The Birds (1963)
By: Julian on November 4, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Universal (Australia), Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0, German DD 2.0. English, Dutch, German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish subtitles. 119 minutes
The Movie
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Tippi Hendren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright, Jessica Tandy
Screenplay: Evan Hunter
Country: USA
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
Spoilers within.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which came three years after he departed from psychological thrills and explored more conventional horror with Psycho, has come to be considered among the greatest horror films ever made. It's a brilliant picture, and could be considered among the few genuine horror movies, the most significant among them being this, Psycho and Frenzy, that the Master of Suspense ever laid his distinctive fingerprint upon.

Introducing Tippi Hendren as Hitch's newest blonde bombshell, The Birds starts off with an encounter in a San Franciscan pet shop: Hendren's Melanie Daniels, there buying a myna bird, is approached by a wealthy city lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who pretends to mistake her for an assistant and enquires about lovebirds. When Melanie finds out Brenner is joking with her, the meeting turns sour. His reason, he replies pithily, is because he saw the spoilt socialite in court after a practical joke she played left some property damaged. Owing to her father's stance in local media, she wasn't prosecuted further, something Brenner considered a perversion of justice. It's a cold exchange, to say the least, and typical rat-tat-tat Hitchcock in its delivery.

Despite the tenuous, not to mention very brief, relationship between the two, Melanie is compelled to take things further. She finds out that Brenner stays with his mother Lydia and young sister Cathy, and, to top things off, he's an eligible bachelor. When Brenner isn't working in San Francisco, he returns to live with Lydia and Cathy at their home in Bodega Bay, some sixty kilometres north of the city. Melanie drives up there (with the lovebirds no less, what a charmer) and, taking a boat across the bay, sneaks up on the porch with the two birds. As she does so, a gull attacks her. Thinking nothing of it, Melanie and Brenner meet again in downtown Bodega, albeit under friendlier circumstances.

Melanie decides to rent a room for a night from the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Annie is a grizzled San Franciscan who made the move to Bodega Bay ('it takes some getting used to', she knowingly tells Melanie) to pursue her love for Brenner. It didn't work out, Annie explains, owing primarily to Lydia, a clinging, ultra-possessive figure in the lawyer's life. While Annie still has feelings for Brenner, they are largely unrequited and she encourages Melanie to attend Cathy's birthday party the following day, to which Brenner invited her.

The next day, Melanie and Annie go to Cathy's party, which is a typical balloons-in-the-field affair. As Melanie and Brenner go off on a sand dune to cavort, there's another bird attack – this time on a far greater scale. Flocks of crows – numbering fifty or more – swoop on the children, with clear intent to harm. The kids hoarded inside, but it's clear that there's something seriously amiss – finally, when a crow kills a farmer, Melanie and Brenner realise that preventative measures must be taken.

I'm a pretty big fan of The Birds. Re-watching it some weeks ago, it had the same walloping affect it did when I saw it for the first time some years ago. And make no mistake, this packs a helluva punch – the PG rating is odd given that The Birds is a remarkably cold film. There's nothing funny, or slapstick about the bird attacks. These evil bastards are out to kill, and anyone who's been swooped by a maternal plover will know that they mean business. It comes as a bit of a shock to see the hypnotic camerawork savour on a shot of a kid being plucked at, crow afoot on the poor sod's back. You'd be hard-pressed not to be uncomfortable, particularly in the comparisons that can be drawn to that disastrous real-life photograph of an emaciated Sudanese girl being stalked by an overfed vulture.

For this film, Hitchcock is working on a far grander scale thematically. No longer concerned with the person-to-person impact of murder and mystery, The Birds is all out, apocalyptic viewing. By the time that jarring final shot comes along, the world is bleak – a grey, washed-out aesthetic and the earth covered in birds confirming that whatever Melanie and Brenner have in mind for the future is seriously short-term. The screenplay, written by Evan Hunter (perhaps best known for his crime novels under the pseudonym 'Ed McBain') was based upon a short story by Daphne du Maurier. Over his career, Hitchcock looked closely to du Maurier for his source material, with 1939's Jamaica Inn and his 1940 best-picture winner Rebecca based on the London author's work. Hitchcock originally intended an adaptation of du Maurier's story to be used for his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents because he didn't think the tale would stretch to feature length. He soon changed his mind when bird attacks were reported across the country. Talk about timing.

Also atypical Hitchcock is the absence of a score – Bernard Herrmann, the legend who book-ended his illustrious career (which included a considerable amount of work with this director) with Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver, merely oversaw soundtrack mixes here, composing no music and none was used. Among these effects were various cheeps, flaps and squawks. This brings us nicely to the titular antagonists themselves. The birds were a mix of the real deal, robotics and ones that had actually been painted on the celluloid. Of the genuine animals, hundreds were specially trained.

Although Hitchcock's sadistic relationship to his blonde leads has been exaggerated, many sources suggest Hitchcock moved Hendren to tears on many occasions, and some go as far as to claim that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Contributing to this may well be the injury she sustained on-set. While filming the final attack sequence in the Brenner house, one of the live birds gracing the scene (they were tied to Hendren so as to prevent them flying away, a very Hitchcockian action, that) perched on Hendren's eyelid, almost puncturing her eyeball. According to Hendren herself, she was hysterical, and collapsed. It took her a week to recover, during which filming was postponed.

If I were to draw up a list of horror movies that I feel are inherently important entries to the genre, The Birds would be towards the top. It has aged tremendously well, and is a very sinister movie – forget Psycho, it's in this Hitchcock film that there is nothing but sheer contempt for the human race.
The film is presented in pan-and-scan 4:3. This has been the source of much complaint – The Birds should have been presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio, as it was for Region 1. Aside from the aspect ratio, it's a good transfer most of the time.

Perennial Hitchcock cinematographer Robert Burks is on duty here, and his work is dazzling – the colours are really stunning and the swirling camerawork is hypnotic at its best. Tragically, Burks died in a house fire in 1968.
Dolby Digital 2.0 in English and German. Audio and sound effects come across well, and it all sounds balanced.
Extra Features
In a word: exhaustive.

First and foremost is a feature length documentary titled All About the Birds. Running for about eighty minutes, this is as comprehensive a retrospect as you're likely to find. With interviews from key players including Hendren and those close to Hitch (including his daughter), and lots of technical titbits about the complex production, All About the Birds is unmissable.

The best of the rest includes ten minutes of Tippi Hendren screen-testing, newsreels and production photographs. There's an on-paper-only alternate ending, supplemented with script excerpts by Hunter and sketches by Harold Michelson. A deleted scene is provided in a similar manner. An opening title card suggests that the shot footage was lost and production photos and script excerpts are provided instead. This is strictly for fans only, but it shows the degree of effort that went into constructing the features for this disc. Hitch fans should be pleased.

Finally, there's the trailer. Much the same as Psycho's, the five-minute theatrical trailer opens with Hitch directly addressing the audience in a black suit, lecture-like, with a deceptively upbeat orchestral track running over it. "I hope you don't mind if I have something to eat," Hitch says as he begins to chow down on a whole roast chicken, launching into a lengthy monologue about the history of birds, and their relationship with humans. His lecture ends with frenzied squawking before Tippi fills the screen: "They're coming!" Hitch had a real knack for engaging and intriguing his audience, and the trailer is terrific.
The Verdict
You really can't go past this. It's a bona fide horror classic and a masterwork of cinema. Not Hitchcock's best but, with the possible exception of Frenzy, certainly his darkest work. Not only is there no hope for the characters themselves here, but the human race also has Buckley's of getting out of it alive.
Movie Score
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