Skip to main content

Is there a difference between crows and blackbirds?

The Birds
(1963)

(SPOILERS) Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Birds is how palpably it succeeds in spite of itself. Other Hitchcocks have been beleaguered by a lead not quite delivering the goods, such that the overall piece has suffered (for example, Foreign Correspondent). Often with the consequence of drawing attention to supporting characters (the aforementioned, and also Stage Fright). Here, Hitch has two so-so leading players, and yet you could almost believe he was deliberately making that work in the material’s favour. Certainly, the horror movie where the setting and the horror is the star, and the players neither here nor there, would become something of a staple in the decades ahead, usually as envisioned by grossly inferior filmmakers. And that’s the key. Because The Birds is the last great film of a master and as influential on the genre as its predecessor, Psycho. As much as aspects of it have aged – the special effects, but not nearly as much as you’d think – its essential power is as vital as ever.

Mrs Bundy: I have never known birds of different species to flock together.

Of course, there were those at the time who decried it as a lesser work. Hitch was, after all, asking for trouble. He’d gone from a low budget megahit made with a TV crew to being able to pick whatever he wanted; studios, well Universal, anticipated another bonanza. He was thus making a would-be blockbuster. And while he’d done that before (North by Northwest), this was all about his chutzpah, with no stars in sight to share the burden. Pauline Kael called complained “the effects take over…  and he fails to make the plot situations convincing. The script…  is weak, and the acting is so awkward that one doesn’t know how to take the characters”.

Salesman: Kill ‘em all. Get rid of the messy animals.

A good deal of this is fair comment, but what Kael misses is that Hitch’s overall confection triumphantly overcomes the limitations of its parts. Indeed, one might argue this is the truest definition of a classic film from the director, since it is rarely the case that he is dealing with entirely coherent plots or flawless casts. It’s the atmosphere that makes The Birds. The attention to build up, to rise and fall that comes with the waves of attacks. To silence (there is no score) and sound (the bird attacks, the attention to ambient sound, particularly with the last scene).

This is the stuff of great horror movies (although, in a sign of things to come, the director also takes the opportunity to go for it in the gore stakes. It’s an indicator, if one were necessary, that restriction can be the mother of creativity). Psycho gets the lion’s share of the attention for its influence on subsequent moviemakers and the genre itself, but The Birds’ influence is more elemental and fundamental. In Psycho, everything is laid bare. In The Birds, nothing is. Nature has rebelled, but the why is conspicuously and intentionally absent. It’s this that also makes it the granddaddy of apocalypse pictures, from zombies to, ah, the wind.

Mrs Bundy: It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.

But it has to be said, after the tour de force of Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho, this comes across as if Hitch decided that film’s Vera Miles and John Gavin should be front and centre throughout. Except that I think both (Miles, definitely) would have been more interesting than Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. The former represents a bland facsimile of the Hitchcock blonde, without the mettle to really make a mark. The latter is a virtual parody of the rugged leading man, boasting a couple of bona fide big movie leads around this time (including The Time Machine) before drifting into B pictures. It’s as if, say, there was an attempt to fashion Jason Clarke as a leading man…

Melanie: I want to go through life jumping into fountains naked.

Except that, going back to the notion that one might almost see this as intentional, both of them sort of work as two-dimensional stock types. Hedren’s “wealthy, shallow playgirl” Melanie Daniels, chasing the man (Tayor’s Mitch Brenner) who scorns and rebukes her (Hedren, of course, suffered torments both physical and psychological on the shoot). It means the extended lead in, the bait-and-switch of a romantic comedy designed in much the same way as Psycho’s theft plot, engenders little engagement on the part of the viewer (who, obviously has been prepped by the title and is there for the good stuff). In Psycho, Leigh’s intense predicament makes for a perfectly decent premise in itself, even before Norman shows up with sandwiches. There’s no such lure in The Birds.

Mother in Diner: I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil. Evil!

And yet, the easily identifiable caricatures are in it for the picture’s long haul and should be considered in those terms. Taylor is just “there”, to manfully manhandle avian intrusions where necessary. Hedren’s essential brittleness works wonders when it comes to being confronted by Doreen Lang’s hysterical, witch-burning local, intent on laying the blame (this is clearly where The Mist gets its small-town paranoia). Jessica Tandy as Mitch’s over-possessive mother bears the brunt of the cackest-handed dialogue, insanely over-telegraphing the character’s motivations (“If your father were here…”) but hers is probably also the best performance in the picture.

The most striking one, though, comes from Suzanne Pleshette (later of Support Your Local Gunfighter) as Mitch’s spurned ex Annie Hayworth, now stuck hanging around as the local schoolteacher, obsessing over the man she can’t have. Hitch wondered if he’d been correct to kill her off, noting she survived until the finale in Evan Hunter’s original screenplay, where she was victim of the attack he transposed to Melanie. Thematically, it makes perfect sense, but in terms of sympathetic characterisation it’s a huge mistake, as Annie is muchmore winning than Melanie, and Pleshette’s performance much more potent in its jaded stoicism.

Mrs Bundy: I hardly think a few birds are going to bring about the end of the world.

Tom Milne in Time Out saw the film as the director at his best, calling The Birdsfierce and Freudian as well as great cinematic fun”. It’s certainly the case that the often brain-numbing cod psychology of previous Hitchcocks (Spellbound, Psycho) works to the picture’s benefit this time, because absolutely none of it is explained, even if it is frequently almost leeringly implied.

The scene of speculation in the café serves the function of a surrogate for unravelling the mystery, but as John Carpenter – who also created an unmotivated force of evil in Michael Myers – suggested, the real explanation is most plausibly that the birds are “a complete experience of the inner lives of our characters”. The love birds are something of a red herring in that regard. Instead, the attacks represent Melanie’s id unleashed, conniving that, through fowl means, she gets her man. Ensuring Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) comes onside is a piece of cake. Dispatching the competition (Annie) is, of course, essential. But bringing Lydia round requires something especially devious; the most astute move is that Melanie herself must be vulnerable, kindling Lydia’s mothering instinct. As a result, Melanie must be pecked into near catatonia at the climax.

Because he realised it so well, it’s easy to ignore that someone else calling the shots might have made attacking avians ridiculous and silly. For every killer shark (Jaws) or insidious ant (Phase IV) there are boring bees (The Swarm) or less than scary spiders (Arachnophobia). Hitchcock shoots with precision and clear understanding of what his effects are supposed to achieve. And for the most part, they stand the test of time. Instead, it’s those obvious blue screen shots of people “doing stuff” that tend to let the side down (“If ever he could get away without locations he would” said Pat Hitchcock).

Melanie: I sometimes go to bird shops on Fridays.

There are some truly great sequences here. The director’s twistedness is fully to the fore, particularly in the evident glee with which his birds attack small children; definitely not something you’d get now. There’s also the classic set up of the petrol station sequence, only slightly let down by the unintentionally laughable – Hitch thought it was stylistically distinctive – cuts to Melanie reacting to each new piece of mayhem. My favourite, though, is the build up outside the school, as Melanie sits smoking while birds slowly gather on the climbing frame behind her, all the while to the accompaniment of the class singing.

Hitchcock would continue directing for another decade and a half, but he’d find it increasingly difficult to regain his old mojo, either through attaching himself to unworthy material or failing to martial his old inventive flair with any consistency. Nevertheless, The Birds, and Psycho before it, evidence a filmmaker finding new ways not only to tell stories but also to wow audiences into his seventh decade. That’s no small achievement and testifies to his enduring talent and longevity.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c

What do you want me to do? Call America and tell them I changed my mind?

  Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) (SPOILERS) The demolition – at very least as a ratings/box office powerhouse – of the superhero genre now appears to be taking effect. If so, Martin Scorsese will at least be pleased. The studios that count – Disney and Warner Bros – are all aboard the woke train, such that past yardsticks like focus groups are spurned in favour of the forward momentum of agendas from above (so falling in step with the broader media initiative). The most obvious, some might say banal, evidence of this is the repurposing of established characters in race or gender terms.

I always think of my murderers as my heroes.

Alfred Hitchcock Ranked: 52-27 The all-time most renowned director? It’s probably a toss-up with the Beard, although really, the latter’s nothing but a small-fry pretender who went off the boil quite early on. Hitch’s zenith may vary according to your tastes – anywhere from the mid-1930s to about 1960 makes for an entirely reasonable pick – but he offers so much choice, there’s more than likely something for everyone in there. The following, since I’m relatively youthful and/or don’t have a top-secret archive of rare and lost features, does not include his second film, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle , but everything else finds a placing. With the majority of the silent era, I was discovering them for the first time, and I’m unable to report there were any revelations during that period of his finding his feet and stylistic personality. Surprises elsewhere? I dare say there are a few, albeit more so for those I don’t rate highly than those I do. So sit back, enjoy, and maybe have a glass o