Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: 'The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds'

When The Birds was released fifty years ago, there probably weren’t a lot of folks who thought it would one day receive a full-length study all its own. Critical notices were mixed, many movie goers felt hoodwinked by its open ending, and it made little more than a third of what Alfred Hitchcock’s previous film, Psycho, earned at the box office. Even members of its own cast and crew viewed The Birds as seriously flawed (star Rod Taylor would rather be best known for Young Cassidy, whatever that is). Such is the fate of a film seriously ahead of its time. Within a few years, the history books would tell a much more favorable tale regarding The Birds (its 1968 TV debut was the highest rated of any feature film to that point), and tales don’t get much more favorable than Tony Lee Moral’s new book The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Moral’s book is both a close inspection of The Birds’ genesis, production, aftermath, and meaning and a contrasting perspective of a more recent reputation Hitchcock and his film have acquired. Last year, Julian Jarold’s film The Girl presented a highly unfavorable portrayal of Hitchcock’s filmmaking methods and his alleged sexual obsession with star Tippi Hedren. Moral goes out of his way to dismiss all of that as sensationalistic mythmaking with reminiscences from other members of the production team who never witnessed any inappropriate behavior. What happened in private between Hitchcock and Hedren may only be known by them, but the fact that he sneak-attacked her with live birds, and proceeded to do so for five days straight, while filming the attic attack is widely known. Moral dismisses the sadism of this incident as all for the greater good of capturing a great scene. Yes, the results are great, and as a huge Hitchcock fan, I certainly wasnt hoping for confirmation that he was a creep, but at the very least it’s a bit insensitive to downplay the very real emotional toll it took on the actress.

Although that particular detail left a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth, the mass of The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds is excellent and illuminating. We see Hitchcock’s intense care in fashioning the minutia that brings realism to this fantastical film, such as having Melanie play a bit of Debussy on a piano to indicate she has talents a purely two-dimensional fashion plate would not or ensuring the locals at Tides Restaurant would be distinct individuals instead of interchangeable small town stereotypes. We learn of ideas discarded from the finished product, such as screenwriter Evan Hunter’s plan to include a murder mystery angle, and weird bits of trivia, such as Suzanne Pleshette getting pooped on during her death scene or Jean Cocteau’s dying wish to see The Birds. While Moral’s downplaying of Tippi Hedren’s difficulties and his reference to the director as “the Great Man” indicate an uncritical agenda, the author does not shy from including a few unfavorable quotes, particularly from Rod Taylor, who believed his director “had no streak of tenderness for relationships between men and women.” These details give us a bit more perspective of the man behind the flock, but those looking for a lurid, psychological dissection of Alfred Hitchcock won’t find it in this book, which is generally reverent and concerned with the day-to-day process of making and releasing one of cinema’s most brilliant shockers.

Get The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds at Amazon.com here:

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