The Birds One of Hitchcock’s Finest
By Kristin Battestella
My mother hates freaky birds, and to this day, I don’t think she has ever made it through Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 avian fright fest The Birds. Tragic.
Troublemaking rich girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) crosses paths with San Francisco lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and plots to get back at him by following him to Bodega Bay for the weekend and leaving two lovebirds for his young sister Cathy’s (Veronica Cartwright) birthday. While in Bodega Bay, strange bird attacks begin to occur, and Melanie stays with schoolteacher Annie Hawthorn (Suzanne Pleshette) - an ex-flame of Mitch’s. More birds attack at Cathy’s birthday party, and Mitch and Melanie must come to the aide of Mitch’s widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) as birds of all feathers frightfully and fatally flock on the coast.
Alfred Hitchcock’s (Psycho, Notorious, Suspicion, must I go on?) direction is once again great, with a slow, country town brew of romantic tizzies, humor, suspense, animal disturbia, and more. Based loosely on a tale from Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca), the script by Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle) may seem long or stilted by some today. However, the solid two hours and tight pacing from Hitch work seamlessly with all the classic freaky here. There are just so many layers of suggestions to investigate- familial innuendo, social stigmas, birds pecking away at our defenses and plucking out people’s eyes. Are these the human eyes that can’t see these birds are angry and aren’t going to take it anymore?! What would indeed happen if birds decided to turn against us? The religion versus science hints, witch and evil harbinger debates- I love the diner scene where a boy eating chicken asks his mother if the birds are going to eat him. We would be pissed if the roles were reversed indeed! Whatever the social causes of or paranoid responses to the avian hysteria, the seed is smartly planted- and The Birds is still dang scary. It’s quite easy to think there is intelligent design or feathered revenge at hand, just as we could also think it’s all just some bizarre animal turn or random instinct. Both possibilities remove our safe controlled answers and thrust the audience into the unknown- and there is nothing more frightening to us. Instead of contemporary shock and awe and desensitization, The Birds is all about what we see but don’t believe, what we don’t see but know to be true, and what we hear that so scares us.
Wow, Tippi Hedren (Marnie) starts as a real socialite bitch! I couldn’t quite think of a word to describe her at first, but I see online that I’m not the only one who eventually settled on one name: Paris Hilton! Fortunately, Melanie grows into a charming heroine in the face of this bizarre horror despite her typical blonde helpless babe looks. Hedren does look smashing in her fur coat and high heels- somehow being a woman of sass, smarts, and action without a hair out of place. Although she does wear that same green suit for three days! I don’t know that the up-close soft focus glow is really necessary from Hitch, but Tippi most certainly stands out among the crowd in The Birds. Are these avian attacks Melanie’s fault? Is her ploy of lovebirds the cause? It’s certainly an easy place to point the accusing finger, and Suzanne Pleshette (The Bob Newhart Show) is the perfect dark-haired, pseudo femme opposite. Annie is meant to be the good girl schoolteacher despite her sexy look- her brunette style certainly isn’t in Hitchcock’s favored ice queen vein. The mixing ideologies, however, work in Annie and Melanie’s relationship. They become fast friends despite the romantic rivalry over Mitch and a frosty attitude from his mother. Ha! Frenemies before there was such a thing, eh Paris? Speaking of Mitch, Rod Taylor (The Time Machine) is totally cool as a fun, swinging big city lawyer who ends up protecting his family against freak birds on the weekend. It isn’t a role that one can take too lightly or overly serious, and Taylor finds the everyman balance. Mitch is smart, charming, strong and there when you need him without being too sixties misogynistic- even if there is a strange mama’s boy angle going on.
Oscar winner Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) is simply lovely as Mitch’s mom Lydia, too. Despite her jealousies and overbearing ways, the viewer instantly feels for the widow who can’t hold onto herself and her family with all this titular mayhem happening. She’s lonely, sad, yet still strong, and again, it’s all a little weird the way Lydia looks to her son to symbolically replace her husband as head of the house. Fortunately, little Veronica Cartwright (Alien) is so cute- not nearly as annoying as so many old school child stars often are. Cathy is realistic before the trauma and remains sincere while the hysteria happens. Although I do wonder why these old films always have a college aged or even fully-grown child and then an elementary kid- did people really raise one child to entirety and then have another? Or is there an additional layer of Mitch and Melanie’s action parents relationship with Cathy for us to explore? Yes, a modern audience will notice some of these then latent suggestions or shout at the television, as some of the players’ actions are a little impractical in The Birds. No one takes the offensive or gets some guns or weapons against the birds. While it’s totally iconic now, you couldn’t even find a phone booth to hide in today- not that one would choose a box made out of glass anyway. Hello, kamikaze birds on the run and no one ever gets away from the windows? Nevertheless, we like the people in The Birds and get to know them for a little while, thus making it easier to believe their fears and irrationalities when the fantastic avians hit.
Despite its color filming, the dark and light values and cutting edge photography are used so smartly; The Birds almost seems black and white or devoid of palette in some scenes thanks to bleak interiors or flocking crows and sparrows. Then of course, we get set up for unusual stills, zooms, and angles with pops of fresh red trickles. The sound alternatives are also dynamite. Sometimes the action plays almost as a silent film but for lingering vocals, singing, and squawking bird effects. Naturally, some of the old school cheats are recognizable to wise contemporary audiences: matte paintings, split screens, innovative composite effects, live birds, fake birds, and every other trick possible. However, we know The Birds is an old film, and even so, it still looks wonderfully freaky. Toss in that real bird scenery with all the twisted intelligent layers, and the smoke and mirrors trickery, and we still buy in to this definite sense of real world menace and animals gone awry.
Sigh; there is just something about the production design and style of classic films. Famed Oscar winner Edith Head’s (A Place in the Sun, Samson and Delilah) limited dressings for Hedren add color and a pop of sixties panache. Toss in cool cars- an Aston Martin no less- gas lamps, tea sets, suave updos, and the casual use of brandy for even more nostalgia. Today, young actors forget there is a sense of grace and style in the way men used to handle their cigarettes or how the women twist the phone cords as they chat on those sultan type phones. And using a pencil to dial on a rotary phone- wow, some youths might not even know what the means! The Birds is wonderfully of its time, and yet, there is nothing here so dated to distract new viewers. Everything still looks good, just made to look old perhaps. One might think this bird nightmare did in fact happen somewhere along some coastal inlet some 50 years ago. The conclusion, I must say, may annoy some, but the infamous and eerie warning should be respected whether you like it or not. Bird lovers may also have serious problems with The Birds thanks to their onscreen misuses and angry portrayals. That two story pet shop, however, is dang sweet, and the cute and humorous little lovebirds are just that adorable.
If you’ve somehow gone this long without seeing The Birds, this should be your next must see. Classic fans surely already know and love, as should any budding Hitchcock enthusiast. Horror viewers, thriller audiences, and fans of the cast can also delight. Earn your A in avian terror from Hitch with The Birds tonight.