Hitchcock Reviews: “The Birds” (1963)
Posted by therebelprince on August 19, 2012
“Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a war against humanity?”
— Mrs. Bundy, The Birds
The Birds (1963)
written by Evan Hunter, from Daphne Du Maurier‘s novel.
The town of Bodega Bay, California, is besieged by bizarre, vicious bird attacks, which seem to centre on a visiting socialite (Tippi Hedren) and the family of a handsome lawyer (Rod Taylor).
Is The Birds Hitchcock’s last great film? One of many mature, late works? His first indulgence, and thus the end of his career at the top? All of these theories have been shouted from the rooftops over the years, and – in spite of my belief that no one opinion is correct – I’m determined to investigate this one. Perhaps it’s because The Birds was my first Hitchcock film, and remains my personal favourite. It would be an exaggeration to say that no Hitchcock has had more of an impact over my critical and creative impulses – at the end of the day, The Birds is an extravagance. Yet, there is so much to recommend in this languid, haunting tale of nature rising up against us.
The concept: If the ’40s was an era for taut, terrifying character studies (Notorious, Rope, Suspicion), the ’50s had seen Hitchcock expand into more playful areas – the lurid technicolour of To Catch a Thief, the grim monochrome of The Wrong Man, autumnal quirk in The Trouble With Harry, circular dreamscapes for Vertigo. This last film was the beginning of a triple-punch, with Hitchcock proving he could still please critics and audiences, following it with North by Northwest and then the base shock of Psycho. In 1962, his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents received a facelift – with episodes doubling in length, and a new title: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The director was a more influential and well-known figure than he had ever been, and the blatantly crumbling censorship rules could have played right into his strength after Psycho. (Before long, Hitchcock would find himself back in the frustrating position of fighting for his stories – but that’s for another time.)
For the third time in his career, Hitch took his idea from a Daphne DuMaurier novel. Jamaica Inn had been a disaster, but Rebecca remained one of his greatest triumphs. DuMaurier would stand him well on her third adaptation, although really only the basic concept was used. In consultation with Hitch, screenwriter Evan Hunter devised an original story. From the vantage point of five decades, we’re well-used to the notion of animal attacks as the basis for a film; indeed, it seems downright trashy. Yet, Hitchcock and Hunter were fascinated by the primal fears that nature can still impel in humans. (I still distinctly recall walking home the day I first saw the film, and being more than a little terrified by a string of ravens on a power line!) The randomness, the unstoppable nature of the bird attacks is echoed in the growing paranoia of the residents of Bodega Bay – notably in a powerful cameo by Doreen Lang as a distressed mother – and it’s a thing of bleak beauty. The screenwriters ultimately chose not to explicitly discern the reason for the birds’ attacks. Hypotheses are made, and some of them are quite convincing. An elderly amateur ornothologist (the wonderful Ethel Griffies) denies a species-wide malevolance. Yet, in a gleefully black trailer for the film, Hitchcock ponders what would cause birds to attack humans, as he saunters through a room filled with signs of our treatment of them: stuffed birds, cooked turkeys, and so on. The idea of nature fighting back is a deep and powerful one, yet on a contextual level, the film refuses to confirm this theory. Instead, we’re left with the unsettling possibility that there is no reason. There is no-one on whom we can ascribe blame, no cause, and thus – more frighteningly – no solution. After deliberately opening the film in a screwball comedy mode, Hitchcock takes us to a place of bleakness he had rarely been.
The cast: Reportedly interested in Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (Hitch spent many years trying to lure then-Princess Grace out of retirement), Hitch reluctantly recast the roles, but in doing so, he made a very wise choice. Rod Taylor doesn’t have Grant’s panache, it’s true, and he was never going to be a born star in the Hollywood mode. Yet, he anchors the film as Mitch Brenner, with an earthy quality not shared by Grant, allowing him to be both love interest and action hero. As the carefree socialite Melanie Daniels, Tippi Hedren – at the time a complete unknown – is pitch-perfect.
As Mitch Brenner, Rod Taylor has an earthy quality not shared by Grant, and he anchors the film as both love interest and action hero. As the carefree socialite Melanie Daniels, then-unknown Tippi Hedren is pitch-perfect. Okay, yes, I know that’s a controversial statement, but stay with me! Hedren was Hitchcock’s last real “project”, the last in a long line of beautiful women – some famous, some unknowns – he tried to mold into the perfect star. With Hedren, the director tailored her look and skills to his every whim, to the point where – years after the fact – Hedren stated that the character of Melanie was more Hitchcock’s than her own! Hitch cast Hedren without really testing her talent, and it’s fair to say that she isn’t yet a born actress. Truth be told, the failings of the lead duo are more the failings of the script. Neither Mitch nor Melanie are as fully-rounded as the characters that surround them, yet in some ways this is the point. Both of them are figures of limited dimension, closed off from a world of strange, eccentric characters. From Ruth McDevitt‘s fussy shopkeeper in the opening scene, through all the supporting players in Bodega Bay, the vitality of the other characters is at odds with the icy Melanie or the clever-but-retiring Mitch. Melanie at film’s opening is a shallow human being, deliberately filling her days with frivolity and worthlessness to avoid any responsibility, or any feelings. As the attacks carry on, Melanie’s facade completely disintegrates, creating a fascinating contrast with the film’s many other dimensional women. It might be stretching things to say that Mitch develops so far – he is ultimately a sounding board off which the women emote – but Hedren takes us on a wonderful journey with Melanie, from the coquettish heiress forced to remove her airs in this small town, to the defensive, then heroic, then ultimately broken woman she is at film’s end. Things will get more complicated next time, when we discuss the far more challenging leading role of Marnie, but I’m eminently satisfied with Hedren here.
In less-controversial talent, Suzanne Pleshette brings a vibrant earthiness to the role of schoolteacher Annie Hayworth, Mitch’s former lover. Pleshette’s husky voice and her expressive eyes are perfect for Annie’s world-weariness. The actress squeezes every drop of pathos out of her character’s resignation: a woman who realised she was fighting a losing battle, and chose instead to become close friends with the man and his family, just to keep him in her life. In a cast of wonderful supporting roles – Richard Deacon, John McGovern among them – young Veronica Cartwright stands out in an infectiously lovable role as Mitch’s kid sister Cathy. On paper, Cathy’s instant bond with Melanie is a little pat, but Cartwright’s doll-like face makes the whole thing work. It’s Jessica Tandy, however, who steals the film as Mitch’s controlling mother, Lydia. After the fascinating excess of Psycho, Hitchcock must have purged some demons from his system: Lydia is Hitchcock’s most dimensional mother figure, with Tandy gradually unravelling her layers, in a breakdown that parallels that of Melanie, yet ultimately proves redemptive, as this over-protective gorgon becomes the last remaining semblance of normality in the Brenner household. The core five cast members work wonderfully as a unit, allowing a Hitchcock climax that is terrifying for its absence of others.
The look: Moreso than any other colour Hitchcock, The Birds is dominated by bleakness. Melanie’s vibrant green suit – she’s the only character to be so expertly primped and preened – stands out all the more in Bodega Bay, a land of faded paint and calm ocean colours. As the hamlet is dominated by the blacks, whites, and grays of birds, cinematographer Robert Burks – in his penultimate Hitchcock collaboration – outdoes himself. Many of the crucial scenes take place at night, adding further weight to the meagre light sources. The birthday party sequence, as well as the film’s final moments, are particularly effective representations of Burks’ career, and the special effects earned Hitchcock his final Oscar nomination. Neither the seagull attacks (played against a back-projection of the lake) nor the blood hold up by today’s standards, yet they remain remarkable images. (Lydia’s trip to Dan Fawcett’s farm remains horrifically real, however.) Hitchcock’s direction of the large setpieces are proof of a director at home with his craft, always willing to push for images. The superb central setpiece – the band of children fleeing a schoolhouse, pursued by ravens – leads into a brutal, fiery attack on the town. It’s particularly staggering, as are the later sequences where birds – a mixture of real and models – flood the Brenner home. Yet, it’s not all grandeur, as Hitchcock proves in Melanie’s one-on-one confrontation with the birds in the Brenner attic, a scene that reportedly did both physical and psychological harm to Ms. Hedren. Indeed, some of the film’s most justly remembered scenes – Lydia’s monologue in bed, for example, or the lengthy, terror-filled debate in the back room of the diner – are all about character, and very little to do with action.
The sound: Bernard Herrmann is credited as “sound consultant”, but in reality the film – like Lifeboat – lacks a score, relying instead on stimulating ambient sounds. If the atmosphere of the film wasn’t chilly before, the lack of any consoling or patronising music just adds to that brutal sense of emptiness.
The plot: In some ways, it’s a shame that the plot sounds so simple – “Birds attack humans!” Newcomers to the film who expect a gorefest ending in the revelation that an evil scientist has created an army of malevolent seagulls will be decidedly disappointed. There are still an increasing array of set-pieces here, and each one of them helps up the tension in the increasingly claustrophobic confines of Bodega Bay. But this is also a film about Melanie, about Mitch, about Annie, and about Lydia. The bird attacks put each of these characters into sharp relief, reducing them to their base instincts, ultimately changing them and their relationships. On a larger level, the bird attacks draw fascinating responses from the townspeople, particularly in that utterly astounding scene where Melanie is cornered by a cross-section of Bodega Bay residents in the local diner.
The director: If Psycho ushered in Hitchcock’s late era, The Birds cements it. To me, it’s clearly another Hitchcock classic (although I don’t think it’s quite his last, as many critics would argue). The languid, deliberate pacing, follows on very clearly from the director’s previous few films (North by Northwest excepted), and this “slow burn” philosophy would perhaps be taken to extremes later in the ’60s. Still, every moment here is palpably wonderful. Melanie driving down a curvy seaside road, as the caged lovebirds swing side by side. Her initial, confused meetings with the townspeople, ending in a barely-concealed challenge with Annie, by the teacher’s blood-red mailbox. My favourite sequence in all of Hitch’s canon may well be the birds amassing on a jungle gym, right behind an unsuspecting Melanie Daniels.
And finally, that ending: the defeatist ending may surprise, but it’s in keeping with the tone of The Wrong Man and Vertigo. That wonderful, mostly silent sequence, as the Brenners and poor, bloodied, beaten Melanie, climb into the car, and drive ever so slowly through a field of their new oppressors, while a disembodied radio voice announces that the attacks have spread far beyond Bodega Bay… I would’ve thought nothing could top the final shot of Norman Bates in Psycho, but this takes the cake. The ending of The Birds is right up there with those of The Graduate and Nashville as my favourites in film. It comes as a complete shock, yet it’s exactly what had to happen. The Birds is an elegant nightmare of a film, and that’s enough for me.
Hitch Cameo: Hitch walks his dogs outside the pet store, as Tippi enters at the opening of the film.
By 1963, when The Birds was released, Hitchcock had been working in film for forty years. However, he was slowing down, no longer churning out films at an industrial pace. While he would race into Marnie the following year, Hitchcock’s output had already slowed down markedly, and would continue to do so after The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ended in 1965. From here on, his films would be occasional, more closely scrutinised, and ever more controversial. By this point, Hitch wasn’t just a critical darling, he was a key figure in much film criticism, and the expectations on his films were far more substantial. Perhaps this is why it has taken many years for his ’60s output to be as valued as those of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be re-examining (or, in a couple of cases, examining for the first time) his “Final Five”, to see whether they deserve to be placed in the pantheon. Hope to see you then.