Hitchcock: The Birds


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.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

14 responses »

  1. Man, those were some remarkable runs for two filmmakers, each as much a masterpiece in its way as the last. The Conversation is an amazing, amazing film. That’s a great, great question. I’m wracking my brain to come up with another director even close.

    I mean, Spielberg had his run, of Jaws, Encounters, Raiders, and ET, but 1941 was also in there.
    Scorsese had Raging Bull, King of Comedy, After Hours and Color of Money. Still, not quite the same.
    If Welles hadn’t been such a firebrand and tried to push so many buttons, I’m sure he’d be there (and with his adaptation of Hearts of Darkness, with his ‘I Camera’).
    Huh. Great question.

    I wrote about this s little bit ago. Absolutely terrifying movie. The slow burn up to the ‘boat scene’, when that first bird swoops in, makes that shocking moment so, so powerful. I can’t remember if Brian and I disagreed on this film, or if he was in agreeance.

  2. Its a really interesting film, not least because Hitch had a growing awareness of his role as an auteur. I recommend ‘Hitch and me’ by Evan Hunter who writes about his experience of collaborating with Hitchcock on THE BIRDS.

  3. Yeah, Spielberg doesn’t count because of 1941. It’s got to be four straight movies.

    Most older directors can’t do it because they directed so many films. One possibility is Charlie Chaplin, who arguably had five classics in a row: The Gold Rush/The Circus/City Lights/Modern Times/The Great Dictator. Certainly the first four are solid.

  4. I’ve still never seen this, though I live less than 30 minutes from Bodega Bay. Another case of one that I’ve always felt I should see but just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  5. In the late 1940s, Michael Powell had I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter Of Life & Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes all in a row. The last three all considered classics today, while the first one is very highly regarded although not as well known today.

  6. Another streaks worth mentioning:

    Stanley Kubrick’ s entire career, at least from Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket, could be considered a 9 film streak, depending on what you think of Lolita. Even without that, he has Dr. Strangelove/2001/Clockworld Orange/Barry Lyndon/The Shining/Full Metal Jacket, which I think is an amazing run. (though I still haven’t seen Barry Lyndon

    I also checked Billy Wilder, but he was too prolific and had so-so movies in between his classics. His best run was three films: Witness for the Prosecution/Some Like It Hot/The Apartment, which is pretty damn good.

  7. The Coens ran No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and True Grit together, and now Inside Llewyn Davis is getting very strong reviews in Cannes and looks like a Best Picture favorite.

    I guess that streak depends a lot on how you feel about Burn After Reading, but all four of those to me look like movies that people will still be seeking out in 30 years. It’s a better movie than The Birds, at any rate, and probably North by Northwest, too.

  8. It’s a better movie than The Birds, at any rate, and probably North by Northwest, too.

    I liked Burn After Reading a great deal, but I wouldn’t go that far.

  9. Well, either way, most people seem to consider it the weak link of the Coens’ recent quartet of films, which makes it a hell of a run.

    Kurosawa made the following consecutively:

    The Idiot
    Seven Samurai
    The Lower Depths
    Throne of Blood
    The Hidden Fortress
    The Bad Sleep Well
    High and Low
    Red Beard

    I haven’t seen a few of those, but as far as I know even the less famous ones are all very well regarded. I think his career stands up alongside Kubrick’s – and anyone else for that matter – and I love Kubrick, too.

  10. Yeah, haven’t seen or even heard of a lot of those.

    I guess I should mention Woody Allen, who is my favorite director. He would have two or three great films in a row, but has a few duds sprinkled in. I can’t consider Interiors a great film, and while I like Zelig it pales to the rest of his comedies, so his best four-film run is:

    Broadway Danny Rose
    Purple Rose of Cairo
    Hannah and Her Sisters
    Radio Days

  11. Kurosawa is obviously a very famous figure in film history but all the same I wonder if he really gets his due. I don’t know how many of his films you’ve seen, Slim, but I think you’d like a lot of them. He was a tremendous visual artist but I think his greatest strength was in pure storytelling. Things like Seven Samurai and High and Low and Ran (among others) are so elegantly constructed and so rich in narrative detail. If I were a filmmaker, I think that more than anyone he would be the one I’d want to use as a role model.

  12. Interesting list in that they’re all period films. I’d recommend High and Low most strongly of the ones set in contemporary times, although Ikiru is more famous (and certainly has its own strengths).

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