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.  

Nevada Smith (1966) ****

Half breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen) has little truck with the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold. But he’s too young and raw, far from Lee Marvin’s callous killer in Point Blank (1969), to properly avenge the slaughter of his family by three outlaws.

This is a coming-of-age tale with a distinct difference. Max’s development includes, apart from initiation into sex of course, learning to read and write so he can make sense of signposts in order to track down the murderers and receiving tuition from gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) so that he can at least loose off some shots without doing himself damage. Vengeance burns so deep that he even stages a bumbled robbery so he can be sent to the prison where the second of his targets is incarcerated. Now that’s dedication for you. And along the way he learns the most important lesson of all, how to live, and not destroy himself through vengeance.

Even so, all Cord’s tuition counts for nought when Max needs a knife to dispatch his first victim Coe (Martin Landau). And he’s not yet so slick with a weapon to avoid serious injury himself. Kiowa saloon girl Neesa (Janet Margolin) nurses him back to health at her tribe’s camp. They become lovers but he rejects the wisdom of the elders and the opportunity to make a life with her.

Unfortunately, Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy)  is a jailbird. And worse, held prisoner in a swamp. Probably the worst bank robbery ever committed sends Nevada there. Max enrols another woman, Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) working in nearby rice fields – fraternisation between the jailbirds and these women permitted – to steal a boat to help him and Bowdre escape. Bowdre gets his and this time it’s Pilar who is the collateral damage.

A genuine outlaw now, Max has no trouble joining a band of robbers headed by Fitch (Karl Malden), the final prey. By now calling himself Nevada Smith, Max’s plans are thrown into confusion when it becomes apparent Fitch is aware of his true identity. A surprise ending is on the cards whichever way you cut it, and especially thrilling since it occurs during a well-planned gold bullion robbery.

It’s a film of two parts but divided into three if you like, the unusual swamp setting fitting in between two sections of more straightforward western. Though in the hands of director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969), there is little that’s so straightforward given his mastery of the widescreen and his hallmark extreme long shot. He’s capable of moving from the extreme violence of the vicious murder and rape of Max’s mother to the son’s discovery of the bodies shown just through Max’s physical reaction. And there’s some irony at play, too: gold triggers slaughter and climax; mental dereliction not as feared as its physical counterpart.

Although Hathaway was a true veteran, he was not best known for westerns in the manner of John Ford, more at home with film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947), war (The Desert Fox, 1951) and big-budget pictures like Niagara (1954) with Marilyn Monroe and Legend of the Lost (1957) teaming John Wayne and Sophia Loren. In a 30-year career he had only made three westerns of note – The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954). So it was something of a surprise that in the 1960s over half his output was in the western genre. And unlike Ford and Howard Hawks who stuck to the formula of action within a defined community, Hathaway tended towards films of adventure, where the main character, often of a somewhat shady disposition, wandered far and wide.

Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) carries the picture with some aplomb, moving deftly from the wet-behind-the-ears youngster to a clever and calculated killer and still retaining enough humanity to enjoy a romantic dalliance. There’s enough action here to satisfy McQueen’s fans spoiled by The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) and for those who had come to appreciate his acting plenty to enjoy. This and The Cincinnati Kid, where perforce as a poker player, he had to do a great deal of brooding, solidified his screen persona, a star you can’t keep your eyes off, wondering what on earth is going on in his mind. As much as he’s playing a character finding his feet, this is McQueen at very nearly the top of his game.

Brian Keith (The Rare Breed, 1966) is the pick of the support, adding a little softness to his usual more hard-nosed screen characters. The villains – Karl Malden (The Cincinnati Kid), Martin Landau (The Hallelujah Trail, 1965) and Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) – are all good in their own different ways, and in the hands of excellent actors, easily differentiated. Suzanne Pleshette (Fate is the Hunter, 1964) shines in a too-brief role.

The sterling supporting cast includes Janet Margolin (Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1965), Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968) and Raf Vallone (The Secret Invasion, 1964). John Michael Hayes (Harlow, 1965) fashioned the screenplay from The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins. 

Although Hollywood had been prone to sequels – Father’s Little Dividend (1951) following Father of the Bride (1950), Return to Peyton Place (1961), Return of the Seven (1966) etc – there had been no perceived market for prequels, so this was something of a first, Alan Ladd having essayed an older and considerably more sophisticated Nevada Smith in the 1964 film of Harold Robbins bestseller. 

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1968) ***

The combined tourist boards of Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy must have funded this film. Although Belgium and Switzerland may have been justified in asking for their money back since all we glimpse of either country is cheese. Nor does it particularly show the American tourist in a good light. In fact, the occupants of the tour bus seem drawn from the worst clichés of the American personality – characters who demand hamburgers wherever they go, think there sex available everywhere, steal everything in sight, and demand more than their money’s worth. These are characters who are not difficult to send up. And ever the democrat, director Mel Stuart pokes fun at every country.

So it’s something of a surprise to find the movie is perfectly palatable, a smorgasbord of  conflicting attitudes, on an 18-day bus tour of Europe rattling through a host of comedic situations, held together by burgeoning romance between playboy tour guide Charlie (Ian McShane) and soon-to-be-married Samantha (Suzanne Pleshette) by way of running gags revolving around Harve (Norman Fell) chasing wife Irma (Reva Rose) who jumped on a rival tour bus, kleptomaniac Harry (Aubrey Morris), and more guest stars in blink-and-you-miss-it roles than were cast in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Like films nowadays (Marry Me, 2022, for one) that seem to think an audience needs to kept constantly apprised of social media, this goes overboard on technology, in this case, the camera, in one instance legitimately comedic, but the rest of the time just to cram in much of what would more sensibly be left alone.

Luckily, the two central romances work. Charlie, initially rebuffed at every turn by Samantha, who has a nice line in one-liners (“I am about to turn into an Ugly American before your very eyes”), eventually believes it is time to part company with his playboy ways and settle down, while Samantha, about to settle down back home, discovers she has not yet sown enough wild oats. The ever-amorous Shelley (Hilarie Thompson), taken on holiday to prevent her giving in to lust at home, conducts a country-by-country romance with a young swain on a motorbike ending up – serve ‘em right – in a cellar listening to a dirge by pop star Donovan.

Some of the jokes hit an interesting target. German and American tourist at a shrine to the Battle of the Bulge, in the same loud, hectoring tones, deliver a story of victory, the kleptomaniac even steals a lifebelt, an Italian fed up with patronizing tourists reports one to the cops, Harve embarking on a daddy dance in a glamorous nightclub, an authentic shoemaker (Vittorio De Sica) sells a tourist an authentic shoe that he buys out of a catalogue, the mismatch of languages sets up endless permutations. However, it’s a bit of a stretch in the late 1960s to find a bidet in a London hotel.

Still, if you fed up trying to keep up with the countless plotlines or are trying to work out which country is which, you can always keep yourself entertained spotting the cameos. It’s some list: Senta Berger (Istanbul Express, 1968), Yutte Stensgaard (Some Girls Do, 1969), Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960), Catherine Spaak (Hotel, 1965), Carol Cleveland (Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series), Joan Collins (Subterfuge, 1968), Elsa Martinelli (Maroc 7, 1967), Virna Lisi (The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969) and Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances television series) And that’s just the women. There are also glimpses of Robert Vaughn (The Venetian Affair, 1966), Ben Gazzara (Bridge at Remagen, 1969) and John Cassavettes (Machine Gun McCain, 1969).

While all eyes are likely to focus on Ian McShane wondering how this fresh-faced lad turned into the gravel-voiced spittoon-soaked stylish icon of John Wick (2014), it is worth taking a look at the performance of Suzanne Pleshette (The Power, 1968) who was rarely given the opportunity to essay such a rounded character. Supporting players include Murray Hamilton (Jaws, 1965), Mildred Natwick (The Maltese Bippy, 1969) and the generally choleric Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967) turning positively volcanic.

A documentary film-maker up to this point, Mel Stuart (I Love My Wife, 1970) generally keeps the audience on-side with a non-stop barrage of ideas. David Shaw (A Foreign Affair, 1948) devised the screenplay.

Fate Is the Hunter (1964) ***

More like Flight from Ashiya (1964) than Flight of the Phoenix (1965) in that airline disaster triggers flashback rather than contemporaneously finding a solution to the problem, but similar in tone to the more recent Flight (2012) and Sully (2016) where the automatic response of the authorities was to blame pilot error rather than ascertain mechanical malfunction. Unlike the two modern pictures, pilot Jack Savage (Rod Taylor) cannot be interrogated in court because he died in the explosion. So investigator Sam McBane (Glenn Ford) seeks some corresponding incident in the past which might account for the pilot making such a mistake.

Other options face McBane. Sabotage could be the cause since  a passenger took out a $500,000 insurance policy days before boarding the twin-engine plane. Bird strike cannot be ruled out after feathers are found in the engine. Or it could be simple misfortune. Three inbound planes all running late prevent the plane returning immediately to Los Angeles and it would have landed safely on a beach except for hitting a temporary structure. But engineers hardly need to pore over the evidence. The fault is staring them in the face. Savage had reported two engines catching fire but the wreckage reveals one engine intact.

However, the only survivor, stewardess Martha Webster (Suzanne Webster) maintains that two red warning lights were flashing, indicating malfunction in both engines. But since she is badly injured and in a woozy state, this is not taken as gospel. So McBane dips into the playboy past of Savage, a buddy, a man with such appeal he can serenade real-life figures as Jane Russell (playing herself). Two occasions highlight the man’s heroic history of  emergency landings. So can he be the unreliable character painted by a jilted fiancée (Dorothy Malone) or the drinker who should not have been in a bar so soon before take-off.?

The tight-lipped shoulder-hunched humorless soulless McBane, described as “one of the best-built machines” known to man, finds himself questioning his own attitudes as he uncovers more of his friend’s life. But when it comes to the big enquiry, televised, he has no better an explanation to ascribe the unexpected collision of different events  than the “fate” of the title. Naturally, that mystical prognosis hardly goes down well with his superiors. Luckily, McBane comes to his senses and suggests a simulation which does, in fact, pinpoint the flaw.

It’s relatively easy to pinpoint the flaw in the picture. Audiences expecting a disaster movie with characters stranded by a crash were disappointed to find that by cinematic sleight-of –hand they were being presented with The Jack Savage Story, which with the larger-than-life character and his various aviation and romantic adventures would easily have made a picture in tis own right. Stuck instead with the glum McBane as their guide, who, beyond his steadfastness, does not come into his own until the last 15 minutes seemed an unfair trick. The explosion of the doomed plane at the 10-minute mark is easily the dramatic highlight and the continued flashbacks rather than adding to the tension often eased it.

With four stars above the title, audiences might have anticipated some kind of four-sided triangle, but the two female stars scarcely appear although Martha has one excellent scene, shocked when asked to don her uniform again, and Sally (Nancy Kwan) enjoys a fishing meet-cute with Savage.

That said, if you accept as McBane as more of a private eye, his surly demeanor fits, and the Savage life story is certainly a fascinating one and the various aviation episodes unusual enough to maintain interest. Glenn Ford (Is Paris Burning?, 1965), his box office sheen waning and about to shift exclusively to westerns, is always watchable but there’s no real depth to the character. Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) is at his most exuberant and that’s no bad thing, and beneath the bonhomie a good guy at heart, but his portrayal provides little of the shade that would make it thinkable he was to blame. Suzanne Pleshette (The Power, 1968) and Nancy Kwan (Tamahine, 1963) are both under-used. Look out for Mark Stevens (Escape from Hell Island, 1963), Jane Russell (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953) in her first movie in seven years, and Dorothy Malone (The Last Sunset, 1961).

Ralph Nelson (Once a Thief, 1965) sticks to the knitting but four scenes stand out: the explosion, Martha’s breakdown at the sight of her uniform, the stewardess during the simulation staring down the plane at the empty seats filled with sacks of sand, and an excellent composition (which Steven Spielberg pays homage to in West Side Story) of a character being preceded into a scene by his very long shadow. Also worth pointing out is that, in almost James Bond style,  the opening sequence lasts ten minutes before there is any sign of the credits.

Harold Medford (The Cape Town Affair, 1967) wrote the screenplay based very loosely on the eponymous bestselling memoir by Ernest K. Gann, whose The High and the Mighty had been turned into a hit picture a decade before. The author was so furious with how much the adaptation veered from his biography – which often pointed out the dangers of flying, recurrent pilot death and airplane unworthiness a main theme – that he took his name off the credits, missing out on an ancillary goldmine as the movie, a box office flop, proved a television staple.

The Power (1968) ***

Low budget sci-fi effort that had little chance in the box office stakes that year up against the big budget psychedelic 2001: A Space Odyssey and the visceral Planet of the Apes. Producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin, the key figures behind War of the Worlds (1953), would later become among the most exalted in the sci-fi genre, but the cult of the 1950s sci-fi movies did not exist yet. Yet if made today, we would be treating this as an origin story with a sequel already in the works and creation of its own universe on the cards.

As the budget can only accommodate a few explosions and a derisory number of tiny special effects, emphasis is placed on imagination as the source of tension. The uncanny remaining unexplained helps ensure mystery remains character-driven. Wisely, the film makers steer clear of providing any detail on the strange force.

It begins with the neat title “Tomorrow.” As part of a planned space program, a team of scientists  experimenting on the limits of human endurance discover that one of them has unusual powers. As a group they are able to make revolve a piece of paper attached to a vertical pencil without establishing who is the driving force. When Professor Hallson (Arthur O’Connell) is found dead in a centrifuge, the only clue being a scrap of paper with the name Adam Hart, suspicion falls on the other members. Professor Tanner (George Hamilton) is dismissed when the investigation discovers his credentials are fraudulent.   

Seeking to prove his innocence, Tanner goes on the run before establishing that the main suspects are the mysterious Adam Hart and three of the original team – military chief Nordlund (Michael Rennie), Professor Scott (Earl Holliman) and Tanner’s girlfriend Professor Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette). But he is mostly baffled by the goings-on which include being dumped in an air force target range. He could be the culprit but again so many odd occurrences take place when others are present that it would be hard to pin the blame on Tanner. As the corpses begin to pile up, the list of potential suspects naturally decreases.

A toy winks at Tanner, walls appear were there were none before, a man is convinced Tanner is someone else (not Hart), a high-flying professor’s wife lives in a trailer, characters collapse under psychic assault, a young woman trying to seduce an old man discovers she is kissing a corpse, the imagery appears inspired by Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch,  and you could easily argue that Tanner’s academic records have been deliberately erased. On the more prosaic side, the cops are next to useless, there’s a car chase and a sequence in a lift shaft, but the bulging eyeballs suggested in the posters are a marketeer’s invention. There’s even a clever joke, Tanner  misreading a newspaper headline “Don’t Run” as being a message to him.

The oddities are sufficiently off-beam to appear as figments of the imagination and it certainly seems Tanner suffers from hallucinations.  And there are some deliciously off-key characters, an old woman obsessed with fly-swatting, a sultry waitress. If Hart is the superhuman then experiments may have taken place long before now. In his hometown, people still act on instructions Hart handed out a decade before and accomplices are in place such as Professor Van Zandt (Richard Carlson).

Adding to the mood are philosophic discussions about the existence (as already a fait accompli) of a superhuman: some want to clone him, others would happily submit to him.

Byron Haskin (also Conquest of Space, 1955) and George Pal (also The Time Machine, 1960) have marshalled their puny resources with exceptional skill, down to hiring as leading man George Hamilton (Your Cheatin’ Heart, 1964), so far from being a big star at the time that audiences would not automatically assume he had to be the good guy, and peopling the production with names from 1950s sci-fi like Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) and Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954).

George Hamilton, in the days before the perma-tan became his calling card, is surprisingly good and the supporting cast does what a good supporting cast should do. Susanne Pleshette (Nevada Smith, 1966) convinces as the lover who could be the cool killer. Also look out for 1940s glamour puss Yvonne De Carlo and a staple of The Munsters television series (1964-1966), Aldo Ray (Johnny Nobody, 1960) and Miko Taka (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966).

Perhaps the biggest coup was the recruitment of triple Oscar-winner Miklos Rosza (Ben-Hur, 1959) who provided a memorable score.

In most sci-fi films, the danger is readily identified. Here, you might hazard a guess but whenever you come close some clever sleight-of-hand misdirects. For most of the time I was happily intrigued, enough coming out of left field to provide distraction. This is a masterclass is how extract the most from very little.

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