Like most people my age, the first time I saw The Birds was when it had its broadcast television premiere on NBC back in 1968. Then only 10-years-old, I had never seen an Alfred Hitchcock movie before, but he was familiar to me, if not by reputation, then most certainly by that corpulent profile featured so prominently on his weekly anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I knew he was a film director but my strongest impression was of his being “The fat Rod Serling,” or “The scary Walt Disney”; a household-name TV host in the vein of Dick Powell and Loretta Young whom I associated with suspense programs like The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and Thriller.
|Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels|
(always loved how "naturally" she holds that cotton swab to her head)
|Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner|
|Jessica Tandy as Lydia Brenner|
|Suzanne Pleshette as Annie Hayworth|
|Veronica Cartwright as Cathy Brenner|
A class act in every way, The Birds was the first horror film I ever saw that didn't have the feel of the bargain-basement about it. Beautifully photographed, breathtaking special effects, suspense deftly metered; The Birds is simply a marvelous example of a thriller that understands how much an audience enjoys being taken on a thrill ride. Nowhere near as mean-spirited as some of Hitchcock’s other films (his Frenzy is one of the ugliest, most misanthropic films I've ever seen), I liken the experience of watching The Birds to being a participant in an adult version of the old “peek-a-boo” game one plays with an infant: I may get scared when the film goes “Boo!”, but I delight in the jolt and I sit there in gleeful anticipation of the next one, and the next one, and the next one.
And should Hitchcock’s predilection for fake-looking sets and feeble rear-screen projection mar this stylish enterprise with the cheesy-looking scene or two (I still can’t get over that sequence on the hill overlooking the children’s birthday party - it looks like a set from a high-school production of Brigadoon); or Evan Hunter’s script occasionally defy the normal patterns and rhythms of human speech; The Birds ultimately more than makes up for it in the near-genius technical rendering of the bird attacks and the kind of virtuoso storytelling that’s becoming all-too-rare in films today.
Throughout its evolution from late-career Hitchcock embarrassment, to affectionately derisible camp classic, straight on through to its current revisionist acceptance as a masterpiece of suspense and terror, The Birds has never once ceased being a favorite of mine.
|Torch-Carryin' Annie has to listen to the Effortlessly Elegant Melanie make inroads with |
The Man That Got Away
If that's not to your liking, you can ponder non-pertinent, yet nagging elements like: that scary portrait of Mitch's father (he doesn't look like a man who "had the knack" of entering into a kid's world). Or maybe the huge discrepancy in age between Mitch and his sister, Cathy (the wonderful Veronica Cartwright, stealing scenes even then!). Or why those two little moppets being traumatized at the diner aren't in school. And while you're at it, ask yourself why Annie Hayworth's class is the only one held in that big old schoolhouse. Don't they have teenagers in Bodega Bay?
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
We’ve all seen it or heard stories: A woman walks past a man -- man makes a comment (usually vulgar) about her attractiveness. Said woman ignores both comment and commenter only to find herself the object of a stream of hurled invectives from the man, all blatantly contradicting his earlier “compliments.” Standard operational procedure in misogyny: man places woman on fetishized pedestal only so he can knock her off of it. In many ways, The Birds plays out like the world’s most expensive and elaborate ugly-guy revenge fantasy against beautiful women (a mantle taken up several decades later by Joe Eszterhas with the craptastic Showgirls). There are times when it feels as if Hitchcock devised the entire multi-million production for the sole purpose of mussing Tippi Hedren’s meticulously sculpted coiffure.
|Haters Gonna Hate|
When it comes to disapproving glares from strangers,
Melanie Daniels doesn't have any fucks to give
Not since an excitable James Stewart ran obsessively roughshod over Kim Novak’s shopping spree in Vertigo can I recall a movie preoccupying itself so all-consumingly with a woman’s appearance. The first hour or so of The Birds is a virtual valentine to all things Tippi. Hitchcock records her in loving closeup, ogling long shots, and to the adoring exclusion of all else that’s going on around her. And when she’s not being subjected to the camera obscura equivalent of a wolf-whistle, The Birds makes sure it captures every leering, appraising gaze she draws from the males she crosses paths with.
But of course, the glamorization/objectification of leading ladies is nothing new. What makes The Birds the perverse and ultimately camp-prone curiosity it is, is the degree of enthusiasm with which the film approaches the task of dismantling all that it has so meticulously set up. Hedren’s Melanie Daniels is involved in each of the film’s recorded bird attacks and seriously gets the worst of it in the by-now-classic finale, but the movie doesn't ask that we relate to her character so much as hope that each successive attack will knock a bit of the starch out of her.
It sounds very ungallant of me to say so, but a great deal of the enjoyment I’ve derived from The Birds over the years has been at Ms.Hedren’s expense. To be fair, it must be said that it’s difficult to tell whether I'm responding to the limitations of the actress herself or the made-to-look-ridiculous-on-purpose character of Melanie Daniels.
|Venus in Furs|
Melanie Daniels' high-style glamour is made to look absurd when contrasted
with the more practical environment of Bodega Bay
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
If in this post I sound guilty of succumbing to the kind of revisionism that spins vintage cinema straw into nostalgia-laced gold, it's only because I've been around long enough to have taken note of what I perceive to be a certain downward trajectory in films. In the independent/foreign-film-influenced days of my youth, it was generally assumed that movies like The Birds were on their way out, and it was fashionable to mock their solid, old-school (read: Establishment) professionalism.
In this shot from the opening scene of The Birds, the traffic signal indicates WALK, but on the right of the screen, you can see a strong-armed "extra wrangler" preventing a clearly befuddled little old lady from crossing the street and spoiling Hitchcok's introduction shot of his leggy star, the lovely Ms. Hedren. I told you I've watched this movie a lot.
Jump ahead to the present day. We now have an industry run by lawyers and populated with techno-geeks churning out obscenely expensive comic book movies and CGI video games disguised as films for a subliterate demographic that bullies the boxoffice through their Twitter accounts.
All of a sudden, old-fashioned things like story, character, pacing, and maturity seem positively revolutionary. I've always liked The Birds, but I never considered it a classic. I think that opinion has changed. I don't think there's a director working today who can pull off what Hitchcock does in this flawed masterpiece, I really don't. It's a movie both smart and silly that never once falls prey to what is near-standard in horror films today: stupidity. It takes its time, it gets us to care about its characters, and the power of the shock effects comes from our engagement in the narrative. The Birds is not Alfred Hitchcock's best film by a long shot, but its obvious skill, artistry, and simple entertainment value make much of what passes for motion pictures today look like chicken feed.
A couple of terrific essays on Hedren and "The Birds" can be found HERE at the site of fellow blogger, Poseidon's Underworld.