This is the third Alfred Hitchcock film I’ve reviewed, and I’m a little worried that I’ve peaked with “Rear Window” when I first began my “Sunday Classics”. I was underwhelmed by “Psycho” and I was downright disappointed with 1963’s “The Birds”. Unlike “Psycho”, I knew almost nothing about the film apart from the fact that swarms of angry birds create bedlam and the little information I could garner from a few memorable Simpsons references. What is an initially well paced and intriguing introduction to some twisted but interesting and charismatic characters quickly becomes a series of admittedly terrifying scenes strung together by stretches of incredibly dull and dry filler. Yes these scenes are impressive and have become understandably iconic considering the era in which the film was made, but they were few and far between and certainly not enough to uphold what eventually deteriorated into a fairly vapid and shallow story.
Wealthy San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels with a wicked knack for practical jokes (Tippi Hedren) meets swanky lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird store, he recognises her but pretends to mistake her as for an employee and asks whether they sell love birds. She plays along. Once he reveals that he had been messing with her so that she could experience what its like to be on the brunt end of a joke, she uses the resources at her father’s newspaper to find out his name and address and sets off to seaside town Bodega Bay just north of San Francisco to drop off the birds herself. After discovering Melanie’s surprise, Mitch invites her round for dinner at his family home where he stays on the weekends with his icy and over-protective mother (Jessica Tandy) and angelic little sister (Veronica Cartright). Melanie becomes intrigued by Mitch and his history, deciding to stay for the weekend with one of his ex-girlfriends Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) who is now a local school teacher. While Melanie and Mitch flirt and suss each other out, the little town starts to notice the local birds acting strangely. Initially its as little as birds flocking in unusual patterns and the odd bird flying into a building but as the film progresses, the birds become increasingly violent and hostile and eventually the entire town is overrun by swarms of the murderous things and everybody has to fend for themselves.
What’s strange is that had the film simply followed the lives of the central characters over the course of the weekend and let their various personalities and dynamics collide, it probably would have ended up becoming a more entertaining and complete product. I was enjoying the development of each of the characters and how Melanie had inadvertedly stumbled upon something potentially sinister and twisted in this little town. The thing is, once the birds start attacking all of this goes out the window! All of the politics and games that they were playing and we had spent a good hour becoming invested in are abandoned and each of the characters basically become faceless people in the fight against the birds. Perhaps this was Hitchcock’s intention – to demonstrate the folly and triviality of our daily troubles when confronted by genuinely life threatening situations. Melanie’s pranks and practical jokes amount to nothing when she’s running for her life away from a rabbid swarm of beaks and talons, as do Mrs Brenner’s possessiveness and Annie’s infatuation with Mitch. It’s an interesting theme, but I don’t think it was executed particularly well.
What “The Birds” is remembered for isn’t necessarily the story though, its the suspense and of course the terrifying spectacle of the winged monsters themselves. Apparently upwards of 3,200 birds were trained for the film, with some $200,000 spent on mechanical birds for the close up shots. The scenes with the swarms of birds are still quite effective, especially one of the final scenes where Mitch is walking through hundreds of birds as quietly as he can (as I mentioned earlier, there’s a great Simpsons bit where Homer walks through a sea of babies in the same fashion who are all sucking on their dummies). Unfortunately though, the mechanical birds haven’t fared as well and look pretty silly today, like somebody is throwing stuffed bird toys at the actors, though this of course isn’t to say that they weren’t impressive when audiences saw it back in the 1960s. The scenes I found most harrowing were actually the ones where Melanie and Mitch barricade themselves in Mrs Brenner’s house and the sound of the birds outside gets louder and louder. The famous scene in which Melanie gets trapped in a bedroom and attacked is fairly well done (apparently live birds were tied by strings to Hedren’s clothing to achieve a more authentic sense of fear). Although I was put off by the fact that she literally opens the door, sees it was full of the birds which had been trying to eat them all for the last two days, proceeds forward into the room, closed the door behind her and only then started scrambling for the doorknob behind her while getting pecked and clawed to the point of unconsciousness.
There’s no question as to why the film is considered iconic, so much so that it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress in 2016 and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry. Its important to recognise that for its time, the technical aspects of “The Birds” were groundbreaking as was the now legendary Hitchcock art of suspense. Unfortunatley, the film just hasn’t aged well and is unable to fall back on a well developed story to ensure the sense of timelessness that other films from this era have enjoyed.
By Jock Lehman