Monday, April 09, 2007

Let Me Tell You 'Bout THE BIRDS and THE BEAST

Over the years, many a film buff has pondered the unexplained "why" of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 shocker THE BIRDS. By not giving a concrete explanation for the avian attacks depicted in his and Evan Hunter's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novella, Hitchcock gave his film a philosophic buoyancy that has kept it ever fresh and open to debate and discussion, while countless other screen mysteries have lost their appeal from the moment they were stamped "case closed."

I've always been intrigued by the insistence of some viewers to describe THE BIRDS as Hitchcock's only science fiction film, a point I personally question as the story conveys no scientific basis; indeed, the story is pitched in such a way that one is tempted to respond to the film more as metaphor than as a straightforward narrative. More than a science fiction film, it is an apocalyptic film -- a kind of movie often seen as a sub-genre of science fiction, but which only literally applies when the nature of the apocalypse is scientifically caused, effected, or resolved (Andrew Marton's fine but often overlooked CRACK IN THE WORLD being a good case in point). Rendered without explanation and concluded without closure, THE BIRDS is that rare mainstream production that approximates poetry rather than prose.

A flock of birds attack Paul Birch, low-budget-style, in
THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES.

These thoughts were prompted by my viewing, last Friday night, of THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES (1955) on Turner Classic Movies as part of a three-film tribute to Roger Corman, who celebrated his 81st birthday last week. (Has it already been a year since Video WatchBlog's 80th birthday Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon?) Corman isn't credited onscreen, but he produced and apparently co-directed this picture (scripted by Tom Filer) with David Kramarsky, previously a production assistant and manager on a number of Corman's early Westerns (FIVE GUNS WEST, OKLAHOMA WOMAN, GUNSLINGER). Kramarsky apparently left the Business after producing THE CRY BABY KILLER in 1958. It's easy to see why THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES was Kramarsky's only directorial credit: its principal trait is a preponderance of rough edges, as scenes consistently fail to cut together or to convey any sense of narrative momentum. Even as a die-hard apologist for this sort of thing, I can't quite dodge the fact that it's a crummy picture; after all, this is the movie whose fancifully-named monster turns out to be a tiny, two-eyed Paul Blaisdell creation that lives inside what appears to be a coffee percolator decorated with empty rifle shells and stakes its claim to the title by seeing through the eyes of all the Earth creatures it possesses. But seeing the movie again, for the first time in many years, now preceded by a United Artists logo that must have cost more to produce than the feature itself, I was struck by its many similarities to THE BIRDS and by the idea that it might well be described as "THE BIRDS -- with an explanation."
Paul Birch discovers the gored remains of neighbor Chester Conklin.

Seven years later, Hitchcock directs Rod Taylor in a similar scene.


Like Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in THE BIRDS, the protagonist of THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES is a manly, jut-jawed fellow named Allan Kelley, played by Paul Birch -- whose deep Alabama-bred voice is rich in Biblical cadences, thus making him the perfect Moses for Corman's apocalyptic scenarios. Like Mitch, Allan lives apart from the main crush of civilization with two women -- his daughter Sandra (Dona Cole, presaging Mitch's pre-teen sister played by Veronica Cartwright) and his isolation-frazzled wife Carol (Lorna Thayer, presaging Mitch's brittle mother Lydia played by Jessica Tandy). After the titular alien lands in a desert area neighboring the Kelley's farmhouse, the local animals begin to attack their owners -- the Kelley's dog Duke terrorizes Carol, who is also attacked by her chickens while collecting eggs. (Lorna Thayer was plagued by chickens throughout her screen career, most famously being told by Jack Nicholson to hold one between her knees in FIVE EASY PIECES.) Communication lines are destroyed by hails of kamikaze crows, which also attack Allan's car. Later, in a scene paralleling Lydia's discovery of a neighbor pecked eyeless by a murder of birds, Ben Webber (played by silent film comedian Chester Conklin), a neighbor of the Kelleys, is fatally gored while trying to milk his cow and discovered by Allan in a manner like that of Mitch's discovery of the dead schoolteacher Annie Hayworth, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Nailing the comparison is the bird attack on Sandra near the end, which leaves her in a state of shock-induced catatonia through the last reel. Like Lydia's later relationship with Melanie Daniels ('Tippi' Hedren), Carol's relationship with her daughter is initially adversarial but becomes more caring and maternally protective as the dangers they share deepen.

Dysfunctional couple Lorna Thayer and Paul Birch rally to the support of comatose daughter Dona Cole.

According to a thread on the Classic Horror Films Board, Hitchcock did option -- prior to filming THE BIRDS -- a novella by Fredric Brown called THE MIND THING, which bore certain similarities to THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES. He never produced the film, but it has been known to happen that properties are sometimes optioned to keep them from being produced in conflict with a similar project. I can't imagine that Hitchcock would have seriously directed a film based on THE MIND THING, but it could be that its explanation of its bird attacks paralleled an explanation that Hitchcock may have had in mind for his own project -- one that he eventually (and wisely) opted to do without. This would better explain the often startling parallels between THE BIRDS and THE BEAST better than the other hypothesis... which would be that Hitchcock was somehow lassoed into seeing THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES, thought it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and accepted someone's bet that he could remake it on the sly and produce a legitimately silken purse out of that sow's ear.

One last note: The IMDb credits the voice-over narration of the Beast to one Bruce Whitmore, his only screen credit. It sounds a lot like Les Tremayne (who had extensive voice acting credits) to me.

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