The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 8 – The Birds – A Classic Movie Review

Chronologically, “The Birds” is the last of Hitchcock’s films that I admire.  Films like Torn Curtain and Topaz have their points but none of them catch my imagination.  I’ll loop around onto a few more of his earlier films soon but I want to delve into “The Birds” first.

Tippi Hedron plays Melanie Daniels a wealthy young woman who tries to play a practical joke on Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor’s character) to revenge herself for a joke he played on her when they were in a San Francisco pet store.  Knowing that he wanted to buy a pair of love birds for his sister but was unable to, she buys the birds and secretly follows him to his home in Bodega Bay, California and leaves them at his door.  While outboard motoring back across Bodega Bay she is attacked by a seagull.

Mitch witnesses her escapade and patches things up with her and invites her to dinner.  Melanie becomes friends with Mitch’s mother and sister and even befriends and sleeps over the house of Mitch’s old girlfriend Annie.  From this point onward, the story begins to revolve more and more seriously around bird attacks.  At first seagulls seem to be the culprits and only seem to behave aggressively when Melanie is present.  But later all types of birds begin to attack humans randomly and finally the attacks become fatal.

The two most visually memorable attack scenes are the crows at the school and the seagulls at the gas station.

In the first case Melanie has gone to bring Mitch’s sister back from school by car because of the growing risk.  Annie, who happens to be the teacher, is getting ready to dismiss the class but tells Melanie to just wait until the class finishes a song they are learning.  Melanie sits in the school yard with her back to the playground and we listen to the class’s hypnotically monotonous song while we get to watch as a “murder” of crows slowly but surely fill up the monkey bars.  When Melanie realizes what has happened she goes to Annie’s class to warn them.  The class leaves in a silent and controlled withdrawal until the crows suddenly attack en masse.  In the chaos of escape no one notices that Annie has fallen fatally victim to the crows.

In the gas station scene, a man filling his gas tank is struck in the head by a seagull and drops the flowing gas pump hose.  The seagulls attack several individuals.  But the whole things spin out of control when  a smoker who hasn’t noticed the flowing gasoline lights a match near the gasoline pool.  The station bursts into flames and amid explosions the attacking gulls unleash mayhem on the fleeing humans.  Melanie is of course in the thick of the action and when she takes refuge in a telephone booth the gulls perform kamikaze attacks trying to break through the glass.  The scene ends with an aerial shot retreating up above the carnage and intersecting with one of the flying gulls.

The movie never really explains why the hell the birds have decided to wage war on humanity.  The closest we get is a lecture given to a diner full of townspeople by a lady ornithologist on how birds lack the intelligence to coordinate a cross-species campaign.  But when pressured to measure the numerical threat she does admit that if all birds ever coordinated an attack on humanity it would rival a biblical plague.

The last act takes place in Mitch’s house that has been reinforced with planks covering the windows and doors.  But as evening turns to night birds furiously attack even the walls and vigilant repairs are barely enough to prevent a breach.  Finally, later that night Melanie hears fluttering noises upstairs and find that one room has been infiltrated through the ceiling.  She is trapped in the room and badly injured before Mitch hears her cries and saves her.

Finally, before day breaks Mitch and his family decide that Melanie must be brought to a hospital.  The birds have become quiet and the family decides to attempt their exit.  They tip toe into the car and drive slowly and carefully through a sea of thousands of standing birds that grudgingly give way as they drive through them.  The movie ends on a shot of this ocean of quiescent bird life, waiting for the next trigger to send them marauding through the town again.

The concept of the movie is ridiculous.  But as with his anticipation of slasher movies with Psycho Hitchcock has presaged the hostile natural disaster genre that became such a big hit with Jaws.  The idea that technologically invincible humanity can be brought to its knees by hostile natural forces has become a favorite theme of horror and environmental revenge films.  But all this ground-breaking stuff aside, The Birds is an engaging movie.  The production values are very good and the acting is sturdy enough for the material.  As with several other of Hitchcock’s protagonists, Melanie isn’t actually the most sympathetic personality and in addition when she walks into that bedroom where all the birds are hiding she appears to be moronic in her inability to make a quick getaway.  I mean what did she expect to see in a room from which bird noises were coming?  An elephant?

I give The Birds a solid six out of ten.  Your mileage may vary.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 1 – A Classic Movie Review

American movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s have been hyped by generations of film lovers to the point where if you only go by reputation you may be deceived about the quality and entertainment value of any particular movie.  But without a doubt there are a number of deservedly admired works.  From time to time I will give my decidedly biased and idiosyncratic opinion and remarks on the movies I’ve watched and try to pass along useful information for those who haven’t seen some of these films.

Last year when I was looking at horror movies I reviewed “Psycho.”  But I am a fan of Hitchcock in general and in the summer, I always indulge in a good cross section of his best.  So, I’ll make some general remarks followed by more specific comments about the various Hitchcock films I’m familiar with.

Hitchcock had a long career as a director that stretched from the silent film era all the way to the 1970s.  He started out in England and some of his earlier, lesser known films were excellent.  But what is noticeable in these earlier British films are the more primitive special effects and other technical aspects.  What isn’t primitive is the skill with which the plot and dialog are constructed.  The three best of these earlier British films from my point of view are “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”  All three of these are spy stories and are colored by the tense political environment in pre-World War II Europe.  The Man Who Knew Too Much was later remade by Hitchcock in Hollywood starring Jimmy Stuart and Doris Day but I much prefer the original.  In general, they involve civilians getting caught up in espionage and fighting for their lives while the world around them is completely unaware of their plight.

As the ‘30s ended Hitchcock moved to Hollywood.  His first big picture was “Rebecca” starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  It’s sort of a mystery-suspense story with the feel of one of those Bronte sister novels.  It won the Best Picture Oscar and several others but I’ve always hated the movie.  I guess it’s a chick flick and bores me to tears.  But during the ‘40s he had a string of excellent movies.  My favorites are “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Lifeboat,” “Notorious” and “Rope.”  Now, other than Notorious, which is indeed a masterpiece, all of these other movies, especially Rope have their quirks.  Rope is a claustrophobic story adapted from a stage play that takes place completely inside a Manhattan penthouse apartment and is a sort of a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings murder story.  To say it is creepy is an understatement.  And equally claustrophobic is Lifeboat which takes place, you guessed it, completely on a ship’s lifeboat.  Hitchcock loves to put his characters together in close quarters and irritate them.  Sort of like a little boy with a bottle full of bugs.  I guess that’s his special gift.

During the ‘50s Hitchcock continued to produce critically and financially successful films.  I like “Strangers on a Train,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.”  Each of these is an entertaining movie but Strangers on a Train is the most original.  Hitchcock really loves strange and this one delivers that in spades.

In the ‘60s the only two Hitchcock movies I can recommend are “Psycho” and “The Birds.”  Psycho is rightly famous for launching the whole “Slasher” genre but more than that it blazed a trail for every movie that explored the psychology of murderers.  And think of how large that field is at this point.  Hannibal Lector and every other serial killer showcased in the movies, and on television are the direct descendants of Norman Bates.  The Birds is a horror story based on a sort of environmental backlash where birds turn on the human race.  It is weird and sometimes compelling but by the end of the movie I felt that Tippi Hedron’s character deserved all the grief she got just because of how annoying she was.

So that’s my Hitchcock list.  I’ll dig into the list in the follow ups and rate the movies and describe what makes them worth watching.