Film Noir File: Have a Happy, Haunting Halloween with Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

The Birds” (1963, Alfred Hitchcock). Saturday, Oct. 25. 5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.)

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

A smug, snobbish, stylishly beautiful, and very, very blonde San Francisco socialite named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) chases a cocky lawyer she’s just met named Mitch (Rod Taylor), to his family home in scenic Bodega Bay, to mock him with a gift of love birds in a cage. Once they’ve reconnected, Mitch and Melanie commence on what first seems a typical Hollywood movie romance, with typical Hitchcockian mother problems (Jessica Tandy). And there’s another woman – Mitch’s old flame, a gorgeous brunette schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette).

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Suddenly, inexplicably, the uncaged wild birds of Bodega Bay – crows, sparrows, sea gulls – start massing into murderous flocks or going on solitary raids, attacking Melanie and everyone else. As the attacks escalate in fury, their hapless human targets become immersed in an avian nightmare from the sky where no one is safe.

Perhaps most terrifying is the famous scene when Melanie sits on a bench outside the school to pick up Mitch’s kids, while, in the schoolroom, the children chant a doggerel nursery rhyme and behind Melanie masses of crows gather and perch, waiting quietly on the schoolyard jungle gym. Chaos ensues, with typical Hitchcockian invention and panache.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Back in 1963, critics, especially the more intellectual ones, generally attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it and that is the verdict that has lasted. The source of Evan Hunter’s screenplay was a novelette by Daphne du Maurier (“Rebecca”). The crisp and crystalline color cinematography is by Hitch regular Robert Burks and the menacing, shrieking bird sounds were created by Hitch’s masterly composer, Bernard Herrmann. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, Oct. 25: Horror Day

Sweeney Todd poster 19822 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1982, Terry Hughes & Harold Price). A film of the celebrated Harold Prince Broadway staging of Stephen Sondheim’s very dark musical play about the notorious killer-barber Sweeney Todd. With Angela Lansbury and George Hearn from the original stage cast.

4:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.): “Mad Love” (1935, Karl Freund). The most stylish film version of novelist Maurice Renard’s eerie horror tale “The Hands of Orlac,” in which a murderer’s hands are grafted onto the wrists of a famed concert pianist and amputee (Colin Clive) by a mad doctor (Peter Lorre), with an unspeakable yen for the pianist’s wife (Frances Drake). This one has a brilliantly maniacal performance by Lorre, and it’s a masterpiece of noir photography by German expressionist cameraman-turned-Hollywood-director Freund and his great cinematographer Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane“). With Sara Haden and Edward Brophy.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Haunting” (1963, Robert Wise). With Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. The second great American horror movie of 1963. (See “The Birds” above.)

Sunday, Oct. 26

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): In a Lonely Place(1950, Nicholas Ray). With Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame and Frank Lovejoy.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941, Victor Fleming). The often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson thriller about the good doctor whose potion turns him into a bad man. Spencer Tracys Jekyll-Hyde is much more realistically and psychologically played than the classic hammery of predecessors John Barrymore and the Oscar-winning Fredric March. Tracy does him with less extreme makeup, as a brilliant, sensitive but tormented Victorian Britisher beset with repressions and secret desires that explode into evil with the creation of Hyde. Fleming directed this movie near his “Gone with the Wind”-“Wizard of Oz” heyday and, though it’s a bit slow in the beginning, the last 30 minutes are a noir triumph. The excellent supporting cast includes Ingrid Bergman (as Hyde’s terrorized sex victim Ivy), Lana Turner, Donald Crisp and C. Aubrey Smith. (Off-screen, Bergman reportedly had affairs with Fleming and Tracy.)

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot). With Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel and Vera Clouzot.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Gaslight” (1944, George Cukor). With Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty and Angela Lansbury. Reviewed in FNB on August 26, 2012.

Monday, Oct. 27: Jack Carson Day

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Eve Arden.

Tuesday, Oct. 28

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Nosferatu” (1922, F. W. Murnau). Regarded by many critics as one of the greatest German films – and one of the greatest horror movies – of all time: F. W. Murnau’s hypnotic, brilliantly visual, unacknowledged adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic “Dracula.” Murnau’s Nosferatu, the mysterious Max Schreck, is one of the eeriest, creepiest, most frightening horror film monsters ever. He really looks as if he’d just crawled up out of a grave to kill you and drink your blood. And if you want a quick one-stop lesson in German film expressionism, here is a consummate example. (German silent, with intertitles and music score.)

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The Noir File: Early Germanic examples, a wicked Western and noir through New Wave eyes

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK

Breathless” (1960, Jean-Luc Godard). Thursday, Nov. 8, 6 p.m. (5 p.m.)

A guy named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, sings of a girl named Patricia (Jean Seberg), finds a gun and in the process reinvents film noir à la the New Wave.

That’s “Breathless,” the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 “Citizen Kane” – another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s – changed the ways we look at film. It changed also the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about them, and perhaps a bit the ways we look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us all believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies, you could grab a camera, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could make a movie not according to industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940, Boris Ingster). Saturday, Nov. 3, 7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.)

Elisha Cook Jr. plays a hapless patsy accused of murder in “Stranger.”

In this knockout of a B-movie, a breezy newspaper reporter (John McGuire) and his plucky lady friend (Margaret Tallichet, later Mrs. William Wyler) descend into a mad, bad dream. The reporter testifies against a hapless patsy accused of murder (Elisha Cook Jr.), sees him convicted and then finds himself facing a murder charge of his own. Meanwhile, the real murderer may just be that strange little man with a long scarf (Peter Lorre) who prowls around the streets, looking sad and mad and dangerous, as only Peter Lorre can.

Directed by Latvian émigré Boris Ingster, “Stranger” is often cited as the first film noir. And indeed, it has a lot of the elements, all suddenly jelling: the dark city streets, the pathological characters, the wise-cracking reporters, the tough cops and the sense of impending doom. It has Nicholas Musuraca cinematography, Roy Webb music and, as a bonus, art direction by Van Nest Polglase (“Citizen Kane”). Most of all, it has one of the screen’s truly memorable nightmare sequences: an eerie delve into crime and punishment, full of wild angles, dark shadows and insane persecutions.

Sunday, Nov. 4

12 a.m. (9 p.m.) “Pandora’s Box” (1929, G. W. Pabst). One of the great German silent films and one of the great precursors of film noir: G. W. Pabst’s somber, relentless tale of the playgirl-turned-prostitute Lulu (the sublime Louise Brooks), whose stunning, black-banged beauty helps make her one of the most appealing and tragic of femme fatales. (Silent, with music and intertitles.)

Thursday, Nov. 8

The three treasure hunters strike gold, but they also hit a vein of darkness.

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.) “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948, John Huston).

Based on the classic novel by the mysterious B. Traven, a lacerating portrayal of greed, the movie is a classic as well. “Treasure” is perhaps the finest work by writer-director (and here, for the first time, actor), John Huston. It’s one of the great westerns, a supreme western noir, one of the best literary adaptations and one of the great Humphrey Bogart pictures.

Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs, a down and out American in 1925 in Tampico, Mexico, who hooks up with two other Yanks: tough but decent Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and fast-talking, grizzled, expert prospector Howard (John’s father Walter Huston; he won the Oscar). The three treasure hunters strike gold in the Sierra Madre mountains, but they also hit a vein of darkness: the discord and violence that sudden riches can bring.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Sunrise” (1927, F. W. Murnau). Murnau’s first film in Hollywood is a beautiful-looking cinematic ballad of a good wife (Oscar-winner Janet Gaynor), a bad woman (Margaret Livingston), a confused husband torn between them (George O’Brien) and the screen’s most poetic train journey from country to city. Selected in the last Sight and Sound film poll as one of the 10 greatest films of all time. It is. (Silent, with music and intertitles.)

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Ann Savage in ‘Detour’ is the ultimate ‘dame with claws’

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Edgar Ulmer

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work. (Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” from 1934 is a must-see.)

With a screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (he also wrote the source story), you might say “Detour” is Ulmer’s meditation on Fate. As the film’s doomed hero puts it: “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” And later: “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

The doomed hero Al Roberts is memorably played by rugged, slightly boyish Tom Neal. Al plays piano in a New York nightclub; his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. Sue is the most wholesome nightclub singer you can imagine and maybe that’s the rub – they find it hard to make ends meet. She decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood, only to end up slinging hash. (Look out for Esther Howard as a diner waitress; Howard played the haggard Jesse Florian in “Murder My Sweet” from 1944.)

To reunite with Sue, Al heads to California, hitching a ride with smug and chatty Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), whose hands are mysteriously scratched. “There oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” says Haskell.

Ann Savage

When Haskell suddenly dies during Al’s turn at the wheel, Al panics and takes off with the car. Next, Al meets the striking but cheap Vera (Ann Savage), also thumbing rides and in need of a shower. (The hairdresser slathered her hair with cold cream to make it look dirty and stringy.)

Vera happens to know Haskell and she knows a good chance for blackmail when she sees one. She works one angle after another, including a scheme to steal Haskell’s inheritance money.

She. Runs. The. Show. As director Wim Wenders says in Michael Palm’s “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen” documentary: “she’s 30 years ahead of her time … a revolutionary female character.” In the same documentary, actress Savage (who made five films with Neal) says of Vera: “She’s mean to the extent that she wants to be boss. She’s a real b-i-t-c-h.”

True, Vera is not the most complex character – she’s short on nuance and dimension. But then, Vera herself would sneer at the mention of nuance and complexity, and snipe something like, “Do I look like a dictionary to you?” And as a ruthless, conniving, raw femme fatale, Savage’s Vera is hard to match.

Ulmer amazes with his deft and daring handling of the material. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to unleash his imagination and talent on higher-level projects. Though he worked with directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder, he was never part of the Hollywood elite.

Ulmer has said he would’ve been unhappy with the constraints of mainstream, commercial productions, but it’s likely he still craved the recognition and respect that A-list status confers. Also, Ulmer was ostracized from the in-crowd when he fell in love with the wife of an independent producer. She left her husband, Max Alexander, the nephew of Universal president Carl Laemmle.

Barbara Payton

Still, it seems Ulmer fared a bit better than his leading man Tom Neal (1914-1972) whose off-screen life would be good fodder for a noir. Neal was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Ill., and attended Northwestern University and Harvard Law.

In 1951, he attacked fellow actor Franchot Tone in a jealous fit over actress Barbara Payton, inflicting broken bones and a concussion, and damaging his own reputation to the point of ending his career. In 1965, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his third wife; he was paroled after serving six years of a 10-year sentence.

“Detour” was remade in 1992, starring Tom Neal Jr.

The original is recognized as corner stone of the noir genre. Filmmaker Errol Morris counts it as a favorite film, noting that: “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.”

Ann Savage photo from AP/Ann Savage Archive

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