Book Review: The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds
By the time production began on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds began, the heat was on for America’s most famous auteur. The Birds was Hitch’s follow-up to the immensely controversial Psycho, a dramatic departure from the Master, crossing the border from suspense to outright horror. Critics might have hesitated for a minute, but the public loved it. Lines stretched around the blocks and Hitchcock personally reaped about $15 million dollars from the film. How do you follow up?
As Tony Lee Moral demonstrates in his excellent and exhaustive The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, you follow up with a great deal of consideration, calculation, and hard work from a team of the finest talents available. Featuring new new interviews with cast members Veronica Cartwright, Rod Taylor, and Tippi Hedren, as well as sketches, storyboards, and a litany of technical details from Robert Boyle, Albert Whitlock, and Harold Michelson, this book looks at every angle of the making of The Birds. From the faint idea glimmer of adapting a short story from Daphne du Maurier to Hitch’s own marketing ploys post launch, I can think of no other book that provides such a complete picture of the effort involved in making a film.
For hardcore Hitchcock fans (#Hitchkooks, of which I count myself one), The Birds is a bit of a head scratcher. It is wildly different from Hitch’s golden age output, as is Psycho, but The Birds lacks the potency of Psycho and the immaculately creepy performance of Anthony Perkins. And yet… The Birds stands the test of time, only gaining in critical acceptance over the years. A point which may be lost of the contemporary viewer is the utter groundbreaking technical achievements of the movie. Those birds may look a bit fakey in these days of CGI, but the production hurdles were massive in 1963. If on no other level, the lovingly detailed The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds demands a reassessment of The Birds on sheer innovation.
It being 2013, it would be impossible to write a book about The Birds and ignore Tippi Hedren’s startling accusations about Hitchcock delivered in Daniel Spoto’s The Dark Side of a Genius (1983) and Spellbound by Beauty (2008). Moral neither ignores nor denies those accusations, but instead includes information provided by those working on the production. To a man (or woman) they agree – Alfred Hitchcock was a driven, perfectionist and a born manipulator but he was no monster. The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds goes a very long way in providing details which are factual and accurate, but open to interpretation depending what your role was. The handling of the topic is respectful to all, including Hedren and Hitchcock.
It’s some times easy for the contemporary viewer to lose sight of an important Hitch fact – the Master was an innovator. Wait? Is that true? Alfred Hitchcock’s films are “classics” today but he was often running along the cutting edge of technology and technique when making his films. He embraced synchronized sound mid-way through filming Blackmail, widely considered to be the first British sound film. He not only gave Technicolor a whirl in Rope, he created the illusion of one continuous take out of 10 long segments. He played around with 3D in Dial M for Murder. The list goes on and it includes The Birds, itself a technical marvel of the time. To note that Hitchcock was an innovative filmmaker is, however, only point one in the outline of career. The equally important sub-point is that he deploy these tricks and techniques in the service of the narrative – always.
But that’s not the important part about either The Birds or The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Through the careful accumulation of detail, Tony Lee Moral manages to paint a portrait of a genius at work and gives lie to the “genius” part. Alfred Hitchcock was not a man who worked in a fever of creativity. His was a calculated and careful cinematic intelligence who backed up his inspiration with a dedication to the craft of filmmaking that has never been paralleled. If you like The Birds or Alfred Hitchcock in general, then The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is for you.
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