(On Cable TV, December 2017) I remember seeing at least a good chunk of The Birds as a kid, but I’m surprised to find out, upon revisiting it, that I like it far less than I’d thought. Oh, the basics of the movie are there: the suspense sequences involving the birds themselves are strong, and the dread of the film’s second half is still striking. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense remains unquestionable, and it’s a testament to his skill that the film remains effective even when the scenes don’t make much sense from a logical perspective. You can recognize in this film the prototype for two or three subsequent generations of horror movies, even when these strike out “birds” for “zombies” in their scripts. Where The Birds doesn’t work as well is when it’s considered as a complete movie. The lack of an ending is as troubling as it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t offer much closure. It’s even worse when considering that the first half of the film focuses heavily on a romance (dramatic or comic remains open to consideration) only to trash that subplot once the birds attack and never really come back to it. This is all intentional—but even intentional frustration remains frustration. While The Birds may remain distinctive even today, it doesn’t feel finished from a narrative perspective. Even arguing that it’s not the point of the film isn’t much comfort. It’s true that much of what made The Birds special back then is now commonplace today: The electronic soundtrack and special effects are either substandard or invisible by today’s standards. Fans of the film will note that HBO’s The Girl recreates the making of The Birds in service of an effective suspense thriller in which Hitchcock is an unrepentant sexual harasser toward Tippi Hedren. Speaking of which, Hedren is as good as it gets as the icy blonde protagonist, while Rod Taylor is effective as the square-jawed protagonist. (If icy blondes aren’t your thing, then Suzanne Pleshette is the brunette for you). But even with flaws, The Birds remains an interesting film—the Hitchcock touch is obvious, and its lack of narrative satisfaction becomes daring at a time when everything is neatly wrapped up for mass consumption.
(On DVD, December 2017) The bad news is that The Time Machine isn’t particularly faithful to the H.G. Wells novel, but the good news are that the film is at its most fascinating when it does diverge significantly from the source material. While the film suffers a partial lobotomy in not really taking an interest in Wells’ social-class parable about the Eloi and Morlocks (instead presenting the Morlocks as straight-cut monsters) and isn’t geared toward the melancholic far-future envoi of Wells’ narrative, it does make up for these deficiencies by strong period content. Diverging from the novel in order to update our Victorian-era protagonist on the evolution of the twenty-first century up to the film’s release, The Time Machine touches upon both World Wars and a nuclear holocaust, inserting them where the original novel could only imagine. The film being from 1960, this means that we get twice-filtered atmospheric content, as we look at the late 1950s look at Victorian England look at the far future. Whew. It may be scientifically indefensible (I rather liked the way our protagonist ends up in 1966 right on time for a nuclear war … and then outruns a lava flow) but it is interesting in its own way. Director George Pal concocts an entertaining blend of SF concepts, then-ground-breaking special effects and intriguing set design. Rod Taylor makes for a likable square-jawed hero, while Yvette Mimieux is fetching enough as promoted-to-love-interest Weena. Special-effect evolution aside, this 1960 version is significantly better than the dull 2002 remake.