Top positive review
Relevant Today and as Great as Ever.
on October 9, 2017
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS> I TRIED TO KEEP IT TO A MINIMUM BUT THERE"S NO OTHER WAY TO DISCUSS THE FILM. Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds has over time, become a classic among classics. Along with Psycho it is one of the two films most associated with him. It's scenes are still remembered. It does not matter if he made some better films, this will be one of his most immortal. Ask someone what Rebecca was about or even North by Northwest or Vertigo. Hitchcock was at the top of his form in the early 60's Since 1954's Dial M for Murder he had made a succession of films that were artistically superb and mostly very popular with audiences. He had been smart enough to work relatively independently and not be assigned films by some studio head. Both Psycho and The Birds were closer to horror than anything he had previously done and both broke cinematic norms.
The Birds was slightly disappointing in it's day in terms of box office. Though it made five times its cost and was one of the ten biggest films of 1963 (grossing 11.4 million), it paled in comparison with Psycho, the number two box office film of 1960 that made an astounding 32 million or 40 times its cost. Psycho had been a national sensation in the fall of 1960. It was a major topic of conversation and even kids like myself were aware of it even if our parents wouldn't let us see it. Everybody kept the secrets of the film, too. It was kind of like a new thrill ride: people dared each other to see it. Psycho violated a major unspoken rule of films by killing off its ostensible heroine mid-film. But it was a satisfactory film for the audience because in the end things were resolved and justice was served.
The Birds was something else. It violated cinematic norms in a much greater way than Psycho. It had no psychologist at the end to explain everything to the audience, and most of all The Birds had an open and unresolved ending. So unresolved was it that when the group slowly pulls away in Melanie's Aston Martin there was no traditional title saying "The End". This truly disturbed people in a way that Psycho didn't (some people are still disturbed by it). Technically The Birds belonged to a long chain of sci-fi films where some kind of monster disrupts normal life (Frankenstein and Dracula farther back or any number of atomically mutated, gigantic creatures in the fifties). No matter what, the source of the trouble is found and the menace killed, often only when a sudden hunch or discovery shows a way. The Birds didn't do this and the word of mouth was that people were confused by it. Thus it didn't catch on as big with the general public. But over the years its reputation has grown and its scenes have become famous. Who can forget Melanie sitting outside the playground while the schoolchildren sing "Rissedy Rossity" or the birds pecking through the back door after Mitch has boarded up the house?
The Birds was quite prophetic in its way. It came out in early 1963, before the Kennedy assassination that forever changed the country. Up to then, since the mid 50's the country was full of an optimism and a feeling that everything was going to work out beautifully. (This, of course was not true for everyone but it was the general tenor of the times). In Bodega Bay everybody leaves their doors unlocked. But beneath that all kinds of problems were lurking that would eventually break out. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had just been published. Until then no one had any idea of environmental problems, and that's just one example. Looking back from today's vantage point it seems a remarkably prescient film: the birds have, in fact, come home to roost. Within the film reasons were only guesses and unsatisfactory ones at best. In the famous restaurant scene Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist (and great plot device) suggests, "It's mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life on this planet." while the town drunk quotes Ezekiel and offers a theological explanation as God's wrath. But neither suggestion sticks and they are abandoned.
It's not that Hitchcock was himself socially prophetic. He had been inspired by a 1961 incident when thousands of seagulls had crashed into homes on the Monterey Coast; in that case because they had eaten small fish tainted by poisonous plankton. He remembered that he had already bought the rights to du Maurier's short story with the intention of using it for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Everything works in this film, even the things that some people criticize. The actors, thrown into a typical Hitchcock stew of psychological issues, are all perfect in their roles. Rod Taylor's Mitch is supposed to be emotionally distant. Tippi Hedren was supposed to be somewhat aloof and buttoned down. She did not have much of a career due to her problems with Hitchcock, but she owns this role forever. Jessica Tandy seems a bit old to have an eleven year old daughter in Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), but the ages do work out. Suzanne Pleshette is great as Annie Hayworth, Mitch's old fling and current town schoolteacher. Even the small roles handled by character actors are memorable. The special effects are a little apparent at times, especially during the bird attacks but they were state of the art in their day and still mostly hold up. In a film this good you don't question things like that. The schoolhouse is actually miles inland from Bodega Bay but you'd never guess that from the film. That final shot where they pull out of the driveway? That's a composite of 32 separately filmed parts. And the lack of music is brilliant. It's the first thing you notice as the film begins, that something is odd about this opening, even if you don't quite figure out what it is. Later on the silences are deafening.