Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Evan Hunter, Daphne Du Maurier
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw
The small California coast town of Bodega Bay is suddenly beset by large flocks of birds intent on attacking the residents.
Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaking virtuoso of many disciplines, the facts of which are detailed at length in numerous academic texts and meticulous frame-by-frame dissections. Among that focus on suspense genius, skillful editing, and general admiration of moviemaking mastery, a less discussed aspect of many scripts he brought to the screen is how often these stories deliberately lacked structured premeditation in their course of events.
James Bond is given an assignment by M with the broader arc of his imminent adventure already etched in stone. An evil villain has emerged, a diabolical plot is in motion, and 007 is dispatched to put an entertaining, albeit predictably plotted, stop to the entire scheme.
Elsewhere, graverobbing doctor Victor Frankenstein sets out to create a being from body parts and he does exactly that. “Frankenstein” is the tale of what happens when the protagonist fulfills his initial intentions and subsequent scenes progress across a fittingly organic path of sensibility for the setup.
These are examples of stories following a straightforward line with clear premises outlined from the beginning. Hitchcock premises may be clear to his audience at the outset, but his characters generally have no idea about the direction they will ultimately be going.
“North by Northwest” is the most obvious example of a Hitchcockian hairpin turn on the proverbial ear. Cary Grant is an unassuming adman innocuously attempting to flag down a bellhop only to be mistaken for a secret agent. If Grant raises his hand at any other time except that one, his day ends with a drab drink in the hotel bar instead of being chased across George Washington’s nose by Martin Landau. “Psycho” has a similar conceit. Had Janet Leigh picked any other motel except that one, “Psycho” could have been a romantic crime thriller and there is no telling if Norman Bates’ proclivity for transvestitism would have ever been uncovered.
Tippi Hedren’s character in “The Birds” comes from that same pool of characters set for a mundane movie that might have belonged to a different genre had she not become a victim of circumstance. Melanie Daniels is the 1963 version of a Paris Hilton celebrity socialite, though she has more of a Patty Hearst bio and a slightly more inhibited tendency towards tabloid-worthy dalliances.
After lawyer Mitch Brenner spots Melanie shopping in a pet store by chance, the two enter a foxy and flirtatious convo that wins the better of Miss Daniels’ curiosity. A trite bit of sleuthing and Melanie is off to the Brenner family home in Bodega Bay for a surprise visit to find out if her toe dipped in amorous waters might warrant a full swim.
Leave it to a meddlesome seagull to swoop in unexpectedly for a brief beak peck that spoils almost a full half hour of meet cute romance. Hitch takes his time breaking out a full flock of feathered fiends as it is another 25 minutes before the gulls return en masse for an attack at a children’s birthday party packed with popping balloons and scrambling little girls.
“The Birds” is not even close to a brisk thriller. Clocking in at close to two hours, there is a looseness in its timing that lets the accordion extend too far at times before snapping the sides back together for an eagerly awaited, and occasionally much needed, moment of terror.
Hitchcock wants the audience caught in his web of realism, warmed by the security of likable characters in a relatable world of mundane diner meals, post office visits, and small town hubbub that seems all the more meaningless when the birds of the world go on the offensive without warning. There is little question that the setup makes the ornithological insanity more hauntingly plausible, though it can definitely be debated if Hitchcock keeps his audience in that part of the movie past the point of necessity.
There are broader hints at more complex themes that see a quick stroke, although Hitchcock never dabs his brush all the way in for a full examination. Hysteria sets in briefly when one panicked resident irrationally blames the visiting newcomer for their inexplicable epidemic. A slap ends that confrontation and along with it, any deeper exploration of societal relations altered by the situation. And although the surface is only scratched, the real terror of “The Birds” comes from the thought of, what really would happen if another creature that we tenuously share nature with suddenly turned hostile?
“The Birds” is very good and holds up well enough in the important areas after 50 years, though it may not be near the top of Hitchcock’s more notable achievements. The dated special effects can be forgiven to a degree, owing to 60’s era technology that was state of the art then and nostalgic at best now. Earning less clemency are the aforementioned pacing problems and some highly suspect developments meant to move the plot forward.
Anyone who wants to argue that “The Birds” is the closest Hitchcock movie that can be considered a traditionally defined horror film should focus on the sublimely dumb behavior of some of its characters, not unlike dimwitted teens traipsing into the woods to meet a machete blade in a 1980’s slasher. Despite ongoing evidence of bird swarms on the rampage, Bodega Bay residents are strangely in no hurry to fortify indoor sanctuaries, instead opting to spend a conspicuous amount of continued time outdoors, only to be pecked yet again. There is similarly no rational explanation for why Tippi Hedren decides that investigating an upstairs room alone during a break in bird attacks is suddenly a good idea.
These are the kinds of contrivances that critics would jump all over today, but Hitchcock is afforded the benefit of having 50 plus years for his film to transcend its faults and achieve “classic” status. Structural problems notwithstanding, that classic status is still earned.
The brilliance of a music-less soundtrack instead filled with squawks, caws, chirps, and screeches is exactly that. Brilliant. “The Birds” might have benefitted from a notch or two of belt tightening, but its seesaw balance between banal romance and family melodrama against frantic wing-flapping frights can still affect the most fearless viewer, even if it is more than half a century later.
Review Score: 80