Recently I had the opportunity to finally see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Birds” on the big screen which were played together as a double feature. My love for all things Hitchcock is well known and this has always been a dream pairing of mine. So many of the classic Hitchcock films I have already been able to see on the big screen but both “Psycho” and “The Birds” were a glaring omission. Anyway, brilliant as the Astor cinema is, they finally presented these two films together for a special one week engagement and there was no way I was ever going to miss a chance to see these classics on the big screen. While initially I was a little disappointed that both films were projected in DCP’s (digital cinema package) and not 35mm as I would have hoped, I reluctantly understand that this is the state of cinema these days and in actual fact the presentations of the films were gorgeous, so I needn’t have worried. While I am sure I will get around to writing a review for “Psycho” eventually, this review is actually for “The Birds”.
While most people are aware of the film “The Birds”, I am not convinced that everyone knows exactly the plot of the film, so here is a little synopsis to help. After being the victim of a practical joke from Mitch Brenner, Melanie Daniels leaves her home in San Francisco to track him down and play a joke of her own on him. She finds him in his hometown, the quiet coastal town of Bodega Bay. On the way back from Mitch’s house, she is attacked by a swooping seagull. The attack is unprovoked and doesn’t follow the species normal habits. From then on, strange things continue to occur, as bird attacks become more frequent and more aggressive. What is driving these birds to attack humans?
Talk about a tough task. Seriously, how do you follow up “Psycho”? This is what Alfred Hitchcock had to deal with, and while he doesn’t make a film better than “Psycho”, what he delivers is outstanding.
Like “Psycho”, “The Birds” can easily be categorized as being part of the horror genre, rather than the thriller genre Hitchcock was so famous for. Also like “Psycho”, most people know about “The Birds” even if they haven’t seen the film. It has seeped into pop-culture, and whenever you see a larger than normal gathering of birds, you cannot help but think of this movie.
"The Birds" is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most cinematic films. There are a number of times throughout the film when Hitchcock uses the bare-minimum of dialogue and tells the story just with the visuals. In fact the final half hour of the film, from when they board themselves in the farmhouse, there is almost no dialogue. It is all told visually, with the help of the ambient and scary sounds of the birds outside, causing some truly horrific suspense.
What is great about the film is that the story is allowed to breathe and build. For the first hour of the film, the birds are basically a foreboding presence, with very little participation at all. It is in this time that we get to know the characters and learn to love them, which is very important in a horror film. If you don’t like the characters, you will not care about them when they are in danger. Another thing that is great about the film is the tonal shifts, which work well and seem quite natural in regards to the story. When we first meet our main characters, the film is very playful and fun, and plays basically like a screwball comedy. However, when the seagull attacks Melanie for the first time, that air of playfulness is lost, and the dramatic arc of the picture begins, as characters are trying to work out what is causing the birds to attack. The final shifting of tone happens when our main characters board themselves into the farmhouse for protection. Here is when the film turns into a true horror picture and the atmosphere is filled with dread and terror. Visually the film also plays with themes of light and dark which reflect with these tonal shifts as early on “The Birds” is a very bright and sun-filled film. The longer it continues, the more colour is drained from the film and the darker it gets until the thrilling finale which is played in almost total darkness with the exception of a lantern providing the smallest of flickering lights. Also by the end, the film is full of thick and dark shadows that were never present earlier on, to the point that the shadows themselves have their own ominous feeling to them.
There are so many moments in this film that are memorable. The first being the seagull attack on Melanie, which just comes out of nowhere, and ends just as quickly. The next being the discovery of the farmer laying dead in his bedroom with his eyes removed. The way Hitchcock shows us the body has been copied numerous times since, as it is done in three quick cuts, each cut getting closer to the farmer with the final cut being a close-up of his face. Another is the gas-station attack, especially when Melanie traps herself in a phone-box with the birds all trying to get in. At one stage a seagull flies straight into the glass and shatters it. It is terrifying and comes out of the blue.
There are two infamous scenes in “The Birds”. The first would have to be the scene near the end when Melanie goes into the attic and is attacked by all the birds hidden in the room, until she collapses. Behind the scenes, this was a very traumatic moment for Tippi Hedren, as originally she was lied to by Hitchcock who told her that they would use mechanical birds for this scene. However when the day arrived to shoot the scene, she found out that that was never the case and that live birds would be used. The scene took five days to shoot, and during this time, she had birds attached to her, thrown at her, and actually attack her, until at the end of the scene, she collapsed due to exhaustion and was hospitalized for a week to recover. Whether the way Hedren was treated was justified, I’m not sure I’d agree, but the end result is an amazing scene.
The most iconic image and scene of “The Birds”, however, is the “jungle gym” scene. This is the scene when Melanie is waiting outside the school to collect Cathy, to make sure she gets home all right. She is sitting on a chair, smoking and behind her, in the background, is the children’s playground. At first we, the audience, see that a single crow has landed on the jungle gym. It cuts back to Melanie, this time the framing of the shot is a little tighter. We cut back to the jungle gym and there are now four crows on it. It once again cuts back to Melanie, primarily a close up on her face, and Hitchcock ingeniously holds on the shot for a very long time. The suspense here is unbearable, as we all know that the birds are gathering behind Melanie, but she has no idea. What makes this scene even more impressive is that the children inside the school are singing a strange nursery rhyme which just adds to the tension. Finally, Melanie notices a bird in the sky, and she follows it with her eyes. When she turns around she sees the whole jungle gym covered in crows. Just then school finishes and the kids come out and the birds attack. It is a classic Hitchcock scene.
As of yet, I haven’t talked about any of the acting. I must say that I have a soft spot in my heart for ‘Tippi’ Hedren, who plays Melanie Daniels. She sometimes gets a bad rap, and is often described as a poor man’s Grace Kelly, but the two films that she did with Hitchcock are amongst my favourites. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she is my favourite of the Hitchcock blondes. Her performance, although not perfect (some of her reaction shots seem a little forced), is quite good. You fall in love with her character and fear for her safety. Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner is also quite good, as is Veronica Cartwright, who plays Mitch’s eleven year old sister. Thankfully, she isn’t an annoying child which so many in films are. However, the best performance in the film is from Jessica Tandy, who plays Mitch’s mother, Lydia. Her reaction when she finds the farmer dead with his eyes pecked out is brilliant and so realistic. She is also outstanding, in a scene near the end, as she gets more and more scared, and reacts against her son due to fear. Alfred Hitchcock always seemed to find great roles for older actors (like Thelma Ritter in “Rear Window”), which you just do not see done anymore, which is a shame.
Another thing of note, in regards to the making of “The Birds”, is that it has no film score. This was when Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann were at the peak of their powers together, but they decided that the film would be more terrifying without music, and just the sounds of the birds to create dread and suspense. They were right, especially in the end scene in the farmhouse, when we can hear the birds outside gathering without actually seeing them. The noise gets louder and louder, until the birds finally attack. Although he created no score, Bernard Herrmann is still credited as “sound consultant”. Hitchcock’s other regular technicians all do great work here, like Robert Burks (his director of photography), and especially his editor, George Tomasini, who does some quite amazing work.
The only negative that I could find in “The Birds” is the scene in the restaurant when all the patrons are discussing why the birds are attacking. The scene is definitely needed, but I feel that it goes on too long and almost stops the film dead. If it was made shorter, I think the scene would work better. However, this is the last time you get to breathe. After this scene ends, the horror just continues to build and build, until the fantastic ending.
Overall, this is an amazing technical achievement by Hitchcock. The difficulty in making this picture meant that it took three years to be completed, and the end result is a near masterpiece. From the light and carefree start until the brilliant terror-filled and apocalyptic ending, it is always entertaining, and is recommended viewing for everyone, not just Hitchcock fans.