1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, Thriller

The Omega Man (1971)

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The Ωmega Man (on-screen title spelling)

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Director: Boris Sagal
Screenwriters: John William Corrington, Joyce Hooper Corrington

By Roderick Heath

Published in 1954, I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s classic and influential amalgam of apocalyptic science fiction and horror, has known strange fortune when it comes to filming. The novel surely owes some of its standing to being adapted to the big screen three times, as Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man On Earth (1964), Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man, and Francis Lawrence’s 2007 film under the original title. None of them represents a purely faithful version of the novel, each instead pursuing its own, particular motives and conceptual twists. Salkow’s threadbare if atmospheric take was nominally based on Matheson’s own script, but was so heavily revised by the producer he insisted on a pseudonym, and nudged the material closer to traditional horror. Lawrence’s was a well-made but generic, special effects-laden action vehicle that reduced the enemy from dark antitheses of the hero to marauding CGI critters. Sagal’s film was made to capitalise on Charlton Heston’s new status as a sci-fi star following on from the first two Planet of the Apes films, and like that series enthusiastically uses genre movie garb to tackle flashpoint social and political issues. Soylent Green (1973) would round out an unofficial trilogy for Heston. The Omega Man wasn’t the first post-apocalyptic survival movie released by Hollywood, but it does seem from today’s perspective to be the one that made the subgenre perennially popular, laying down a blueprint by showing how it could function as a both a microcosmic metaphor and a branch of action cinema.

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Husband and wife writing duo Joyce and John Corrington’s script for The Omega Man departed widely from Matheson’s novel in several respects. The novel, set in a time where most of humanity has been wiped out by disease leaving one immune survivor, proposed that that vampirism, revealed through the protagonist’s research as a once-rare and often misdiagnosed disease, has infected all the other survivors of pandemic to a greater or lesser degree, turning some into ravening beasts whilst others remain functioning and civilised, but hate and fear the hero now as the last human. The novel ends with him realising that he is now the stuff of myth and bedtime bogeyman stories to the post-humans, who put him to death. The Omega Man, by contrast, portrays the diseased survivors as the direct product of the pandemic, a manmade virus unleashed during a war between China and the Soviet Union (not that farfetched at the time) supposedly breaking out in 1975, with the bulk of the film set two years later in an empty and decaying Los Angeles. The man who thinks himself the lone true survivor, Colonel Robert Neville (Heston), is a former army scientist who managed, in the raging days of the epidemic, to synthesise a vaccine, but was only able to give it to himself.

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At the film’s outset, Neville roams the vacant streets in a convertible, faking his way through conversations with imagined people, partly to suit his sour sense of humour and also in a ritual trying to keep hold of his sanity. Whilst driving around, scored hilariously by a cassette recording of “A Summer Place,” Neville hefts a submachine gun and sprays bullets at a window he sees a figure flit behind. When he crashes his car and busts a tyre, Neville smashes his way into an auto showroom to prime and take off in another vehicle. He heads to a movie theatre which he’s plainly visited often before to watch the film that was showing there when everything fell apart: Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), powering the projectors with emergency generators he knows to bring petrol for. The on-screen record of massed and joyous humanity gives Neville company he otherwise lacks, and he can recite the optimistic speech of one young attendee interviewed word for word. Leaving the theatre, Neville starts hearing telephones going off all over the city, a dazzling din that forces Neville to deny its reality, whereupon the noise ceases. Neville returns to his home as he realises nightfall is coming. As he prepares to enter his garage, black-robed figures with chalk-white faces launch a prepared assault on him, and Neville only narrowly survives with a blend of quick reflexes and brute force.

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These marvellous early scenes skilfully establish Neville’s solitude and situation along with an aesthetic of desolate genre poetry in surveying the desolate city still festooned with all the appealing, empty yardsticks of the modern lifestyle. Neville’s favourite movie doesn’t just ironically underline his loneliness with a teasing vision of mass idealism, but also announces The Omega Man’s key theme, the breakdown of humanity’s remnants into camps representing contentious visions of society and its future, if any. The hidden menace lying in wait for the last man is suggested, but also presented as initially less frightening than the weight of solitude and potential insanity upon him, setting in motion the basic drive and irony of the narrative, that Neville needs his foes and vice versa to give their lives meaning. What that contest is slowly becomes apparent as Neville spends his days wandering the city seeking out the hive of his nemeses. That tribe call themselves The Family, and are led by former TV news anchor Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Grotesquely transformed into albino ghouls who can’t survive in the sunlight, many of them injured psychologically as well as physically, The Family, under Matthias’ fanatical leadership, now want to cleanse the Earth of the hated reminders of the fallen human world and its final arbiter, and fight an extended guerrilla war with Neville.

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Neville’s apartment, which he later explains he clings to out a sense of sheer, obstinate resolve despite being difficult to defend, is filled with retrieved artworks and accoutrements befitting the lifestyle of a well-heeled man of the world. Floodlights affixed to the building exterior keep the intensely light-sensitive Family away and CCTV lets him see everywhere at once. He tries to settle down with a good whisky and get back to the chess match he nominally plays against a bust of Julius Caesar, but his enemies begin congregating in the street and chanting the perpetual demand, “Neville! Come Down!” Neville hurls his glass across the room in reactive anger and triggered desperation. His robed and misshapen enemies roam about the city in packs at night, collecting the fruits of human civilisation from technology to books, and destroy them, staging a Hitlerian bonfire in the plaza outside Neville’s building to taunt him with the sight as well as satisfy their own project. “The whole Family can’t bring him down out of that – that…” Matthias trails off as he smoulders in frustration, so his lieutenant Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick), once a black man, suggests the descriptor, “Honky paradise, brother?” When they try assaulting Neville’s apartment with flaming masses fired with a crude ballista, Neville responds with a machine gun.

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Neville drifts into a reverie in the elevator to his apartment, cueing the first of two efficient, visually striking flashbacks to the time of the plague’s coming, unleashed during the war, punctuated by images of flocks of pedestrians struck down in their tracks by the deadly disease. The flashbacks cleverly render Neville and Matthias as opponents long before they encounter each-other’s works in the dead city. Neville, in his old office, listens to Matthias speaking on the television with bleak import: “Is this the end of technological man? Is this the conclusion of all our yesterdays, the boasts of our fabled science?…We were warned of judgement. Well, here it is.” Neville allows no such fatalistic philosophising, still trying to develop his vaccine and save the world. But the pilot of the helicopter taking him to a secure facility with his experimental vaccine keels over as the disease hits him, and Neville is unable to prevent the helicopter crashing. Crawling out of the flaming wreckage, Neville took the desperate shot of injecting himself with the dose, and two years later his success is now also a bitter mockery. Neville resumes his systematic search the following day, exploring the innards of downtown buildings where he still finds desiccated corpses from the time of the plague, including a couple who died in each-other’s arms in bed.

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Sagal blends aspects of gothic horror with a sarcastic sense of derelict consumerism in this scenes, all the high-end shops and hotels filled with dead plants and bodies and copious cobwebs. The stuff of daily life and social ritual betrays the sudden cessation of that life, like a dining table laid out for some banquet now filthy and encrusted, the whole world now resembling a vampire’s castle in a horror movie. Neville also finds dead members of the Family finally consumed by the disease, their physical symptoms being what Neville refers to as “tertiary cases.” Roving about a boutique clothing store, Neville is stricken with erotic fascination by a mannequin, reaching out to touch its smooth plastic belly in tactile arousal now that only a facsimile of a female form is left to him. This flourish of knowing sexual desperation dashed with humour has an immediate consequence, as Neville seems to virtually conjure up a very real female out of the recesses of his mind. When he thinks he hears something moving through the store, he looks to see a mannequin where there wasn’t before, a figure with eyes that slowly pivot to look at him. The woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), dashes out of the store and Neville loses track of her outside. Unsure if she was real or just another figment of his imagination, Neville resumes his hunt, only to be ambushed and captured in a well-laid trap by the Family.

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Matthias has Neville tried and convicted for forms of heresy according to The Family’s law as a “user of the wheel,” lacking the stigmata-like proof of faith that is the bleached irises the tertiary cases all have. Matthias wants to destroy all the pretensions of the old civilisation, considering himself the anointed avenger of the Earth, extinguishing the original sin of knowledge so The Family can then build something else. “Build coffins, that’s all you’ll need,” Neville tells him late in the film, knowing as he does The Family will all die out if their disease isn’t treated. Matthias has him wheeled out into the centre of Dodgers Stadium on a tumbril, complete with a dunce’s cap, to be burned alive. But Neville is saved when the stadium lights come on, dazzling The Family. Lisa and another survivor, Dutch (Paul Koslo), move to save him despite Lisa’s take-no-shit attitude towards Neville. Dutch wards off The Family with flash-bombs whilst Neville and Lisa make a zippy getaway on a motorcycle. Lisa directs Neville up to a bunker in the hills above the city where she and Dutch are caring for a small collection of children. All of them have the disease, but so far have resisted either dying or devolving, although all expect one or the other: Lisa’s teenage brother Richie (Eric Laneuville) is in the throes of transitioning, so Neville decides to risk trying to use his blood as a serum to treat his case.

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The Omega Man is a very much a pop film in the early 1970s mode, and it’s often been criticised for this. But this specificity is also the source of much of the film’s pleasure and its special thematic punch, investing it with levels of symbolism and metaphor for a particular moment and sensibility, whilst also still working readily today as a mythically styled action movie. Like a genre-fied, mass-audience friendly remake of Zabriskie Point (1970), it contemplates an impending post-human era where characters are coded as representatives of various cultural sectors, and the radical fringe, embodied by Dutch and Lisa and the children they care for, are poised to be the only possible inheritors of the Earth. They subsist between the poles of Neville with his attachment to the old material world and willingness to defend it with ferocity, and the cult of Matthias and The Family, who take the streak of suspicion for the mainstream, technological society found in the hippie movement to an extreme but also inject it with medievalist religious certainties, as well as Nazi-like contempt for contradictory knowledge. The Omega Man takes off where Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) left off in considering the efforts of iconoclasts to smash apart the last signifiers of a fundamentally sick world.

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The Family, with their bleached white faces and hair riddled with bloody buboes and glazed eyes, wrapped in monkish garb and stalking the streets at night with torches, bridge the imagery of classic horror stories, like the hordes of undead devil worshippers in something like The City of the Dead (1960). But they retain dimensions of damaged humanity, as well as fanaticism rooted in the belief they are the lucky ones to be so marked and tasked, as well as susceptibility to suggestion that makes someone like Matthias, who retains his intellect, able to control them. The Family members are scrubbed of racial, gender, and social differentiation, instead blessed with a new homogenised identity. Late in the film, Lisa is suddenly stricken with the disease and unfurls her headscarf, revealing she’s been overtaken by the disease and recognises The Family as her new kind. It’s a sign of the times that the film votes Matthias a great deal of sympathy for his perspective, his passionately righteous hatred for the world men created and then laid waste to, no form of logic or argument more plain and cold than the simple and obvious fact he can point to of apocalypse all about them.

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Matthias is ultimately, in a perverse fashion, presented as a sort of antihero, the one who counsels Zachary, “Forget the old ways, brother, all the old hatreds, all the old pains. Forget, and remember,” and promises Neville they will “cancel history.” Social divides are now reduced now to a much simpler dynamic: us versus him. The very name of The Family suggests a likeness to the Manson Family, all over the news at the time the film was being made. Matthias tells Neville that in the days after the plague’s coming he realised he and the others like him had been spared for the purpose burying what was dead, including the fallen civilisation. “You’re the Angel of Death, Doctor, not us,” Matthias tells Neville in reminding him that even if they are trying to kill him, he’s killed far more of them, after angrily shouting, in response to Neville’s question as to why they haven’t tried finding a cure, “There is none!” Zerbe, a much-employed actor at the time, is terrific as Matthias, expertly countering Heston’s bellicose passion with his own surgically precise enunciations of his sure and unremitting interpretation of their lot.

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Against them stands Neville, ensconced in his fortified bachelor pad. Neville’s lifestyle is offered in part as dry parody of an early ‘70s magazine ideal of masculinity and the action man ethos so common in the period, once ironically associated with all the estimable hip values and yet standing in opposition to many of them. Neville tries to make like Hugh Hefner playing James Bond, the First World incarnate guarding its turf and privilege in stalwart style, treating the remnants of human culture he’s assembled and curated like his collection of guns and booze, steadily ransacking the city for everything that’s useful or eye-catching for him. He’s the swinging bachelor as superman survivor even whilst cursed with awareness of his actual insignificance and paltriness before the vast empty world, at least before the other survivors turn up. Much is made of Neville’s brawny body – Heston’s as shirtless throughout the film as Chris Hemsworth in his average vehicle – and his concomitant physical resilience, whilst his apartment’s art collection sees him in company with Caesar and mad emperor Caracalla, suggesting the poles of authority and brutal power Neville anoints himself heir to. Neville’s intelligence and resolve are likewise admirable, and when fate gives him a genuine function once again he leaps to the task.

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But he’s also, as young Richie states after Neville’s serum cures him, “hostile,” a man who feeds off his war with Matthias and The Family, happy to oppose their campaign of destruction with his efforts to remain an island of the old ways, and uninterested in trying to find some sort of accord even as it becomes clear a cure that can restore The Family is now in their hands. In the finale he even dons once more his military uniform and cap, as if both acknowledging his anachronism whilst committing to a warrior creed he never really aspired to in the first place as a healer with the job of “inventing cures for diseases that didn’t exist yet.” Neville’s idea of civilisation is appealing but also hermetic, immobile, and intolerant. Lisa’s entry into the film injects an amusing edge borrowed from the nascent Blaxploitation mode as she appears swathed in red leather with a ballooning afro, a tough survivor stridently bossing and pistol-whipping Neville even in the process of rescuing him, in part because, as she later tells him, when he warns her to be careful whilst foraging for supplies, “The most dangerous thing I ever met in one of those places was you.”

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Introduction to Lisa, Dutch, and the children strips from Neville the armour of his solitude and replaces it with responsibility. One of the first serious post-apocalyptic dramas was Ranald MacDougall’s The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1959), a film that exploited both racial and sexual anxieties hatching out in the waning days of the Ike era as two men, played by Harry Belafonte and Mel Ferrer, battle for the one (white) woman left in an irradiated New York. The Omega Man takes up the same teasing motif of interracial eroticism in end-times as Neville and Lisa become lovers as Lisa negotiates the delights of Neville’s apartment. They try to forget the world outside it even as Neville acknowledges he really is looking at the last girl on Earth. Their tete-a-tete is interrupted when the building’s generator stops from lack of fuel, requiring Neville to shimmy down the elevator cables to the ground floor, whilst Zachary takes the opportunity to climb up the outside of the building to kill the enemy. Neville gets the power working again and arrives back upstairs just in time to gun down Zachary as he springs through the windows. Zachary plunges back off the balcony onto a spiked railing below. As it becomes clear the blood serum works and can reverse the disease mutation, Neville, Lisa, and Dutch resolve to take the children to a new base in the Sierras.

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Heston, who had been fascinated by the book when reading it on a plane flight and didn’t know it had previously been filmed, supposedly had tried to interest Orson Welles in the script. Heston was still trying to leave behind his association with epic films and religious movies, but he was canny not to entirely leave behind the outsized associations he retained: both Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man cleverly twist and pervert Heston’s titan stature. The director he ended up with, Boris Sagal, was mostly a very well-employed TV director, and his feature work only sported a couple of solid westerns and war movies and an Elvis vehicle, Girl Happy (1965). Nonetheless some of his telemovies, like Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976) and his surprisingly good remake of Dial M For Murder (1981), wielded a similarly baroque visual sense matched to a flair for tight drama. The Omega Man is easily his most popular and best-known feature. Personally I love the fleshy, colourful vividness of his work on the film: it’s the sort of thing where a more restrained and refined talent might have burnished off the rough edges but not achieved the same the delirious and suggestive highs as well. Various vignettes, like Neville crawling from the burning helicopter and dosing himself, the revelation of the infected Lisa, and the finale, at once eerie and operatic, have stuck like jagged glass in my mind since childhood.

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Despite its cheesy and modish touches The Omega Man achieves something of an ideal for a movie of its kind, maintaining a fleet and functional pace, dotted with flashes of punchy spectacle, and yet remaining attentive to the bleak and meditative aspect of the drama, the twinned yet contradictory feeling of crushing solitude and being trapped with inimical beings, ironically a less dreadful feeling, neatly articulated. The Omega Man is crucially balanced in a way that eludes a lot of contemporary movies in the same vein. One great plus is Russell Metty’s cinematography. Heston obviously remembered how good Metty was from working with Welles on Touch of Evil (1958), and his work conveys the right pulpy lustre offsetting the pallid and sonorous texture of the deserted cityscape with the primal drama unfolding on the streets, where extremes of mortification and danger are measured in blazing fire, unnaturally white skin, and pocks of red blood. Another aspect of the film I’m inordinately fond of is the score by Ron Grainer, the Australian-born composer who had worked for the BBC where he wrote classic TV themes including those for Doctor Who, The Prisoner, and Steptoe & Son. Grainer’s memorably elegant and evocative main theme comes in variations that truck in flourishes of funk, jazz, and pop, with organ flourishes to lend an appropriately gothic tint in places, even if it gets a bit Mannix-esque in the Dodgers Stadium sequence.

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Coming as it did at the outset of the ‘70s, a decade when sci-fi tinted parables became popular, The Omega Man’s success had a definable impact on the cinematic genre that took a little time to hatch out and infect pop culture. The film’s release coincided with Robert Wise’s more procedural and cool-witted take on Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, and the two works helped codify the subgenre concerned with disease and epidemics as potential apocalyptic agents dubbed bi-fi, quickly taken up by works like George Romero’s The Crazies (1973). The film laid down a template for how a pulpy notion of genre thrills and a more high-minded variety came into fruitful fusion, likewise allowing movies like Crichton’s Westworld (1973) and Jack Smight’s Damnation Alley (1976), and leading on to a host sci-fi-action hybrids with smart propelling ideas in the 1980s: such stalwart hits from Alien (1979) to The Terminator (1984), Predator (1986), and RoboCop (1987) owe it at least that much impetus. The Mad Max series would offer a version of Neville, albeit one that wisely chose mobility but still retained certain traits, as a figure carrying on a sense of duty and legacy into post-apocalyptic battles. Whilst his Night of the Living Dead (1968) predated Sagal’s film, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) would annex The Omega Man’s driving concepts and oppositions, likewise presenting its heroes as futile warriors living on swathed in a consumerist bubble in trying to ignore collapse and the zombified hordes without.

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True to the credo of the best ‘70s sci-fi films too, The Omega Man isn’t afraid to get seriously dark at points. This is particularly apparent as the plot barrels towards its climactic crisis, as Richie decides to try and reason with Matthias and the family, to convince them to let Neville try and cure them. Matthias listens to him indulgently, only for Neville, when he arrives to save him, to find Richie strung up with his throat cut, the final, perfect goad to Neville and a rejection of all hope. Neville tries to charge back to his building, only to crash through a trap set by The Family. His jeep upturned, Neville fights his way out of the trap and enters his apartment, to find Lisa, now inducted into The Family, has let Matthias and his goons in. Matthias makes Neville watch as his people unleash an orgy of destructive fury on all the remnants of civilisation Neville has collected. Neville manages to break free and drags Lisa away with him, but this causes a fatal delay: as he tries to unjam his gun and call back Lisa as Matthias chants her name to draw her back, Matthias takes the opportunity to hurl a spear at Neville, hitting him in the torso and knocking him into a fountain in the plaza. As the sun rises, Dutch and kids arrive to find Neville bleeding to death, but Neville manages to hand over the last bottle filled with his blood serum, key to curing Lisa and the children. Sagal offers one lovely grace note as one of the young girls plucks Neville’s cap out of the fountain water and places it on the rim as a show of respect and salutary farewell to the last of his kind. The last image, with Neville splayed Christ-like as he dies, is by comparison too insistent, although this certainly presents an appropriately futuristic and ironic twist on Heston’s messianic image and the very idea of the saviour who donates to his followers his blood and flesh for the sake of salvation.

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1960s, Horror/Eerie

The Birds (1963)

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Roderick Heath

“Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.”

The Birds introduces us to Melanie Daniels, a socialite in the fullest sense of the word. A creature of her big-city environment, comfortable with her social and sexual status, adroit, adept at getting what she wants. Intelligent, wily, occupied, but powerfully bored, indulging her not-very-serious whims until they have serious results. We find all these things out about her in the first scene of The Birds – in the still-got-it smile she gives at getting a wolf-whistle on the street; in how she pretends to be a shopgirl for the benefit of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor); in how she’s irritated by Mitch having taken her in rather than vice versa, and then chiding her because of one of her stunts that he felt should have gotten her jailed; in how swiftly she tracks down the identity of this handsome, authoritative pest, so at odds with Melanie’s flittering interests.

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When Mitch ends the joke with the above-quoted line, he identifies Melanie as a prisoner, a practical joker for whom the joke is on herself, in her dissociation from responsibility. The line is, of course, a double pun. In The Birds, humans are living in a gilded cage, fluttering behind bars, delivered from the dangerous freedom of true flight, living in what Norman Bates called “private traps.” Soon the humans will be literally encaged by the birds.

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Like so many Hitchcock heroes, Melanie leaves the social womb of a city—here, San Francisco, capital of American gothic—for Mitch’s home town of Bodega Bay, at the end of a drive up the radiant Pacific coast. Hitchcock indulges in the hushed, rugged prettiness of Melanie’s drive, preparing the film’s dialectic of beauty and violence and humorously shows two lovebirds rocking to the car’s movements in their cage like people. Melanie has the best revenge for Mitch’s judgmental swagger, combining this, one of her patented practical jokes with an altruistic gift. The lovebirds, however, are a very unfunny portent of things to come.

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In teasing out information about Mitch and his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and adolescent sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), Melanie talks to local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a transplanted bohemian with a husky-voiced air of bruised, serene discontent. She recognizes the hidden meanings in Melanie’s journey, of which Melanie is herself hardly aware. Annie made the same journey once, failed, and washed up. Melanie successfully plays her prank, leaving the lovebirds in the Brenner’s white waterside house, making a getaway via runabout, only to have a seagull strike her head and draw a spark of blood that stains Melanie’s gloves, the first note of a gore symphony.

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Melanie is one of Hitchchock’s most interesting heroes. She’s a Hitchcock blonde, but is linked less to Grace Kelly’s liquid nitrogen burn or Ingrid Bergman’s intricately suffering damsels than to Roger O. Thornhill in North By Northwest as a representative of a useless class, gossip-column twin to his playboy ad man. Melanie is caught up in charades, games, and jokes enacted with mirthless passive-aggressive precision. Mitch tends to Melanie’s wound with care but interviews her with lawyerly skill, entrapping Melanie in her lies until she’s left with no choice but to come to dinner with his family. The first half of The Birds is a neurotic screwball comedy, without that genre’s “oh, isn’t this hilarious?” nudges, populated by aching characters whose attempts to be witty and commanding constantly fall flat.

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Melanie finds Lydia intimidating, just as Annie did. Annie has spent four years puzzling out the riddle of that sphinx for the next brave soul, and found Lydia’s iciness is not that of a domineering matron but rather of an emotionally weak woman. One of Hitchcock’s most powerful ever shots shows Melanie chatting on the phone to Mitch whilst Annie reclines, apparently disinterested, but tense through to her bones.

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As the shot indicates, Hitchcock could have been a Renoir or Bertolucci if he’d wanted to, so acute was he at communicating the psychic workings of his characters. Hitchcock had learnt his craft during a vital two-year stint in Munich in the fulcrum years of the early ’20s. He was most inspired to direct by Fritz Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), which, with its expressionist style and death-and-the-maiden eroticism, casts a long shadow to this film (another future great converted by that work was Luis Bunuel).

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Hitchcock’s penchant for minimalist frames and charged visual metaphors, influenced by silent era expressionism, here has been razored down to resemble Japanese artistry, especially in the way Hitchcock places figures in relation to landscapes. Robert Burks’ superb cinematography is crucial; Burks, Hitchcock’s long-time collaborator, only made Marnie after this with him, and then died in a house fire. The sparseness of the drama makes The Birds the first haiku monster movie.

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Hitchcock came from the lively tradition of Cockney black humor, with its obsession for interweaving sex, crime, comedy, and death that turns savage serial killings into the subjects of children’s nursery rhymes. From Lang and other German masters, Hitchcock’s native bent happily met the Germanic tradition of taking the psychological content in gothic and crime stories seriously. Perhaps aware that his standing as an artist and a commercial force was at its pinnacle, Hitchcock took risks with The Birds. Dispensing with music, traditional narrative, and star names, Hitchcock was selling The Birds on the back of his cinematic skill, using mere sound and the lack of it for generating suspense.

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Most intriguing is the cue he takes from the Italian films of alienation. The Birds‘ lack of explanation for its horrors and question-mark finale dovetails the arbitrary cruelties of the macabre tradition with modernist narrative deconstruction, loudly introduced to cinema audiences by Antonioni with L’Avventura. The Birds makes a most pointed reference to La Dolce Vita. Melanie, talking with Mitch at Cathy’s birthday party, demystifies one of her most infamous stunts, cavorting nude in a fountain in Rome and states her recent stabs at altruism resulted from her Roman experiences: “It was very easy to get lost there.” She also reveals the true gap between her and Mitch, which has nothing to do with money or place of birth but with emotional bedrock. Whereas Mitch has a family who loves him almost to the point of suffocation, Melanie is consumed with loathing for her mother who “ran off with some hotel man in the east” when she was a child. Annie, supervising the party, watches them connecting with mournful expression.

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The film also plays with the apocalyptic hint of La Dolce Vita’s finale—that the rotting, hedonistic world will keep fiddling as beasts lurch from the sea. To catch Melanie’s La Dolce Vita reference is to think of that film’s characters, the threat she felt of being “lost” amongst them, and the urgency of destruction around them. The Birds seems a near-sequel, distilling its ’60s paranoia of nuclear holocaust and social-moral collapse, transmuted by Hitchcock’s Anglo-Catholic censoriousness into a parable of decay and struggle. Explanations for the birds’ behavior are posited – that they are affected by an illness; that they are a fulfillment of biblical prophecy; and, according to an hysterical diner patron, that Melanie is a kind of Typhoid Mary bringing bird attacks in her evil wake. Each of these explanations is mocked. But Melanie, whom the birds have targeted, does seem to be an avatar of everything wrong in the human world. The first three incidents—the gull that clips Melanie’s head, the bird that slams into Annie’s door, the attack on the children’s birthday party—come as the humans are playing some sort of emotionally fraught game, and the birds provide savage metaphysical comment.

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Still, Hitchcock, though a moralist, was never a hanging judge. He held the rich and the sexy, the happy and the hollow, the common man and the uncommon woman, in a dialectic of delight and disgust. He put his heroes through character tests of medieval rigor. The ironies of The Birds’ story develop logically even as worldly logic evaporates, and the characters each fall under the microscope that determines their fates. Mitch, one of Hitchcock’s familiar momma’s boys, is actually one of his most straightforwardly macho heroes. His rescues of Melanie are only metaphors for his rescue job of her psyche. Lydia, apparently loathing potential rivals for her son’s affection, is, in fact, projecting her own fear of rejection and desire for maternal intimacy onto them. Annie’s long-ago failure to fight through is mirrored in her tragically brutal end.

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Melanie’s passage through the fire is central. She has not one, but two “shower scenes.” The shots of her driving through the vast, beautiful landscape find their ultimate reversal when Melanie is trapped in the cage of a phone booth, watching unimaginable carnage, her world gone from ennui-producing plenty to terror-provoking entrapment. Later, the inhabitants of the Brenner house pass through several circles of hell—a not-at-all-coincidental, infernal red glow from their fire is the only light as demons peck, shred, and smash their shell.

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Melanie is caught alone in an upstairs room by birds that have penetrated the ceiling, and she’s being torn to shreds as she shouts first for Mitch, and then, barely audible, cries for him to get Cathy and Lydia out of the house. It is only at this point that all the Brenners arrive to save her. Melanie, in that final renunciation of self-interest and offering her last breath for others’ salvation, gains her the right to existence and have a family. The last image of her is of a near-catatonic, blood-spattered woman folding gratefully into the arms of mother Lydia. Hitchcock’s films are filled with heroes who finally gain their salvation by taking great physical chances, bordering on masochism, for their lovers.

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The Birds is Hitchcock’s last great film. Marnie and Frenzy have elements of greatness, but are uneven. Marnie especially attempted to cross into new territory of a dramatically sustained, stylized psychodrama, but was too late and unfashionable an effort. The Birds has its ropy moments, like the halfhearted make-up of mangled Melanie after her attack. Pleshette and Tandy are brilliant, and there are great cameos by Ethel Griffies as one of Hitchcock’s pet kooks, a know-it-all ornithologist, and the ever-sturdy Charles MacGraw as a gruff fishing boat captain. Hitchcock had one of his best writing collaborators in the great, recently late Evan Hunter, who provides a superbly suggestive script. Such was his seismic force and artistic vitality, that Hitchcock, despite only making two real horror films, The Birds and Psycho, created with each a brand-new genre strand. As Psycho pointed forward to the slasher film, so The Birds promises such varying works as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Jaws (1975), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Aliens (1986), and even John Sayles’ Limbo (1999) with its theme of family found through trial.

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