Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lou Reed Was Right: I Love You, Suzanne

By Lars Trodson

There is an astonishing, lovely, haunting shot in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and it is of Suzanne Pleshette in repose, smoking a cigarette, and she is listening as the brash Melanie Daniels talks on the phone.

Hitchcock’s color movies – particularly the ones he made in the 1960s – are unusually garish, and “The Birds” is no exception. It’s flat and ugly. But that one shot of Pleshette is like a painting, and its feeling is imbued in large part because of the power of an actress who could hold the screen without saying a word. That’s a beautiful shot, and Suzanne Pleshette is beautiful in it.

There is a lot of cruelty in Hitchcock’s films; I don’t break any new news by saying that. But what is particularly interesting about the emotional geography in “The Birds” is that almost from the beginning Hitchcock skews our emotional attachment away from the unsympathetic Tippi Hedren (her performance is not quite as bad as some people would make it out to be) to the much more human and endearing Annie, the schoolteacher played by Pleshette.

Hitchcock may have had his reasons for doing this, but he rarely parsed our affections away from his leading lady by the presence of another woman. But Hitchcock knew that even if the boorish Mitch, played by Rod Taylor, had broken up with Annie, we in the audience were not going to be quite so stupid.

Even Mitch’s daughter Cathy, played Veronica Cartwright, was clearly more enamored of Annie than she was of Miss Daniels.

The shot we’re talking about – the photography in “The Birds” was by Robert Burks, who was Hitchcock’s most frequent cinematographer from “Stranger’s on a Train” (1951) on – takes place early in the movie. Melanie Daniels has tracked Mitch down to the seaside village of Bodega Bay, and she is going to stay at Annie’s house for the night.

Melanie has to phone Mitch to let her know she’s staying there, and while she’s on the phone Hitchcock cuts to Annie, laying back in her chair, head tilted to the ceiling, her leg propped up, and she is in profile. The colors are muted, like an old faded postcard and the scene to me is slightly Victorian. I can see that shot right now, even though I haven’t watched the movie in years. We know that Annie’s heart is breaking as the new girlfriend talks to Mitch, and we feel for her. Her heavy pain is evident in that one shot. He gave her the movie right there and then. And we in the audience carry that emotion with us even after Hitchcock, as he is so willing to do, has Annie killed mid-way through the picture.

It’s sometimes the fate of a star of a picture to be overshadowed by an actor in a lesser part, and it may have been no trick to steal “The Birds” away from Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, but even so. Hitchcock knew what he had in Suzanne Pleshette, and even though she was never going to be the star of his movie, she gave it a very human, lovely tone that it would not have otherwise had.

And on the night after she died, I was listening to a radio talk show late at night, and I heard all these women call in, women who were undoubtedly the same age as Pleshette, and they had embraced her, and they were going to miss her because they knew what Hitchcock knew: Suzanne Pleshette was a keeper.