Upon reaching new creative heights with his previous Monitor entry The Debussy Film, director Ken Russell decided to end his career there on a quieter note with Always onSunday, which aired one month later in June of 1965. For those interested, The DebussyFilm’s original airdate was 05/18/65, while Always on Sunday’s was 06/29/65. Even so, Always on Sunday remains significant for reportedly being Russell’s first television documentary/docudrama to come off as a pure dramatization of a famous artist’s life (read here). Following broadcaster Huw Wheldon’s departure from the aforementioned programme in 1964, Russell was now free (at least for the most part) to expand upon his creativity as a filmmaker – The Debussy Film’s film-within-a-film format stands out in particular. As with Elgar, Russell tells his story in a similarly straightforward fashion, but unlike that earlier effort, Always on Sunday finds him taking a more laid-back approach to it at the same time.
Whereas Elgar and (in some ways) The Debussy Film centered on the lives of famed composers, Always on Sunday centers on the life of late 19th-century to early 20th-century French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Oliver Reed serves as the film’s narrator (seriously, what a mesmerizing voice), while James Lloyd handles lead acting duties as Rousseau. Annette Robertson (Gaby from TheDebussy Film) also lends welcome support as (yes) pint-sized French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), whose voice is dubbed here by an uncredited male actor. The scenario was concocted by Melvyn Bragg, who previously collaborated with director Ken Russell on The Debussy Film.
If I can name one thing that director Ken Russell does really well in Always on Sunday, it would lie in the sincere simplicity of his storytelling. Prior to his flamboyant later films, Russell had continuously proven himself to be a master of subtlety with his early television work at the BBC (1959-1970). This one, Elgar and Song of Summer (my personal favorite) notably demonstrates this aspect. Always on Sunday’s slow but steady pacing debatably resembles Russell’s way of appreciating the finer things in life. One memorable running gag involves Rousseau hauling around one of his paintings around the countryside back and forth in a wagon of sorts. Another involves Rousseau placing one of his paintings in a museum it the hopes of rivaling the work of some of his contemporaries. The action then cuts to some examples via their individual artwork: Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
As is occasionally typical of his work, Always on Sunday sometimes feels like a semi-autobiographical account of it’s director Ken Russell. An early sequence depicting French elitists ridiculing Rousseau’s paintings foreshadowed the hostile relationship between Russell and his critics. At the same time, he sees a little bit of himself in Alfred Jarry (a reported supporter of Rousseau). One such scene comes in the form of Jarry’s irreverent play Ubu Roi – a scathing satire on the bourgeoisie. Another example occurs when one of Rousseau’s neighbors complains to Jarry that his pistol firing (he carries two of them) is endangering her children. Jarry’s response is delightfully insulting – If that should be the case madam, we’d hope you get some new ones, the bedroom’s over there. For some odd reason, I can’t help but feel that Russell would applaud his response.
Capturing all of Elgar’s simplicity and none of The Debussy Film’s originality, Always on Sunday is like a warmup to director Ken Russell’s subsequent television films. The following year in 1966, he directed an entry for Sunday Night (Don’t Shoot the Composer) and a stand alone (IsadoraDuncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World). The others were episodes of Omnibus – Dante’s Inferno in 1967, Song of Summer in 1968 and Dance of the Seven Veils in 1970. Those last four titles (I have not seen Don’t Shoot the Composer) arguably rank as major works on Russell’s resume. Always on Sunday may seem minor compared to them, but as with all of Russell’s films, it is a great one regardless of ranking.
According to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline (read here), The Debussy Film was originally intended to be director Ken Russell’s second feature film. Unfortunately, after the critical and commercial failure of his cinematic directorial debut French Dressing from a year earlier, Russell had to abandon this option. Left with no other alternative, he ended up selling it as a film for the BBC arts programme Monitor and the rest was history. Restricted to this period alone (1959-1965), The Debussy Film finishes up as the greatest of all his television films.
As with Elgar, The Debussy Film has director Ken Russell pushing the envelope on what could be allowed within the format of a television program. Unlike that earlier entry though, The Debussy Film is a completely different undertaking altogether. If Elgar played as something akin to a documentary on a beloved artist, then TheDebussy Film plays out more like a film-within-a-film about one.
The Debussy Film opens with a filmmaker (Vladek Sheybal) giving directions to a child actor about his subject – He’s known hundreds of people in his life but because of quarrels and because a war was going on, there’s hardly anyone at the funeral. Furthermore, he states that France is about to collapse, and hardly anybody notices the death of a man who has now taken to signing himself “Musician of France”. His wife is there, of course, and Chouchou, his daughter, but hardly anyone else. Now, when the carriage gets there, to the end, I want you to run out into the road, look at the wreaths for the name, run back, and say to your mother, “it seems he was a musician”. Not too long afterwards, we cut to a background artwork painting of the Monitor episode’s subject with the title – The Debussy Film – and it’s subtitle – Impressions of the French Composer. Next, we get photographic stills in the background with voiceover/narration provided by it’s unseen British presenter. Here is what he says in his own words – Claude Debussy, born in poverty in 1862, died friendless in 1918. A film based on incidents in his life, his own words and his relationships – with Gabrielle Dupont, attempted suicide, Lilly Rosalie Texier, attempted suicide, Chouchou, died at the age of 13, Madame Bardac, wife of a wealthy banker, and the man who took most of these pictures, Pierre Louys, pornographer, novelist, photographer.
Beside casting himself in the role of Pierre Louys, the plot’s unnamed film director of this project casts four actors, who either go by the exact names of the characters that they are portraying – Claude Debussy (Oliver Reed) and Madame Bardac (Izabella Telezynska/Isa Taylor) – or at the very least, their nicknames – Gaby (Annette Robertson) and Lily/Lilly (Penny Service). Inevitably, throughout the production, reality (subtly or not so subtly) intertwines with fantasy, as Debussy – the actor – suddenly finds himself immersed in his subject of Debussy – the composer. This becomes clear in his relationships with Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the actresses – versus that of Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the lovers.
As to be expected from all (or at least some) of director Ken Russell’s shoestring works, The Debussy Film effortlessly overcomes every single limitation of it’s low-budget. A good portion of this arises from both Russell and his screenwriting partner Melvin Bragg’s decision to execute the scenario as a film-within-a-film. In addition, the two cleverly (If discreetly) reference Monitor’s use of voiceovers (think of Huw Wheldon’s narration in Russell’s Elgar) by using Vladek Sheybal’s filmmaker character as the occasional narrator of his very own subject.
To some extent, The Debussy Film comes off as an autobiographical/semi-autobiographical account of it’s filmmaker Ken Russell. If my argument is credible, then the plot’s nameless director could possibly serve as Russell’s fictionalized alter ego. Similar to him, Russell has always been fascinated by the lives of famous composers. Although the fictionalized character’s religious affiliation is never made clear, Russell (a converted Roman Catholic himself) is throughly fascinated with Catholicism like he is. Two notable sequences here include the filming of a woman being shot with arrows (a la Saint Sebastian) and another filmed one involving a mob of priests and nuns holding a life-size statue of both Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. Aside from statues, other examples come in the form of artwork throughout.
When it comes to individual set pieces, The Debussy Film features some of the most imaginative sequences that director Ken Russell ever conceived for television. Some of them are elegantly staged like the previously mentioned ones between Claude Debussy and his women (Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac); both within-and-out of the film-within-the-film. On the contrary, the climactic scene plays out like something from a German Expressionist horror film. Last, but not least, we get an inspired montage sequence set to Richard Wagner’sRide of the Valkyries. In it, two people swing dance to Valkyries amid a mock duel between two actors. A push broom, a cane, toy dart guns and even hand-to-hand combat via (rather humorously) slapping are the weapons of choice. The action frequently cuts back-and-forth; from the aforementioned staged fight to two women playing with bumper cars at a carnival and then back again. The image of a cat quickly, albeit cartoonishly, jumping up and down – complete with sound effects – gives it an absurdist touch. With the exception of that last one, all of these scenes (as in Elgar) are accompanied by Debussy’s (the composer that is) musical compositions.
Elgar might have established Ken Russell as a fully fledged director, but The Debussy Film elevated him to that of a master filmmaker. The Debussy Film may not be my personal favorite of his television work (that honor goes to Song of Summer), but for his penultimate Monitor entry, Russell could not have delivered a better climax.
-(Star Rating)- * * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. since I could not find part 1 of this film on youtube, I had to go to dailymotion.com to find it. Here is a link below to part 1
Along with Always on Sunday, Elgar may be the most accessible of director Ken Russell’s television documentaries/docudramas on famous historical artists during his years at the BBC (1959-1970). Far from damning it with faint praise though, I am actually lauding Elgar as the perfect one for viewers to start with.
On the surface, Elgar plays out as a conventional television documentary on a celebrated artist. In this case, it would be that of British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Throughout it’s 56 minute running time, we get all of the interesting details about him; courtesy of BBC broadcaster Huw Wheldon (1916-1986), who serves as the program’s narrator. Basically, the viewer is treated to everything from his upbringing to the last years of his life.
Like all of director Ken Russell’s television films, Elgar is a masterpiece of both form and content. Unlike a majority of his later work, Elgar sticks merely to the facts. At first glance, this approach may seem shockingly reverential for diehard Russell fans like myself. Fortunately, this fear is more than overshadowed by Russell’s visual approach to storytelling.
Aside from partly dramatizing British composer Edward Elgar’s life through a re-enactment (though with no dialogue whatsoever), director Ken Russell further celebrates it by employing his compositions as background music throughout. Russell’s use of dissolves and voiceovers evokes legendary American filmmaker Orson Welles back-to-back masterpieces of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). In fact, some of the techniques displayed in those last two titles, were borrowed from filmmakers associated with the French New Wave movement. One perfect example comes from esteemed French filmmaker Francois Truffaut in his 1962 classic Jules and Jim. Similar to Elgar, Truffaut employed newsreel footage, photographic stills and voiceovers to visually tell part of the story. Nevertheless, this is where Elgar’s similarities to Jules and Jim end.
Not unlike most of director Ken Russell’s work, Elgar (in some ways) unofficially feels like a semi-autobiographical account of Russell himself. While he may not have been born and raised as one, like British composer Edward Elgar was, Russell did convert to Roman Catholicism during the 1950’s (read here). Even with all of the cinematic influences he carried around with him (Die Nibelungen and The Secret of the Loch), Russell (like Elgar) was professionally self-taught. Even though this can’t be confirmed with any kind of authenticity, Russell (as with Elgar) may have detested large-scale wars as well; or at least war for war’s sake. Though still horrified by the prospect of World War I (1914-1918) itself, Elgar did compose a few patriotic pieces for the effort (read here) and joined the Volunteer Reserves on the side. Though, as the war went on, Elgar became disillusioned with it. During this time, he had also hoped that A.C. Benson’s nationalistic lyrics for his composition of Land of Hope and Glory would get axed (read here). Russell, on the other hand, joined the Royal Air Force and was a merchant marine during his teenage years (read here). Neither of these stints lasted very long though. A perfect example of Russell’s unconfirmed anti-war position comes during a battlefield sequence. Here, a large number of soldiers are getting killed and wounded set to the music of Elgar’s well-known Pomp and Circumstance Marches. The uplifting tone of the composition is intended to sharply contrast with the horrors of war being presented to the viewer. This may be Russell’s way of thumbing his nose at imperialism. Russell’s view can also apply to that of both America’s involvement in both Vietnam and Iraq. Even though both Elgar and Russell were more or less appreciated in their time, this is only to an extent. Germany may have been the first country to recognize Elgar’s genius, but the British press did finally catch up; even If it seemed more muted when he was alive (read here and here). Nevertheless, while Elgar was at least knighted during his lifetime, neither of Russell’s films have ever been truly appreciated by the majority of critics. As of 2019, Women in Love serves as the only film of his to have earned a spot on the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list. While far from completely alike, Elgar and Russell both came off as reclusive (or semi-reclusive) artists, who were actually gentle at heart. Despite the way he is often portrayed in the press (read here), which include, but not limited to, his appearance on Big Brother, Russell actually comes off as a very articulate and intelligent man based on his interviews alone.
Director Ken Russell may have gone on to make even better films within and out of television, but If you are looking for a rather fitting introduction to his cinematic resume, Elgar is not a bad place to start at all. Visually, we are treated to only one of many important aspects of his style, while at the same time, witnessing how one important artist of the past century personally connect to that of another.
-(Star Rating)- * * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. If you are interested in watching the whole film, here are four links to it below:
Originally, I was going to post a review on another film, but I am currently suffering from a case of writer’s block on that right now. In the meantime and in an attempt to get my mojo back (so I can finish that review), I am going to post reviews on something a little more simpler, but no less complex. In this case, a series of TV bios on famous composers (among other types of giants).
When anybody hears the name Ken Russell (1927-2011), the first words that come to mind are either flamboyant or controversial. A majority of the time, one could say that both terms can apply to him all at once. According to wikipedia’s entry on legendary British filmmaker Ken Russell (read here), these are at least two proper descriptions that can be applied to him. Nevertheless, let us rewind the clocks back to 1959 – 10 years prior to his 1969 breakthrough film Women in Love – a critically acclaimed adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s equally controversial 1920 novel of the same name. From 1959 to 1970, Russell made documentaries/docudramas on celebrated composers (among other figures) for the British Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a. the BBC – read here). He directed at least 22 of them for Monitor (1959-1965) and 3 of them for it’s official/unofficial successor Omnibus (1967-1970). In between his last for Monitor (Always on Sunday) and his first for Omnibus (Dante’s Inferno), Russell contributed one for BBC’s Sunday Night (Don’t Shoot the Composer) and another as a stand-alone TV film (Isadora Duncan, the BiggestDancer in the World) in 1966. The following year, he would helm his second feature film (his first was the 1964 comedy French Dressing) entitled Billion Dollar Brain – a British Spy thriller for the American-based studio United Artists. Two days after Billion Dollar Brain’s American premiere (December 20, 1967 – read here), Dante’s Inferno (Russell’s first for Omnibus) premiered for UK television viewers on December 22 of that same year. Based on my calculations alone (read here), Russell directed at least 27 television bios for the BBC. Out of the 27, only 6 of them (at least to my knowledge) are available for home viewing in North America. They are in a 2008 DVD collection entitled Ken Russell at the BBC (read here). The available titles are: Elgar (1962), The DebussyFilm (1965), Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1967) and Song of Summer (1968). The first three were for Monitor and the last two were for Omnibus. As I mentioned earlier, Isadora Duncan was a stand-alone TV film for the BBC. Russell’s last work for Omnibus during this period entitled Dance of the Seven Veils is not included in the box set. That last title incited a huge ton of controversy due to it’s portrayal of famed German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) as either a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer (read here). This angered the Strauss family so much that they withdrew the music rights for it. Apparently, the ban expires sometime this year in 2019 (read here). Currently, the only way one can watch it is on a faded print posted on youtube.
Famed U.S. film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001) once said of late master filmmaker Robert Altman, that he could make film fireworks out of next to nothing (read here). This sentiment can also be applied to that of director Ken Russell. Compared to Russell’s more outrageous later work (The Music Lovers, TheDevils and Lisztomania to name just a few), the style of his early television films may initially come off as subdued on the surface. Deep down though, each of the available six films prove to be every bit as radical (albeit different) to those previously mentioned titles. Even with their low-budgets, Russell amazingly managed to break the rules on what was widely accepted within the documentary format. Instead of traditionally relying on still photographs and old film footage alone to tell his story, Russell would not only dramatize it through a re-enactment, but he would also (in the case of Elgar) use different actors to portray the lead character as he/she ages (read here and here). And this only marks just one of Russell’s many talents at successfully making the most out of very little.
My full review of Elgar – the first of director Ken Russell’s six films in the aforementioned 2008 DVD collection – should be up sometime by tomorrow.
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.