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The Birds Review (1963)

by "Penguin" Pete Trbovich on June 29th, 2018 | | , , , ,

The Birds was directed by Alfred Hitchcock (who also directed Psycho and Strangers on a Train) and stars Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and  Jessica Tandy. It’s about socialite citizens in California witnessing the advent of birds attacking all humanity.

…And remember, the next scream you hear could be your own!

The Birds Review


The birds own the sky
No one knows why they attack
Flapping black death cloud

Pardon our self-indulgence, but we have to practice our haiku in order to talk about the Zen masterpiece by the master horror director himself. Sir Alfred Hitchcock worked so often for the audience, gave to us so much, and The Birds was the only time he made a movie solely for himself. In the Hitchcock canon, it stands alone as the one time he allowed the mystery to go unsolved, the ending to go unexplained.

It was also Hitchcock at his riskiest. Despite his movies having become known for their sweeping, atmospheric scores helmed by Bernard Herrmann, this movie had no music score. Although we are now familiar with the “nature vs. mankind” theme of horror movies, this was the first time nature in a wanton universe was the only “villain” of the story. It was the most technically innovative film attempted at the time, with electrical effects standing in for the birds’ cries and over four hundred trick shots which were a grueling chore to pull off at the time.

On wings of terror
The bird that can be described
Is not the true bird

The actual plot of the movie is “humans go about their business, then birds attack, then they attack some more, and that’s it.” But for the record, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) are socialite playgirl and playboy in the parts of San Francisco which were ritzy even in the 1960s. They have a playful little flirt which is headed for a courtship for them, out of little more motive than boredom. Meeting in a pet store, Mitch is out for a pair of lovebirds to give to his sister for a birthday present and pretends to mistake Melanie for a salesperson; Melanie later reciprocates by buying a pair of lovebirds herself and trespassing in the Daniels’ home to leave them there anonymously, but Mitch catches her.

Just when their liaisons are beginning to get frisky, birds start attacking. Through the course of the film, bird attacks come at regular intervals, while the citizens of Bodega Bay scramble for cover and take turns clawing at each other in irrational cross-blame. Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) gives Melanie a rather frosty reception, but Melanie ends up spending her time with Mitch’s family anyway out of the necessities of survival.

A mystery bird
Visited and then he left
Only a feather

Like the greatest surreal directors we’re all now familiar with (Lynch, Bunuel, Jodorowsky), Hitchcock explains nothing, but generously hands us puzzle pieces which we may assemble into any meaning we choose. One step ahead of us, the supporting cast eagerly supplies us with alternative theories as to what’s going on, and more than a few fingers are pointed at Melanie, as if she were about to be accused of causing the birds; attacks through her witchcraft.

If you accept karma, however, then the movie makes almost airtight logic. Melanie is given the backstory of having been in trouble for breaking a window, having appeared in court where Mitch, a lawyer, saw her for the first time; later birds smash into glass windows and shatter them all around Melanie. Mitch, with a domineering mother, his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), an old flame who’s now a schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette), and Melanie herself, is a man surrounded by women, like a rooster in a henhouse. The lovebirds in their cage mirror the humans trapped in houses, phone booths, and cars by the greater presence of the attacking birds. The first official casualty is a chicken farmer. Mitch and Melanie’s twee barnyard antics of courtship seems to drive the birds to attack out of sheer aesthetic loathing.

But the most intriguing motif is the bridge built between Hitchcock’s previous film Psycho and this one. Recall that Norman Bates keeps the hotel and house festering with bird pictures and stuffed birds. And then there’s the conversation between Norman Bates and Marion Crane, where Bates actually says “…we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other…” Don’t kid yourself for a minute, Hitch knew exactly what he was doing.

Apocalypse now
Attack of the birds was first
Many would follow

It’s almost impossible to find a disaster horror trope that The Birds didn’t either originate or establish. It’s got jump scares, random extras getting killed off, “beats” (Hitchcock was the OG DJ of film beats), the police who don’t believe you at first, the character investigating suspicious noises without letting anyone else know, the scientific expert (the friendly neighborhood ornithologist at the cafe) who insists that what’s going on is impossible, and a masterful blend of dread, because you know another attack is coming, and suspense, because the birds have their own schedule and aren’t sharing it with us. If you substitute zombies for birds, it’s even prescient about that subgenre.

And of course the infamous playground scene, which is now memed to death with parodies and homages. Melanie goes to escort Cathy home from school, where first we see one crow on the playground… then a few seconds later another shot of the playground with four crows… then a long time without showing the playground, during which we’re furiously doing math in our head trying to figure out how many more crows that means.

That The Birds is acclaimed today as one of the greatest horror films of all time goes without saying. It’s also sometimes mentioned as among the top films ever made in any genre, and certainly one of the crowning achievements to Alfred Hitchcock’s career. While it may seem tame by today’s standards and is sometimes criticized for its languid first act, its importance as the godfather of creature-features cannot be denied.

The Verdict:

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