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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.


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