Friday, November 18, 2011

My Review of The Birds

The Birds (1963)

When you come to think of it, The Birds is actually one of the most influential films ever made. All "act of nature" or "attack of the killer whatever" movies, even those about zombie apocalypses owe something to The Birds. This is also the second Alfred Hitchcock movie I have seen (the first being Psycho) and it is one that I picked up in a collection recently (which also includes Rear Window, North By Northwest, and Vertigo, all of which I will be seeing soon). The Birds isn't quite as good as Psycho, but it is still pretty much a perfect movie in my eyes, because I couldn't really find anything wrong with it. The film is exciting, suspenseful, well-acted, well-directed, and at times, it is genuinely frightening.

However, if one were to look at the first forty-five or so minutes of The Birds by itself, it would not seem like a horror movie at all. In fact, it seems like a romantic comedy until Hitchcock pulls a complete genre switch. The film is about Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a wealthy San Francisco socialite who meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop during a typical romantic comedy meet-cute situation when he is looking for lovebirds to give to his younger sister for her birthday. It is here that we learn that Brenner already knows who Daniels is (which is not a bird shop employee like she was pretending to be to talk to him) and that she is a notable practical joker, which he doesn't much care for.

Following the meet-cute/loathe at first sight, Melanie decides to buy the lovebirds for Mitch and goes to deliver them to his apartment, but discovers he is not there, rather he is at Bodega Bay (where the majority of the film takes place) staying with his mother and sister (which his neighbour says he does every weekend). She decides to drive up and give the birds to his sister by hand. While experiencing her first hours in Bodega Bay, she meets Annie Heyworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a suspicious schoolteacher, and after she is invited to dinner by Mitch, she meets his little sister Cathy and extremely distant mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy).

However, it's when she's boating back to the mainland that the audience sees there's something up. A seagull ducks down at Melanie and scratches her on the head, apparently deliberately. Melanie decides to stay the night and rents a room in Annie's house. Annie explains that she used to date Mitch, and that the reason that they are no longer together is Mitch's mother. It seems we have another Norma Bates on our hands, but Annie explains that she's not afraid of losing her son, but she is afraid of being abandoned (after losing her husband several years prior) and she sees any woman that Mitch takes interest in as a threat. It is made clear that the mutual attraction between Melanie and Mitch is growing as well, which may cause problems, but there are bigger issues to deal with.

The birds attack again, this time at Cathy's birthday party, and they wound several children. After they take refuge in the house and think that they are safe, birds come sweeping into the house and attack all that are inside it. We don't know why they are doing this but it has managed to strike fear into the hearts of all the residents. Lydia asks Melanie to get Cathy from school the next day and what follows is a prime example of a perfectly staged suspense scene. Annie tells Melanie to wait outside while she finishes her lesson, and while she is sitting on a bench and lighting up a cigarette, crows slowly begin to descend on the play equipment. Melanie seems entirely oblivious to this until she turns around and sees hundreds of crows have descended, ready to attack. Daniels and Heyworth get the children to run away and they swarm, attacking the children.

I don't want to spoil too much more, but I will discuss another one of my favourite scenes. Melanie is calling her father at a bar, telling him about the bird attacks, and the news sparks up a debate between her, the bartender, an ornithologist, and a drunk who seems to think it's the end of the world. Then, another attack starts to happen, the one that frightened me the most until the climax. Two birds swoop down and attack a man who was pumping gas, and the gas leaks under another car. The owner of that car lights a cigar and pandemonium ensues. It is a genuinely suspenseful scene and one of the finest scares ever put on film. That being said, those who are fans of the wham-in-your-face type of scares will not like this movie because even though there is one of those near the end (which I will not spoil), most of the horror comes from build-up.

This movie definitely takes its sweet time getting to the outright horror, and Hitchcock knows that it's the little things that get people freaked out, and that build-up is a key element of suspense. The viewer can't just be pushed into the swimming pool, they have to stick their toes in first, test the waters. This element of the film reminds me of Black Swan. It's the little things in Black Swan that start to make things freaky (like the scratches on Nina's back and the moment when she pulls a large piece of skin off her finger), and Aronofsky uses these small things to freak the audience out before he throws them into the craziness of the second half of the movie. Hitchcock used the same method 47 years before, gradually freaking out the audiences with the little things (such as the seagull that attacks Melanie and the dead bird at Annie's door) before the film is flung into full apocalypse mode.

With this clever buildup, Hitchcock has managed to transform birds into some of the most frightening villains ever put on film. I wouldn't be surprised if this movie turned people off of birds, like Jaws has turned people off of the ocean and Psycho has turned people off showers. It didn't have that effect on me, but I can't deny that the birds in this movie are extremely creepy. These birds can smash through windows, peck through doors, blind people, obviously kill people, and worst of all, they don't care who they attack. They also seem invulnerable, like little Birdinators. The last image we see of them is pretty powerful, them covering the house almost in its entirety. Talk about creepy. I was unsure of whether this would hold up, but like the other Hitchcock movie I have seen, it holds up extremely well and I'm sure with repeat viewings, it will still get a reaction out of me, and the object of a horror film is to scare people is it not?

The film is well-acted on all ends, the only one I could possibly complain about is Veronica Cartwright, the actress who plays Cathy, but she gets better as the second half progresses and she's only a kid, so I don't want to be too hard on her. Plus, I like Tippi Hedren in this movie much more than I like Janet Leigh in Psycho. I feel sorry for the poor thing as well, because she suffered what was basically a psychotic episode while filming the movie entirely at the hands of Hitchcock. She and Rod Taylor work well off eachother, and the belligerent sexual tension between the two of them is fun to watch, especially in the first half of the movie before things start to get scary. The last performer I would like to talk about is Jessica Tandy as Lydia, Mitch's mother. She gave an excellent performance as the distant, and yet emotionally vulnerable mother who is still grieving over the loss of her husband, and of course, she does a great job of acting terrified when the birds come along.

The production design of the film is also solid, and the cinematography is excellent as per Hitchcock standard. As I explore more and more of his films, I will probably get to know his style better, and the next one that I would really like to see is North By Northwest, which I will probably watch tomorrow with my dad. Needless to say, The Birds does not reach the level of greatness that is Psycho, but it is a horror classic nonetheless and probably my favourite horror movie besides Scream. I strongly recommend it to everyone, including Hitchcock buffs (although most Hitchcock buffs have probably seen this already) and especially people who need familiarizing with this amazing director's oeuvre (this is a great starting point for those who want to explore Hitchcock's work as well). It's well-acted, well-filmed, suspenseful, and occasionally genuinely terrifying. So all I can say is that Platinum Dunes better not touch this or I'm going to be pissed.



  1. Just because of this film I start eying birds with suspicion. This is Hitchcock's most dated movie but its own that should never be ramade because no director alive today can make it work as well as Hitchcock. The best scene is when the bird start gathering on the climbing frame behind Melanie Daniels and also, right near the end, when they make their way though a huge flock of birds. Tension at its finest.

    Nice review,

  2. brilliant review, Harley. I haven't seen this one, in fact, the only Hitchcock film i've seen is Psycho, and I saw that a fortnight ago.