Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The single greatest movie scene, ever

All right, perhaps it's not the absolute greatest. Professional movie connoisseurs will gasp in derision and point to the Odessa steps scene in Battleship Potemkin, or the chariot race in Ben Hur, or anything from Citizen Kane, or the burning of Atlanta or who knows what else.

But I pick this one, so we'll just call it my favorite movie scene, ever. It's from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Tippi Hedren, as the impossibly blond and rather too smirky Melanie Daniels, climbs into a little rowboat fitted with an outboard motor and chugs across Bodega Bay to drop off, all in secret, a cage of lovebirds at Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor)'s house. She is dressed in her best traveling-to-the-boondocks-from-San-Francisco clothes: pencil skirt suit, hose, high heeled pumps, scarf, fur coat -- three quarter length, mind you -- bag, and gloves. And of course she must carry the ultimate whimsical accessory, the birdcage.

The scene begins when she writes, left-handedly, "To Cathy" on the envelope that she will drop off along with the birdcage. (The birds are a putative gift for his little sister.) She pops the envelope into her handbag, jumps into her adorable roadster, and roars down from Bodega Bay proper to the pier where her hired skiff is waiting. She climbs down the rickety ladder tacked to the dock, heels, skirt, fur, bag, scarf, gloves, and all, and steps in. It rocks alarmingly. The man in charge of the thing helps with the cage, gets in too, starts the motor for her, then climbs out. She is on her own.

Off she putts across the bay, a well dressed little figure who would drown in a moment if the slightest mishap should occur on the water. ("Can you -- handle an outboard motor?" the nice man asks at the general store before he reserves this conveyance for her. "Of course," she says.)

When she gets close to "the Brenner dock" she cuts the motor and paddles her way in. What I like about the rest of the scene is the way Tippi Hedren has been trained to look proficient at handling the boat. Who knows, maybe she knew how anyway. She does things in all the right order, things that I certainly wouldn't know how to do. You see, you pull up to the dock, lay the paddle on the floor of the boat, and loop a rope from the boat around a post on the pier first; then you step out to the pier. In heels, skirt, hose, gloves, bag, scarf, and three-quarter length fur. Plus birdcage.

She trips along smilingly up the pier, across the muddy yard, and into the empty house. Mitch is in the barn, and so as she delivers her surprise and the explanatory envelope and then leaves the way she came, all is suspense and tiptoeing and a dozen looks over the shoulder, as the camera's eye -- her own -- pans farther and farther away from the terrifying but exciting open barn doors. Then, it's back to the skiff, and all the correct actions in reverse. You step in, pick up the paddle, steady yourself on nothing but your own strong legs and those stiletto heels, and use the paddle to push and turn the boat's nose out toward open water. The actress is willing herself to stay upright and yet look natural and excited about her practical joke -- which helps make the scene natural, in its way. Lastly she sits down, pulls the securing rope off the big wooden post, and heads out. I'd be the landlubber type who would frantically try to push off with the rope still stupidly looped to the pier, or before that, the type to try to emerge from the boat without tying it up first.

And all in that skirt, hose, heels, bag, gloves, scarf, and gorgeous but not too ostentatious and wintry fur. The greatest movie scene, ever. It was 1963. Don't tell me feminism came after this, and made things better. This woman could outclass just about anybody, thank you so much. 

Image from


  1. Amen. And Rod Taylor was a mighty fine specimen, too.


  2. Indeed he was. That was what made the barn doors so exciting. I'm of a mind to watch the whole thing again tonight.