VINTAGE REVIEW: The Birds
THE BIRDS-- 5 STARS
This week, NCM Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies teamed up for the first of a four movie "Event Series" to celebrate Universal Pictures' 100th Anniversary. The first of the series was Alfred Hitchock's The Birds from 1963. In October, they are hosting a double feature of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Finally, in November, they will screen To Kill a Mockingbird in time for its 50th anniversary to go with the studio's anniversary. The special screening of The Birds was accompanied by a brief retrospective interview with star Tippi Hedren hosted by TCM personality and host Robert Osborne offering behind-the-scenes reflections and some history on the film's production and acclaim. I was lucky enough to attend this event with press credentials courtesy of Examiner.com where my work is published. Here's my "vintage review" for this suspense classic:
We humans, the so-called evolved and dominant species of the planet, are occasionally reminded by Mother Nature just how small, weak, fragile, inconsequential, and outnumbered we are. When those moment come up us in our lives, we gain an anxiety and a fear that never really goes away. Because of that innate fear, there will always be a curiosity and a draw for good, old-fashioned "creature features" at the movies. For those who enjoy thrills, creature features allow people to face down a fear and be entertained by their elevated pulse rates and endorphin levels. However, for those who are fearful, creature features can scar for life and create hilarious stereotypes and stigmas that follow them away from the theater.
When you put, essentially, a creature feature like The Birds in the hands of someone as brilliant as Alfred Hitchcock, you're not getting a cheesy B-movie reminiscent of 1954's Them! and countless others. Instead, you're getting quality ratcheted suspense that exudes creativity. Released three years after his unforgettable Psycho raised the bar for suspense and Hitchcock's own notorious reputation, The Birds, his 49th film, is considered by many to be his last truly great film after his peak years of the 1950's. The Birds stars first-time actress and former model Tippi Hedren and the dependable Rod Taylor, coming off his first lead performance in The Time Machine and some TV work.
Hedren plays Melanie Daniels, a spoiled San Francisco socialite, not unlike a Paris Hilton of her day. Taylor plays Mitch Brenner, a sly city lawyer with means. Instead of having a Hollywood "meet cute," they have cerebral and flirty "meet astute." Mitch recognizes Melanie from court (and her scandalous reputation) while shopping in a downtown bird shop. He pretends to mistake her as a salesperson and this perturbs her. He comes clean about recognizing her, but their intersection definitely catches her interest.
Melanie hunts down Mitch's city address to deliver the pair of "lovebirds" he was shopping for, but finds that he's retired for the weekend to his family homestead in Bodega Bay, a small fishing town two hours north of San Francisco, to attend a birthday party for his little sister Cathy (a young Veronica Cartwright). Melanie decides to make an impression, retrieve the upper-hand, and heads to Bodega Bay to surprise Mitch. When she arrives in the small coastal port, the strange bends start to curve the road of our story.
First, while sneaking by boat to the Brenner house, a seagull dives at Melanie's head, injuring her. Mitch takes care of her and insists that she stay for dinner. While in town, she meets and befriends an ex-flame of Mitch's, the town school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Plechette, in a nice supporting part). At dinner, Melanie then meets Mitch's very needy mother Lydia (the always great Jessica Tandy). Widowed and left alone with just the house and Cathy, Lydia is, creepily, very dependent on Mitch.
At dinner, the family discovers a dead seagull who dove at the front door. The next day, at the birthday party, more seagulls come and attack the party-going children. Later that evening, a huge rush of sparrows attempt to invade the Brenner home through the chimney and Lydia discovers a neighbor killed in his home by birds. These incidents, more and more, begin to point to something more substantial, sinister, and less coincidence than a few isolated accidents. Sure enough, the bird attacks get worse, the violence spreads, and Hitchcock tightens the screws every step of the way.
The Birds, for its day, was a stroke of technical genius on many fronts. The first marvel is in sound. Right off the bat and very uncharacteristic, the film does not include a pulsing Bernard Herrmann score, like most Hitchcock films. Little to no incidental music is used. In still scenes, the menacing and foreboding silence is only broken by every little twitch, caw, tweet, twist, and flap from dozens of perched and poised live and animated birds. In mass and in movement, their multiplied shrills and flocking dial the volume up and create a terrifying white noise that you are introduced to during the opening credits and are prescribed to hear again as the movie gets bigger.
The film also challenge with its visuals. Alfred Hitchcock has always been an astounding visual storyteller, but, with this natural subject, he employed far more special effects, trick photography, and stuntwork than he usually did for The Birds. Combining Ub Iwerk's Academy Award winning animation and special effects with his signature rear projection layering and constantly creative shooting, Hitchock and his trusty cinematographer Robert Burks (whom he collaborated with on twelve films) delivered an enriching visual experience. Sure, by today's CGI standards, the effects are probably crude and rudimentary (something a long-rumored remake would likely attempt to improve upon), but Hitchcock's use of actual birds for as many shots as he did creates a tangible realism that even the best CGI today is hard-pressed to match. The combined result is an outstanding and unnerving thriller even today.
Tippi Hedren does a very good job in her first role and Rod Taylor carries her and the picture through its finish. Both had very difficult and rigorous work to play victims with all of those animated and real birds coming at them from every direction at phone booths, cars, streets, and house windows. Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Plechette's supporting roles, especially Tandy's, give us characterization layers we don't normally get in creature features and that greatly raises the film's overall quality. In seeing the film again after many years away, I was kindly reminded by how much humor made it into The Birds. The debating restaurant scene with our main couple, Ethel Griffies's elderly ornithologist, Joe Mantell's salesman, and Karl Swenson's doomsday town drunk is a fun example. While the intention was horror and suspense, it's not wall-to-wall fear-mongering, though that's what keeps people coming back to The Birds.
Twelve years before Jaws changed the way we think about and view sharks for the rest of our lives, The Birds did the same for many of our avian neighbors. As I mentioned at the start, like a good creature feature, it scared and scarred more than a few audiences and that resonating effect is the great appeal of The Birds. The fact that something nearly 50 years old can still provide that effect shows the film's worthiness and effectiveness.
LESSON #1: AVOID INSECURE AND CLINGY MOTHERS-- While this is not a story of "a boy and his mother" that goes as far as Psycho, Jessica Tandy's Lydia is a formidable and protective barrier to Mitch. She smothers him, scares off suitors, guilts him as a lonely widow, and acts dismissive around strangers. In one of the film's bigger sub-plots, we see what motivates and provokes this behavior and how Melanie deals with it.
LESSON #2: WHEN SOMEONE OF THE THE OPPOSITE SEX SAYS THEY HATE YOU, THEY ACTUALLY REALLY LIKE YOU INSTEAD-- Alright, I may be reaching for schoolyard fantasy here and, at best, 50% real-life odds of success, but I promise this lesson has merit. Girls, chicks, and women like Melanie play hard to get when they're really not all that hard to get. On the other side of the coin, boys, dudes, and men like Mitch pull hair, bust chops, and ruffle feathers as a means of attracting attention and giving attention too, even if it appears negative. That's the oil and water of Melanie and Mitch. He plays aloof when he's really the one wooing, and she coyly yearns as much as she pushes away. Let's just say it like this. If it wasn't for the invasive mother (Lesson #1) and crazy birds busting in on the weekend (see Lesson #3), these two would be "flocking" in other ways before the sun set on Sunday.
LESSON #3: ONE VERSION OF MAN VERSUS NATURE-- As I defined with creature features at the start, there are scenarios in our evolution where Mother Nature, in its many threats and forms, challenges our dominance as humans and knocks us down a peg. The Birds plays out one of those near-apocalyptic scenarios with our animal neighbors of the sky. As the ornithologist of the movie explains, people are tremendously outnumbered in this world by birds. If something were to ever happen in comparable fashion to this Hitchcock fiction, we really wouldn't stand a chance. Echoing the history of extinction on this planet, science offers the proof outweighing the cinematic fiction that it's a matter of "if" not "when" humans are replaced as the dominant species of the planet. Because we know that is true and possible, the fear of that scenario is well exploited by creature features like The Birds, disaster or alien invasion movies, zombie films, and even disease movies like Contagion and Outbreak. Mankind might be tough, but Mother Nature is always going to win.