Murder at the Fair

And so we come to the superior vacancy of Tippi Hedren that the much-too-Oscared Jodie can’t quite touch. Hedren is Hitch- cock’s most minimalist actress, one who conveyed emotions by her rate of blinking. When she is under mass attack in The Birds, she simply blinks more fiercely.

One of the persistent questions in the film is why the birds attack the humans in the first place. Hitchcock gives no reason, allowing audiences to shift uneasily in their seats as the screen is clawed into chaos. The film’s finale, with Tippi and company inching gingerly toward a gull-covered convertible with its fragile canvas roof, captures the jittery tempo of the paranoid, post-atomic 1960s, a touch that remains so endurably modern that the film is just as radical today — and yet as right-on — as the “unsatisfying” nowhere ending of No Country for Old Men : Things happen. For no reason. Deal with it.

And I, after many viewings, have dealt with it. You see I do know the reason why the birds attack: And her name is Tippi. Beautiful, blond, envelope thin, Tippi Hedren in The Birds is a creature of high-fashion artifice, of the elegant long neck and uncomfortable twisted positions favored by the Vogue photographer. An artifice so thorough that nature is thrown into an uproar, a rage, and rises to attack her.

As a smug, soulless playgirl, the Hedren character is the alien invader, a threat and a competitor, who with her contrived angularity vies for the mantle of ultimate beauty, offering something more polished and machine-made than the organic, messy circles of nature.

And so she must be stopped, and the gulls swoop down, in a famous sky-high shot, to rip her apart with talon and beak, banging with maddened frenzy into the glass phone booth where she has taken shelter, cracking the glass, setting off gasoline fires, exploding cars, wild runaway horses: a sly and never-to-be-forgotten Hitchcockian tableau of the Biblical Apocalypse.

Like I say, I go a little off my nut for Hitchcock movies. When I look at the Vanity Fair reproductions — Jodie Foster is the one closest at hand — I think of Gus Vant Sant’s laborious scene-by-scene remake of Psycho , a noble experiment that simply didn’t fly, much like the absurd Dodo bird, which the film resembled.

Hitchcock’s souless blondes add the right note of existential numbness

In the remake Anne Heche did what Jodie is doing, what good actresses are supposed to do. She warmed up the role Janet Leigh played, showing thoughts and emotions crossing her face — and it was a disaster.

The shell-shocked Janet Leigh was much more provocative. Leigh’s motivations were pointedly left out of the original until much later when, almost in a script afterthought, we learn she stole the money to run away with the beyond-beautiful John Gavin.

Under Hitchcock’s direction the actress never tips us to the fact that she might be something more complex than an automaton. The starey-eyed Janet, the icy Tippi (in both The Birds and particularly Marnie , where she is not only an automaton and compulsive thief but sexually frigid as well), the sleekly distant Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (available but so fashionably uninvolved) add the right note of post-atomic existentialism — a cool numbness that is so crucially missing in the Vanity Fair recreations.

All except one.