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Moira WalshApril 19, 2013

“There are five billion birds in the continental United States” remarks a Margaret Rutherford-type, fanatic, elderly amateur-ornithologist. (Or perhaps she said eight billion.) She goes on to assert categorically, in spite of a terrifying accumulation of contrary evidence, that birds have such small brain areas that it would be a physical impossibility for them to change their traditional behavior patterns or act in concert on any new undertaking.

The observations occur halfway through the latest of Alfred Hitchcock's long line of film projects dedicated to the proposition that audiences like to be scared out of their wits. By the time they are made, it is abundantly clear that, undersized brains and all, the birds in a coastal area north of San Francisco have taken it into their heads to band together and declare war on the human race. If we have not thought about it before, the picture reminds us by graphic indirection that man is by no means the most numerous species on this planet and that mankind would be in desperate straits if any of the lower forms of life suddenly developed the exclusively human capacity for wanton destruction.

With this unstated moral, the picture may qualify as a tract for our times. Otherwise the sinister doings of our feathered friends are unmotivated, though Hitchcock and/or novelist Daphne du Maurier and/or scenarist Evan Hunter keep scattering around hints of rational explanations to come. There is, for example, the arrival on the scene of a spoiled and willful socialite ("Tippi" Hedren, the latest of Hitchcock's cool and refined blonde discoveries). Is she, knowingly or unknowingly, a magnet for birddom's antipathy? Or are the two caged lovebirds she has brought along agents provocateurs? Or is there something preternatural about the queerness of her lawyer-host (Rod Taylor), his possessive mother (Jessica Tandy) and his seemingly unvindictive ex-fiancée (Susanne Pleshette)?

The picture pursues these false clues with excessive long-windedness and occasional fatuity. It is a tribute to Hitchcock's mastery of his craft that, even so, he makes overpoweringly real the menace of the birds, whether they are visibly present in overwhelming numbers by means of all sorts of skillfully employed camera trickery or are laying almost invisible siege to a house inside which the camera and most of the principals are barricaded. [Legion of Deceny A-II]

Five Miles to Midnight

Anthony Perkins has made a career, apparently by choice, out of playing callow youths whose boyish charm masks some form of sinister character traits. In this suspense melodrama he gives a frighteningly apt rendition of vicious irresponsibility and infantilism under a veneer of winsome, little-boy appeal. It takes more than a characterization, however, to keep a suspense movie going for nearly two hours. Despite the shock of recognition that Perkins' performance communicates, the plot does not work. It concerns the young man's efforts to cajole and browbeat his disenchanted and essentially decent wife (Sophia Loren) into collecting his enormous flight insurance following a plane crash that, fortuitously and undetected, he survived. The story is not only full of holes; it is also replete with coincidental narrative embellishments stitched on as an afterthought to keep the holes from showing too much. [L of D A-III]

Bye Bye Birdie

Whenever the deleterious effects of movies become the topic of conversation, an inordinate amount of emphasis is placed on the "gamy" European imports. As far as I am concerned, the potentially most dangerous films are made almost exclusively in Hollywood. They are the ones skillfully tailored to appeal to teenagers and giving tacit, uncritical approval to contemporary teen-age mores. Incidentally, the baleful effects of these films are frequently unrecognized by the "better-films-council" type of movie previewer as well as by legislators flourishing bills demanding mandatory film classification. I am dubious about classification on a quasi-governmental basis or by the film industry itself, precisely because this kind of film is all too likely to get a clean bill of health for youthful audiences—thus glossing over a bad situation with a couple more layers of respectability and giving the public a quite unjustified sense of security.

I am sorry to pick on Bye Bye Birdie as the occasion for making this observation, because it is neither a particularly clear-cut or flagrant example of the genre. It is based on a reportedly rather rowdy Broadway musical which satirized swooning teenagers and their swivel-hipped, no-talent singing idols. Generally speaking, the movie version has been cleaned up and, though it is spotty in both pace and execution, it is often both skillfully done and funny.

If it has been cleaned up according to the letter of the law, it has also been romanticized and its satire blunted—which makes it more likely to be swallowed whole by an uncritical audience. Also it is now on the screen, where a bad camera angle can belie a professed good intention. For example, the movie is supposed to be satirizing the Elvis Presley "below-the-belt" school of vocalizing, but it hedges its bets somewhat by photographing the gyrations of Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) in a deliberately suggestive fashion. Again, the 16-year- old small-town heroine is played by Ann Margret, an extremely knowing little actress of 20 plus, as far as her performance goes. Once more the story tells us one thing while the camera says something entirely different.

Until a substantial number of opinion-makers have seriously applied themselves to a course in "film techniques, their use and abuse," they are likely to be outmaneuvered every time in any showdown with Hollywood over movie morals.[L of D; A-III]

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