Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Birds (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock promoted his film The Birds by saying "It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made!" Interesting, then, to note that the movie takes about 45 minutes before anything remotely terrifying happens.

The Birds begins with young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meeting lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a bird store. She is charmed and after he leaves, she purchases a pair of lovebirds that he was interested in for his younger sister. Daniels tracks down Brenner at his Bodega Bay home, and delivers the birds. She is soon persuaded to stay for the weekend, staying with schoolteacher (and Brenner's ex-flame) Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Soon after her arrival, huge groups of birds begin to inexplicably attack the residents of Bodega Bay.

Hitchcock certainly takes his time in setting up the characters and plot. Maybe a little too much time. The actors all do a fine job, but much of the setup seems tedious. The beginning scenes where Daniels tracks down Brenner, drives down to Bodega Bay, finds out the name of his sister, etc. is a prime example. There is nothing wrong with character development, but I think that the first hour or so of The Birds could have been tightened up considerably. To be sure, Hitchcock rarely rushes into the action at the beginning of a movie. But in films like Psycho, Hitchcock uses the extra time to build up the suspense and mood of the film. A lot of the setup in The Birds just feels unnecessary.

Hitchcock is at his best when the birds finally attack. It starts off innocently enough, with one gull swooping down at Melanie on a boat. Then a flock attacks several children during Cathy Brenner's birthday party. Each attack gets progressively bigger and more threatening. Interestingly, Hitchcock almost never uses music, at least not noticeably like he did in Psycho. I suppose he didn't really need it; there is something rather unsettling about the birds' attacks as they are. But even more unsettling are the shots where the birds are just sitting there calmly, staring. One of the most suspenseful Hitchcock sequences I've seen comes at the end of the film, when Brenner goes outside at dawn and sees hundreds of birds perched all around his house. He quietly walks over to the garage, slowly backs out with the car, and opens the front door to bring his family and Melanie to the car. The suspense, obviously, comes from the fact that the birds could attack at any minute. But they don't, they just stare, and the result is a very creepy scene.

The Birds does have some other flaws besides the tedious set-up. There is a scene in a diner that is altogether too convenient. Melanie is calling home trying to explain to her father about the bird attacks, when she just happens to run into a bird expert who lectures her about the difference between crows and blackbirds and why different kinds of birds would never fly together. The whole scene comes off as phony and unnatural, as well as overlong. It also seemed that Hitchcock really didn't know how to end the movie. The ending is abrupt and there is no resolution for the characters he has so labored to develop.

The Birds certainly is an imperfect movie, with its tedious setup and abrupt ending. But Hitchcock succeeds hugely with the actual bird attacks, which, let's face it, is the main reason to watch The Birds. Hitchcock also wisely never gives an explanation for why the birds attacked. My 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book suggests that Hitchcock might have intended it to be a "misogynistic sexual allegory," but I don't buy it. No, I think he was just trying to scare us out of our wits. Mission accomplished, Hitch.

Verdict: B


RKBC said...

Love the opening paragraph of the review

HAL-9000 said...

Great review, I agree with everything you said. I saw this apart of the Horror Genre study I was doing for my Media Studies class, I was excited to finally see it but it certainly didn't live up to the likes of Psycho, but that would be difficult to beat. As I said, great review.