|Hitchcock camps it up in a publicity photo.|
Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to take an innocent creature like a bird and make it evil. He was at the height of his power in 1963. Following the immensely successful Psycho and his popular long-running television series, his choice of projects was unlimited. For inspiration he went to a short story by Daphne Du Maurier. (Of course, he had gone to Du Maurier twice before, in 1939 for Jamaica Inn and in 1940 with Rebecca, which won that year's Oscar for Best Film.) Seeing his new film, you would never look at crows in the quite the same way as before.
The Birds may not be among his best overall efforts, but it is still fun, a fright for younger viewers, and it contains one terrific action sequence, and outside of Psycho's shower scene, perhaps the most iconic image in all of Hitchcock's canon. If it fails to excite some adult viewers and fans, it may be because evil seems less menacing when perpetrated by nature rather than by the hand of man, Hitchcock's usual approach.
One of the stronger attributes to the film is its pacing. Hitchcock builds the suspense beautifully. The title hints that you should expect something odd with our flying friends, and he tantalizes us with a slow buildup. The main characters are introduced in a San Francisco pet shop, where Melanie (Tippi Hedren) meets Mitch (Rod Taylor), who has come to purchase a pair of love birds for his younger sister, Kathy, for her birthday. Melanie's reputation as a spoiled party girl, fueled by gossip columns, precedes her and allows Mitch to recognize her. A humorous sequence ensures where Mitch plays a joke on the girl, pretending to think she works in the store. This encounter sets up the reason for Melanie to follow him to Bodega Bay, where she brings the gift to Kathy.
Hitchcock displays a goofy sense of humor on the drive up the coastal highway. As Melanie's convertible negotiates the twists in the roadway, the two birds, perched in their cage, lean into the turns. The birds are green, and Melanie wears a similarly colored dress throughout the film.
Melanie enquires at the post office where Mitch lives, and after securing a motor boat, putters across the bay to secretly deposit the love birds at the Brenner home. Returning by water, a single gull suddenly swoops down and strikes her forehead. Mitch, who has discovered the birds and noticed her in the boat, arrives to tend to the minor wound.
Two other characters are introduced at this stage: Mitch's mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who's overly protective of her son and likely an expert in passive/aggressive behavior to discourage any romance in his life; and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the local school teacher. One of Mitch's former girlfriends, she still has feelings for him.
At Mitch's urging, Melanie decides to spend the night. Awkwardly, she does so at Annie's. Pleshette has a nice scene where she sits listening to a phone call between Mitch and Melanie. He asks her to attend Kathy's birthday party the next day. Annie stares vacantly, thinking of an earlier day, and you know she wishes Mitch's attentions were on her instead of Melanie.
The scene highlights the biggest problem with the film--Annie is a more interesting character than the lead, and Pleshette a much better actress. Hitchcock took a risk casting the unknown Hedren. She looks the part, icy and, her hair tightly coiffed, but her performance is merely adequate. It's hard to develop much feeling for her character. One wonders how much more interesting the film would have been had the roles been reversed.
At the party the next day, the children are attacked by birds. No one is seriously hurt, but the incident is ominous. The next morning Lydia visits a neighbor and makes a grisly discovery. Birds have broken through his bedroom window. He is dead, his eyes plucked out, leaving gaping black holes. The scene, shown in rapid closeup cuts, is considerable more graphic than anything Hitchcock had previously presented an audience. The director was changing with the times, and by the time of Frenzy nine years later, he would embrace overt violence in flim, though one suspects, reluctantly.
|Apparently Lydia isn't the only one angry about spoiled bird seed.|
|The film's most famous image.|
Now is a good time to talk about the score. There is none. The only "music" is electronic noises designed to represent screeching birds when they attack. It's an effective technique, especially here where it serves to enhance the mood of panic. Still, I miss Bernard Herrmann. His contribution to previous Hitchcock films were an integral reason they were so memorable. Without Herrmann's score on Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, those films would have had a very different feel. In any case, the lack of score here seems a missed opportunity. So does the fact that none of the outside attacks occur at night or dusk. Rather, they happen in bright sunlight. Things are scarier if you can't see them.
The magnificent diner sequence follows. With fine contributions by an ensemble cast, Hitchcock gets to the heart of the film: how people react in times of crisis and confusion. The star is Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy, a knowledgeable ornithologist. Film noir veteran Charles McGraw appears is a grizzled fisherman and Joe Mantel (Ernest Borgnine's buddy in Marty) is a traveling salesman. Familiar faces to TV viewers of the period include Doreen Lang as an hysterical mother, Karl Swenson as a drunk who thinks it's the end of the world, and Lonny Chapman, the diner owner.
|Mrs. Bundy dispenses her knowledge at the diner.|
The fourteen minute scene starts with Melanie on the phone to her father, explaining about the attack at the school. She's upset, and the others in the diner overhear the conversation. Naturally, some begin to ask questions. Mrs. Bundy explains that the brain pan of a bird is too small to enable it to develop sufficient intelligence to plan an attack. The characters are wonderfully natural here, interrupting one another as in real speech, and displaying expressions of skepticism. I particularly love how Mrs. Brudy responds to Melanie's question of what she thinks is behind the attacks. Instead of offering an explanation, Bundy throws it back at her. "What do you think ..."
As they debate the school attack, the birds return with a vengeance, knocking a man over who is fueling his car at a gas pump. The hose falls out and the gasoline begins to spill into the street, across the road to a parking lot., Another man pulls in and lights a cigarette. The diner patrons shout a warning but he drops the match when it burns his finger, igniting a terrific explosion.
|Dammit! I'm out of change.|
In several scenes in the film Hitchcock used matte paintings to flesh out the background. An effective technique, it work well here. As the bird attack abates, the camera cuts to a distant high perspective. A few birds fly by into the immediate foreground, and far below we see the full carnage, the smoke billowing upward.
|A storyboard version of the attack.|
Hitchcock admittedly was in the business of entertaining his audience, not producing message films. Still, it can be fun to dissect his work to project deeper meaning. For some, The Birds may beg the question of mans' inability to control nature, and what that portends. Alternatively, a highly imaginative sort may see it as an allegory to the Cold War. For most, it is likely a fun trip back into nostalgia, when films could still scared you.