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The Birds is Coming

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer from The Birds.

“We seem to have a compulsion these days to bury time capsules in order to give those people living in the next century or so some idea of what we are like. I have prepared one of my own. I have placed some rather large samples of dynamite, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin. My time capsule is set to go off in the year 3000. It will show them what we are really like.”  ― Alfred Hitchcock

For a more satisfying vision of a future in which things don’t work out as planned, with nature in revolt and the horror left unresolved at fadeout, one could do worse than to rent Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds, in which the director’s mastery to both form and content is evident in every frame. Famously devoid of any musical score at all, other than an electronic pastiche of bird cries on the soundtrack to punctuate the action, The Birds is a master class in camera placement, editing, and the slow accumulation of suspense — scene by scene.

Tippi Hedren is self-assured and resolute in the leading role as Melanie Daniels, while Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette lend credible support, and the film itself is handsomely designed, with a sense of solidity and precision in its construction that holds up under repeated viewings. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story, with superb special effects by the great Ub Iwerks, The Birds stands as Hitchcock’s last really successful film, after the full-fledged triumph of Psycho.

Those who would like to know more about the film should read Hitchcock /Truffaut, perhaps the best interview book ever done on any director, in which François Truffaut spent weeks with Hitchcock going over his entire career in minute detail — first released in the late 1960s, it has never been out of print, and Truffaut was able to create a revised, expanded second edition just before his tragic death in 1984 — there’s really no better introduction to Hitchcock’s work.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

They’re in black and white, which was once an economical production medium. They’re shot on 35mm film. Most were made on a strict six-day schedule. They were shot almost entirely at Universal City. The series started out as a half hour show in 1955, and then switched to an hour format in 1962, ending its run in 1965. Each episode was shot like a feature film, in “single camera” format, rather than in sitcom format, and production values — especially story lines and guest stars — to say nothing of the physical execution of each segment were exceptionally high.

As an anthology series, there were no continuing characters; it was an entirely new show every week. Hitchcock’s own input into the series was minimal, but he directed a few episodes of the series, and watching the Universal TV crew work, he was inspired by their speed and efficiency to shoot his groundbreaking film Psycho there, breaking away from the slower crews at Paramount, where he had spent the 1950s. All in all, 363 episodes were shot over a ten year period.

An enormous number of exceptionally talented actors, writers and directors contributed to the series, including actors Ed Asner, Mary Astor, Roscoe Ates, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy, Dabney Coleman, Joseph Cotten, Bob Crane, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Bette Davis, Francis De Sales, Bruce Dern, Brandon De Wilde, Angie Dickinson, Diana Dors, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Herbert, Lou Jacobi, Joyce Jameson, Carolyn Jones, Don Keefer, Brian Keith, Jack Klugman, Peter Lawford, Christopher Lee, Cloris Leachman, Peter Lorre, Dayton Lummis, E. G. Marshall, Walter Matthau, Darren McGavin, John McGiver, Lee Majors, Steve McQueen, Tyler McVey, Joyce Meadows, Vera Miles, Vic Morrow, Robert Newton, George Peppard, James Philbrook, Sydney Pollack, Judson Pratt, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Henry Silva, Barbara Steele, Jan Sterling, Dean Stockwell, Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Waring, Dennis Weaver, Joanne Woodward, Fay Wray, and Keenan Wynn.

It’s an elegant, intelligent, well designed series, the like of which we will never see on television again. Black and white has vanished as a production medium, along with the artistic values that went with it. Film has also vanished, leaving everything to be shot with a slick, artificial digital sheen. The violence quotient has been upped so that gruesome rapes and murders are now commonplace on shows such as Law and Order SVU and the CSI series; it seems that plot, acting, and nuance have been left behind. Let’s raise a glass, then, to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of the most innovative and artistically ambitious television series ever produced — on a budget, on a schedule, on an assembly line, even — but with style, elegance, and wit, down to Hitchcock’s droll introductions and commercial break announcements, which the director performed himself.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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