BIRDS, THE(director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: based on the short story by Daphne Du Maurier/Evan Hunter; cinematographer: Robert Burks; editor: George Tomasini; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Tippi Hedren (Melanie Daniels), Rod Taylor (Mitch Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Charles McGraw (Sebastian Sholes, fisherman in diner), Malcolm Atterbury (Deputy Al Malone), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Bundy); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Universal; 1963)
“Perhaps only a director of Hitchcock’s caliber can make such a fowl story fly.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The screenplay, of the 1952 short story by Daphne Du Maurier that was published in Good Housekeeping, is by novelist Evan Hunter (he attended Evander Childs High School in the Bronx and Hunter College), better known under his pseudonym Ed McBain. This is director Alfred Hitchcock’s (“Vertigo”/”Frenzy”/”Rear Window”) second horror film after the masterful 1960 “Psycho,” and is much the weaker of the two but has gone up in esteem after the mixed reviews it received when released. Perhaps only a director of Hitchcock’s caliber can make such a fowl story fly. It’s overlong, tediously drags for long periods of time between bird attacks, and the dialogue and the love story are for the birds. But Hitch seems to be having a time of it by using the birds to take revenge on the humans who cage ’em, kill ’em or love ’em to death. He pokes fun at the stuffed shirts, the idle rich pranksters, meat eaters, bird lovers, doomsday advocates and those who are sexually repressed. It starts as lighthearted comedy but suddenly shifts gears and builds to an apocalyptic ending. It’s all ridiculous but Hitchcock earns his paycheck by making the scenes of the attacking birds scary, especially where they are gathering in great numbers outside the public school in the playground and then attacking the fleeing schoolchildren. It works as a shocker probably because its shock scenes are so unexpected that it makes us think about birds in a way we never have before. It’s also worth noting that The Birds used a synthesized score consisting entirely of bird sounds, not music. This helped create the eerie mood throughout.
It begins in a pet store in San Francisco where handsome criminal lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) meets the attractive and perfectly coifed blonde wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) on the cute by getting her to act as a store clerk to sell him love birds when he knows full well she’s the daughter of the local newspaper publisher. To get even with Mitch for goofing on her, Melanie buys the love birds and the next day as a practical joke drives up the coast for a few hours to Bodega Bay, Mitch’s hometown fishing community where he returns to every weekend to be with his lonely widowed mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his school age kid sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) on their chicken farm, and while unannounced she leaves the caged birds in his farmhouse as a birthday gift for his sister. But the day Melanie arrives for some inexplicable reason (A Hitchcockian MacGuffin) the birds start attacking people, and she remains for the entire weekend after being attacked by a seagull.
The local school teacher is Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). She’s the San Francisco woman who followed Mitch here to be close to him but when their relationship ended she just stayed to be near him as a friend. If you can believe that you can believe the birds are attacking people with the intent to kill. The good-hearted Annie befriends Melanie and even wishes her well in snagging her man. In a woman to woman talk, she tips her off that the problem in getting to bachelor Mitch is Lydia, who treats Mitch’s lady friends a bit chilly because she’s afraid her son will get the love from another woman that she can’t give him as a mom and then he will abandon her. The love story without the birds might even be more nauseating than Erich Segal’s Love Story, if that’s possible.
Hitchcock succeeds in making nature’s most gentle creatures seem like a menacing threat to human beings, as he upsets the apple cart of nature. I don’t think this pic has any messages, but it’s fun to speculate on what they may be since Hitch leaves the door open on what are his aims. One message might be of a social conscience nature to point out if mankind continues to mess with nature they might unwittingly destroy the world with atomic bombs or pollution or overpopulation. Another might be an allegorical one, that the birds represent the classical Furies that would hunt down the wicked on this earth. Perhaps the safest guess is to take it on Freudian terms, that it’s simply a tale of three needy woman (all can be viewed as birds) who all need a man to protect them from their fears and give them affection. If that’s your take, then the climactic scene where the birds carry out a massive and unrelenting attack on the Brenner farmhouse could be seen as a sexual attack both on a possessive mom and on the beautiful perfect woman who is there to take away her son. As a result of the attack, Melanie has to exit the small town cowering, in a state of fright, in the arms of Lydia, after arriving as a free spirit who was on top of the world and sure that she can get away with anything because she’s rich, beautiful and powerfully connected. But the lesson might be, you can’t mess with nature with only those narrow worldly powers.
Grace Kelly lookalike Hedren, in her screen debut, soars high in her performance, the dazzling special effects are effective and the limited script is neutralized when it’s reduced to bird feed in the hands of the skillful director who manages to keep the film challenging and engrossing by making it difficult to know exactly what he was getting at (some of it is personal, such as the director’s boyhood delight in bird-watching, relating the attacking sea gulls to the Nazi bomber planes he saw during the London air raids of WWII and his ongoing obsession with icy blonde heroines).
REVIEWED ON 11/7/2007 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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