Birds, The (1963)
Release Date: March 28th, 1963 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Charles McGraw
tories involving nature running amok have always been fascinating, more often than not when explanations are at a minimum. And of all the famous horror films centered on crazed creatures, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” leads the pack in sheer lack of answers surrounding the source of terror. The scares are genuine, the bird effects hold up rather nicely (despite a few apparent moments of mismatched animation and composite shots), and the always present, disbelieving authority figures add to the aggravation. Based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier, this subject matter is engaging and unexpectedly thrilling, made even more peculiar by the generally gentle nature of the antagonists.
In the rare but welcome fashion of defining characters for fright flicks beyond typical cardboard cutouts, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the daughter of a wealthy newspaper owner, engages in a flirtatious colloquy with an outgoing lawyer she briefly meets in a bird shop. Partly enraged and mostly intrigued, she goes to great lengths to follow him just north of San Francisco to Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of lovebirds. It’s a little joke that ends in a boat rental, a visit to the town’s schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), for information on her new acquaintance’s family, and a journey across the water to the property of mystery man Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who is visiting his mother (Jessica Tandy) and younger sister (Veronica Cartwright).
Although there’s a touch of classic foreshadowing (namely the opening title sequence, the ominous screeching of birds, a rogue seagull, and eerie sound effects), the film starts by developing characters that audiences can care about and that aren’t simply fodder for ravenous flying fiends. It’s a competition between Melanie and Mitch to check their instant attraction to one another, as well as a battle between Melanie and Annie to be ambiguous about their relationships and intentions with the handsome attorney (despite the socialite renting out a room from the schoolteacher). Recalling “Psycho,” the details seem like misdirection, as a short time later, chickens stop eating, gulls become aggressive or suicidal, and hordes of crows gather on telephone wires.
Even these events don’t occur in rapid succession – Annie and Melanie engage in a conversation that sheds light on Mitch’s backstory, along with his disapproving mother and the attitudes between them that resulted in Annie’s lonesome existence. These roles are surprisingly three-dimensional, scripted with distinct personalities and characteristics that make every effort to ensure memorable personas. Later, Melanie even reveals complicated feelings toward her own mother, while Mrs. Brenner gets to defend herself from the negative impressions previously designated. It’s certainly not a standard monster movie.
Once the chaos begins (the first bird attack is nearly one hour in), however, Hitchcock’s perfection with suspense is demonstrated in spades. After the initial assault, things steadily grow more nerve-wracking, eventually revealing one of the most shocking and nightmare-inducing scenes in the picture – involving a dead body with its eyes plucked out. Another startling yet artistic sequence involves the dazzling contrast of Hedren quietly smoking on a bench while dozens of black birds rancorously gather on playground equipment in the background – all narrated by schoolchildren singing. With humorous, playful dialogue to start, romance edging its way into the screenplay in the middle, and full-blown fright creeping in for the rest of it, “The Birds” is a shining example of Hitchcock’s mastery of the genre, riddled with alarming moments and plenty of anticipation – primarily from wandering down dark hallways alone, but also from minutes of sitting in silence in a diner or living room waiting for the next inevitable avian ambush.
– Mike Massie