The Birds

Not AH’s movie of the same name, but the caged creatures shown fleetingly at the beginning and end of RW. They don’t really do anything, but they’re there. Do they mean something?

Birds are frequent visitors to Hitchcock’s cinema, they perch in Sabotage and Foreign Correspondent, the sinister shadow of one hovers in a dream in Spellbound. If you care to stretch a point, there is even a giant, machine-gun-firing bird that menaces Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Famously, stuffed birds decorate Norman Bates’s inner office in Psycho. And of course, birds are the point of The Birds.

There are those—let us call them motif mongers—who see all these birds about and shout, Symbol, symbol! They attempt to ascribe to the motif a single, unvarying association. And because the birds of The Birds are the most flamboyant members of their kind, visiting mayhem on humanity, your typical motif monger would have us believe birds in Hitchcock are always portents of death or destruction.

But not so fast, birdseed breath! The matter is more complicated than that. Let’s remember that even in The Birds there is a benign avian pair out of sync with their rampaging brothers and sisters. These lovebirds are present at the beginning of the film, and actually bring the hero and heroine together. At the end of the film, the lovebirds are retained, even as the couple are fleeing all the other birds. Clearly, there are distinctions to be drawn among birds.

Let us return to RW. I can’t tell how many birds are in the cage at the beginning of the film, but at the end there are two—at least, I’d like to think there are. Nothing malign can attach to these creatures. In fact, given the tenor of the film’s ending, might not the birds reappear at that point simply to share in the harmony and bliss that is building about the courtyard? Hmmm, what kind of birds are they, anyway?Are you thinking what I’m thinking?


So, Where’s the Blu-ray Disc?

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced the upcoming release of a new special edition of RW–along with SEs of Vertigo and Psycho–due in October. Here’s the info from their press release. Continue reading

Film Studies Kids These Days

Students last year at the University of Central Florida, having completed a documentary on RW for film class, put the fruit of their labor on YouTube for all to see. The piece is more clever than ambitious, however, as what they did was simply take an existing documentary (included on the current DVD release of RW), drop out all the commentary and shots of talking heads (film industry types opining), then put their own commentary and heads in place. Thus they achieved high production values for relatively low cost and effort.

Unless you’ve seen the original, the piece is pretty impressive. Still, for a student project, intended to demonstrate the knowledge the makers have acquired, it’s reasonably effective. But what is it the students have learned? Yes, Jeff is the protagonist, but guys, guys, no way is Lisa the antagonist–that’s Thorwald (Lisa, if you wish, can be labeled the deuteragonist). And I can’t believe some of the things coming out of the mouths of these 20-year-old kids: Jeff feels he’s too “inadequate” to have Lisa as a girlfriend or wife; RW is the first film to present a voyeur as its hero; one of the concerns of RW is feminism. Where are they getting this stuff? Not from the film, that’s for sure.

Mirror, Mirror

The idea that the windows across the way are metaphorically windows into Jeff’s soul, projections of his fears and desires—an idea touted by any number of critics—is entirely fanciful and without basis in the film. Thorwald’s disposing of his wife, on this view, parallels Jeff’s need to be rid of Lisa. Never mind that nowhere are we told Jeff wants to be rid of Lisa—just the opposite, in fact. His problem is with commitment, not the girl. So much for the usual film crit nonsense.

A better reading is available. Lesley Brill, in his wonderful The Hitchcock Romance (1988), makes this observation about an image early in the movie:

After surveying the awakening block of apartments, the camera returns to Jeffries [sic] and pans over his broken leg, smashed camera, and the picture that resulted from his dangerous trackside photography. It then stops for a moment on a negative close-up, framed in a light box, of a female model. From there it moves to the positive image of the same photograph on the cover of a fashion magazine.

Other than the misspelling of Jefferies’ name and the fashion magazine flub—it’s actually, I think, an ersatz cover of Life, spring fashion issue—Brill’s description is accurate. And the point he is making is worth noting: “These images, the picture and its negative, are at once identical and opposite to each other.”

Brill has his own agenda—something about irony and romance—which I’m ignoring here because I think what he has in fact done is given us the key to understanding the images from Planet Thorwald beaming in from across the courtyard. First, however, we must dispose of an inconvenient counter-reading. Continue reading

Stella, Sadie, Birdie and Moe

According to the IMDb, she was nominated for Oscars six times. She never won, which makes Thelma Ritter (1905-1969) the Deborah Kerr of Best Supporting Actress nominees. Except that Ms. Kerr’s performances were varied and Ms. Ritter gave us the same irascible woman every time. And whenever she opened her mouth, out came Brooklyn.

Her professional highlights are well known. After working in the theater, Ritter used a small bit in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) to launch a twenty-year Hollywood career. By the time she played Stella in RW she’d already played Sadie in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Birdie in All About Eve (1950), and Moe in Pick-up on South Street (1953). Later films include Pillow Talk (1959), The Misfits (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and How the West Was Won (1962). In all, she made 42 appearances on film and television before a heart attack cut her career short.

Her best work was done with Mankiewicz and Hitchcock, directors who insisted she be given lines equal to her talent. Stella, Sadie, Birdie: they’re all the same character, Thelma with “A” material. Great in support, she could however get pretty annoying when center stage.

Even those who aren’t fans of Ms. Ritter’s work may enjoy this episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, “The Baby Sitter,” where she–her character, I mean–finally gets her comeuppance.

She’s Always Gotta Have the Last Word

Hitchcock was neither starry-eyed nor cynical when it came to the subject of married life, but he liked to poke gentle fun at it from time to time. Jeff in RW acts as something of the director’s mouthpiece, sniping at statements made by those—Gunnison, Stella, and naturally, Lisa—who support the institution. Of course, this is standard sit-com operating procedure, showing a character loudly refusing what he will later embrace. But, in this film—about a woman’s triumph over her man—that’s not even the half of it.

Attentive viewers will note how carefully AH prepares for his ending. Hitchcock allows Lisa to conclude each of the film’s three acts with a benedictory piece of dialog. She closes Act I with “Tell me everything you saw. . . And what you think it means.” Act II ends with Lisa’s rhetorical questions: “Why would Thorwald want to kill a little dog? Because it knew too much?”

Subtly, AH is putting over the common male complaint about the woman in a relationship always wanting the last word—and getting it. When Lisa asserts herself silently at the end (accompanied lyrically by the enconium coincidentally dedicated to her) she is also bringing another adage to mind: She speaks loudest when not at all.

Rear Window Audio

Until recently, I hadn’t realized how significant RW’s soundtrack—never issued in album form—really is, but then I read the chapter on RW in Jack Sullivan’s Hitchcock’s Music (2006) and it set me straight:

Rear Window is Hitchcock’s most daring experiment in popular music. Its pop-song surrealism is the forerunner of American Graffiti, Mona Lisa, After Hours, and many other films, but the way the tunes and street sounds drift through the sound track, in and out of windows and the protagonist’s dreams, is unique.

Indeed, Rear Window feels like such a radical experiment, unlike anything in a movie before, that we need to remind ourselves that its roots go back to British Hitchcock—to The 39 Steps, Rich and Strange, even Blackmail. (169)

So Hitchcock may deserve as much praise for the score as Franz Waxman, the film’s credited composer (which may account for the fact that AH makes his cameo in the apartment of a songwriter). Indeed, Waxman’s previous work for Hitchcock (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case) were lush symphonic scores—standard Hollywood—very unlike what was produced for RW. Continue reading