This year marks the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which concluded a remarkable four-picture run for Hitch: North By Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho coming before. Talk amongst yourselves: has there been a better streak? One possibility is Francis Coppola’s Godfather-The Conversation-The Godfather, Part II-Apocalypse Now. Other suggestions welcome.
Anyway, The Birds, loosely based on a story by Daphne DuMaurier, is a change of pace for Hitchcock in a few ways, though it still rests on the suspense he was best known for. In a way, this is a horror story, as people aren’t the problem, it’s nature run amok, as the small coastal town of Bodega Bay is attacked by all species of birds. No particular reason is given (in the real-life inspiration to the story, pesticide was to blame) and the ending is ambiguous. Many people refer to this film as a poem, in that there isn’t the typical structure of a narrative.
The film begins with a lawyer, Rod Taylor, meeting a socialite (Tippi Hedren) in the bird department of a pet store. They’re on opposite sides of a lawsuit, but despite the initial hostility are attracted to each other. So much so that Hedren, a prankster, drives all the way from San Francisco to Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of lovebirds. But there there are ominous signs, such as when a gull hits her on the head, and then sparrows flood into Taylor’s house through the chimney.
The film is a slow-boiler. We go through some typical Hitchcock stuff, such as the monstrous mother (this time played by Jessica Tandy, though she is allowed to soften toward the end) and the icy blonde. Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly, who was by now a princess, and ended up discovering Hedren, who was not a very good actress and who has pretty bad things to say about him now.
But Hedren’s limited range doesn’t interfere with Hitchcock’s suspense. There are two notable uses to camera–one is the schoolhouse attack, as Hedren sits on a bench and behind her crows slowly gather on monkeybars. The resulting attack on running schoolchildren has some ludicrously bad special effects, compared with today, but the way Hitchcock sets it up has us ignore the effects and realize the terror.
The second is when birds attack Hedren while she’s in a phone booth. In some ways the cutting is like the shower murder in Psycho–the cuts are so fast and precise that the scene comes across as a blur, but again, the terror is intact. I also love the edit as Hedren watches, horrified, as a flaming stream of gasoline travels toward the gas pumps, igniting a fireball.
The final act of the film, when Taylor, Hedren and family batten the hatches as the birds assault their house, is also bravura filmmaking. It just goes to show how the banal, when presented as a threat, can be just as scary as monsters from space.
The ending has no defeat of the birds–how would one conquer the world of birds. There’s a great sequence when an old lady ornithologist (Ethel Griffies) tells everyone how many birds there are. She also says that they don’t attack humans. When she’s proven wrong, all she can do is sit quietly, breathing heavily. Instead the ending is completely up in the air, a stalemate. In some old B-films, there would be a title card that would say The End? This is one of those films. It is one of Hitchcock’s finest; his last really great film.