Alfred HitchcockOscar-winningJessica TandyVeronica Cartwright
The Birds
Medium: film
Year: 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Evan Hunter [pseudonym], Ed McBain [uncredited], Daphne Du Maurier
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, horror
Country: USA
Actor: Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw, Ruth McDevitt, Lonny Chapman, Joe Mantell, Doodles Weaver, Malcolm Atterbury
Format: 119 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 23 July 2008
Strike me pink, a proper horror movie from the 1950s? Well, no. Despite appearances, it's 1963. Nevertheless it's always fun to watch Hitchcock inventing entire genres and here he's basically doing Night of the Living Dead five years early.
But with blackbirds.
I actually found this scarier than Psycho, which had come only three years before, incidentally. It's certainly far more explicit. There's blood and even one or two outright gore shots, which you'd never find in the rather elegaic Psycho. The birds' attack on Melanie in the upstairs bedroom is downright nasty and got to me more than any modern horror film has managed in quite a while. The blood's too bright, but all the colours are too bright. It's Technicolor.
However that's only half the story. There's apparently a Michael Bay remake in the works and I'll be interested to see if they follow a more modern structure and simply lop off the first half hour. Well, I say "interested". This is Michael Bay we're talking about. Nevertheless the Hitchcock version is unusual for a horror film in being about characters rather than placeholders. If the birds had never come down from tweeting in the trees, they'd have still had a film. A good film, what's more. They have inner lives. Notice that the two lead characters obviously have sex together during their second night at Bodega Bay, except that Hitchcock decided not to show us.
They're interesting characters, too. The lead is Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren with whom Hitchcock didn't got on but has stayed in the business throughout the five decades since then and is still going strong. She gets a great role: a strong-willed practical joker with a taste for things most people would find either dubious or offensive. The first hour of the film is entirely hers, with everyone else reduced to mere supporting roles. She's strikingly attractive, obviously intelligent and will have turned into a stumbling shell of herself under the onslaught of the birds by the end of the film. It's possible to read all kinds of things into this. Hitchcock's fondness for the theme of rape and the exertion of power over beautiful blondes could be read into Melanie's bird attack in the upstairs bedroom, which incidentally turns the character into a idiot. Obviously the character shouldn't have gone up there in the first place, but having opened the door an even bigger mistake was in not slamming it shut immediately and screaming the house down. Hitch and Hedren make you believe in the scene, but to make it work you'd still need to invoke shell-shock or something.
Before filming that scene Hedren asked, "Hitch, why would I do this?" Hitchcock's response was, "Because I tell you to."
Her romantic foil, Rod Taylor, is surprisingly ugly, with a scrunched plasticine face like a boxer's. He reminded me of Robin Williams. He's playing a lawyer and thus makes a superb foil for Hedren, turning casual conversation into a cross-examination and nailing down her lies almost before she's said them. What's more, Melanie likes that. I said she had a taste for the rougher side of things. She gives as good as she gets and the two of them are always fun to watch together, albeit hardly romantic. Despite appearances, the film's not really interested in romance, though. It's just dangling the carrot for a while. Taylor's rather good as a lawyer, but when things turn ugly we see that he's also right for, shall we say, a less intellectual role.
Other actors include Jessica Tandy, who'd of course win an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989, and a teenaged Veronica Cartwright as the kid sister. She'd go on to appear in other horror titles, including Ridley Scott's Alien, the second Candyman film, a minor recurring role on The X-Files and not one but two Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies.
There are various other characters, but the most illuminating is a paranoid idiot of a mother, making a nuisance of herself at a diner as she strikes out at anything that upsets her. She's pretty much the emblem of this film's theme, which is how people change under siege. She accuses Melanie of having brought the birds to Bodega Bay (huh?) and tells everyone to stop talking because they're upsetting her children when blatantly she's the one getting hysterical. That's an interesting scene for several reasons, not least in its relationship with 1950s horror cinema. When the apocalypse comes in modern films, it's every man for himself. When the world fell apart in the 1950s, everyone stood around talking, trying to hold together as a community as they rallied around a tall conservatively-dressed man smoking a pipe. This scene seems to conform to that stereotype, except that no one believes anyone else and that you'll be keen to see two of those characters as birdfood.
Note also that the film doesn't have an ending in the usual sense. The characters just drive away. The last shot of the film is of 10000000000 birds loitering with intent, as if mankind has abdicated his position and the world belongs to them now. It still feels abrupt, though. It would have worked better these days with five minutes of end credits to let you think about it afterwards. Nevertheless I suppose one has to respect it since it was clearly Hitchcock's intention. He doesn't even provide a "THE END" title card.
It fits rather perfectly with its setting. 1963 California is a world of open-top convertibles and houses that need fireplaces for heating, both of which are weaknesses when the birds run amok.
The writing pedigree is interesting too. It's based on a short story by Hitchcock favourite Daphne du Maurier, adapted for the screen by Evan Hunter, better known to detective story readers under his pseudonym of Ed McBain. There's also no music.
This is basically two films in one. There's almost an hour of build-up so good that you'll almost forget you're watching a horror film called The Birds, followed by the second half in which you, um, don't. Overall it's one of Hitchcock's two famous horror films, known about even by people who otherwise know nothing about him. Obviously it's a classic. Hitchcock and Kurosawa are the two directors I can think of who basically reinvented cinema, but on top of that I think The Birds in particular would go down a storm even with trendy idiot teenagers who aren't interested in anything less recent than last year. There's something timeless about seeing a man who's had his eyes pecked out.