Synopsis: Nothing equals The Birds for sheer terror when Alfred Hitchcock unleashes his foul friends in one of his most shocking and memorable masterpieces. As beautiful blond Melanie Daniels (‘Tippi’ Hedren) rolls into Bodega Bay in pursuit of eligible bachelor Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), she is inexplicably attacked by a seagull. Suddenly thousands of birds are flocking into town, preying on school children and residents in a terrifying series of attacks. Soon Mitch and Melanie are fighting for their lives against a deadly force that can’t be explained and can’t be stopped in one of Hollywood’s most horrific films of nature gone berserk.
The Birds 6.75
eyelights: the core concept. the setting.
eyesores: the unendearing cast. the unnatural performances. the special effects. the synthetic bird sounds.
“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?”
Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is a 1963 motion picture based on a Daphne du Maurier short story. It tells the story of a growing series of attacks on a remote coastal town by flocks of birds. It was Hitchcock’s follow-up to ‘Psycho‘ and he claimed that it would be even scarier than his landmark classic.
Frankly, I’ve never been much of fan of the picture. I remember being told all about it my step-mom when I was a kid; she frequently told me how much she had been scared by it. Later, when I finally got the chance to see it during a Hitchcock festivals on The Movie Network, I ensured that I didn’t miss out.
It was an intriguing, but largely disappointing affair. Intriguing, because the core concept is terrifying. Given the global bird population at the time versus that of the human race, we could easily get overrun by birds if they decided to turn for some reason. And given their speed, most of us would fall prey.
I can’t speak for the original story, which is substantially different, but I just couldn’t buy into Hitchcock’s version. On paper it’s perfectly fine; the plot and pace are decent. However, it’s marred by lackluster performances and the least convincing special effects that I’d seen on a large-scale motion up until that time.
Admittedly, making flocks of birds attack human beings isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. Firstly, birds of a feather flock together, right? Secondly, they’re not that easy to train; trying to get hundreds of them to respond exactly the way a film director would like them to is pretty much impossible.
And yet, that’s exactly what Hitchcock endeavored to do. What he did was to mix various techniques, using real bird, mechanical ones, birds on wires, rear projection screens, …etc., just to try to get the effects of birds stalking their prey and later coming in for an attack. In theory, it should have worked.
But it doesn’t: you can immediately tell when there’s trickery involved, especially when the rear projections are used. Further to that, Hitchcock decided to use a synthesized bird sound to try to reproduce the birds’ attacks sounds. It didn’t sound realistic at all. Combined with the film trickery, it made the birds look positively artificial.
And, thus, not scary.
What’s interesting is that Hitchcock not only decided to use fake bird noises to fill his soundtrack, but he actually decided to make it the central ingredient – there is no motion picture score in the whole picture. So ‘The Birds’ is filled with a lot of silence, and then a bevy of absurdly fake bird noise.
This put me off of the picture and it still does. When I watch the movie, I am painfully aware of the fact that this is fiction, not fact. Cinema is supposed to be able to create enough of an illusion to transport its audience to another world for 90-120 minutes. ‘The Birds’ does nothing of the sort – it’s far too jarring.
It doesn’t help that the performances are also artificial. I’m not sure why Hitch resorted to old school acting styles, but most of the actors delivered their lines in a fashion that was a decade or two too late; at no point did they appear to be real people discussing real things. They were clearly regurgitating scripted dialogue.
When I watched it this time, inspired by having watched ‘The Girl‘, I suspected that this may have been Hitchcock’s way of making Tippi Hedren look like a star in comparison: she was a model, after all, and she was only just getting started in the business; this was her very first screen role (aside for a small, uncredited one 13 years prior).
Amusingly enough, one of the things I always disliked about ‘The Birds’ was Hedren’s performance as Melanie. But when I watched it this time, I thought she was actually pretty decent. That’s when I started to notice how unnatural everyone else was – at least, in the first third of the picture, when we’re being introduced to her. Coincidence?
As the picture wore on, her performance became less and less convincing to me. But, by that time, she was flanked by Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette. While I found Taylor unusually uncharismatic, I thought that Pleshette was superb and Tandy delivered ‘The Birds’ best performance by far; they’re award-winners for a reason.
Another things that really mars the picture for me is the casting decision for Mitch Brenner (Taylor), Lydia (Tandy) and Cathy (played by an exuberant Veronica Cartwright in one of her first roles). Taylor was 33 at the time (but looked a good 10 years older for some reason), Tandy was 54 and Cartwright was 14 years old.
The problem is that Lydia is mother to both of them. That means that she would have been 20 when she had Mitch and then 39 when she had Cathy. It doesn’t sound so bad but, when you consider the era, it’s strange. Plus which Taylor makes it look like there’s 10 years’ difference between Mitch and his mom. And that’s just really creepy.
So everything seems to conspire for me to watch ‘The Birds’ completely removed from the action, emotionally uninvolved and incredulous throughout. And there’s not one time where this was not the case. I’ve now seen the picture 10-12 times and it’s a very cold, unengaging motion picture no matter what I do or how I approach it.
I do enjoy the core concept. Especially since it takes place in a remote location, so that people there are less sophisticated and more vulnerable. I like the way it’s developed, how it’s contrived to put the characters together in the same place, and how they create conflict between them in various subtle ways.
I also like that our leading lady is worldly, sharper than your average. When we’re first introduced to her, she seems a bit delicate, but her mind isn’t – at least at first, before the birds attack her. She even cracks wise and is fast on her feet, all things considered. I hate her incarnation, but on paper she’s terrific.
Another character I enjoy is Pleshette’s Annie Hayworth, who is more world-weary after years of unrequited love, but who is also quick-witted: the way she handles the attack on the school was terrific – she didn’t need a man to save her. She needed saving, yes, but she became disposable only to remove the potential hurdle between Melanie and Mitch.
Tandy’s character is harder to warm up to, but once you understand her motives you can’t help but empathize with her. The only problem is Mitch, who is a real jerk. He treats Melanie like garbage the first few times they meet, even after inviting her over for dinner: he harshly cross-examines her – which may be natural, being a lawyer, but he’s still a dick.
What’s interesting is that ‘The Birds’ isn’t exactly a thrill a minute. The birds actually only attack in short bursts and then inexplicably stop for a while. So there are long stretches during which the characters are just talking amongst themselves. And while it’s great for exposition and character development, it’s hardly edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Even the ending leaves the audience wanting: with no music, no final attack, the family silently leaves the farmhouse in Mitch’s car – while the birds are sitting by, amassed by the thousands on their property. It’s fodder for a sequel, but it’s not exactly the most tension-filled closer in suspense motion picture history.
I still like ‘The Birds’. At least, a part of me does. But I don’t understand how it can be considered Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. To me, it’s anything but. I would watch ‘Frenzy’ many times over before returning to this picture again. It has a few classic moments (like the schoolyard bit when Melanie is waiting for Cathy), but it could have been done better.
Hey, I guess even the Master of Suspense can flub once in a while.
Date of viewing: November 30, 2014