Synopsis: A San Francisco socialite pursues a man to a small Northern California town that takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people.
Stars: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw, Joe Mantell, Elizabeth Wilson, Doodles Weaver, Richard Deacon
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: I’m not one of those people that can watch films by the great director Alfred Hitchcock over and over, endlessly analyzing the way he constructed shots and drove narratives in exciting new ways. I prefer to take long-ish stretches between viewings because not only does it help me appreciate the movie when I return to it, I also come back just a little hazy on all the plot mechanics. This helps achieve somewhat of a “fresh take” on repeat viewings. I should also probably confess that I’ve yet to make it through the entire Hithcock catalog, though I’m slowly ticking them off as the years go by. Shamefully, it took a pandemic to help me watch North by Northwest for the first time!
Anyway, this all goes to say that I can’t even remember the last time I’ve watched 1963’s The Birds from start to finish. I’ve caught bits and pieces here and there, sure, but taking the whole thing in has been likely decades in the making. What I do remember is that the first time I saw it as a teenager I found it incredibly slow and talky, not the thrilling horror as promised. I mean, of course I did! At that point, all I wanted was to get to the bird-killing action and seeing people running away from beaks and clawed feet. What’s all this banter between the striking blonde (Tippi Hedren) and stone-jawed hunky leading man (Rod Taylor) got to do with flesh-craving birds?
Viewing it as an adult who has a more rounded view of cinema and of the oeuvre of the director, I understand the structure of the screenplay of The Birds and how Hitchcock uses the first hour or so to establish time, place, and character. Without these factors being cemented, the last half of the film wouldn’t work nearly as well because we’d have no idea of the isolation felt by the people fending off flocks of seagulls. It makes perfect sense to stroll through a curiously event-free 25 minutes before the first angry bird makes its presence known, that way we’ve gotten to know flirty Melanie (Hedren) who has tracked twinkle-eyed Mitch (Taylor) to his weekend retreat in Bodega Bay, California.
Melanie’s arrival appears to coincide with a strange convergence of birds who seem to escalate their assaults rather quickly on the unprepared seaside town. This allows Hitchcock to stage some masterfully suspenseful scenes, rendered with a mix of live and animatronic birds as well as more that were added in later using a state-of-the-art special effect. No one is safe in this story, not even the town’s children who become the first targets of a terrifying mob of razor beaked crows. As the birds continue to destroy Bodega Bay and its residents without any explanation as to why, Melanie winds up with Mitch, his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy, Still of the Night), and his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, Alien) in their remote home far from the town and any true safety.
I still find the film overly talky at points, not so much in the opening when it makes sense but in that final stretch when the momentum should buoyed a bit more. Hitchcock lets the dramatics of Evan Hunter’s screenplay (Hunter was the pseudonym for popular crime author Ed McBain) be prioritized over sustained suspense which is disappointing considering how truly scary the movie is at times. Perhaps it was done to give the audience of the time a way to catch their breath but viewed now it comes off like a train that starts to slide back down a hill just as it makes it to the end of a wild ride of twists and turns. While it did diverge quite significantly from author Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, I think everyone made the right call to tweak it the way they did. It does have a number of unforgettable images, like a wooden door gradually being pecked away and Hedren’s wild eyes as she is set upon by a swarm of flying evil.
The performances are impressive too, with Hedren one of the more fun “Hitchcock Blondes”; she really earns her paycheck late in the film for a bird attack scene that took a week to film and sent her to the hospital for exhaustion afterward. Brawny Stewart was never a huge A-lister but he’s a good match of Hedren and the film, though his heavily bronzed face makes him look as old as his mother at times. Tandy is most remembered for her late in life roles when she played a spry elder so it’s wonderful to watch her forty years before she would win her Best Actress Oscar. Cartwright and Pleshette have their nice moments but you can’t mention The Birds and not call out the delightfully droll Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy, the natty townslady who just so happens to be an expert on birds. Her small scene reveals a great deal about the habits of the winged creatures…which is directly contradicted by the unexplained behavior we then witness for the next 60 minutes.
You can see why this is often called the most straight-forward scary film Alfred Hitchcock made because it often pulls no punches when it comes to vicious bird attacks. I’m sure PETA would have a field day with it now but the live birds look positively horrific flapping about the actors and dive bombing for their fingers and faces. Though not in 3D, it gives off the effect of it by a constant swirl of movement which is disorienting but not hard to follow. The director earned the title The Master of Suspense for a reason and The Birds is the movie you can point directly to if anyone questions it. All they have to do is watch the scene where a murder of crows slowly gathers on a jungle gym behind an unsuspecting Hedren – you can literally feel your heart beating faster. This is a great option if you’re in the mood for a horror film elevated to the highest level of sophistication.
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