Transformation: Michael Bay and ‘The Birds’

The nightmare begins:

After successfully remaking several 80s slasher films, Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes banner look ready to remake one of the master of suspense’s classic films alongside Peter Guber’s Mandalay Pictures.

Platinum Dunes, Mandalay Pictures and Universal have tapped Dutch filmmaker Diederik Van Rooijen to direct the remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

As a longtime Hitchcock fan, I am so ready to hate this movie. This is the trailer for “The Birds”:

This is the trailer for the next big Michael Bay extravaganza:

The only thing that could make this worse is Michael Bay decides to cast Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in the lead roles for “The Birds.”

The MacGuffin

If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, you’ll understand this cartoon. If not, it’s your loss:

OK. You’ve twisted my arm. Here’s the explanation:

And I can’t wait to see the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren:

All right, here’s a little more “Psycho” history.

As a Hitchcock fan, I can say that of all of his movies, this is the one I wish I could have seen on opening day. To have no idea of what it was about. To be completely thrown when the leading lady is murdered in the first half of the movie. To come to the horrifying realization that “Mother-m-mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.” That would have been one of those delicious movie memories. Instead, I caught snippets of it on television in the early ’60s and it wasn’t until many years later that I saw the whole movie from start to finish.

And I still get a little jittery when taking a shower in an empty house.

“Rear Window” in three minutes

According to Vimeo, this timelapse consists of actual shots taken from the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Rear Window.” And if you know the movie, you see that the sequence of events is correct.

Jimmy Stewart never shows up in the field of vision, because his character never leave the apartment from which the events in the courtyard are viewed, but you do see Raymond Burr and Grace Kelly. You also see the dancer through one window, the composer through another, the “active” newlywed couple, the dog owner and Miss Lonelyhearts. I’ll bet if you look close enough, you’ll see Alfred Hitchcock in the composer’s apartment.

One thing that bothered me about “Rear Window,” but was totally logical in the development of the movie was, the sequence where you thought Miss Lonelyheart was about to commit suicide.

As a viewer … actually as a voyeur … you saw all the lives develop in the courtyard from Jeff Jefferies’s (Stewart’s) perspective, and there were no secrets. But in the part where Miss Lonelyhearts (played by Judith Evelyn) seemed ready to end it all, it was extremely troubling that Jefferies never made an effort to call out to stop her, because he was so obsessed by the mystery developing in Lars Thorwald’s (Burr’s) apartment.

But there’s a distraction and everyone comes out to investigate, except for the disabled Jefferies and the cigarette smoking Thorwald.

Miss Lonelyhearts, though, is alive at the end of the movie, and you’re left with the impression that she’s found romance with another one of the tenants. I thought that was a little forced, but I felt better since it wasn’t another addition to the body count.

Stranger on a train

Cover of "Rope"

Cover of Rope

Farley Granger died Sunday.

I’m guessing that name doesn’t mean too much to people today, but he was a big star in the 1950s, appearing in two Alfred Hitchcock classics.

One was “Rope.” It came out in 1948, with James Stewart as the star,  and was essentially a fictionalized interpretation of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder.

OK, history lesson: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two rich University of Chicago students who killed a 14-year-old boy for no reason other than they wanted to commit the perfect murder. They considered themselves superior beings. Not in a crazy mystical deity way, but kind of a precursor to the Nazi philosophy of the master race. Which is kind of weird because they were both Jewish.

According to Wikipedia:

The two were exceptionally intelligent. Nathan Leopold was a child prodigy who spoke his first words at the age of four months; he reportedly had an intelligence quotient of 210, though this is not directly comparable to scores on modern IQ tests. Leopold had already completed college, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and was attending law school at the University of Chicago. He claimed to have studied 15 languages, was able to speak four, and was an expert ornithologist. Loeb was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan and planned to enter the University of Chicago Law School after taking some postgraduate courses. Leopold planned to transfer to Harvard Law School in September after taking a trip to Europe.

They committed a series of crimes leading up to the murder, just because they could. They were caught because Leopold left his glasses at the scene. Idiot.

Clarence Darrow was their defense attorney. They should have gotten the death penalty, but received life sentences. Loeb was slashed to death in jail by another inmate. Leopold was paroled in 1958 after 33 years in prison, moved to Puerto Rico and died in 1971.

Which brings us back to “Rope.” The play was written in 1929, and Hitchcock decided to do the movie in 1948. It’s likely Farley Granger was the Loeb character (he struck the audience as the more neurotic of the two). John Dall was the other murderer. “Rope” was not a great Hitchcock movie, but the thing that made it memorable was the cinematic experiment Hitchcock tried to pull off. Making the movie seem like it was all done in one shot. An interesting attempt, but the movie falls short.

Now “Strangers on a Train” is a great movie. It has one of the most charming psychopathic killers of all time.

Bruno, played by Robert Walker, hates his father. Farley Granger is Guy, a professional tennis player who’s trying to get out of a bad marriage. Bruno and Guy meet on a train by accident, and Bruno comes up with this crazy idea: to solve both of their problems, they swap murders. Bruno will kill Guy’s wife while Guy kills Bruno’s father. Guy thinks Bruno is joking. He’s not.

Here’s Granger on his experience with Robert Walker.

In both cases, Granger is a star of the movie, but not the big star: Those would be Stewart in “Rope” and Walker in “Strangers on a Train.”

But Granger was one of the few ties remaining to Hitchcock’s glory years. And now he’s gone.

The end, redone

Vertigo” is my second-favorite Hitchcock movie, after “Shadow of a Doubt.” Despite years of watching it multiple times, examining every nuance and  fighting back tears on heartbreaking scenes, I’d never seen the alternate ending.

Until today.

The movie’s synopsis is simple: It’s “Pygmalion,” with murder. Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective who has to leave the force because he discovers, during a rooftop chase, that he’s afraid of heights. His fear leads to the death of another officer.

He’s approached by a former college classmate, Gavin Elster, to follow his wife, Madeleine, who Elster says has been acting oddly and may be considering suicide. Scottie follows Madeleine (Kim Novak) around, and in the course of his private investigation uncovers an elaborate tale of adultery, insanity and suicide. One day, Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay. Scottie rescues her and takes her to his home. He falls in love with her.

They meet again in coming days, and Scottie tries to get Madeleine to tell him everything so he can unravel the puzzle. Eventually they end up at a California mission that seems to be the key to Madeleine’s obsession, but, though they’re both in love by now, she runs into a bell tower, and Scottie, unable to follow her to the top because of his fear of heights, watches as Madeleine’s body falls off the roof.

He has a mental breakdown. After months in an asylum, he returns home and wanders through San Francisco, seeing what appears to be Madeleine at every turn.

One day, he spots a woman who reminds him of Madeleine walking down the street. He follows her to her apartment and knocks on her door. Her name is Judy. She physically resembles Madeleine, but where Madeleine was icy-blonde and elegant, Judy is dark-haired and common. She is taken aback, but he gets her to talk about who she is and where she comes from. She realizes he was deeply in love with Madeleine. Scottie asks Judy to dinner. She accepts.

Then something strange happens. It turns out Judy was Madeleine. She was Elster’s mistress, and he made her up to pretend to be his wife. Judy’s Madeleine didn’t fall from the tower. The real Madeleine, who Scottie never met, did.

Scottie’s Madeleine never existed.

Judy considers going on the run, but is in love, so she stays put and dates Scottie. Then Scottie, totally obsessed, starts making Judy over to look like his Madeleine. Judy tries to resist, but acquiesces to his demands. He buys her clothes. He pays to have her hair redone, all leading to this powerful scene of anguish and desire, one of Jimmy Stewart’s greatest acting moments, as Madeleine rises from the dead:

Then Judy/Madeleine slips up. She puts on a piece of jewelry worn by the real Madeleine. Scottie realizes the truth but doesn’t let Judy know. Using the premise of going to dinner, he takes her back to the mission to get the full story. He drags her to the top of the tower, overcoming his fear of heights. She confesses. But a nun comes up to see what’s going on, and Judy, startled, moves backward and falls from the tower to her death.

The last scene … rather the ending I’ve known all these years … is Scottie standing at the edge of the tower, arms outstretched, looking down.

The studio wanted another ending. They didn’t want one where Elster got away, so Hitchcock filmed the one at the top. Scottie is in the apartment of Midge, a former girlfriend, who is played, in a great acting job, by Barbara Bel Geddes. A radio newsman reports that Elster will be extradicted for murder. Midge makes Scottie a drink, and he stares out the window of her apartment overlooking the city. He no longer has vertigo.

I’m glad they didn’t use the alternate ending. In my viewings of the movie, I’ve always imagined the end was showing Scottie preparing to kill himself by jumping off the tower. Everything in the movie built up to that conclusion. He was driven mad by the death of his first Madeline, mainly because he was unable to save her. He scoured the streets to find a replacement. When he found Judy, he molded and shaped her to his vision of perfection. If he had never found out about her deception, I believe he would have next had her take diction lessons, so she would sound like the original Madeline. And, like Orpheus. after he brought her back from the dead, he really sees her. Then she falls from the same tower just after they profess their love. There’s no way he could have lived after that.

Instead, the alternate ending gives us the typical Hollywood resolution. The hero survives, the bad guy is captured. All is right with the world. That would have wrecked everything.

I’ve known about the alternate ending for years. As a Hitchcock buff, I’ve read books and articles about his directing style and his obsessions. Judy/Madeleine is a representation of Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading ladies, especially Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren. All elegant, icy blondes full of passion. Bergman ran off with an Italian director. Kelly became the Princess of Monacco. Stories are that Hedren spurned his advances, and the relationship there became ugly (look at the attack scene toward the end of  “The Birds.” That devastated Hedren).

Other stories indicate Vera Miles was in line to be one of the Hitchcock beauties. He was grooming her for bigger things after her appearance as Lila Crane in “Psycho,” but she got married and wasn’t available for the movies he had planned for her: “The Birds” and “Marnie.”

It seems in his later movies, he became especially vindictive toward the concept of the icy blonde. Consider the brutal rape/strangulation scene in “Frenzy.” There are some extremely bad vibes in that film.

But “Vertigo” is a love poem: the idea of unattainable beauty and perfection. It is one of the great works in modern cinema.

No doubt. Great movie

Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten from my favorite Hitchcock movie: “Shadow of a Doubt.” A tale of two Charlie’s. One good, one evil. Look at the scene toward the end when the Charlies are on the train. Watch her expressions change just before and after the train starts moving.  This is an impressive emotional display, taking place in less than a minute. Boredom to empathy to confusion to awareness to terror.

The 1943 movie is about an empathic uncle and niece. They are soulmates, but young Charlie Newton (Wright) is the good half of the soul and Uncle Charlie Oakley (Cotten) is the dark side. The premise: Uncle Charlie is an East Coast serial killer of wealthy widows eluding the authorities while hiding out with his sister’s family in California. His namesake niece adores him. Though the cops are on his tail, there are two suspects in the murders, one remaining in the East. And the police aren’t sure who the real murderer is. Uncle Charlie worms his way into the family and into the community; a sophisticated, intellectual easterner on the path to becoming a pillar of the community. Even young Charlie adores him. But her pedestal of adoration is chipped away, because in her desire to know all about him, she discovers things she never imagined about her uncle and her vision of the world.

Thornton Wilder wrote the screenplay, along with Sally Benson and Alfred Hitchcock‘s wife Alma Reville. Wilder had already captured American idealism in “Our Town,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. He was in the Army when he wrote the “Shadow of a Doubt” screenplay. Perhaps this later, darker version of “Our Town” came from the gloom engulfing the world because of World War II. Even in 1943, as horrific as things  were, people didn’t realize how evil the world could turn.

The movie contains another dynamic, which was probably understood in the 1940s, but is more apparent to 21st century sensibilities. Young Charlie is entering womanhood, and she and her uncle share a secret that no one can ever find out about. Her revelations concerning her uncle come when they’re alone, sometimes in her room, behind closed doors. When she confronts him, his response isn’t to lie, but to tell her to keep his secret, because otherwise, it will tear up her family. Though there’s no sex involved, this is about incest.

There are number of great scenes between the two: Cotten’s chilling dinner-table commentary on “silly wives,” a visit to a seedy bar in an idyllic American small town, young Charlie’s threat to kill her uncle and the clip above.

Though the final minute and a half seem to be a letdown, listen closely to the pastor’s eulogy in the background. As far as the world is concerned, Uncle Charlie was a great  human being, a  shining light that was extinguished too soon. Only Charlie, and her detective boyfriend, know the truth. “Our Town” has its secrets, found in shady bars and behind closed doors. Uncle Charlie show us the dark side of “Our Town” an idealized entity, concealing an unimaginable evil.

Hitchcock’s daughter said this was her father’s favorite movie. It’s one of Hitchcock’s treasures that shouldn’t be missed.