Monday, February 6, 2012

The Birds (1963) - Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock camps it up in a publicity photo.
Something weird is happening in Bodega Bay. Intrigued by handsome lawyer Mitch Brenner, rich San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels drives up the coast to the quaint little town, hoping perhaps to kindle a romance. Upon her arrival, she is attacked by a sea gull. The odd avian behavior is not an isolated incident however; and as she and Mitch begin to fall for one another, gatherings of birds grow larger and more aggressive.

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.

Lydia, shaken, asks Melanie to retrieve Kathy from school, setting up the film's most memorable sequence. With school in session, Melanie sits on a bench outside, impatient and nervous. The children sing an irritating song in the background. Unseen by Melanie, large blackbirds begin to accumulate on a jungle gym behind her. At first we see a single bird alight on the bars. The camera cuts back to Melanie, growing increasingly restive. Back to the gym, where four birds now sit. Back to Melanie. Back to the gym, now with five birds. Back to Melanie. Finally, she spots a bird in the sky and follows its flight downward. A cut to the gym reveals hundreds of animals. It's a wonderfully edited piece by longtime Hitchcock collaborator George Tomasini.

The film's most famous image.
Melanie and Annie hustle the children out and they all make a mad dash downhill to the center of town under a frenzied bird attack. Today, it looks obviously fake--most birds are superimposed over the action--but in its day it was highly effective. For the most part the children do a good job of looking terrified, some swatting at stuffed birds attached to their head, and one little girl takes a nasty fall and breaks her glasses. Watching the scene as a child for the first time was unsettling.

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.
"I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn't stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?"

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.
The scene includes an oddity: Hitchcock uses four quick stop-action shots of Hedron staring through the diner window, her mouth agape as the gasoline fire races back toward the gas pumps. It's distracting and an unnecessary flourish. Melanie inexplicably runs outside and becomes trapped in a phone booth. In an imaginative decision, Hitchcock shows the chaos of the attack from her perspective here, which includes one poor victim trying desparately to enter, his face ripped and bloody.   

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.
Once Mitch and Melanie collect Kathy and retire to the Brenner house, the story loses much of its steam. There's another hectic bird assault, and Melanie makes another dumb decision that puts her in danger. To the disappointment of some, the film ends ambiguously and we are left to imagine the fate of the main characters.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Veronica Cartwright, who played Cathy Brenner in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, is scheduled to appear at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, Hunt Valley, Md., at the Hunt Valley Wyndham Hotel, Sept. 18-20. She will be attending a screening of the film, and will be available for questions, photos, and autographs. More info