The Birds: as told by du Maurier and Hitchcock

book image

Photo Credit: "The Woman in the Woods"

Du Maurier

Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds is a chilling short story.  Her writing is very atmospheric.  She uses the environment to her advantage to heighten the mood and suspense in her stories.  In The Birds, the air, the wind, the soil, the sea, the hues in the sky, and the tides all work together incite the senses.  Most haunting of all, man is forced to concentrate all his efforts on just survival after masses of birds mysteriously start to attack.

We follow the family of Nat Hocken as they witness the first hint of bird misbehavior and then as they collect supplies and batten down the hatches to ward off the attacks.  What makes stories like this one so fascinating is the concept of man being reduced to the bare essentials of survival, when suddenly all other pursuits in life are irrelevant and man must merely survive.  I thought it was interesting that in the midst of this Mrs. Hocken reminds her son to mind his manners while they’re eating a meal.  Elements like this always really pop out at me in survival tales.  I mean they’ve boarded up their windows, destroyed their furniture to reinforce the doors, collected corpses of birds that died trying to peck their way inside, hoarded supplies of food and lumber, and huddled together in anticipation of the inevitable tapping at their windows; yet, it’s still important to mind your manners at the supper table.  In situations of primal existence, the most basic signs of humanity are illuminated.  Nat Hocken, in one moment, is reassured by the ordinary sight of neatly stacked cups and saucers and the whistle of the tea kettle.  These are such simple, basic things that at any other time are probably taken for granted, if noticed at all.  Yet, the plight of survival makes them jump to the foreground and they are suddenly appreciated and provide comforting reminders of one’s humanity.

I’ve read a number of du Maurier’s novels but this is the first short story that I’ve read by her.  It’s one story in a little volume of short stories called Don’t Look Now that I picked up a few months ago at a used bookstore in DC.  The Birds was an eerie, compelling story and I look forward to reading more stories in this collection.


movie poster

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I start to talk about Hitchcock’s film adaptations of specific books.  Time and again, his films are completely different from the books they’re based on.  I recently came across a snippet from the book Hitchcock/Truffaut: a definitive study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut that explains why.

“What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.  Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds.  I read it only once and very quickly at that.”

The “basic idea” is pretty much the only similarity between Hitchcock’s film and du Maurier’s story.  The concept of birds mysteriously attacking humans and the plight of humans to survive is the only thing they have in common.

Melanie Daniels, a young and attractive blonde (of course!), is captivated by a man who enters a pet shop while she is there buying birds.  The man is looking for love birds for his young sister for her birthday but the shop does not have them.  Melanie gets it in her head that she’s going to order the birds and deliver them herself to where the man lives.  She takes down the man’s license number and begins tracking his path, eventually landing herself in Bodega Bay, a small fishing community in California.  (It’s all a bit creepy if you ask me, and if I were the guy I would have been a bit flipped out, but whatever.) The first bird attack occurs when she is on a boat after secretly entering the man’s house and leaving the love birds on a table with a note.  A gull swoops down and scratches her forehead, so when she greets the man for the first time she has blood streaming down her face.

movie image

There’s an interesting contrast from the beginning of the film to the end.  In the beginning, of course, it’s the birds that are in cages, but by the end it’s the humans who become caged in, as they are forced to stay confined in their houses.  In the opening pet shop scene, a bird escapes from the cage and particular attention is paid to the hands of the humans as they reach and grab at the bird.  Finally, when the bird settles on a counter, the man puts his hat on top of it and returns it to its cage.  This conveys a sense of complete domination of man over bird.  Contrast that with a scene towards the end of the film when Melanie runs into a telephone booth to escape a bird attack and in her panicked state, she’s flailing around, banging against the walls of the booth.  We view this scene from above, which powerfully expresses her confinement and that she’s being forced to exist in a space that’s much too small for her to carry on normally, and to move as she should be able to move.

I think this film is the scariest of Hitchcock’s movies, it’s certainly the goriest.  There are several brutal and bloody attacks.  Whenever I see it, it takes me a few days to get over being freaked out by normal bird sounds or the sight of large clusters of birds.  After this viewing, my usual eeriness was heightened when I turned on CNN the next morning to discover that birds have been inexplicably falling out of the sky in Arkansas!

Dinner and a Movie: A Welcome to Autumn

I came to Hitchcock a little later than some, seeing my first film somewhere around 2002, when I was about 22 years dvd imageold.  That first film wasn’t the famed Psycho or Vertigo or Rear Window, it was The Trouble with Harry.  This film holds a special place in my heart as it launched my interest in Hitchcock and very soon after viewing it I went on to watch the aforementioned films and then some.  As regular readers of my blog know, I am endeavoring to read all of the books that inspired Hitch’s films and this one is based on a book by Jack Trevor Story, which I have not yet read, but I still couldn’t resist re-watching the movie this weekend.  It’s an ideal film for welcoming in the cooler fall weather.  The screen becomes saturated with the vivid, crisp hues of autumn.


image from movie

A group of quirky, eccentric, and undoubtedly endearing characters each stumble across the same dead body in the woods.  Each of them has their own peculiar reactions to the body, several of them believing themselves to be the murderers.  However, none of them seem to be particularly disturbed or upset by what they’ve discovered.  Both the physical atmosphere and the tone of the film are so light and whimsical that you almost forget that you’re watching a murder mystery.  An early scene depicts a man and woman jovially making plans to meet for muffins and tea while standing over the dead body.   Although comedy and Hitchcock aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath, this film could certainly be called a comedy, albeit dark comedy.


What better to accompany a perfect fall film than a quintessential autumn dinner.  Some variation on pork and apples is one of my favorite cool weather meals.  This one features a spice-crusted pork tenderloin, baked apples, and French style green beans with onions.

food image

Spice-Crusted Pork Tenderloin

1 Tbs. whole fennel seeds

1/2 tsp. ground corriander

1 Tbs. chili powder

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1 whole pork tenderloin (about 1 – 1 1/2 lbs.)

Combine all spices and then pour out onto a large plate or carving board.  Roll the tenderloin in the spice mixture until it is evenly coated on all sides (don’t worry if you have some of the spice mixture left over).  Grease a small roasting pan or casserole dish.  Roast at 375 for about 35 minutes.  Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing.


Baked Apples

5 medium green apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

1 Tbs. flour

1/4 c. brown sugar

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

pinch salt

1 Tbs. butter, cut into 4 cubes

Grease a pie or casserole dish.  Toss apples with the next four ingredients then spread evenly in the dish.  Place the chunks of butter on top of the apples.  Bake at 375 for about 30 minutes – or until tender but not mushy.


**The green beans are simply sautéed in olive oil with thinly sliced onions, salt, and pepper.

Hitchcock Turns Mediocre Crime Novel into First-Rate Murder Mystery

book imageThe Book

A Shilling for Candles

Author: Josephine Tey

My Rating: ** 2/5

The Film:

Young and Innocent

Released: 1937

Starring: Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney

movie poster imageJosephine Tey’s novel, A Shilling for Candles and Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation, Young and Innocent share the same premise at the most basic level.  The body of actress Christine Clay is found washed ashore and it quickly becomes apparent that it was no accident.  She is discovered by Robert Tisdall, who incidentally had been living with Clay, even though they barely knew each other (in the book he didn’t even know her real name).  He becomes suspect in the case and things turn especially hopeless when it is revealed that she left him a substantial sum of money in her will; a change that had been made only days before her death.

This turn of events seems to seal Tisdall’s fate; except there is one person who comes to believe in Tisdall’s innocence, one Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the head of police.  In the book Erica takes matters into her own hands to use a very small piece of evidence to clear Tisdall’s name, unbeknownst to him.  In the movie, Erica does not act as single-handedly as she and Tisdall end up on the run together.

movie image

It is understandable why this plot appealed to Hitchcock as it encompassed one of his favorite themes – that of an innocent man on the run, a man who, at the wrong place at the wrong time, ends up being wrongly accused of a violent crime.  However, Hitchcock did Tey’s story a huge favor by extracting the most interesting characters and elements and infusing them with more intrigue, suspense, and of course, romance.    Hitchcock made a good decision, in my opinion, of advancing the character of Robert Tisdall, rather than the inspector in the case, Alan Grant, who is at the forefront of the novel.

The first half of Tey’s novel was mildly entertaining but contained none of the suspense that a well-crafted murder mystery should.  Hitchcock added several scenes that, while not as masterfully constructed as some scenes in his later films, still infuse the story with more suspense than was there originally.  Overall, Hitchcock takes a mediocre crime novel and turns it into a first-rate murder mystery.  While it’s neither as seamless as many of his later films nor is it the best of his pre-American films, it’s still a worthy watch for both Hitchcock fans and film enthusiasts who want to be entertained for a couple of hours.

Rebecca, the film

rebecca film posterRebecca was Hitchcock’s first American film, which was produced under David O’Selznick.  Due to O’Selznick’s influence/insistence, Hitchcock stayed more faithful to the original story in Rebecca than he does in any other book/film adaptation that I’ve watched so far.

Rebecca begins in Monte Carlo where Maxim de Winter of Manderly is vacationing.  There he meets a young woman, who shortly thereafter becomes his bride.  However, she is not the first Mrs. de Winter.  The one before her tragically met her death at sea.   Once the blissful newness of matrimony wears off, Mrs. de Winter finds herself haunted by Rebecca.  She imagines that everyone, including her husband, is constantly weighing her inadequacies again the perfection that must have embodied the luxurious Rebecca.  One phrase that plagues her;

“I suppose he just can’t get over his wife’s death. They say he simply adored her.”


image of ms. van hopperMrs. Van Hopper is the first minor character to whom we are introduced.  She is the employer of the future Mrs. de Winter and she is the reason why the young heroine is in Monte Carlo.  Mrs. Van Hopper was just how I’d imagined her while I was reading!  She is so aptly portrayed by Florence Bates in the film.  She is one of those maddening characters who is too amusing to hate!  She’s obnoxious, snobbish, and overwhelmed with her own false sense of importance.  She’s so concerned with the propriety – or lack thereof – of others that she fails to see her own vulgarity.  I wanted to dislike her – but at the same time I couldn’t imagine the book or the film without her.  She also provides a stark contrast to the heroine, the nameless Mrs. de Winter.  The young girl’s nervous and timid ways are even more blatant, standing next to the likes of Mrs. Van Hopper.


image of maxim de winterMaxim de Winter, on the other hand, was not quite like I pictured him.  In the film, he quickly jumps from cold and stern to gentle and affectionate.  While in the book, he is more distant than stern and less forthcoming with his affections until near the resolution of the novel.  The opening scene of the film sets Maxim up to be blunt and severe when we see him standing on the edge of a cliff, facing thunderous waves.  After the young heroine yells out to him, thinking that he’s going to jump, he fiercely scolds her.  In the novel, we do get a sense of his emotional distance in the beginning but he is far more complacent.


image of mrs. de winterJoan Fontaine aptly maintains many of the mannerisms of du Maurier’s Mrs. de Winter with her nervous nail biting, her awkwardness, and her near painful timidity.  Though they may have tried to make Joan Fontaine appear physically plain with her simple hair style and un-frilly clothes – well, come on!  It’s Joan Fontaine; she can only be but so homely.  And let’s not forget that we’re talking about Hitchcock.  Would he have cast an unattractive woman in a leading role?  Scandalous!


image of ms. danvers

Finally, there’s Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper.  She is the creepiest character in book and contributes to some truly chilling scenes in the film.  Judith Anderson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the dark and sinister Ms. Danvers.



Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again . . .

image of manderly

Oh, Manderley!  Manderly was just as it should be – a breathtakingly massive gothic stone structure – tousled and unkempt on the perimeter but pristine beyond the gates.     The setting is brooding and atmospheric and even if you didn’t already know that you were watching a thriller of sorts, you’d feel it from the grey looming mists.

The ending is less dramatic in the film than in the book, however, this is due more to Hollywood film regulations at the time than to Hitchcock’s direction ***SPOILER ALERT***Those who have read the novel know that in the end we find out that Maxim actually despised, rather than adored, Rebecca and that he is the one who killed her.  However, regulations at the time would not allow a film to depict a man who had murdered his wife to go unpunished, therefore it is said to have been an accident.  In that way, the film does not pack quite the same punch as the book.  I always thought it so curious that the Mrs. de Winter of the novel actually seemed relieved that Maxim had murdered Rebecca since that meant that he didn’t really love her.  It didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest that she was married to a man who was capable of taking another human life, even if that person was as duplicitous and vile as Rebecca turned out to be.

Rebecca is the only one of Hitchcock’s films that won an Oscar.   I’ve always found this fact to be a bit beyond my comprehension as his films – particularly North by Northwest and Vertigo – are some of the best ever made.

Rebecca, though not his finest work, still ranks high among Hitchcock’s best films.


(My review of Rebecca, the book by Daphne du Maurier)

The 39 Steps: Buchan thriller becomes Hitchcock masterpiece

book imageThe Book:

by John Buchan

Published: 1915

My Rating: **** 4/5

The protagonist of The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay, is a bored Londoner who hopes for a little more action and excitement in his dull, repetitive life. Remember the expression, be careful what you wish for?

One evening a neighbor approaches Hannay at his door seeking refuge. Once inside, he claims to be a secret agent who knows of a plot to assassinate a high Greek official. He believes that as a result of his knowledge anarchists are following him, with the intent of taking his life. Hannay gets more excitement than he was asking for as he becomes suddenly linked to the hunted agent, and must secretly flee when the man ends up getting killed while staying in his apartment.

Buchan’s writing is straight-forward and unostentatious, without being dull or tedious. Buchan admits to being influenced by pulp novels and The 39 Steps doesn’t try to be anything other than a good, fast-paced adventure story. There are no windows into the depths of Richard Hannay’s heart and soul nor are there any philosophical winks at deeper meanings running beneath the surface. We are merely 3rd person observers of a particularly exciting stint of one man’s life.

If I have any complaints about this book, it’s only that Buchan too often resorts to mere coincidence to get Hannay out of whatever jam he’s found himself in. For instance, at one point Hannay is captured and just happens to be locked in a room full of explosives, which he just happens to successfully detonate without killing himself, and thereafter escapes. That is only one example, and it is not the most implausible instance to choose from, however, that one I will refrain from mentioning so as not to give too much away.

Overall, The 39 Steps is a worthwhile read if approached with the right expectations. Don’t be expecting a fresh and original man-on-the run tale. It was published in 1915 and it was fresh and original in 1915. Many of Buchan’s plot devices have been done and re-done in so many different contexts in books and film that they have now become commonplace and even formulaic.

film poster imageThe film:

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Released: 1935

Actors: Richard Donat, Madeleine Carroll

My Rating: *** 3.5/5

As Hitchcock loved stories of innocent bystanders becoming coincidentally entangled in murder schemes and espionage, it’s easy to see why this tale struck his fancy.  This is the first time that Hitchcock employs that plot device on the screen but we see it pop up again and again in his future films, such as North by Northwest and Saboteur.

The only thing missing in Buchan’s story was a little female intrigue, which Hitchcock injected with his quintessential blonde, Madeleine Carroll, who plays Pamela, another innocent bystander who gets dragged along with Hannay as he tries to escape his pursuers.  German actress, Lucie Mannheim plays Annabella Smith, a female replacement of a male character in the novel.  Mannheim gives the only weak performance in the film, overacting her part to the point of eye-rolling melodrama.  Thankfully, her role was brief.

The insertion of female characters is not the only liberty that Hitchcock takes with the plot.  As I’ve said before, Hitchcock never stayed true to the original works that he based his films on; and in my experience nowhere does he stray further than with The 39 steps.  With the exception of the names of a few central characters and a few minor plot elements, almost everything else is completely different, right down to the meaning of the 39 steps.

The 39 Steps has been hailed as Hitchcock’s British masterpiece and is said to have given him the recognition he needed to launch his career in America.  While that may be true, it is not my personal favorite of Hitchcock’s pre-American films.  That place belongs to The Lady Vanishes, which had me on the edge of my seat the first time I saw it.

movie scene image

This movie, while it may not be a personal favorite, is essential for any Hitchcock enthusiast.  There are a number of truly Hitchcockesque suspense-building moments and emerging themes that become even more apparent in his later work.

Friday Film Review: Strangers on a Train

In lieu of my mention of Hitchcock in an earlier post this week, I thought I would review one of his films for my “Friday Film Review,” which I have not done in quite some time.  This post is also a review of Patricia Highsmith’s novel by the same name, as Hitchcock used it as the basis for his film.

Two strangers meet on a train. Guy Haines: sensible, decent, accomplished, respectable. The other, Anthony Bruno: spontaneous, extravagant, rich, bored, obsessive. It doesn’t end there, Bruno is also deeply disturbed, manipulative. . . a psychopath. These two seemingly polar opposites share a train compartment and so begins a swirl of conversation and confession during which Bruno suggests that “everyone is capable of murder.” Is he right?

This is the shared premise of both Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel and Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation. However, that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The two go in very different directions with this concept. As for the above question, Highsmith and Hitchcock seem to be on opposing sides of this issue.

During their conversation on the train, Bruno proposes to Guy a double murder deal, where they will each do away with the person who is the thorn in the other’s side. For Guy, it’s his soon to be ex-wife who is making unreasonable demands and trying to interfere with his success. For Bruno, it’s his father whom he abhors. To Bruno, this seems to be the perfect solution since no one knows that he and Guy know each other and there would be no perceived motive.  Guy is not so easy to convince. He leaves the train disturbed, and content to never see Bruno again.

However, through mere happenstance, Guy leaves behind a token of his identity which Bruno exploits and proceeds to haunt Guy, calling at all hours, showing up at social events pretending to be an old friend and embarrassing Guy. All the while, attempting to manipulate, provoke, and convince Guy to do the deed, to become his partner in crime. Which again raises the question, is Bruno right, is every seemingly decent human being capable of murder?

Highsmith seems to side with Bruno and in her uniquely evocative way, calls into question what the seemingly decent human being is capable of when all that he cherishes is suddenly threatened. I felt that Highsmith’s novel was strong up until the very last page. And I mean that, excluding the last page. The ending sort of left me fingering the last few pages to make sure that there wasn’t some hidden prologue, some secret last chapter that I was about to miss out on. The resolution was rather abrupt.  It felt rushed and didn’t seem to mirror the pacing of the rest of the novel. With that said, it didn’t ruin it for me. Highsmith produced a well-written, well-crafted novel with dynamic characters and a subtly suspenseful and addictive plot.

Hitchcock takes the other side of this issue, rooting for the decent ones among us, in his 1951 film that was nominated for best cinematography in that same year. We can see why in one of the most intriguingly artistic scenes of the film when we view a murder through a reflection in the victim’s glasses which have fallen on the ground during her struggle.

The film is not an exact or even close adaptation of the novel, but as I continue to read books that were made into Hitchcock films, I’ve come to love that about him. Reading the book never ruins the movie! Of course the reverse is true as well because they usually share only a central idea or concept and the rest is entirely different.

As with a number of Hitchcock films, some events in the plot are not completely plausible or even logical. An example from this film is when Bruno drops Guy’s lighter.  I won’t say why because I don’t want to totally spoil it, but suffice it to say that it’s a particularly suspenseful scene in the movie.  We witness this scene from two perspectives, with camera shots from both above and below the surface. From below the surface, we see Bruno’s arm slowly extending further and further until he finally grasps the lighter. Then the camera flashes to street level where it becomes obvious that Bruno’s wrist would not even fit in the drain, much less his entire arm! Hitchcock said that he was annoyed with critics who brought up such criticisms because he believed that fear and suspense should suspend all logic. In other words, you should be so on the edge of your seat to know how it will all come together that you’re not even thinking about whether or not it makes sense. And perhaps I would have been if I had not previously read Hitchcock’s statement. Ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for such implausibilities.

Though for entirely different reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed both this book and the film adaptation.