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The Birds (1963)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE BIRDS (1963)

Starring: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Suzanne Pleshette

Written By: Evan Hunter, Daphne DuMaurier (story) Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

The Short Version

Alfred Hitchcock.  What; you needed more?

How about some of the creepiest atmospheric horror out there?

And a fantastic performance by Tippi Hedren?

It may start slow, but it is very much worth it.

Whatever your normal tastes may be, The Birds is one of those “everyone must see” movies.

The Long Version

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Something from Northern California, of course, because the birds won’t let you go any further.

“I have never known birds of different species to flock together.  The very concept is unimaginable.  Why, if that happened, we wouldn't stand a chance!  How could we possibly hope to fight them?”

There is a building on a certain corner just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia that houses a two-storey McDonald’s (with the company’s regional offices taking up the rest of the premises).  Across the street from this McDonald’s are several large trees, taller than the building itself.  I remember eating there during the dead of Winter and marveling at how the trees – which I knew to be deciduous – had retained their full complement of leaves, for there was not a bare branch to be seen.

Then there was a loud noise, and the trees became bare in an instant.  The “leaves” were actually hundreds if not thousands of gathered crows. 

Whenever I see Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – especially the scenes with the crows in the schoolyard – I think back to that McDonald’s and wonder… “What if?”

Effective horror sticks that way.

Taking its exceptionally loose genesis from a short story be “Rebecca” author Daphne DuMaurier, The Birds centers on one of the most primally simple horror premises out there – animals turning against humans – and turns it over on its ear in a manner that only Alfred Hitchcock could successfully pull off. 

Minor teasing notwithstanding, the horror doesn’t even begin until about halfway through the picture.  Prior to that, the audience is treated the an exceptionally long introduction to the film’s unlikely heroine: Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren, Marnie), a spoiled rich playgirl/practical joker/compulsive liar who takes an odd shine to a lawyer named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor, The Time Machine) who in turn announces that he’d like nothing better than to see her put behind bars for breaking a plate glass window.  (Try not to think about it.  The affair of the plate glass window is never properly explained.)  But only after he allows her to pretend to be an employee at a pet shop, letting her think she’s putting one over on him even though he’s putting one over on her because he already knows that she doesn’t work there.  And then she buys some lovebirds for the grown man’s eleven year old sister and conspires to sneak up to their family home 60 miles away so she can break in and…

Wait; what?

In the hands of anyone else, the opening half of The Birds is an absolute disaster waiting to happen, but thanks to Hitchcock – and to the player he essentially hunted down to cast in one of his films, Tippi Hedren – it works.  Melanie’s actions are frankly bizarre and border on the utterly nonsensical, and Mitch is only slightly less odd for taking them in stride.  But Hitchcock has a way of making everything that occurs in front of his cameras seem important, and doing so in such a way that when, two hours later, one realizes that the plate glass window story will never be told and that a whole lot of the first act could have remained unshot without at all impacting the rest of the movie, it still feels important. 

Important, and – for all of the surrealism of these characters – real.

It’s understood that horror is always more effective when one gets to know the victims first, but in this case, the story is so odd – a couple more decades and one might have fairly called it David Lynch odd – and is played  out for so long that one could easily argue that it far exceeds the mandate of that purpose.

Or does it?  After all, aren’t well-played characters their own reward?  In the case of Tippi Hedren’s portrayal of Melanie Daniels, I’m going to say “yes.”  Rod Taylor’s Mitch I could just as easily forget about, but after watching Hedren go through the paces that Hitchcock puts her through, it’s easy to see why the great director made such an effort to get her to work with him.

Or perhaps such things don’t matter to you, especially when the story arcs built around the characters – however well played – never get resolved.  Maybe you just heard that The Birds is consistently rated as one of the scariest movies of all time, and you’re just there for horror.

So be it, then.

The terror of The Birds comes not from gore or even from particularly fantastic visual effects (the era’s technology shows its age), but rather from the creepy “what if” realism noted above.  Almost nothing about this movie is stylized; indeed, the off-the-wall main characters are by far the oddest creatures in the film (which may itself be the point).  Though Psycho maestro Bernard Hermann is credited with consulting on the sound, there is in fact no musical score to this movie (Melanie plays piano briefly at Mitch’s house and schoolchildren sing a seemingly incessant song at one point in class; that’s it for music of any kind); instead, all of the ambient noise of the film is that of real life.  Silence.  Wind.  Screams.  Flapping of feathers… and the cawing of birds.  Just as the strings of Psycho multiplied the tension for that film, so for The Birds does the simplicity of auditory truth.  (With magnified bird calls, of course, but that’s fair.)

It’s scary because it’s possible.  It sounds possible.  And under the watchful eye of Alfred Hitchcock, it also looks possible.  You will never see perched birds on playground equipment look so menacing.  The camera gives them weight, fearsomeness, lethality.  And they’re just like the birds we all see every day, the ones whom the woman in the café insists would never harm us, right before they do.  What if?  What if?

Hitchcock and his crew play havoc with the basest fears of the audience, and when the all-out assaults begin, it truly is a horrific and even draining experience, and the final edit is timed to perfection.  Once the ending – the daring “what next” ending – rolls around, an ideal horizon of suspense is reached at which the audience still wants more but probably wouldn’t have been able to stand another minute.  That is superb direction.  That is Alfred Hitchcock.

Bottom line, The Birds is a terrifyingly rare treat that transcends its genre and stands alone as a truly great motion picture, whatever one’s normal tastes may be.  For cinephiles, for horror fans, or for the simply curious, it is an absolute “must see” film, and for Hitchcock buffs, and absolute “must own.”

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2014

More From The Bar! | Suspicion | Empire of the Ants | Jaws |

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