Torn Curtain (1966) ****

I never thought I’d see the day when Paul Newman was out-acted by Julie Andrews. Or spent most of the time wondering how much better it would be with James Stewart or Cary Grant instead. They can both do stillness. For all the wrong reasons you cannot keep your eyes off Newman – he is such a jittery, fidgety commotion.

Which is a shame for all that is wrong with this often wrongly-maligned Hitchcock picture is the set-up. The opening love scene is only necessary to get it out of the way (“Newman! Andrews! Together!” type set-up) though it is something of a riff on Psycho, setting up the possibility of a bad girl (i.e. goody two-shoes Andrews having sex before marriage) being punished. You could have started more economically with Andrews just turning up in Copenhagen for whatever reason (fill in the blanks) and the story pushing on from there, unintentionally Andrews becoming involved in Newman’s plan to infiltrate the East German nuclear program.

The rest of the picture is classic Hitchcock, and as ever he uses sound brilliantly, just the clacking of feet as a bodyguard pursues Newman through an empty museum. And he riffs on North by Northwest in the tractor scene. The murder, also soundless apart from the noise of human terror, is quite brilliant. And another riff, on The 39 Steps, with the woman who knows their true identity but has her own reasons for not giving them away.

Every time we think they are going to be caught something unexpected prevents it, every time we think they are safe something unexpected prevents that. Clever twists all the way. Hitchcock has a knack of doing the same thing differently every time, he hated repeating himself, so when transport enters the picture, there are unexpected results.

Julie Andrews (The Americanization of Emily, 1964) is far better than you might expect. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is one of her best performances. Like Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, she is often the focal point of the story, getting Newman out of a spot. Two scenes in particular stand out: one in a bedroom where she is filmed side-on looking out of a window with Newman at the far back of the screen and the other when she lets a single tear leak out of her eye. Where Paul Newman (The Prize, 1963) just looks out of sorts (maybe he was annoyed Andrews was being paid more), she does a nice line in barely contained rage.

You never know what to expect with Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds, 1963). Yet he was always being taken to task by critics who expected something other than what he delivered. Taking us back to the espionage of North by Northwest (1959) he cleverly changes the male-female dynamic and delivers a different kind of thriller. Novelist Brian Moore (The Luck of Ginger Coffey, 1964) wrote the screenplay with a little help from British pair Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Pretty Polly/A Matter of Innocence, 1967).

Even with the annoying Newman, Torn Curtain is still up there not at the very top of the Hitchcock canon but certainly in the second rank

The Magic Vault – Return of the Reissue

You are probably aware by now that Hollywood reckons the very movie to fill the Valentine’s Day gap this year is the love story that took Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to a watery grave – Titanic (1997). The date might be a surprise but with Avatar: The Way of Water conquering box offices worldwide a re-run of his previous gigantic success was always on the cards.

What might come as a shock is how much Hollywood has come to rely on oldies to fill gaps in the release schedule – so much so that a reissue of a biggie has been slated for every month in the forthcoming year. As you are probably aware from my discursive writings on the subject, the reissue has been a staple of the industry since the 1960s, and as often as not appearing when stocks of new films were at a low ebb.

Covid was an unexpected production disaster and with new films in short supply and audiences falling short of the norm the studios felt it better to hold on to big films until cinemas were back to something approaching normality. Thank goodness someone in Hollywood can count because anniversaries make up a hefty chunk of the excuses to trot out old pictures. Anniversary used to mean a celebration of a classic made 25 or 50 years ago, but that notion has been taken to extremes,  so any year seems fair game, 20th, 45th now pretty common.

But anniversary was not in the main the driving force last year. Some pretty big fish were summoned from the vaults to work their magic. The original Avatar (2009)  brought in another $76 million worldwide – positioning it just outside the global top 50 for 2022. Interstellar (2014) knocked up another $72 million, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) $45 million, Leonardo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) worth an extra $14.8 million and the original Jurassic Park (1993) added $10 million to the coffers.

What must have seemed like nothing short of frantic experiment clearly struck a chord with audiences, so studios are taking to the reissue on a regular basis.

For a time it was Casablanca (1942) that had been the unexpected filler of the St Valentine’s Day gap. But it could hardly compete with Titanic, but rather than lose the opportunity for another annual outing, this has been re-scheduled for the beginning of March.

In April there will be a further chance – in a genuine 25th anniversary big bang- to see Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in the Coen Bros cult favorite The Big Lebowski (1998). Musical Grease (1978) – 45th anniversary? – with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John is the May pick. Hardly an unusual notion this, Grease has already had more than its fair share of reissues.

You might think it’s Travolta again in June, in Hairspray (2007), but actually it’s the John Waters original, made in 1988 – 35th anniversary!! – that became the basis of the Broadway musical. It boasts an all-time cracker of a cast – Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame), Divine (Pink Flamingos, 1972), pop star Debbie Harry (Videodrome, 1983) of Blondie, future talk show host Ricki Lake in her movie debut, and comic Jerry Stiller (father of Ben).

For the holidays what could be better than a 40th anniversary outing for National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo fire up their engines for July and look out for Eugene Levy, John Candy, Jane Krakowski and Christie Brinkley in small parts.

It’s a straight-out 50th anniversary slam-dunk for Enter the Dragon (1973), the kung fu actioner that cemented Bruce Lee’s reputation and sent the world into a brief glorious paroxysm of kung fu exploitation vehicles that even impinged on James Bond. Catch it in August.

You’d never guess it’s 35 years since Rain Man (1988), but don’t worry that will surely form the main plank of the marketing for its revival in September. Tom Cruise is of course still a big noise, less so Dustin Hoffman and director Barry Levinson, but they both won the Oscar, and fans of Hans Zimmer (Oscar nominated) will be more than happy to celebrate the score that brought him worldwide attention.

There’s been more than enough publicity attached to the filming of The Birds (1963), what with Tippi Hedren’s accusations of her treatment, but this 60th anniversary re-release might provide opportunity to reassess what I consider to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. That’s out in October.

Al Pacino’s turn as Cuban gangster Tony Montana in Brian DePalma’s Scarface (1983) – 40th anniversary – was not a huge hit at the time, audiences too easily put off by the violence and the over-the-top performance, but it’s now become a cult classic so expect big numbers to turn out in November.

Rounding out the year, unless someone can come up with something bigger/better before then, is A Christmas Story (1983) – 40th anniversary. You’ve probably forgotten all about this unless you can remember this is where the iconic “tongue frozen to flagpole” idea originated. Directed by Bob Clark, perhaps in reparation for Porky’s (1981), it sees Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) as the mother appalled her son wants a BB gun for Xmas. Wonder how that idea will play out these days!

I am already trawling through any film made in a year ending in 4 or 9 to see what Hollywood can base an anniversary re-showing on for 2024.

Oldies Every Day of the Week

In the 1960s you could watch old films in the cinema in virtually every country in the world every day of the week. Except in the United States, television had not impacted so much on the availability for booking films made within the last decade, so there was generally plenty of scope to operate a picture house that specialized in old movies. They were called “repertory” theaters. Of course studios dipped in and out of the repertory business themselves, yanking out of the vaults old blockbusters, but on an irregular basis, that particular supply rapidly diminishing as old movies were sold off for small screen presentation. 

Pre-television, in the United States in the 1940s a small industry had grown up, both in distribution and exhibition, either buying up the rights to old movies and recycling them as instituted by the Producers’ Releasing Corporation and Realart and PRC or establishing mini-chains of cinemas like the Academy of Proven Hits. But when television made such big inroads into old stock in the U.S. you were more likely to find old pictures turning up in arthouses, and even then that was limited to known attractions like Garbo and Bogart and occasional retrospectives of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Or arthouses would slip in a series of oldies one day a week.

In the 1960s “no cinema in the United States except the Thalia in New York and the Cinema Guild in Berkeley has ever made a serious attempt at presenting cinema repertory.” Occasionally, a U.S. distributor acquired a bundle of old pictures as the basis of an ongoing program distributed through arthouses, such as the 27-film series from Janus or Tom Brandon’s batch of 75. Paris, on the other hand, was a paradise for lovers of old movies. 

The 1960s saw the beginning of the film studies phenomenon, so cinemas showing old movies found new custom. Prior to that, the most common way to view classics was via a film society, another booming sector. While boasting four million members worldwide, access was limited to one movie – in 16mm not 35mm – a week for one screening only and a program that ran for about half a year.

Surprisingly, Britain was at the forefront of the repertory industry. When I was growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s I was astonished to discover a commercial chain – the Classic – operating three cinemas in the city center. Two of the operations, the Classic Grand and the Tatler Classic, while retaining the company name gradually shifted into the sexploitation business, the latter as a private members’ club. But the flagship Classic, just down the road from the Odeon, one of the city’s most prestigious houses, ran a weekly program of old films.

Realart reissue from the 1940s.

At the start of the decade, Classic operated ten cinemas in London and another 80-plus  throughout the United Kingdom. Programmes changed midweek if showing just one film while a double bill would run a full week. Several cinemas ran late night screenings, usually on a Saturday, but these could also be found on a Wednesday or Thursday.

Sometimes the movies shown were foreign, other times there might be a short season of Marx Bros comedies or Hitchcock thrillers, but mostly they were British or American pictures whose quality or reputation suggested they deserved repeat viewing on the big screen. One print would be enough to feed the entire system, shunted from screen to screen.

Quite a few of the films would be hired on a flat fee basis, no sharing the box office with a distributor or studio. Older audiences, fed up with the sex and violence prevalent in current movies, took refuge in safer, older films. Younger audiences, wanting to catch up with great films, found the screenings an unexpected bounty, especially to see them projected in their original dimensions.

Just how old the offerings were varied. In 1968 over the period March 10-April 6 the youngest film presented on the Classic chain was Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the oldest Animal Crackers (1930), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down (1940) and The Song of Bernadette (1943). In between you could choose between The Third Man (1949), Barbara Stanwyck as The Cattle Queen of Montana (1951), Viva Zapata (1952), The Brides of Dracula (1960), Billy Liar (1963), The Birds (1963), The Pawnbroker (1964) and Peter Sellers comedy After the Fox (1966).

On the foreign front, you could sample Vilgot Sjoman’s My Sister, My Love (1966), Godard’s A Woman Is A Woman (1961), offbeat French film Do You Like Women (1964) about cannibals owning a vegetarian restaurant, and Elke Sommer and Virna Lisi in Four Kinds of Women/The Dolls (1965). It was relatively easy to structure programs to cash in on a current picture by, for example, Peter Sellers or Marlon Brando or directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Carol Reed.

By the 1970s repertory cinema was booming in America, 400 theaters in operation, major cities accommodating several, while in Britain the Classic chain was acquired by the Tigon production company.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You (McFarland, 2016) p48-49, 54, 63, 72-73, 77, 80-81, 72; Gideon Bachmann, “A New Generation of Critical Fans,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p5; Advertisement, Films and Filming, October 1961, p2;“One Night Revivals Add to Arthouse Profits,” Box Office, June 29, 1964, pA3; Gideon Bachmann, “International Film Societies Number 2,500,” Variety, April 20, 1967, p13; “Films in Repertory Set for Reade-Sterling House,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pE5; “Brandon Lines Up Chain of 30 Arties for Medleys of Oldies and Offbeat Pix,” Variety, Septmeber 6, 1967, p5; “Repertory,” Films and Filming, April 1968, p23;“Squeeze More Coin on Last Run of Classic Films,” Variety, April 24, 1968, p7; “Classic Try Switch To Cinema Club,” Kine Weekly, February 8, 1969, p6; “Tigon Aims Complete Classic Deal by End July,” Kine Weekly, June 12, 1971, p3; Marianne Cotter, “Survival of Revival House,” Box Office, March 1, 1993, p24.

Cate Blanchett and The Shawshank Redemption

I assuming you know that the famed Stephen King novella on which the Tim Robbins/Morgan Freeman picture was based was originally entitled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the poster of that movie goddess used in that version by the wannabe escapee to cover the hole he was making in his prison cell wall.

I’m making a connection to Cate Blanchett because The Shawshank Redemption (1994) was a critical success, seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, but so conspicuously failed at the box office that it was scarcely shown abroad and only won an audience, and made more than its money back, on DVD and latterly became the poster boy for flops that somehow make a financial comeback.

Tar had all the critical support – with the exception of me, of course – that a movie could wish for and will at least pick up an Oscar nomination for Blanchett. But now that DVD is dead in the water, there’s virtually no chance of it making enough thereafter to cover the losses which are currently in the region of $30 million.

Movies used to have what was known as a “long tail,” meaning that initial box office was only one part of the equation. And a small part at that if the movie was a blockbuster. Reissue and sales to DVD, video rental, television, syndication, and early streaming services on a global scale sometimes amounted to as much as 90% of its overall earnings, especially bearing in mind that VHS/DVD in particular had various levels of revenue.

A big title might first be sold to video rental companies forking out $59.99 for the privilege and the bigger the title the more copies were purchased, so a blockbuster might easily have reaped $20-$30 million on that go-round. Then when it was released to the public, a big film would cost big money – $29.99 to $39.99 – and once that tier had done its job, the movie would be progressively sold in lower price brackets then repackaged again to supermarkets and bargain bins. More recently, the Director’s Cut, remastering and monetising anniversaries have added to that food chain.

Television went through several tiers as well. Studios never actually sold any movie to the small screen. They leased them. Usually for a period of time, say three years, and a limited number of screenings, often just two. And once that deal was done, they leased them again, and again and again. Until streaming killed off the majority of this market, movies made in the 1960s could have been leased a dozen times to television networks and even more in syndication. Cable would pay good money for a slice of that action.  

Television famously put The Alamo (1960) and Cleopatra (1963) into the black and then the combination of TV, VHS/DVD, cable etc, made them substantial profits. And studios could always wrap them up as a library and sell them off to movie-hungry stations like TCM. Imax and 3D provided reissue opportunities at the start of this century, but these days a return to a movie theater would be a seriously limited proposition and open only to major successes like The Godfather (1972).

But, in terms of redemption-sized income, virtually all those avenues have disappeared. And critics don’t have the power to turn on the money taps. I’m sure Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman…(1975) which came out of nowhere, though probably the result of a social media coup, to top the once-in-a-decade Sight & Sound Critics Poll, will bring in extra bucks, no matter that it will scarcely register on streaming and DVD sales will be limited to the arthouse fraternity.

Alfred Hitchcock is often touted as the Comeback King when Vertigo (1958) climbed to the top of the Sight & Sound Poll after initially being largely discounted in that particular race. But in the first place, Hitchcock had already been a box office giant. A very small number of his pictures lost money on initial cinema release and his “critical redemption” if you like was anything but. He achieved Sight & Sound dominance because five of his greatest pictures had been kept from public view for over two decades. When they appeared, in one of the great reissue stories, the public flocked to see them on the big screen, and on subsequent DVD release so it was from there that a new wave of critics found the films contained far more art than previously ascertained.

So, back to Tar – and other box office duds like Corsage ($2.7 million worldwide) and Empire of Light ($3.2 million). Where does it go from here?

One option is tax write-off. The companies that invested in it in the first place might have done so to avoid handing over profits to the taxman. Conversely, they can use losses to offset a future tax demand.

But that’s hardly going to stimulate the movie-making market.

Studios used to test-market films but now production companies like these shovel their pictures into an endless maw of film festivals where their movies receive the kind of reception that fills them with glee but turns out to be the opposite of what the public – even the arthouse public – actually wants.

Behind the Scenes: “The Birds” (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock had a different picture – in fact, several movies – in mind as the follow-up to Psycho (1960), the biggest hit of his career. In pole position was Marnie to star Grace Kelly (“she voluntarily offered to do the picture after reading the story”), the woman he had made a star, in a sensational return to the screen after her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Her participation would bring her around $1 million. He worked on a script during 1961 but Kelly’s schedule meant the film would have to be postponed to 1963-1964 at the earliest.

A close second came No Bail for a Judge to star Audrey Hepburn. When those projects failed to get off the ground in the gap between Psycho and The Birds (1963), Hitchcock also considered reuniting with James Stewart (Vertigo, 1958) for Blind Man. The original idea came from a visit by the writer to Disneyland where he had an idea for a blind man given an eye transplant who subsequently remembers things he could not have witnessed. This was then transposed to an ocean liner, with Ernest Lehman signing on for script duties in December 1960. For almost a year he worked on a movie called Frenzy, no relation except for serial killing, to the later picture. But there was also Trap for a Solitary Man, Cold War thriller Village of Stars and The Mind Thing.

When Hitchcock finally settled on The Birds, based on a short story published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1952 and reprinted in a Hitchcock anthology in 1959, he first turned to Scottish author James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960). That collaboration lasted until Kennaway decided the only way the movie would work would be if the birds were never seen. He considered Wendell Mayes (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Ray Bradbury (The Picasso Summer, 1969) before in August 1961 turning to Evan Hunter (Last Summer, 1969). Wearing his Ed McBain (Fuzz, 1972) hat, Hunter  was a crime aficionado so it was no surprise he suggested adding a murder to the mix.

But Hitchcock’s first act was to shift the location from Cornwall to Bodega Bay, sixty miles away from San Francisco. While the screenplay was being worked upon, an extensive proce3ss that would include last-minute changes once filming had begun, Hitchcock considered a potential female star.

He screen-tested Pamela Tiffin (One, Two, Three, 1961) and examined footage featuring Yvette Mimieux (The Time Machine, 1960), Carol Lynley (Return to Peyton Place, 1961) and Sandra Dee (Tammy Tell Me True, 1961). He also considered two actresses he already had under contract Joanna Moore (Walk on the Wild Side, 1962) and Claire Griswold (Experiment in Terror, 1962).

Both the women already under contract had proved disappointing. Of Moore, John Russell Taylor wrote: “no one could have been less cooperative in the required making-over process, she did not like the clothes, she did not like the hair styles and she did not seem to like anyone she came into contact with at the studio.” Griswold, more compliant, “seemed to have little professional ambition and was quite content with what she was, Mrs Sydney Pollack.”

But then he spotted model Tippi Hedren in a television commercial. She was signed up to a seven-year $26,000-a-year ($254,000 at current prices) contract before she even met Hitchcock, one of the director’s modus operandi to ensure fees did not increase when his name was mentioned. Although actors, once successful, tended to complain they were hired at unfair salaries, this was in fact a pretty good amount for an untrained actress who would automatically become a star by the very fact of being in a Hitchcock picture. Of course, Hitchcock hoped to profit by keeping her salary low for any future movie. But it was still a gamble; if her career fizzled out, as did occur, he would lose out.

However, given his reputation for treating actors as cattle and expecting them to know what to do with little direction, he went to extreme pains to ensure Hedren was prepared for the role. He encouraged her to sit in on script conferences, meetings with set designers, and other essential collaborations like the director pf photography and the music supervisor and went into considerable detail about her motivation and how the film would move from periods of intensity to relaxation. Nobody ever received a more complete education in the Hitchcock method.

Hitchcock admitted he would have preferred to cast more experienced stars with guaranteed box office marquee such as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn  but the long shooting schedule and the time required for trick photography would render them too expensive.  

For this picture, Hitchcock switched studios from Paramount to Universal. At $3.3 million, very little going to the stars, this was his most expensive movie date especially in comparison to the $800,000 of Psycho. After a tortuous screenplay process, Hitchcock also sought input from others like famed short story writer V.S. Pritchett whose several notable suggestions the director accepted, much to the ire of Evan Hunter.  According to Taylor, Hitchcock found himself “nervy and oppressed” possible due to the film’s Day of Judgement elements, and abandoned his normal shooting routine.

He was famous for shooting the picture he already had in his head. Instead, here “he started studying the scenario all over again while shooting it…(and) began to do something he never normally did – improvising on set.” He went deeper into characterizations – making  the viewpoint far more subjective than initially conceived, in particular “keeping the audience much closer to the Tippi Hedren character”

At the last minute he dropped several pages of dialogue and the original Hunter ending. He edited out a love scene between Hedren and Taylor and detailed a script for the sound, specifying what kind he wanted for every scene. While Bernard Herrmann was involved, it wasn’t in the usual sense, and instead they worked out musical scenario of “evocative sound and silence” which was created by Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala who specialized in electronic music.

It was by far the most complicated shoot Hitchcock had ever attempted. The birds were a mixture of trained birds, dummies and optical illusions. When the gull attacked Hedren as the boat docks that was a dummy on a wire pulley, the blood a pellet implanted on her clothes. But as filming intensified, the blood seen on the screen was real blood. Anchovies and ground meat were spread on the actors’ hands at attract the gulls. 

But when it came time to shoot the scene in the attic Hedren was not warned the birds would be real. Hitchcock believed terror would be better expressed by an untrained actress if it was real. While propmen wore thick leather gloves to protect their skin, the actress was permitted no such luxury. When the birds avoided Hedren, the propmen simply picked them up and threw them at the actress. Filming took a week, by the end of which, after getting her eye clawed, Hedren broke down in tears. It would be impossible for a director to take such liberties today although young, impressionistic actors tend to fall prey to such actions.

The proposed ending was jettisoned in favor of a lengthy shot of Hedren and co-star Rod Taylor driving through a bird-infested landscape that the director called the “single most difficult shot I’ve ever done.”

Hitchcock got into trouble with the authorities over unauthorized use of birds. His permit allowed for the use of 20 dead and 30 live birds but an investigation by the U.S. Wildlife and fisheries found 40 dead gulls and 54 live ones as well as 60 songbirds for which no license had been given. He was fined $400. The movie was of course a boon for exhibitors planning promotional stunts. A thousand pigeons were released in a shopping center in Albany, carrier pigeons carried a message from Los Angeles to Memphis, birds trainers were in full flight, 200 exotic birds were displayed in the lobby of the Stanton in Baltimore, while the director attracted notoriety by making birds singular rather than plural when the tagline became “The Birds Is Here!

Much has been written of Hedren’s reactions to the birds, but it’s worth having a look at Roar (1981), a famous disaster of a picture, which she and husband Noel Marshall financed, where she appeared to be quite happy to be bitten and clawed by lions, a lot less tame than was suggested. The mauling was so bad Hedren required 50 stitches, required plastic surgery and nearly lost an eye. In one unscripted scene that ended up in the picture a lion grabbed her hair and would not let go. Most of the lion attacks resulted in injury to someone, actors and crew, including cinematographer Jan de Bont who required 120 stitches to sew his torn scalp back in place.  By such standards, her treatment by Hitchcock was relatively tame.

SOURCES: Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock, A Life in Darkness and Light (Regan Books, 2003), p608-629; John Russell Taylor, Hitch, The Authorised Biography (Faber and Faber, 1978) p262-270; Brian Hannan, Darkness Visible, Alfred Hitchcock’s Greatest Film (Baroliant, 2013); “Princess Grace’s Take Per Hitchy Estimate,” Box Office, April 4, 1962, p2; “Fine Hitchcock $400,” Box Office, April 18, 1962, p17; “Pigeons Blaze a Trail,” Box Office, April 8, 1963, pB3; “Pigeons for Birds,” Box Office, May 6, 1963, pB3; “The Birds Is Here,” Box Office, May 13, 1963, pA1; “Bad Girls Bird House,” Box Office, May 27, 1963, pA3.

The Birds (1963) *****

Years ago I was asked to write a book on the six best Hitchcock films and from those choose the one I considered his very best. My choice was The Birds (1963). And it is for these reasons.

Firstly, unusually in the master’s work, there is a proper meet-cute. In most of his films, the couple are either already together (Rear Window, 1954; Torn Curtain, 1966) or when they get together it is for a hidden reason, one is on the run, or being pursued by the other, and the getting together is a convenient way of reaching an ulterior goal. When Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) meet in the pet shop it is a certainly a precursor for the future and ensures that Mitch gets in a stickier jam he would otherwise likely have avoided but in the true sense it is the traditional Hollywood boy-meets-girl.

Secondly, and now cutting more to the chase, this is where the modern action film was invented. You might think that honour rested with Dr No (1962) or any other of the Bond pictures or even as late as Bullitt (1968) with its epochal car chase. But although the Bonds are filled with derring-do and escape, there is nothing to match the scene when the birds attack the town, wave after wave, as if they were World War Two bombers. There is even the point-of-view from the air which Hitchcock also invented and has been repeated in airplane war films ever since, most famously Pearl Harbor (2001).

But the way in which full-scale disaster, with everyone rendered helpless, unfolds is a true first. People in the café can see the river of petrol and the match about to be discarded and can only observe as the river of flame reaches the petrol tanker and in a perfectly ordinary town setting – rather than a military base – there is an almighty explosion. It is terror for the sake of it. And there is no escape, no one racing to the rescue, just pure devastation,

Lastly is the ending. It is apocalyptic. In every other Hitchcock when the hero/heroine escapes from dire peril, that is the end of the matter, there is no final twist as with a film like Carrie (1976). But although the birds are now silent and the couple can pick their way through their lines, you know full well this is not the end and that the birds will soon be as inexplicably massing somewhere else.  

That’s three reasons but there are many more. For a start, in other films where the hero/heroine is in danger, the peril is not relentless. And often it is the threat of danger or of being captured that provides the narrative spring. And if there is physical threat in that era it was not unrelenting. And it is with another character whom you can fight or at least attempt to outwit. Not just, later in this instance rather than sooner, realize that there is no way to defeat these marauding creatures, no way at all. So, compared to his other films, when attacks of one kind or another punctuate a film, here it is like a battery of machine-guns and not episodic but virtually non-stop for over 30 minutes.

The storyline since it is after all a meet-cute is excessively simple. Melanie and Mitch meet, trade remarks, she leaves him what would easily be interpreted as a love token, and they link up after she is attacked by a gull. Wherever they go now, there will be no escape. Gulls attack children playing outside. The same day sparrows invade Melanie’s home. There is another attack on children. In town the gulls swarm in wholesale, wreaking the devastation mentioned above. All his is just a prelude to the final overwhelming siege. Except in modern horror pictures where a body is dispatched every ten minutes or so, there is  nothing to match the unremitting attacks. It is as though Mitch and Melanie are in the front line of battle, under siege, Zulu (1964) with birds perhaps, but with no hope of salvation. Unlike Zulu, there is no sign that in raising the siege, the birds are hailing their bravery.

Unusually, too, for a Hitchcock film, there is considerable back story that informs current action. Mitch has an overbearing mother who seems to hover over his life attempting to scare off any woman who comes near. Annie has been left behind precisely because he needed to escape his mother. For her part, Melanie’s mother ran off with another man and she is a spoiled socialite with a habit of getting into trouble, possibly attention-seeking behaviour as a result of abandonment issues. Full to the brim with sophistication. Melanie is the least likely candidate for motherhood, yet her maternal feelings rush to the fore when she has to care for a terrified child.

Tippi Hedren’s career when south when she parted company with Hitchcock so we only have this and Marnie (1964) to consider her worth as a star. This is easily her best performance, shifting from icy cold to playful to romantic to maternal and of course no one has quite emoted such shock and terror. This is Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) coming into his stride as a leading man. He always had the charm and certainly the brawn, but rarely displayed both in the one picture. You would not have picked the Rod Taylor of Seven Seas to Calais to lead a squad of mercenaries in Dark of the Sun but he might well be first pick after this performance.

Hitchcock got so many of his effects by laying on the tension, a man or woman on the run, an innocent framed, a man displaying dubious morality (Rear Window, 1954, and Vertigo, 1958) nonetheless being presented as hero, the question in every instance being whether they will escape their fate. Here, the barrage of devilry is so intense it is almost inconceivable that anyone could get out alive. That they sneak out by the skin of their teeth, watched by their silent conquerors, for me was only the prelude to The Birds Part Two.  

Behind the Scenes: “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965)

Unusually for an Otto Preminger project, this took an unconscionably long time to get off the ground, given he had purchased rights to the bestseller by Evelyn Piper which had been published in 1957. The first problem was that no one could lick the screenplay. Getting first bite was Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, 1967), followed by “wholesale doctoring” by Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, 1960) who delivered a “polished script.” But that failed to satisfy the director either and triggered further attempts by Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mummy’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, 1967). But nobody seemed able to come up with a satisfactory job. The book had been set in New York as had the various subsequent screenplays. The solution appeared to be to shift the location some 3,000 miles to London. Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote a draft but ended up having a fight with Preminger and withdrew and the project was completed by her husband John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969).

The Levin screenplay was dismissed as being too faithful to the book, the kidnapper in this instance turning out to be a former teacher who was childless and afflicted with “menopausal psychosis,” a character Preminger found weak and uninteresting. Trumbo changed the villain into a wealthy woman, not just childless but judged unfit to adopt, an approach the director deemed “very theatrical and wrong.” The Kopit and Eastman versions offered no better solution. “I almost gave up Bunny Lake,” admitted Preminger, “because while working in the script I realized that women would not like the film…because they are afraid of all situations in which a child is in danger.”  After considering transplanting the story to Paris, Preminger finally settled on London, and hired the Mortimers whose villain brought the picture a 2new dimension.”

Until now, and in keeping with the original novel, Newhouse, while assisting in the investigation, had been a psychiatrist. In the hands of the Mortimers he now morphed into a police inspector. Wilson who had been Newhouse’s quite respectable friend turned into a drunken reprobate. At this point the heroine’s name remained Blanche as in the book. There was one other significant element that changed between the initial Mortimer script and the final shooting script: at the start of the film the Ann and Steven were shown reacting as if the child was there, whereas when the movie went before camera the question of the child’s existence remained in doubt. Penelope Mortimer dropped out when, summoned with her husband to Honolulu where Preminger was filming In Harm’s Way, she was roundly ignored.

Filming was originally scheduled to slip in between Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960) with a budget set at $2 million. But something always seemed to get in the way. Occasionally it was a bigger project. After Columbia announced filming was scheduled for 1961, Bunny Lake was pushed back to spring 1962 to permit the filming of Advise and Consent (1961).  Then The Cardinal (1962) took precedence but only to the extent of shifting the Bunny project till later that year. Then it was set to be completed by fall 1963. Further cause of delay was the decision to accommodate the pregnancy of that Lee Remick who had signed for the leading female role. But when she was ready to go, Preminger was not and she fell out of the equation.

At one point, fearful of his schedule becoming too crowded – filled with expensive projects like The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way (1965) – Preminger had tried to wriggle out of the directorial commitment, planning to limit his involvement to producing only, but studio Columbia would not accept this. Preminger was in considerable demand, like a major movie star contracted to deals with rival studios, in 1961 for three pictures with United Artists and four for Columbia and by 1965 adding into the mix a seven-picture deal with Paramount, and most of these big pictures, leaving little time for a relatively low-budget – by his standards – picture.

A good example of the British distribution system. The film opened at the Odeon Leicester Square and quickly went into general release, first in cinemas in North London and a week later the prints shifted to South London. In the West End, it ran solo, in the suburbs as a double bill.

Finally, Bunny Lake received the green light with filming beginning in London on April 9, 1965. Unusually, the movie was shot entirely on location, the director expressing a “yen for realistic on the spot” filming in a dozen places including a pub, the Cunard office and Scotland Yard. A school in Hampstead doubled for the nursery, the mews flat was found just behind Trafalgar Square. He was quick to point this was not a matter of economy. “What you save in studio (time) you spend in other ways. But I think it leads to more urgent film-making.” Somewhat surprisingly, he aimed to shoot in black-and-white, colour now being predominant except for low-budget movies and those wishing to take advantage of black-and-white world War Two newsreel footage as was the case with his previous picture In Harm’s Way.

Carolyn Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) was given the lead with Keir Dullea (David and Lisa, 1962) in the pivotal role of her brother. Neither could be considered a big star although Lynley had the second female lead in The Cardinal and moved up the credit rankings to female lead in the low-budget Shock Treatment (1964). But she was such a hot prospect Preminger in 1965 signed her to a four-picture deal although this was not exclusive as she also had contracts with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia. Dullea was potentially a better prospect, picking up some acting kudos for David and Lisa, the designated star of that picture and The Thin Red Line (1964) but only second lead for Mail Order Bride (1963) and the Italian-made The Naked Hours (1963).

Although some decades away from his Hollywood box office prime, the casting of Oscar-winner and five-time nominee Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, 1960) was something of a coup, although he was only hired because another actor proved too expensive. Other parts were filled by actors experienced in the Preminger school of film-making, Martita Hunt from The Fan (1949)- and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Victor Maddern (Saint Joan, 1958) and David Oxley (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse).

The first day’s shooting was in a television studio to capture the newsreader and pop group The Zombies which the content of the show shown in the pub on television. Contrary to depictions of Preminger as a martinet on set, he was keen in rehearsals to “put everyone at ease” although he emphasised the need for “slow, thoughtful diction.” The famous Preminger wrath came down heavily on personnel failing to carry out their job correctly. But he accepted Olivier’s decision to omit a particular phrase. He was specific about the look he wished to achieve, required high contrast black-and-white cinematography while nothing was to be done “to enhance Carol Lynley’s beauty: instead…to deepen her features, bring out her emotions.”

And he was determined to get what he wanted, 18 takes required to complete a lengthy tracking shot that flows Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) as they negotiate a passage through a group of noisy children in a classroom and then across a hall. Accepting Lynley’s difficulty in expressing the pain of losing a child, he instructed her to forget about subtext and play the moment. However, 14 takes of a scene between Lynley and Olivier was too much for the actress but she was comforted when Preminger told her the famous actor was the problem not her. But on another occasion, Preminger ended up giving her an almost line for line reading of how he wanted the scene played. The only way he got what he wanted was to reduce her to “sobbing uncontrollably” and then start the camera rolling.

Without question, Keir Dullea came off first. “He would humiliate you, he would scream at you…his dripping sarcasm was the worst of it,” recalled Dullea. “I was always very prepared in terms of knowing my lines…but the stress, there was some action where I was supposed to put a glass down or pick up a glass” that Dullea kept getting wrong. In face of what he deemed incompetence, Preminger accused him of being “an actor who can’t even remember a line and if heremembers a line he can’t remember an action…what, you can’t do these two things at the same time.” In the end Dullea faked a nervous breakdown and after than “he never screamed at me again.”

Olivier would occasionally coming to rescue, persuading the director to ease off and “stop screaming at the children.” Olivier found Preminger such a bully that it “almost put me off his Carmen Jones, which I found an inspired piece of work…It’s a miracle it came from such a heavy-handed egotist.” On the other hand Noel coward, who played the landlord Wilson, believed Preminger an excellent director.

Preminger spun his marketing on a similar gimmick to that utilised by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho (1960) in preventing the public from entering once the movie had started. To make this more dramatic, he had clocks installed in the lobbies of theaters that counted down the length of the performance and a sign that stated “nobody admitted while the clock is ticking.” Preminger was credited with coming up with a longer tagline for the advertisements: “Not even Alfred Hitchcock will be admitted after the film has started.”

The only problem was Return from the Ashes, released at the same time, had adopted a similar marketing ruse, nobody admitted “after Fabi enters the bath.” Despite this, Preminger went hell-for-leather for this marketing trick, to the extent of adding a rider to exhibitor standard contracts to that effect, not a problem in more sophisticated cities where by now patrons had become accustomed to turning up for a picture’s announced start time but a problem in smaller towns and cities where the whole point of continuous programme (i.e. no break between one film and another) was that moviegoers could walk in whenever they liked.

The whole tone of the marketing did not meet the approval of two important segments of the greater movie community. The National Association of Theater Owners opined that the marketing campaign was weak and were astonished to learn that there was nothing Columbia could so about it – Preminger had advertising-publicity approval. Allowing that some of the advertising images for Preminger pictures, courtesy of designer Saul Bass – The Man with the Golden Arm  (1953), Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus etc – were among the most famous in Hollywood history, it would appear Preminger knew what he was doing. But, in fact, although the Saul Bass credit sequence showing pieces of newspaper being torn away made sense in the framework of the picture, the idea was not so effective taken out of that context.

Not intentionally, perhaps, Preminger also riled the critics, deciding that to “preserve the secrecy of the surprise ending,” the movie would open without the normal advance screenings for reviewers. Such action was more likely to set alarm bells ringing, it being a standard assumption among critics that the only films that went down this route were stinkers. From a practical point-of-view it also ensured that marketing was undercut since the lack of timed reviews denied the picture an essential promotional tool.

Finally, the movie ended up in a war with the censors. Many states in the U.S. had their own censors. Columbia objected to having to wait on the say-so of a local censor – in this case  Kansas – before being able to release a movie. And for any release to be delayed if there was any nit-picking by the censor, especially as this movie had an undercurrent of incest. So Columbia refused to conform and failed to submit Bunny Lake Is Missing to the Kansas censors. After being promptly banned for such arrogance, Columbia objected again and the case went to the Kansas State Supreme Court which judged that the censor was unconstitutional. That resulted in the censors losing their jobs when the board was abandoned and the movie entering release a good while after its initial opening dates.

Although it made no impact at the Oscars, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris picked it as one the year’s ten best and it was nominated for cinematography and art direction at the Baftas. The film was a flop, failing to return even $1 million in rentals at the U.S. box office. In fact it probably made more when it was sold to ABC TV for around $800,000.

SOURCES: Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, p330-342; (Faber and Faber, 2008) “Trends,” Variety, January 14, 1959, p30; “Ira Levin Pacted by Preminger for Bunny,” Variety, September 2, 1959, p2; “Col Primed To Start ½ Dozen Prods,” Variety, April 5, 1961, p3; “Otto Preminger Views Film Festivals As Important Marketplaces,” Box Office, May 1, 1961, p11; “Trumbo May Script for UA,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p5; “Bunny Lake Delayed,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Preminger Postpones One,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p13; “Otto Preminger to Film Cardinal for Col,” Box Office, August 7, 1961, -10; “Otto Preminger Is Guest of Soviet Film Makers,” Box Office , May 14, 1962, pE-4; “Two Writers Signed,” Box Office, August 6, 1962, pSW-3; “Preminger,” Variety, September 12, 1962, p15; “Preminger’s New Rap at Costly U.S. Distribution,” Variety, October 10, 1962, p7; “Preminger Gets Rights to Hurry Sundown,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p9; “Prem’s Next in London,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p18; “Preminger Signs Actress for Four More Pictures,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pW-3; “Advertisement,” Variety, April 7, 1965, p1; “Preminger-Paramount Pact Calls for 7 Films,” Box Office, April 26, 1965, p7; “100% Location for Bunny,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “Not Even Hitch,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p4;  “Preminger’s Nix on Pre-Opening Critics,” Variety, September 22, 1965, p16; “2 Pix Enforce Entrance Time on Ticket Buyers,” Variety, September 29, 1965, p5; “Time Rules Are Set for Bunny Shows,” Box Office, October 4, 1965, p13;  “Preminger’s Promotional Prerogative,” Variety, October 27, 1965, p13; “Clock for Bunny Lake,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, p2; “Village Voice Vocal on Bests,” Variety, January 26, 1966, p4; “Col Kayos Kansas Censoring,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p5.

Behind the Scenes – “Topaz” (1969)

Hitchcock wanted to follow Torn Curtain (1966) with Frenzy – initially with an American setting – and spent $75,000 on a screenplay but his paymasters Universal nixed the idea. Stuck for another project and hating idleness, Hitchcock rummaged through the studio’s outstanding list of properties and came up with Topaz because it was “better than nothing” and “he was getting to the point where he would consider anything, pretty well, just to continue exercising his craft.” The Donald Spoto version has it that Hitchcock’s wife Alma “approached Lew Wasserman, begging him to find a project to get her husband back to work.”

Nonetheless this hardly had “desperate” written all over it, as some have argued, not with Universal willing to stump up $4 million, his biggest budget to date. With a political backdrop similar to Torn Curtain, the director aimed for “espionage with an emotional relationship” like Notorious (1946).

Hitchcock hired Topaz author Leon Uris (Exodus) to write the screenplay. Uris had some experience in this field have written the screenplays for Gufight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and adapted his own Battle Cry. Uris was far more high-powered writing partner than Hitchcock had been used to, considering himself as much a master of his own genre as the director was of his. He had such a high opinion of himself that he wrote the lyrics to a song “Topaz” to go out as a sales gimmick for the publication of the book. And was formidable in other ways. He had been the first author to deny the hardback publisher a share, as was traditional, of both paperback and movie rights.

Incidentally, Universal only picked up the project on second go-round. Uris had originally sold the movie rights for $500,000 to British businessmen Shel Talmy and Sir William Piggott. But the Bank of England refused to sanction the deal because Britain had just devalued the pound sterling and it did not wish such a large sum of money to leave the country.  

It was unlikely that Hitchcock and Uris would hit it off. The relationship got off to a difficult start when Hitchcock tried to install the author “in a little office in his cottage” while Uris held out for his own private domain in the studio’s executive building. Uris “made a fight” out of other little things in order to exert his own authority. Perhaps to get his own back, Hitchcock forced Uris to undergo a crash-course in Hitchcock films, watching the director’s output with the director providing a personal commentary. Uris called it “a drill in self-aggrandizement.” The partnership failed to gel and Uris was off the project.

But Hitchcock recognized that Uris had been correct in some of his assessments of the director’s approach and realizing he was out of touch with modern espionage arranged to receive briefings from top intelligence operators including George Horkan, former deputy inspector general of the CIA.

Next up for screenwriting duties was Samuel Taylor (Vertigo, 1958). Hitchcock dropped Uris’s flashbacks to World War Two and insisted on building up the Cuban section, altering the Uris plotline and making Rico Parra (John Vernon) “a sympathetic, almost tragic figure.”

The most memorable scene in the picture – the death of Juanita – was never properly scripted and instead relied on the genius of Hitchcock’s cinematic inspiration. “Although it was a death scene,” said Hitchcock, “I wanted it to look very beautiful.” It was also a piece of technical (of the old-fashioned kind) wizardry. The director had attached five pieces of thread to her gown. The threads were held by five men positioned off-camera. As Juanita fell, “the men pulled the threads and her robe splayed out like a flower that was opening up.”

Hitichcock’s biographers continued to insist that the director was caught short by the production process. The picture’s main problem, according to Taylor, was that “Hitch was trying to make something as if he had Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in it.” To accommodate a major Hollywood star would have meant changing the entire plot to accommodate the desire of a big star to be included in more of the action. Bankable international stars like Yves Montand (Z, 1969) and Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour, 1967) were passed over in favor of relative unknown Frederick Stafford (OSS 117, Mission for a Killer, 1965), a late starter in the movie business, but bringing a certain elan to any part, and old dependables like John Forysthe (The Trouble with Harry, 1955). 

But Hitchcock had already decided to ditch big stars and would not have been looking for a Bergman/Grant equivalent while working through the screenplay. Prior to production he announced he would “cast unknowns to give the film more authenticity.” And he already planned to take a less-than-heroic look at the spy game. He had been disappointed at the ending of Torn Curtain. “I would personally preferred to have the hero suffer qualms about behaving like a professional spy and I would have ended the film with his disgust at his own position.”

Biographers also asserted that the opposition of the French government came as something of shock. Not true either. It was obvious to all that the film would annoy the French. Asked about this issue in a press conference, Hitchcock joked, “I shall disguise myself as thin man.”  The French government, clearly not sharing the Cahiers du Cinema blind faith in the director, complained the script was anti-French and refused permission to shoot in France and although the issue was finally resolved after top-level discussions shooting was delayed.

Coupled with an almost documentary-style approach and the fact that some of his most acclaimed films – Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Trouble with Harry and Psycho (1960) – had been made without big stars, he seemed to be taking no great risk.

Roberto Contreros as the Cuban police chief Vernon was also a last-minute replacement, called in for Aram Katcher, who had shot all his scenes and didn’t realise this had occurred until, having been lined up for television talk shows, he discovered he had ended up on the cutting room floor.

The key role of Juanita was not cast until a few days before her scenes were to be shot. Hitchcock had turned up his nose up at various suggestions and found fault with every actress interviewed. “She will show up,” said Hitchcock. And at the last minute she did. The German-born Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1965) had Latin features and fluent English.

Huge sets were built on the Universal lot for the Harlem hotel, a mansion in Virginia, a Cuban street and La Guardia airport, but for a Cuban hacienda Hitchcock had to look no further than director Clarence Brown (National Velvet, 1944) who made available his home.

Hitchcock had planned that Topaz would include his first modern love scene, that is with the actors fully topless. That notion was scuppered when Hitchcock was informed that both principals had significant surgical scars on their torsos.

The climax was not in the book either – an old-fashioned duel in a soccer stadium. But Hitchcock did not shoot it. His wife Alma had suddenly fallen ill and Hitchcock left the filming of the scene to Herbert Coleman. Test audiences rejected the ending. Interestingly, the main reason the original ending was changed was due to adverse reaction at the San Francisco preview. There had been an unholy scramble for tickets, primarily from youngsters, among whom Hitchcock’s stock was riding high – and far higher than any other director among the older generation. So it may have been that he was brought down to earth by the very audiences that were otherwise praising him to the stars.   

Under pressure from Universal, Hitchcock shot another more cynical ending, Devereux (Frederick Stafford) and the French traitor Granville (Michel Piccoli) waving each other off as they boarded planes for Washington and Moscow, respectively. To pacify the French, who might object to a traitor getting off scot-free, Hitchcock devised a third ending, utilised from existing footage, which suggested Granville committed suicide.

There was enormous debate at the studio over which ending to use. The result was, inevitably, compromise. Different versions were shown. So what ending you saw depended on where and when you viewed the film. Between a 142-minute preview screening in London – it was released in Britain prior to America – and a 126-minute release a week later the ending changed to the suicide. Biographers claimed British distributor Rank lopped 20 minutes off the picture, but since the 142-minute version was a rough cut the editing was not quite as brutal as it sounds.  The suicide was seen in France and America. The duel version can be seen on a DVD. 

The one I saw, in case you are interested, had the pair waving each other off at the airport which I thought an excellent and wholly believable ending, given that most famous British traitors did escape. 

Nor was there outright condemnation of the finished picture. The New York critics, the most influential in the country, were split. Vincent Canby, the most highly-regarded mainstream critic of the time, gave it a rave review in the New York Times. (Canby placed it number seven on his year’s top ten). Two others – the New York News and the New York Post – gave it favorable reports. The three magazines who gave it gave it the thumbs-down – Newsday, New York and Cue – had significantly smaller circulations than the newspapers. Universal had no concerns about its potential, releasing it during the busy Xmas period.

However, it didn’t help that the film came out just as the lionization of Hitchcock had begun. The Truffaut book had begun to win admirers, Hitchcock was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1968 and elected to the French Order of Letters in 1969. Critics, except in France naturally, felt it was vastly inferior to his previous work. As a consequence, when his career began to be reassessed, biographers began to look for reasons why this film did not meet with their approval, forgetting that they had been mauling him for most of the decade.

He must have been ill, was one assumption. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan: “Photographs taken during the filming of Marnie show an almost trim and dapper man; in contrast…in 1968 (he) was again far overweight, pink-cheeked from drinking and transparently depressed with the realization that time, always his cruelest enemy, was closing in.” It would take quite a photographer to make Hitchcock look trim and dapper but the almost purple prose employed here by McGilligan serves his purpose of explaining why Topaz fell below, in his view, the director’s normal high standards.    

John Russell Taylor, Hitchcock’s official biographer, commented: “He (Hitchcock) has declined to discuss the film beyond making it clear that he regards it as a complete disaster, whatever some of his wilder admirers may say in its favor.”

But this would not the be the first good – not to say excellent – movie produced in difficult or traumatic circumstances. Since Hitchcock was the most fastidious of directors and liked the movie he made to be a mere reflection of the movie that had already unspooled in his head a long time before, his antipathy towards the picture clearly comes from his unhappiness at his loss of control, rather than, I would guess, any genuine horror that he had made an atrocity.  As a Hollywood veteran, and especially one who had worked with David O. Selznick, he would be more than familiar with the need to re-edit pictures after previews. Perhaps he felt he was beyond all that.

Whatever the case, don’t let the inevitable inanities of Hollywood production and post-production, or the carping of critics, put you off an enjoyable film.

SOURCES: Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock, A Life in Darkness and Light, (Harper Collins, 2003), p682-695; John Russell Taylor, Hitch, The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock, the Authorised Biography (Faber and Faber, 1978), p279-281; Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, (De Capo Press, 1983), p498-503; “Leon Uris Forces Publishing Yield Better Terms to Successful Writers,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p28; “Cuffo Disk to Promote Uris Upcoming Topaz,” Variety, September 20, 1967, p49;  “Bank of England Asks Pic Savvy,” Variety, December 13, 1967, p8; “Hitchcock-Uris Reveal Topaz as De-Politicized,” Variety, May 8, 1968, p32; “Hitchcock To Produce Topaz for Universal,” Box Office, May 13, 1968, p17; “Says Actor: U’s Kindness Hurts,” Variety, April 30, 1969, p7; “Hitchcock London Bow Exudes More Mystery Than Pic Itself,” Variety, November 12, 1969, p30;  “NY Critics Dec 24-31,” Variety, December 24, 1969, p4; “Time for Year’s 10 Best Lists,” Variety, December 31, 1969, p7.  

Topaz (1969) ****

Authentic, atypical, engrossing, this grittier Hitchcock mixes the realism of Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964) with the nihilism of The Birds (1963), a major departure for a canon that previously mostly spun on innocents or the falsely accused encountering peril. The hunt for a Russian spy ring by way of the Cuban missile crisis forms the story core but the director is more interested in personal consequence and even the villain suffers heart-rending loss. Betrayal is the other key theme – defection and infidelity go hand in hand.

The tradecraft of espionage is detailed – dead letter drops, film hidden in typewriting spools, an accidental collision that is actually a sweet handover. In a transcontinental tale that shifts from Copenhagen to New York to Cuba to Paris, there is still room for classic sequences of suspense – the theft of secret documents in a hotel the pick – and Hitchcock at times simply keeps the audience at bay by employing dumbshow at key moments.    

In some respects the director was at the mercy of his material. In the documentary-style Leon Uris bestseller (almost a procedural spy novel), the main character is neither the trigger for the plot nor often its chief participant and is foreign to boot. So you could see the sense of employing a cast of relative unknowns, otherwise an audience would soon grow restless at long absences from the screen of a Hollywood star of the caliber of a Cary Grant or Paul Newman. It is a florist (Roscoe Lee Browne) who carries out the hotel theft, a small resistance cell the spying on Russian missiles in Cuba, a French journalist who beards one of the main suspects, not the ostensible main character, French agent Andre Devereux (Frederick Stafford), not his U.S. counterpart C.I.A. operative Michael Nordstrum (John Forsythe) nor Cuban villain Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Unusual, too, is the uber-realism. The main characters are fully aware of the dangers they face and of its impact on domestic life and accept such consequence as collateral damage. It is ironic that the Russian defector is far more interested in safeguarding his family than Devereux. Devereux’s wife (Dany Robin), Cuban lover Juanita (Karin Dor) and son-in-law (Michel Subor) all suffer as a result of his commitment to his country. And that Juanita (Karin Dor), leader of the Cuban resistance cell, is more of a patriot than the Russian, refusing to defect when offered the opportunity. Hitchcock even acknowledges genuine politics: the reason a Frenchman is involved is because following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 American diplomats were not welcome in Cuba.

In terms of bravura Hitchcock, the pick of the scenes are the hotel theft and the death of one of the principals, filmed from above.

I have steered clear of this film for over half a century. I saw it on initial release long before the name Hitchcock meant anything to me. But once it did I soon realized this film did not easily fit into the classic Hitchcock and the critics on whom I relied had always represented it as shoddy goods. So I came to it with some trepidation and was surprised to find it so engrossing.  

Frederick Stafford (O.S.S. 117: Mission for a Killer, 1965) was excellent with an insouciance reminiscent of Cary Grant and a raised eyebrow to match that star’s wryness. John Vernon, who I mostly knew as an over-the-top villain in pictures such as Fear Is the Key (1972), was surprisingly touching as the Cuban bad-guy who realizes his lover is a traitor. And there is a host of top French talent in Michel Piccoli (Belle de Jour, 1967), Philippe Noiret (Justine, 1969) Dany Robin (The Best House in London, 1969) and Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1967).

As you are possibly aware, three endings were shot for this picture and I can’t tell you which I saw without spoiling the plot. If you want to know, read tomorrow’s Blog.

In any case, this is worth seeing more than just to complete a trawl through the entire Hitchcock oeuvre, a very mature and interesting work.

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.
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