills as a filmmaker really mature here and it is kind of a shame that it is on display in a slightly flawed film. I had no problem with the nudity or the sexuality for I love that kind of stuff in a film. Again, I hope you do not see me as some kind of weirdo 🙂 As to whether or not that is the antithesis of feminism, it depends on what one woman’s definition of feminism is because there as many ones out there that love this kind of stuff as there are those who are turned off by it. Visually, the film is impressive and the camera work just blew me away. If only the film could blend all of it’s ideas more coherently, it would have been a great film as opposed to a very good one. In the end, Strange Days is a film that I admire more than I adore.

PLS: Ha! No I don’t think that you’re a weirdo, John. I just think it’s strange for a feminist director to objectify women. But that’s just me…Strange Days is a very ambitious film that doesn’t quite meet it’s objectives. I think we agree on that.

JC: We agree on that totally 🙂 Five years after Strange Days, director Kathryn Bigelow scaled down in size and on a budget of $16 million dollars for a film adaptation of Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel The Weight of Water. The film was supposed to come out in 2000, but for some odd reason (maybe negative reviews), it was theatrically released here in the United States in 2002. The film navigates back and forward to the then present day and back to 1873. The plot deals a female newspaper photographer, who after researching an article about an 1873 double homicide, she finds her own current life eerily mirroring the situation of that historical incident. It sounds pretty complex and it is. I respect it for that and while it does mystify, it never really goes full circle like a great David Lynch film would. I do not know If you saw the film, but it is worth a watch.

PLS: Yes I saw it when it first came out. I really love Sean Penn. (He’s a great director too, I think.) Anyway, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I could never really make heads or tails out of it. Is it a ghost story? It’s certainly trying to be soooo mysterious…It didn’t strike an accord with me. But here, I really liked the cast and I thought the acting was great.

JC: Same here, the acting was great, but as with Strange Days, it is a film that I admire more than I adore. The same year that The Weight of Water finally got a theatrical release here in the States (2002 in this case), Kathryn Bigelow directed a submarine thriller entitled K-19: The Widowmaker. The plot is loosely based on a real life incident from 1961 involving a Soviet Union submarine malfunctioning while voyaging to the North Atlantic near Greenland. You can read more about it here and here. While criticism was aimed at some of the liberties taken, it was praised as a highly engrossing submarine thriller and Harrison Ford did surprisingly well playing a Russian ship Captain. I too found it to be intriguing and is on par with The Hunt for Red October in my opinion. Have you seen the film?

PLS: I have seen it John and I actually prefer K 19 to The Hunt for Red October. I think it’s a great historical thriller. Yes, there were liberties taken with the true story, but there almost always are with movies. It is a movie–not a documentary.

JC: I actually have no problems with liberties being taken in crafting a historical piece either because it actually happens all of the time. I also agree with you that these are movies and not documentaries 🙂 I was referencing what some historians and even a scattering few critics thought of it. Interesting that you preferred it to The Hunt for Red October and Harrison Ford actually did a pretty good job playing a Russian.

PLS: Yes, his accent was a bit sketchy at times but overall I think he was very good. I almost always like Harrison Ford and I think Neesom was equally good. I’ve heard some critism of Bigelow’s films, that she often gets wooden performances out of her actors, but I thought this was a great assemble piece. It was entertaining, engaging and it actually made me look up the incident. Bigelow’s camera work is spot on–per usual–she used the close camera to get the claustrophobic effect and she was very successful. The effects of the radiation poisoning were horrifying.

JC: I never think that her films feature wooden performances. I wonder why some critics thought that at the time. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade (2009 in this case), director Kathryn Bigelow would achieve full blown maturity (for lack of better word) with The Hurt Locker, which for my money at the time, ranked as her greatest film since Near Dark 22 years earlier. Not only was it nominated for Best Picture, Director and for it’s lead actor Jeremy Renner (Ha take that critics) and countless others, but Bigelow beat her ex-husband James Cameron (who was up for Avatar that year) in the win for the Best Director prize. The Hurt Locker is a truly thought-provoking take on the Iraq war and what is really interesting is how Renner’s character treats his job as If it’s his dream lifestyle, which in this case would be defusing bombs. Your take Pam.

PLS: I think The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s masterpiece. I love everything about this film. To me it’s a psychological thriller/ action film. It’s very thought provoking. Jeremy Renner’s character is a psychopath. No, he’s not the boogeyman and he doesn’t stalk women. Actually, he is a very realistic portrait of what most psychopaths look like. They are adrenaline junkies. They push the envelope over the table because that’s the only way they can feel anything. They are basically fearless, but most don’t have a taste for rape or murder. The military is a safe haven for them. You’ll find them there, and in the police force, and engaging in extreme sports. They are EMTs, pilots, race car drivers etc. It’s a tragic thing–but at least war, gives this character an outlet and something productive to belong to.

JC: I could not agree with you more about your description of the character. Prior to Zero Dark Thirty from three years later in 2012, I also saw The Hurt Locker as Bigelow’s masterpiece, but with Zero Dark Thirty (in my opinion) she topped herself once again. As a political thriller, it offers both intelligence and excitement. As you know, it is a dramatized retelling of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, who was the terrorist mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Jessica Chastain plays her lead CIA intelligence analyst character with not only conviction, but with quiet dignity and grace too. Not only that, but she is also a strong heroine at the same time.

PLS: I would agree that Zero Darth Thirty is also a masterpiece, though in my estimation–a lesser one that The Hurt Locker. I agree that it’s a political thriller and Bigelow took some heat for her realistic depictions of waterboarding and other tortures. In fact, the criticism of the film became very political–there were accusations that then President Barack Obama (2009-2017) had carelessly turned over too much information–some of it supposedly classified. All of that was white noise to me–and off putting. I knew about the waterboarding and black site torture chambers. Everybody did.

I thought Jessica Chastain was brilliant. I thought James Gandolnfini was excellent as a thinly disguised Leon Panetta. I think the film was very accurate and Chastain’s character is based on a real CIA operative–though she was not recruited straight out of high school like in the film. That didn’t ring true to me when I first saw the film.

JC: I too have also read about those accusations. I think Seymour Hersh wrote a 2016 book about how the hunt for Osama Bin Laden really went down or at least from his perspective. I think director Kathryn Bigelow depicted waterboarding as If it was all part of the job within the CIA or lack thereof. I too also noticed James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta and yeah he was spot-on. Sadly, Gandolfini would pass away the following year in 2013. As for Bigelow’s most recent film Detroit, I would like to hear your thoughts first 🙂

PLS: Obviously Bigelow has an affinity for historical films and in this case she explores a racially charged incident in the 60s that–sadly–I had never heard of until I watched the film. I was blown away by it. The screenplay is excellent. I’m a stickler for dialogue and it’s spot on and authentic to time and place. The dress, the cars everything is authentic to the early to mid 60s. Bigelow is very OCD with the details of her films. It really pays off here.
It’s funny–I love The Dramatics. In The Rain is one of my favorite songs. I never knew about lead singer Larry Reed being caught up in this horror.
The story is terrifying. To me this is Horror–much scarier than Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.
The Soundtrack is wonderful, by the way.

JC: I too agree with everything you say about Detroit. I think it is sad that this one does not get as much credit as the other two films did. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots and watching it was like witnessing a period longer ago than that of the twentieth century. Sounds awkward I know, but that is what it feels like. I also love the use of music in this film and considering that this was based or loosely based on something that actually happened, does make it scarier than Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street in a historical sense.

PLS: My understanding is that this is pretty close to how it went down. It probably does feel like that to you–though to me, it’s oddly comforting. Not the circumstances of course, but I like this time period and the 70s. It’s nostalgic. I was a baby during the Detroit riots but still, I can remember a quite a lot of the late 60s.
I don’t understand why this film bombed at the boxoffice. I think it’s very solid.

JC: We may never know why Detroit bombed so badly at the box-office. Maybe it was the subject matter, but either way, let us all hope that director Kathryn Bigelow continues to direct some more great films. Now I shall give you my top 5 favorite Kathryn Bigelow films in descending order below:

5.) Strange Days (1995) (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *)
True, it is a slightly flawed film, but for me, this is the first film of director Kathryn Bigelow’s in which her filmmaking skills mature to a new level.

4.) Detroit (2017) (* * * * out of * * * *)
Considering that this is her third pairing with screenwriter Mark Bowl, one could call this (along with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) to be the cinematic equivalent of a three-pitch home-run.

3.) Near Dark (1987) (* * * * out of * * * *)
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s second film to date is her best film of her early filmmaking years.

2.) The Hurt Locker (2008) (* * * * out of * * * *)
This is the film of hers that really demonstrated director Kathryn Bigelow’s skills as a true mature filmmaker.

1.) Zero Dark Thirty (2012) (* * * * out of * * * *)
For me, this is the film that showed director Kathryn Bigelow taking all of her skills as a filmmaker and putting it all into one.

That is my list. What is yours Pam? 🙂

PLS: 

1. The Hurt Locker (2008)
I love the the portrait of a psychopath find his purpose in wartime.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
I admire the realistic portrayal of a young, female, operative and the very unsexy life of hunting a fugitive.

3. Near Dark (1987)

4. Detroit (2017)

5. K 19 The Widowmaker (2002)

JC: Ah very interesting Pam 🙂 Well I had a great time talking to you on this edition of Discussions of Cinema and I look forward in the future to the next one. Between now and Halloween, we should (for fun) occasionally drop by on each other’s sites and let each other know what horror films we have watched so far 🙂 Thank you for dropping by and keep those comments coming as always 🙂

PLS: Likewise John. Happy Halloween to you too.

John Charet’s Take On: The Birds (1963)

Warning: The review contains potential plot spoilers. If you have not seen this film than I advise you to not read any further.

Three years after he reinvented cinematic horror with Psycho in 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock (a.k.a. The Master of Suspense) would return to that genre in 1963 to do it again; this time with something more ambitious and on a much larger scale as well. The finished result was The Birds and with it, Hitchcock succeeded in not only equaling and surpassing his aforementioned previous effort, but at the same time, everything he did before and after this. If I were to compose two lists of my top 100 or more favorite films of all-time; with one dedicated to the horror genre and the other towards cinema as a whole, I would place The Birds at the number 1 spot on the former and somewhere in between numbers 1 and 10 on the latter.

While visiting an urban pet store one day to pick up a mynah bird for a relative, San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) gets mistaken by a customer (Rod Taylor) for a saleswoman and requests a pair of lovebirds for his little sister’s 11th birthday party. As with the mynah bird, it turns out that the shop is out of lovebirds, so Melanie suggests a canary, which flies out of her hand after taking it out of it’s cage. After catching the canary with his hat, the still unnamed customer places the bird back in it’s cage and says: “back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels.” A stunned Daniels asks him how he knew her name and it is revealed that he saw her in court. According to him, she was responsible for a practical joke that resulted in a broken glass window and personally feels that she should have been sent to jail for it. He purposely knew from the very beginning that Daniels was no saleswoman and reveals that it was his way of reminding her of “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag” as he puts it. Undetered by not getting his lovebirds, he leaves with two closing remarks to Daniels: “I’ll find something else” and “see ya in court.” An annoyed Daniels decides to write down the number of the license plate on that customer’s car and calls the Department of Motor Vehicles to find out the name of the individual who owns it. In an attempt to get even with him, Daniels asks the pet shop owner to order a pair of lovebirds for her and have them delivered as soon as possible, which in this case would be the next morning.

The next day, Melanie Daniels arrives at the apartment building to place a birdcage (with the two lovebirds inside) on a doorstep with a note addressing that customer’s real name as “Mr. Mitchell Brenner.” Before leaving, a neighbor of his reminds her that he is visiting Bodega Bay, which is up the coast from San Francisco. Eager to get even with Mitch, Melanie drives up there and visits a local store to see If it’s owner knows where Mitch is residing for the weekend. Coincidentally, he knows the location of the place, which is across the dock seen close by. He knows that it belongs to his mother, but when asked about Mitch’s younger sister, he cannot seem to remember her first name. Nevertheless, he is able to direct her to a local schoolteacher by the name of Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who not only teaches Mitch’s younger sister, but also reveals herself to be Mitch’s ex-lover much later on. Upon learning that Cathy is the name of Mitch’s younger sibling, Melanie rents a motorboat to get to Mitch’s house to deliver her surprise. After placing the caged lovebirds on a comfy chair, Melanie tears up her original note for Mitch and replaces it with one carrying the words “To: Cathy” on it. Unofficially, Melanie hopes to shock Mitch with her knowledge of a family member’s identity much in the same way he did with hers the day before. Melanie rushes out of the house and back to her motorboat to see how Mitch will react when he inevitably goes back inside. Seemingly amused and curious, Mitch drives to the other side of the dock and gets out of his car to see what she will either say to him or do next. Suddenly, a seagull flies down and quickly attacks Melanie on the forehead prompting Mitch to help her out of the boat and treat her wound.

At the local diner, while treating her injury, Mitch Brenner reveals to Melanie Daniels that he is a criminal defense attorney, who practices law in San Francisco, but comes to Bodega Bay on the weekends to relax. After asking her why she is in the area, Melanie tells a lie and a half. Considering that Mitch is unaware of it being a prank yet humored and touched by the deed at the same time, Melanie tells him that she wanted to deliver the lovebirds for his little sister’s birthday. Deep down though, Melanie saw Mitch as a potential boyfriend ever since that first coincidental meeting at the pet store the day before. Even though Melanie denies it publicly, Mitch personally feels that she is in Bodega Bay to see him. Is it possible that Mitch could care less about her earlier prank and only got even with her that previous day so she could come to Bodega Bay to see him?  The other lie Melanie tells Mitch is that she is visiting to see local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (a.k.a. his ex-lover) by claiming that she and her were friends during their college years.  Later that night, Melanie reluctantly accepts Mitch’s invitation to dinner to meet his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who adores both Melanie and the lovebirds she bought her and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who initially fears her presence. As Ms. Daniels is about to leave to spend the night with Annie, a curious Mitch asks her to talk a bit more about herself in regards to a story brought up by Lydia earlier regarding Melanie frolicking naked in a waterfall while vacationing in Rome, Italy. Melanie claims that she was dumped in there with her clothes on and that the article his mother was referring to was written by a columnist hired by a rival of her father’s newspaper company to slander her family. Still unsatisfied, Mitch wants to know why she lied to him about knowing Annie resulting in an already annoyed Melanie to quickly drive away from him for a short period of time.

Later on at Annie Hayworth’s house, a curious Melanie Daniels asks Annie about her past relationship with Mitch Brenner, whom she was madly in love with at one time. According to Annie, she still desires a romantic relationship with him, but his overprotective mother Lydia just kept getting in the way and it eventually proved to be too much for her to take. Suddenly, Mitch phone calls Melanie to sincerely apologize for his earlier behavior and to make it up to her, he decides to officially invite her to celebrate his little sister Cathy’s 11th birthday party for the following day. Thinking back and forth for a while, Melanie decides to go. Shortly before both of them go to bed, a loud noise is heard from the outside. After opening the door to see what it is, Annie and Melanie discover a dead seagull on the front step. This is just the third strange occurrence that has plagued Bodega Bay since Melanie arrived. The first incident came earlier in the form of a seagull briefly attacking Melanie on the forehead and the second one involved the town’s chicken feed and why the chickens were not eating it. The next day at Cathy’s birthday party, numerous birds begin to violently attack the party guests and shortly after that, Mitch fends off a bird attack within his own home. From here on out, these incidents prove to be just two of the numerous attacks the birds will launch on the town and it’s inhabitants.

On the surface, The Birds plays out as a standard horror film about humans being attacked by the title villains. Nevertheless, in the hands of it’s iconic director and producer Alfred Hitchcock, it inevitably goes much deeper than that. Along with Vertigo and Psycho, this one requires viewers to pay close attention to every single detail that unfolds on screen from beginning to end. Not unlike what he had achieved with those two classics, Hitchcock proves once again here that the power of cinematic storytelling lies not so much in the payoff as it does in the buildup. While this can easily be said about any of the master filmmaker’s best work, it is in The Birds where Hitchcock finds himself reaching his fullest expression of that particular trait.

As much as I adore Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, The Birds still ranks for me as my favorite of director Alfred Hitchcock’s three film adaptations of a Daphne du Maurier property. Instead of merely adapting du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name, Hitchcock simply reimagines it by using a 1961 Santa Cruz Sentinel article as “research material for his latest thriller”. – (read here). The piece itself was about a large number of seabirds unexplainably attacking the city of Capitola, California on August 18th of that year. Eventually, it turned out that the birds may have been “under the influence of domoic acid” (read here) at the time of the attacks. To further expand upon this idea, Hitchcock hired famed crime/mystery fiction writer Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain) to write a screenplay that would effortlessly move from one tone into another. All through the first half-hour, viewers are intentionally tricked into thinking that the mood is going to play out like a sophisticated romantic comedy based on the playful banter between Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner. Thirty minutes into the film, that feeling more or less dissipates as it turns into something resembling a psychological drama that expands upon and rivals Psycho in it’s depiction of the darker side of a mother and son relationship. Finally, seven minutes before the second hour, it ultimately becomes an apocalyptic horror movie and a truly terrifying one at that. Hitchcock seemed to believe so himself based on the film’s legendary trailer (see below), which among other things, visually illustrates the question of “WHAT IS THE SHOCKING MYSTERY OF THE BIRDS?” across the screen. Unlike Hitchcock’s other films though, the mystery of The Birds remains unsolved and in a stroke of genius, Hitchcock and Hunter leave it up to viewers to answer the question for themselves.

Symbolically and thematically, The Birds is mainly a film about complacency as seen from director Alfred Hitchcock’s point-of-view (read here). I agree, but I am going to go one step beyond with not one, but two debatably complex interpretations. Prior to 1970, or maybe even five years earlier, one’s own praise of The Birds as Hitchcock’s most elaborate prank to date would be doing it complete justice. On the one hand, he is subtly thumbing his nose at upper class society by using the Melanie Daniels character as his target. True, Melanie may not have literally delivered the resulting chaos, but she might have done so figuratively in the form of her harmless prank involving the delivery of two lovebirds. The hysterical mother in the diner summed it up best when she said “I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” Later on and in a strange twist of irony, the birds viciously attack Melanie and this possibly gives off the vibe that her prank has backfired. On the other hand, Hitchcock does not seem too fond of small town sanctimony either. Since the plot already deals with birds violently attacking residents of a tiny village, Hitchcock is now officially left with doing nothing else but sitting back and enjoying the show like the rest of us.

Taking into consideration all of the radical changes that shaped the decade as it continued and ended, The Birds also comes off as a film that eerily foreshadowed the death of early 1960’s optimism and the slow, but steady decline of the nuclear family in a rather symbolic way. The lighthearted elements that defined the first half hour quite possibly resembles the stereotypical cheery mood that preceding American President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) passed on to his successor John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), who briefly upheld this notion in the earlier days of his presidency. Contrary to the first 30 minutes, the second half hour carries a cautiously optimistic tone as we learn more about the characters. This unexpected feeling of cynicism coincides perfectly with the notable disappointments of the Kennedy era that include the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion (read here), his escalation of the Vietnam War beginning that same year (read here) and to some extent, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (read here). Shortly after turning into a horror movie near the end of the first hour, viewers get a fairly graphic glimpse of the birds first casualty by way of a neighboring farmer. Psychologically, our terrified reactions at this sight mirrors that of the American public’s when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 (read here). Amid all of these previous events, the status of the nuclear family suddenly began to deteriorate. Two characters in The Birds demonstrate this aspect quite powerfully. In the case of Melanie Daniels, we get a wealthy woman, who admits to Mitch Brenner that her mother ditched her and her father when she was 11 years-old for “some hotel man in the East” before getting briefly emotional about her revelation. The other one comes in the form of Mitch’s widowed mother Lydia, who wishes that she “was a stronger person.” While sipping on a cup of tea, she laments to Melanie about how much she misses her husband (whom she reveals as Frank), who was not only able to connect with Mitch and Cathy on so many levels, but whose presence always gave her a sense of security deep down. Ever since his death from four years back, Lydia has felt insecure and she painfully admits to Melanie that “it’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone.” In many ways, Lydia can’t help but remain dependent on Mitch because she does not want him to abandon her given how she implicitly looks upon her recent self as that of a failure. When Lydia becomes anxious on the status of the bird attacks, Mitch comes to feel like one himself when she expresses all of her worries and all he can say is “I don’t know.” A hysterical Lydia than screams something along the lines of “If only your father were here” before sincerely apologizing to him a few seconds later. One scene visually expresses this by having Mitch sitting down in front of a portrait that may be his late father. While Melanie, Lydia and Cathy are sitting down waiting for the radio news report, he sits there looking like he is struggling to be as larger than life as his father apparently was. Unlike Norman Bates in Psycho, Mitch does not really see himself as a mama’s boy. While he does love Lydia (his mother) with all his heart, at the same time, he yearns for a social life. Unfortunately, Lydia is always preventing this by interfering with his relationships like the one he had with Annie Hayworth earlier. Speaking of which, some viewers have suggested that the bird attacks represent Lydia’s rage at any woman, who attempts to form a romantic relationship with Mitch. One could even say that the ending may imply that Lydia has come to grips with accepting Mitch’s desire for a social life. This occurs in that last scene in the car where Lydia is warmly looking upon Melanie, whose head is resting on her shoulder. Based on what viewers know about Melanie’s family life, it looks like her implied wish of “a mother’s love” has finally come true. Considering all of the political and social turmoil that ended up defining that decade as a whole, The Birds strangely but subtlety comes off as something of a spiritual prequel to George A. Romero’s similarly apocalyptic (albeit lower-budgeted) horror classic Night of the Living Dead from five years later in 1968.

If Psycho served as director Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of a horror film, then The Birds serves as his redefinition of that genre. Unlike the majority of his previous films, Hitchcock uses very little music this time around to build suspense. We notice this from the opening title sequence set to nothing but the squawks of birds, who fly all over the place tearing apart each new credit a few seconds after they initially appear on the screen. Aside from sound effects, Hitchcock utilizes editing and special effects to tell the story. This is most noticeable during the last 67 minutes of the film’s 119-minute running time. The first bird attack on the town occurs at a children’s birthday party and as edited by Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini, we get fast (but not too fast) back and forth cuts to emphasize all of the chaos that will embody the remainder of the film. The second major example comes when Melanie Daniels is sitting on a bench waiting for Cathy to get out of school. While the schoolchildren are heard inside singing “Risseldy Rosseldy” (read here), Melanie frequently stares back and forth at the playground and with each stare, she sees more and more crows sitting on the equipment with menacing looks on their faces. Much like the previous scene, the birds attack everybody including the children. Next up, birds attack a gas station resulting in leaking gasoline and after a man unknowingly throws a cigarette on the ground, he and the place explodes resulting in the  diner patrons to run for their lives. As Melanie hides within the telephone booth, she witnesses birds attacking a horse carriage, a man inside his car and another man getting pecked to death by birds themselves. After witnessing each instance terror, the camera cuts back and forth to a frightened Melanie. During the climax, Melanie opens a room and finds herself being pecked by an army of birds leaving her badly wounded If not dead. This sequence works as a companion piece to Psycho’s iconic shower scene based on it’s frenzied editing style. Last, but not least, credit should also be given to it’s photographic visual effects courtesy of Ub Iwerks (read here). Despite being made over 55 years ago, the imagery of the birds themselves still look timeless. Sometimes, the creatures come off as credibly scary (i.e. the crows) and other times, they look (deceivingly) harmless (i.e. the seagulls).

Along with The Shining from 17 years later, The Birds is a masterpiece of cinematic horror that allows viewers to form their own interpretations of everything they had just seen. In addition to all of that, I see The Birds as more than just my number one choice for the greatest horror film of all-time. To go one step even further, I would rank it somewhere within the top 10 range of my still unpublished blog entry of the 100 (or more) best films ever made according to me.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

P.S. In case, you are interested, here is a link to the trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which Hitchcock promoted in a way that was similar to Psycho from three years earlier.

 

John Charet’s Take On: Cat People (1942)

Warning: This review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film yet, I suggest you read no further.

In a desperate attempt to recoup from the back-to-back costly failures recently brought on by legendary director Orson Welles twin masterpieces of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, newly hired RKO Pictures executive Vice President Charles Koerner (read here) appointed former novelist Val Lewton as head producer for a series of B horror films that would give the hugely popular Universal monster movies a run for their money. Directorial duties would be individually assigned to Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise respectively. Cat People (directed by Tourneur) was the first of the nine entries Lewton produced for that genre and today, it is generally (If quietly) recognized (and rightfully so) as one of the most influential horror films ever made.

Fascinated by her sketches of black panthers at a New York City zoo, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) befriends a Serbian-born fashion sketch artist named Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and not too long afterwards, the two of them begin a semi-romantic relationship. Back at her apartment, Oliver is equally intrigued by her figurine of a knight impaling a cat and we learn from Irena that he is King John of Serbia (a.k.a. Jovan Nenad). According to Irena, the cat represents evil as she tells him a historical tale involving Satanism and witchery, but Oliver dismisses it as pure nonsense. When Oliver tries to buy a kitten for Irena, the animal just hisses at her and when they go together to the pet store to exchange it, all of the animals freak out over her presence. Suddenly, Irena thinks that she may be cursed as one of the cat people that was spreading chaos in that aforementioned story she told Oliver. Unfazed by all of this, Oliver proposes to Irena and she reluctantly accepts. While celebrating her wedding dinner at a small restaurant, a mysterious lady comes up to Irena and calls her “moya sestra” (translation: “my sister”), which only confirms her realization that she is indeed a member of the cat tribe.

Predictably, Oliver’s marital relationship with Irena proves to be a troubled one from the start. Terrified that feeling even the slightest bit of intimacy for him will transform herself into a vicious panther, Irena thinks that it would be best for both she and Oliver to sleep in separate rooms. Worried that their marriage is hitting rock bottom, Oliver advises Irena to see local Psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) so she can talk freely about this phobia to someone within the medical profession. After going to Dr. Judd, who believes that her concerns are little more than fears rooted in childhood, Irena stops attending most (If not all) of her sessions with him. Upon discovering that Oliver’s colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) was the one who recommended Dr. Judd for her, Irena gets upset at Oliver for sharing her personal problems (especially without her consent) to those whom she views as complete strangers. Disillusioned with the seemingly deteriorating status of his married life, Oliver grows more intimate with Alice, who shares similar feelings for him. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious chain of events break out involving dead sheep and three failed attempts on Alice’s life involving one with Oliver as a target.

Allegedly adopting the motto of “showmanship in place of genius” or “showmanship instead of genius” (read here and here) coined by the studio’s then executive Vice President Charles Koerner, everybody at RKO Pictures must have been under the impression that Cat People was just going to a profitable low-budget horror film and nothing more. While it’s commercial success can most certainly be credited for significantly improving RKO’s then notorious financial status, one must not overlook some of the surprising artistic qualities that shape Cat People as a whole.

Despite being shot on a shoestring budget of $134,000 (even lower today by Hollywood standards), Cat People overcomes that limitation in a rather creative way. Unable to show viewers a convincing looking monster obviously due to budgetary restraints, producer Val Lewton slyly places the emphasis on atmosphere alone; suggesting that our deepest darkest fears are scarier when left to the imagination. Visually, Lewton achieves this with his use of lighting to generate a true feeling of dread on the part of the audience. As with any great horror film, this one contains a fair share of standout set pieces. The first one comes in the form of Irena carefully stalking Alice at nighttime; the camera cuts back and forth from Alice’s footsteps to Irena’s and back again to build suspense. Suddenly, a bus arrives scaring Alice out of her mind before ending with her going on it. Next up is the renowned swimming pool scene, which starts off on a lighthearted note with Alice noticing a rascally kitten, but after running off, the inevitable terror begins. When Alice hears the roar of the panther, she makes a run for it and then dives into the swimming pool while remaining terrified of both the panther’s roars and where the animal may be hiding. Eventually, the lights in the pool room are turned on by a calm Irena, who wants to know where Oliver is. Soon enough, Alice gets out of the pool to grab her robe; only to discover that it has been “torn to ribbons” as said by the receptionist of the club/gym. Other notable scenes involve slaughtered sheep, Oliver and Alice fending off the shadowy panther with a Christian cross and later on, the offscreen mauling of a victim by the aforementioned unseen creature. To top it all off, we get brief surrealistic imagery courtesy of a dream sequence involving panthers.

Undoubtedly, all of the cinematic trademarks on display in Cat People belong to it’s producer Val Lewton, but credit should also be given to it’s director Jacques Tourneur for bringing his intended vision to life. Following in the footsteps of his then prestigious (If now similarly overlooked) father Maurice Tourneur (read here), Jacques Tourneur began his career as a filmmaker three years earlier in 1939 with They All Come Out, a socially conscious crime drama. I have not seen that one, nor have I seen the three films of his that followed, which include: Nick Carter, Master Detective, Phantom Raiders and Doctors Don’t Tell. Roughly a year and (almost) three months after that last title, Tourneur would finally hit pay dirt in 1942 with his fifth feature-length film (i.e. Cat People). Courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca’s black-and-white cinematography, Tourneur utilizes lighting and shadows to further emphasize the visual elements that are now officially rooted in the film noir genre (or sub-genre). At the same time, the script allows Tourneur to briefly explore some of the themes that he would expand upon in some of his later works including but not limited to Christianity as a force of good (Stars in My Crown) and Satan worship (Night of the Demon).

Contrary to it’s schlocky title, there is actually much more going on in Cat People than viewers might realize at first. For starters, producer Val Lewton had a phobia of cats (read here) and it is possible that his screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen may have picked up on this aspect while writing the script. The character of Irena Dubrovna obviously symbolizes these fears of his, which in turn, drives the horror elements of this film. As it slowly unfolds behind it’s disguise as a crowd pleasing horror thriller, Cat People ultimately reveals itself as an insightful yet tragic social commentary on sexual repression. Irena’s fear of sexual arousal confirms this, which distances herself more and more from Oliver. Irena loves him dearly, but at the same time, she does not want to accidentally kill him given that those kinds of thoughts can transform her into a vicious black panther. When Oliver starts seeing Alice more frequently, Irena’s feelings of resentment turn her into a panther, who stalks Alice with the intention of murdering her. Along the way, the panther inadvertently kills a bunch of sheep. Later on, Irena comes home and locks herself in the bathroom and shortly after, she is seen crying in a bathtub. Irena’s sadness may be due to Oliver’s betrayal of her and her guilt for either genuinely emoting for the first time or for expressing those forbidden emotions. After having a weird dream with a voice exclaiming “the key”, Irena goes to the zoo and steals the key to the panther’s cage. Irena’s action represents the unleashing of her sexual freedom and the elimination of some of her insecurities. Even though Irena (in panther form) still fails in her attempts to kill Alice, she feels more confident about herself as a human. This feeling of happiness does not last long however when Oliver announces that he is divorcing her. Outraged, Irena (as a panther) now tries but backfires in killing both Oliver and Alice. After transforming into a panther for one last time and leaving a casualty behind, Irena stumbles over to the zoo to place the stolen key in the hole to unlock the panther’s cage resulting in her death by the zoo panther, who is run over by Oliver’s car shortly afterwards. I do not know about everyone else, but I see Irena’s death as a sacrifice. In other words, it serves as her way of dying for her sins. No doubt, Irena was not totally at fault for all of her actions, but even when she got some form of revenge, she always seemed to carry around a moral compass at the same time. If Cat People has one performance that can be singled out for praise, it would easily be it’s leading French actress Simone Simon, who perfectly balances sexiness with childlike playfulness in her role of Irena. Regardless of whether or not readers will echo my sentiments here, their is no denying that it does stand as one of many interesting ways to look at it.

Even If it still (annoyingly) remains a little known fact to this day, producer Val Lewton (not the equally masterful director Alfred Hitchcock) stands as the real grandfather of psychological horror and Cat People serves as the perfect entry for unfamiliar viewers to begin their journey with. Similar to how it concluded in 1946 with Bedlam, Cat People began Lewton’s cycle of RKO horror films with a bang. Also worth checking out is the 1944 sequel entitled The Curse of the Cat People directed by Robert Wise instead of Jacques Tourneur and despite it’s differences (that one plays out more like a supernatural drama), I personally feel that it is every bit as spellbinding as this one is.

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)