Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a wealthy socialite with a sense of mischief and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) a San Francisco lawyer out to teach her a lesson. After spoon-feeding her a bit of just dessert in a city bird shop, she tracks him to Bodega Bay, a seaside hamlet of fishing boats, restaurant regulars and a one-room schoolhouse. She doesn’t plan on staying, just show her interest and oneupmanship by dropping a gift of caged lovebirds at the Brenner family farm, then high-tailing it back home. Not if the birds can help it. Not that they intentionally are, are they? A gull descends on Melanie, drawing enough blood for Mitch to play caregiver. Antiseptic leads to conversation, conversation to dinner and dinner to the queer glares of Mitch’s strangely possessive mammy (Jessica Tandy). It’s awkward but their affections grow. The birds too are just getting started.
As for the animal kingdom, no doubt there are more anxiety-inducing candidates for the role of villain than gulls and sparrows but don’t forget who’s directing them. Of course the world knows, now officially has known for 50 years that Alfred Hitchcock, the London born director who’s confessed to his own fear of improvising on set, was the controlling hand behind the 1963 nature-thriller. The film is generally considered a classic worthy of shared breath with “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest,” work that defined Hitchcock’s golden age. For many critics it was also the last of his films to earn that distinction.
“The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds,” said Hitchcock in a series of candid interviews with critic/filmmaker Francois Truffaut (“The 400 Blows”). The “it” he was referring to was the movie’s source of inspiration, a 1952 Daphne du Maurier novella. The story involves a Cornish farm labourer’s escalating ordeal with menacing bird hordes and draws thematic and atmospheric parallels with WWII’s bombing of Britain. The English author also wrote the source material for Hitch’s “Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn.” Du Maurier’s creation was revamped for the screen obviously enough, transposed from west-coast England to the west American coast and developed by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter into a love story designed to begin as light comedy before an abrupt gear-change that would supply audiences with the surprise and suspense of the random bird attacks. Anyone familiar with Hitch’s “bomb under the table” analogy will know there’s an important difference between the two.
It’s as clear as the beak on your face, mine anyhow, that “The Birds” in a world of “Saw” and full-contact cage fighting cuts like a knife partly dulled. For a film commonly billed as a “suspense/horror,” odds are that audiences today will find the horror tame. When an army of razor-sharp beaks stab at Mitch’s hands as he tries to shutter the birds out of the home, the effect can’t help but be softened by what’s come since – Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dario Argento, Texas chainsaws and 40 years of slasher films. The safeguarding of America’s morals via the Production Code (1930-1968) with its list of Don’ts (spoken profanity, scenes of childbirth) and Be Carefuls (use of firearms, possible gruesomeness) had already begun to lose its footing by the time Norman Bates began admitting blondes to cabin 1 in “Psycho” (1960). Today it’s a runaway train.
But the latter, the feeling of anxious doubt, holds nicely. There’s a reason why Hitchcock carries the rank “Master of Suspense.” His reputation as an exacting craftsman who prioritized visual impact, over story even, covers “The Birds” like a scent. Probably the most celebrated example comes late in the film with the bird blitz on Bodega Bay. Note the use of cross-cutting, employing Melanie’s point-of-view to heighten audience participation (a fundamental Hitch objective), and the director’s working rule concerning the long-shot. “The size of the image is used for dramatic purposes and not merely to establish the background,” he told Truffaut. The shot in question shows the birds hovering above the town, readying for attack. But what’s it all about? Nature’s revenge? A Cold War experiment gone wrong? The mystery isn’t as well explained as in other Hitchcockers – Norman Bates’ cross-dressing or the reason for the bizarre murder pact in “Rope.” In fact it’s not explained at all, another reason to reconsider/revisit the film.
In many ways, different ways, “The Birds” is as bold as “Psycho” for its creative choices – the casting of model and inexperienced actress Hedren as his blonde lead (“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”), the uneasy absence of a musical score and a third point…more a personal observation…that an ending this open can be this satisfying. After a final winged assault on the Brenner home, a selection of characters (see film to subdue suspense) take advantage of a lull in the violence to quit the town. It’s delicate business. The ground is carpeted, uh, not by grass, and our heroes literally have to tip-toe to their transport. No guns, no dynamite, no compressed gas tanks…this is not “Jaws” and there is no dance of joy for the credits to roll over. But the love story is more or less wrapped in a bow. Strange how, all things considered, that seems to be enough.
In recent months however, “The Birds,” or more accurately Hitchcock, has been given some sour posthumous press after its star Hedren revealed that she’d been harrassed by the director throughout production of the film. The HBO TV movie “The Girl” (2012) recounts her supposed experience and portrays the man we’ve long assumed a lovably macabre genius as a despotic sexually needful one. What can I say? I’ll leave that one for the birds, and critics with more energy. Speaking of, a profound loss to the world of film and critique with Roger Ebert‘s recent passing at the age of 70. TV audiences especially will know him as one of two thumbs (critic Gene Siskel the other) that judged weekly theatrical and video releases (first on PBS’ Sneak Previews, then At the Movies) but never without the insight to explain the direction of said thumb, up or down. More importantly, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s opinions were accessible. By way of television, his movie compendiums or as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times (1967-2013), Ebert spoke to film lovers of all stripes – dissecting, revealing and educating but never disparaging. Rest in Peace.