From the archive
Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai, 1948, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Production still. Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) and Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth).
KAFKA: “A CAGE WENT IN SEARCH OF A BIRD”
Hitchcock regularly appeared in his own films and since his death has, like Welles (and Warhol), become a character in other people’s. Double Take places Hitchcock alongside Nixon, Khrushchev, and Kennedy in the context of the missile gap and the space race in order to show him responding to, if not concocting, the cold war. The early ’60s were suffused with dread, and each in his way, Hitchcock and Welles, public figures as well as famous directors, responded with a statement: Welles adapted the most emblematic of twentieth-century novels; Hitchcock made another Hollywood thriller.
Far more than the Joycean or the Proustian, the Kafkaesque is the high-modernist trope that everyone understands, even Kafka. (“Went to the movies. Wept. . . . Boundless entertainment,” the writer noted in his diary entry for November 20, 1913.) The Trial (1962) was intended as Welles’s ’60s comeback, the first film since Citizen Kane in which a producer allowed him the right of final cut; it also marked a return to the popularized high culture of his Shakespeare films—not least in his casting of Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins as Josef K. An attractively gangling, gawky, aw-shucks, all-American presence, Perkins turns assertively querulous when called on to speak for the masses. Welles has K. admit that he feels guilty and, typically, overexplain: “Why am I always in the wrong without knowing what for or what it’s all about?” Is the condition existential or historical? The Trial makes pointed allusion to the Holocaust and Hiroshima, as well as to the brute modernism of Stalinist bureaucracy, police surveillance, housing tracts, and, of course, show trials. Meanwhile, Welles played screen space as though it were an accordion, using mirrors, oddball camera placement, and a cluttered mise-en-scene to effect a further disorientation. As in Othello, creative geography is blatant. Doors open onto vast spaces; locations shift midscene—among them is a deserted d’Orsay railway station, not yet a museum. As in Mr. Arkadin (1955), the filmmaker is ubiquitous: Welles dubbed eleven voices in addition to his voice-over narration.
Hitchcock took a different approach to the Kafkaesque. The Birds appeared just as the director’s reputation reached a new peak. Arriving amid massive publicity (”The Birds is coming!”), the movie had its New York premiere on March 28, 1963, at a Manhattan art house as well as a Broadway theater, the day after the Museum of Modern Art announced its upcoming Hitchcock retrospective—itself something of a Pop art event. (That May, The Birds would open Cannes.) But despite the atonal sound design, notably free of emotional cues; the near-abstract combination of animation and live action; and the visual echoes of Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, not to mention the Miro reproduction smuggled into the scene where antiheroine Tippi Hedren is trapped in an attic and battered into catatonia, the movie has no pretensions to culture.
If anything, Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Evan Hunter, appear to have drawn on the then-recent cycle of declasse science-fiction films. The Birds postdates, and comments on, the mutant-creature features that filled drive-ins and grindhouses from the mid-‘50s into the early ’60s. In the prototypical Godzilla, released in the US in 1956, all Tokyo is a war zone, and the monster is clearly punishment for tinkering with the secrets of the universe. But what, if anything, precipitates the avian doomsday depicted in The Birds? Godzilla is awesome in his destructive disinterest; the birds are not only ridiculous but petty and mean-spirited! (They crash the kiddies’ birthday party and take pleasure in bursting balloons.) Moreover, their attacks are unpredictable and without apparent meaning, although they often follow a display of human hubris. In the opening sequence, birds mass ominously over Union Square in San Francisco as Hedren enters a downtown pet store—where everything is nicely caged. By the movie’s end, nature has repeatedly invaded the home, and the humans are caging themselves. It’s a Douglas Sirk melodrama run amok.
In The Trial‘s ultra-Eastern European denouement, K. is arrested by the secret police and marched through deserted city streets to suffer his fate in an urban wasteland. Kafka’s K. dies “like a dog,” but Welles told Cahiers that he felt obligated, in the shadow of Auschwitz, to have his K. resist. Making a pitch for rationality, Welles’s K. argues that his inexplicable case doesn’t mean the world is insane. Then the world blows up. Hitchcock, by contrast, is consistently irrational. He concludes his absurd disaster film in medias res—birds triumphant—although audience confusion compelled the addition of an end title to signify that the movie had actually ended. Communication is short-circuited. Pop’s greatest triumph would be Hollywood’s most disconcerting allegory: The Birds is all about looking for reasons and not finding any.