Death from above from evil avians
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Runtime: 120 minutes
Starring: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette
Loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novel by the same name, Hitchcock brings audiences tell of terror which comes from the skies. Our feathery friends, for no apparent reason, decide to become evil, causing chaos and carnage for Tippi Hedren in her screen debut. Seen as another one of Hitchcock’s successful films, like some of his other features, this too sits in the US National Film Registry due to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant“.
In a pet store, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) plays a joke on Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedran), who was previously in court for a joke gone wrong herself. This results in Melanie buying some love birds for Mitch’s sister Cathy who is due to celebrate her 11th birthday in Bodega Bay. Melanie tracks Mitch down to deliver the birds, and on route meets Mitch’s ex-girlfriend Annie Heyworth (Suzanne Pleshette) and Mitch’s cold mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Strange things start happening, birds begin to attack people, and it isn’t long until the residents of the small town are fleeing for their lives and boarding themselves up in their homes for safety from the evil avians.
… or… here’s a summary in 180 characters of less…
Tippi Hedren is stalked by evil avians in Bodega Bay.
“The Birds” is not the first time that Hitchcock has used Daphne Du Maurier’s work, 1939’s “Jamaica Inn” and 1940’s “Rebecca” are also based on her work, although she isn’t officially credited in the cast list for “Jamaica Inn“. In this film version of “The Birds” he only loosely uses her work, and readers of her novel would find a lot of changes, for a start, it’s not set in Cornwall. Eva Hunter write the adapted screenplay which involved lots of changes by Hitchcock in order for him to get it into a format and style that he was happy with. An incident similar to what would be depicted in this film also really happened and gave Hitchcock a little inspiration too; in 1961 at Monterey Bay (Northern California), birds were contaminated by a toxin. It had a devastating effect on the birds causing them to fly into buildings and people due confusion, in some instances the birds had seizures, and it also resulted in a lot of death too. While scientific testing in 1961 wasn’t up to the standards of modern testing, a similar incident happened in 1991 and tests then showed that the birds became poisoned after eating single celled algae that had been contaminated with a toxin which was lethal to them – which is what likely happened in 1961.
The acting is OK, maybe not as solid as you might expect from a Hitchcock film though. Despite her cool and fun persona, Melanie comes across as a bit of a stalker at the start of the film the way she hunts and follows Mitch. After that she seems to do well as sticking her beak in places where it’s not entirely welcome (bird pun #1), to the point that it rattles Lydia’s cage (bird pun #2). Annie still loves Mitch but she doesn’t get in too much of a flap (bird pun #3) about the new girl in town, and in fact they become quite friendly – not quite birds of a feather (shall I stop with the bird puns now?) but well enough for old and potential flame to Mitch. Melanie and Mitch are hinted at having some kind of chemistry, but they aren’t love birds (bird pun #5). It’s all a bit of a bland soap opera set-up really, and I wasn’t gull-able enough to buy it all (that was the last bird pun, I promise!)
In her screen debut, Tippi Hedren does well enough – she fits the typical mold of a Hitchcock leading lady; blonde and stunning, with the ability to capture the audience in her words and actions. She went on to win a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year in the Actress category. It wasn’t plain sailing for her though, there were suggestions that Hitchcock had become slightly obsessed with her, even reports that he was sexual inappropriate towards her. She spurned his advances, and when she later got injured she put it down to the director getting revenge for the rejection – if it’s true – not cool Alfred, not cool at all! This hasn’t been absolutely confirmed, and only really came to light after Hitchcock’s death. Controversially she has swayed between saying it happened, and then also saying it didn’t happen too. However with the likes of co-star Rod Taylor saying it happened it makes me wonder if things didn’t go a little far at times. To use an old saying, there is no smoke without fire.
Taylor isn’t the best leading man in a Hitchcock film I’ve seen. Like Hedren, he does well and is convincing in his performance – but it didn’t strike me as solid performance like Cary Grant or James Stewart has previously brought to Hitchcock features. The whole cast in fact do well enough, but aren’t anything to write home about. There is a lot of pulling faces to show fear, and from time to time they become very dumb and do stupid things. I’d put this down more to the writing and character development, but it certainly isn’t helped by the limited range the actors display at times.
Fun Fact: Hitchcock’s signature cameo is at the start of the film, coming out of the pet shop. He is supported by his own dogs in this role; Geoffrey and Stanley.
The cinematography is good but not as stunning as other Hitchcock films. There is a lot of studio filmed footage in the film which is noticeable by today’s standards. This however doesn’t detract from the film as a whole, it just makes it feel a little gloomier and less rich. Where is works is the haunting scenes where birds fill the usual empty spaces that the scene would present. Unlike some of Hitchcock’s other films, there was more focus on the editing and trying to capture good footage of the birds, whether they be the real ones or the artificial ones which were created. This is where the tension is created, whereas the build up in other films was primarily dialogue driven.
Speaking of a gloomy feeling, the musical score is noticeably different in this film to previous ones the director made – particularly as there is no score. Hitchcock hired Sala and Remi Gassmann who used a machine called the Mixtur-Trautonium to electronically generate birdlike sounds. Bernard Herrmann is onboard as a consultant only and he even advocated that the silence be the soundtrack, with the audio being plumped up with lots of birds effects and stock sound clips.
Being the master of suspense, Hitchcock decided to leave the films ending open to interpretation although 40+ years later people are still debating why the birds began attacking in the first place. Is Melanie’s arrival with the caged love birds a catalyst? Is it a revenge for the treatment of birds in real life (as mentioned at various points in the film)? Is it (as mentioned a few times) the end of the world slowly unfolding? A kind of apocalypse using birds instead of zombies? Whatever the reason behind it audiences who watch this today will be as baffled as audiences who watched this in the 60’s. As a standalone film this is great, by today’s standards of quality you may be disappointed by the CGI and fake blood, maybe even the naivety of some of the townsfolk too. If you forget those things and sit and watch the film for what it is you’ll surely enjoy it still.
I’m giving this 7 out 10. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Is it Hitchcock’s finest film? No. Did it push boundaries? Probably not. Would I watch it again? Sure would. Having studied Hitchcock at college it still gives me a wry smile thinking about how he pitched to sell this to studio executive as a profitable venture. This might not be a film for everybody and certainly doesn’t showcase Hitchcock’s finest work, but it is still a decent film in his overall body of work and shows a little more range in what he was able to do.