Halloween White Elephant: The Birds (1963)

Posted by John Gholson - October 7th 2011 @ 12:40 pm

From Jacob Hall–“Contrary to popular belief, Hitchcock didn’t make many true horror films. However, two of the three horror films that he did make are undisputed classics that threaten to overshadow the rest of his career. Unlike PSYCHO, THE BIRDS is a very traditional horror film in structure, only paving new ground with the unsettling, open-ended conclusion. It’s the epitome of the ‘animals attack people for no apparent reason’ subgenre, a film that has the patience to spend its first half introducing its characters before putting them through a living hell. The effects are top notch, the performances genuine, and the film’s final thirty minutes are one of the most harrowing siege sequences put on film. This is a horror masterpiece if one ever existed. I’m surprised that John, the ultimate fan of old school horror, hasn’t seen this, but I’m incredibly excited to finally introduce him to it.”

Oh my god, this movie had, like, a lot of birds in it!  Mostly seagulls and crows, but there were also a pair of lovebirds too, and you just knew they were going to snap any second, ‘cause these birds be crazy up here in Bodega Bay!  “What did you think of The Birds?”

I’ve been asked this question twice today. Tough question — certainly tougher than I would’ve figured, pre-Birds viewing.  On the one hand, it’s an impeccably shot and well-acted drama that gets a lot of mileage with its increasingly apocalyptic vibe.  On the other hand, it’s a movie about the world’s worst seagull attack. To put this in food terms (terms I understand), it’s a cheese sandwich prepared by the finest chef in the world.

Because, in lesser hands, this would be a pretty dopey movie.  On the surface, all the character interaction between Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, and Jessica Tandy feels like idle foreplay before you get to the good stuff — y’know, the birds!  The birds behave inconsistently depending on what the plot needs them to do at the time (they attack when the script calls on them to attack, or sit idly by if the hero needs to get to his car).  Also, there are surely more threatening birds out there than gulls and crows.

If the film were made today, you could almost guarantee ominous cutaway shots to close-ups of hideous bird faces (dangerous-looking ones, too, like vultures) during the “boring” character bits, punctuated with loud strings.  This would happen to remind us to sit tight, because the birds are coming.  Modern filmmakers don’t trust audiences enough to realize that the title alone promises that the birds are coming.  I mean, it’s called The Birds.

Hitch gets it.  So, for the first hour of the film, it’s almost bird-free.  The title becomes a tease for horrible things to come.  The master of suspense is such a master, he understands how to play upon expectations before the film even starts.  Think about that.

The relationship stuff pays off too, in subtler ways, with the movie ultimately becoming about neither Taylor nor Hedren, but Tandy (spoiler).  She plays Taylor’s mother, and her influence affects many of the interactions between Hedren and Taylor.  It’s all handled in a realistic way; she’s a fairly normal mom, with her own set of insecurities.  Those insecurities are addressed with pretty much just one shot in the finale, wrapping up a character arc without an ounce of melodrama.  Again, Hitch is a master.

So, yes, I liked The Birds.  I can say, without hesitation, that this is the best film ever made about killer birds.

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  1. October 7th, 2011 | 10:56 pm | #1

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