25 April 2009

The Birds (1963)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 119 mins.

Alfred Hitchcock utilized many motifs and recurring devices through his long career: the wrongfully accused man, the ubiquitous presence of trains, tall and foreboding staircases, the audience-as-voyeur, etc. It is odd that perhaps the most common device associated with him as far as public consciousness is concerned — the bird — occurs only in two films. Avian imagery is layered throughout Psycho (the taxidermic hobby of Norman Bates in the motel parlor; the way he pecks at his food and becomes ensnared in the fate of a woman with the last name Crane), but such imagery serves primarily as a sly metaphor as opposed to something that drives the film.

However, The Birds, his eagerly anticipated 1963 follow-up to Psycho, speaks for itself right in the title. Whatever your opinion on the film, it's impossible to deny that a flock of many birds turns the brain toward the Hitchcockian side of life, and in some cases, Hitchcockian nightmares. From a respective standpoint, such a connection is an anomaly in the director's canon.

I don't think Hitchcock made another masterpiece after Psycho, but The Birds comes closer than any of his later films. It is the last great film made by a great director — not flawless, but certainly a strong and exemplarily crafted horror film. Where does it fall short? I'm not aware of many who still step up in defense of its rather milquetoast stars: Tippi Hedren as socialite Melanie Daniels, and Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner, a hulking beau suitor for her with an icy mother (Jessica Tandy, in a good performance). In public Hitchcock spoke tongue-in-cheek about performers and on the set he could be equally cruel; but in private it's clear he knew how important they were. His technical masterpieces — and, to be fair, on a technical level The Birds is among his most ambitious films – all succeed in part because they're driven by rapturous performances. Think James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window; Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo; Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest; Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho; and the list goes on. Hedren and Taylor bring little to The Birds aside from being rough visual equivalents of Hitchcock's two beau ideals, Kelly and Grant, who were in fact the starting point for both the Melanie and Mitch characters. (Alas, Hitchcock lamented, Kelly was busy "being a princess" and "why should I give Cary fifty percent of the movie?")

Famously, or perhaps infamously, Hedren was to be Hitchcock's "next big thing," the reincarnation of Kelly's screen presence after his pursuit of Vera Miles ultimately failed. He had spotted Hedren in a commercial (sans dialogue, mind you) and recruited her as a potential star for The Birds, although did not make it clear until much later. He schooled her in Hitchcock 101: at the director's home, she watched Rebecca, Notorious, and To Catch a Thief, then acted out scenes from those movies with Hitchcock directing her. He made consultations on wardrobe and jewelry and, as his way was wont to be, attempted to build her up. He was so involved in her cultivation that she declared years later that "Melanie Daniels was his character," not her own. It was a miscalculation on Hitchcock's part, and The Birds shows that. Although Hedren may have fit his visualization of a latter-day Kelly, on screen she lacks the depth Kelly brought to her three roles in the director's films. Hitchcock may not have been classically trained in the art of acting, but he had the tremendous luck of having talented people star and co-star in his films and carry them through.

But the lead performances aside, there's still a great deal working well in The Birds. Although the script might not be the director's tightest, it takes risks and pulls off many of them. Scheduling conflicts prevented Hitchcock from recruiting Ray Bradbury as screenwriter (would have been great, right?), and so crime writer Evan Hunter came on board to adapt the 1952 novella of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, the third time Hitchcock would bring her material to the screen. It was tumultuous writing process, and Hunter was eventually made sour by the changes Hitchcock did after the screenwriter's time on the film officially ended, but some of the decisions are for the best, most notably the reason behind the birds' attacking. Simply put, there isn't any. In the immortal words of Norman Bates, we all go a little mad sometimes, and the birds begin attacking people, then keep attacking people, and not once in the whole movie are given any hint as to why. Hitchcock and his writers searched for one, but eventually went with the pessimistic and haunting reason of absolutely nothing. The final scenes were even pared back from a larger, more expansive view of the whole community devastated by birds, to (and I think it was for the best) simply watching the car full of our characters slowly roll away. Considering that final shot and the absence of any "The End" title card, the surreal and disturbing effect is heightened to the extreme.

It's the best decision in the film, followed by the pacing — which, although it drives some mad, I think is richly rewarding. Almost half of the length passes before a bird attacks, no doubt a storytelling technique that greatly influenced Steven Spielberg. Such a move is a gamble, no doubt, but it pays off in the film's final hour of pure tension, which follows the bird attacks getting tighter and tighter until the triumphant sequence where, crouched in the corner of a small room, birds relentlessly attack Melanie. (For the record: that took one whole week to film, using both real and animatronic birds, and reportedly sent Hedren toward a nervous breakdown.)

Many of Hitchcock long-time collaborators returned for The Birds after a brief departure during Psycho, including cinematographer Robert Burks and production director Robert Boyle. George Tomasini was again editor, and composer Bernard Herrmann was on hand, although The Birds features no score and instead utilizes real and ambient bird sounds that he supervised to create atmosphere. (Say what you will about the film's ultimate effect, but Hitchcock the Experimentalist was in full swing with an unknown lead actress, no music, a huge budget, and thousands of birds. Appropriately, the film was given a special premiere screening at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Tomasini was a sublime career editor, whose best work was with Hitchcock. From the back-and-forth voyeurism of Rear Window to the crop-duster attack of North by Northwest and the shower scene of Psycho, he brought structural success to so many pivotal moments in Hitchcock films. His work on The Birds is equally dynamic, a striking balance of slow suspense (think Melanie outside the school, the birds slowly accumulating on the monkey bars behind her) to a literally explosive elements (the explosion that occurs in the gas station during a bird attack). For Burks and Boyle, the photography and art direction on The Birds is still quite impressive today — maybe among the most technically complex and startling of Hitchcock's canon. Hitchcock brought on Ub Iwerks, the former animator and Walt Disney collaborator, to serve as a "special photography adviser" to the film and to oversee the optical printing technique he had invented. The four brought more 300 matte trick-shots to the screen, blending thousands of real and fake birds, and pushing the boundaries of conventional special effects. The crème de la crème of these sequences is the final ominous shot, a car slowly driving away with birds covering the landscape. Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan notes Hitchcock called it "the most difficult single shot I've ever done"—thirty-two different camera exposures layered atop each other to create a single image.

Hunter, the film's screenwriter, recalled Hitchcock boasting that "he was entering the Golden Age of his creativity. He told me The Birds would be his crowning achievement." I don't think either critical or popular consensus reaches that conclusion, and ultimately I don't think Hitchcock did. But the association of the director to birds remains as conclusive proof that The Birds is, in a general sense, among Hitchcock's most recognizable films in the social consciousness. One could make the case that the three most "pop culture" films occurred in successive order: North by Northwest, Psycho, and then this film. In their own unique ways, each speaks to the magic of making movies and watching them. And while The Birds falls short of masterwork status, it's an important film in the Hitchcock chronology — and a damn good horror flick at that.


Books,Coffee,etc.... 25 April, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,
What a very detailed review and to interject a "baseball analogy," but you, most definitely, covered all the bases in your review of Hitchcock's 1963 film..."The Birds."Thanks,
[Note:]T.S., if your readers, want to "see" what you mentioned about "Hitchcock and Ub Iwerks, the former animator and Walt Disney collaborator,whom he chose to serve as a "special photography adviser on the film "The Bird."

I advise them to invest in the dvd The Birds(The Alfred Hitchcock Collection) because their work together on the special effect is covered on the dvd.

Books,Coffee,etc.... 25 April, 2009  

"On 18 August 1961, residents in the town of Capitola, California, awoke to find sooty shearwaters slamming into their rooftops, and their streets covered with dead birds. News reports suggested domoic acid poisoning (amnesic shellfish poisoning) as the cause. According to a local newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, director Alfred Hitchcock requested news copy in 1961 to use as "research material for his latest thriller".
WikipediaT.S.said,"The final scenes were even pared back from a larger, more expansive view of the whole community devastated by birds, to (and I think it was for the best) simply watching the car full of our characters slowly roll away. Considering that final shot and the absence of any "The End" title card, the surreal and disturbing effect is heightened to the extreme."I really appreciate the ending of Hitchcock's "Birds," because I feel that it was "open ended."
In other words, Will the birds follow them? (The car with the main characters) and eventually, attack other city, town, etc...hmmm)

FilmDr 26 April, 2009  

It's interesting to read this post right after the one you wrote about Psycho, because even given your discussion of the strengths of the movie, there still seems to be a pretty steep drop in quality between the two films, and I would like to know more about why. Yes, Tippi Hedren is not in the same league as Janet Leigh. The Birds seems too leisurely in comparison to the former film; it takes too long to get going. I sometimes find Hitchcock's penchant to shoot outdoor scenes in the studio distracting in The Birds. Sometimes, I can tell that they are fake, and some of the bird-related special effects (such as the tracking shot when the birds attack the children) seem less convincing than the relatively simple black and white effects in Psycho. Overall, I just have problems with the plausibility of The Birds. Have you seen Camille Paglia's book on The Birds?

R. D. Finch 28 April, 2009  

T.S., I saw "The Birds" for the first time just a couple of years ago and was surprised at how positively I responded to it. I watched it again just a couple of weeks later and a third time a few months after that. It just kept getting better and better with each viewing. I wholly concur that the biggest weakness of the movie is the two leads. It's just crying out for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. But unlike you, I also find the ending to be a letdown. For me the movie just stalls and then suddenly deflates. I don't really have any ideas about how the ending could have been improved, but I do find it too abrupt. And considering the conventional dramatic values of Hitchcock's movies, which always seem to have a clear resolution, I find it too inconclusive. Maybe it's not even the ending itself but the way its shown, so anti-climatically. It would be a long time before Hitch made anything that came close "The Birds." "Frenzy" seemed almost a return to form. And I am fond of the less ambitious but for me quite entertaining "Family Plot."

MovieMan0283 30 April, 2009  

I just re-watched The Birds for the first time in years. My conclusions on it are pretty much the same as they've always been (and I think this may have been my first Hitchcock). It doesn't really live up to its potential.

Hedren comes in for a lot of flack, but she's as iconic in her own way as those birds, and it's hard to imagine the film without her. The fact is that the part doesn't really have much depth - though she may not have had the star power of Kelly, she also isn't given much to work with here.

Indeed, the screenplay is surprisingly lackluster. I actually like the first half more than I used to - I once found it boring, now I find it mildly intriguing - but the fact remains that Hitch and his writers don't do enough to make you care about the characters. Psycho, a masterpiece due to Norman Bates, would still be a gripping thriller if it dealt with Marion Crane on the run, but can anyone imagine The Birds working for 2 hours without the birds?

For some reason, in my mind I draw an analogy with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both are films by great auteurs who had already peaked and were nearing the end of their run. Yet both were just beginning to be celebrated by intellectuals as artists - in a way auteurism, at least in America, arrived just barely too late. The Birds, I think, was the first film to truly capitalize on Hitch's renewed reputation, just as Liberty Valance was the first to truly capitalize on Ford's...at least as pertained to his Westerns. Both films, I think, are flawed, and a bit dated, and a bit, well, literary - many of their conceits work better on paper than in the execution (and here I speak more of the melodramatic set-up meant to be subverted by the birds than of the birds themselves).

On a personal note, and without meaning to implicate these scenes beyond my own probably idiosyncratic reaction, on this viewing, I was surprised that even the famous suspense sequences didn't do as much for me...the jungle gym, the explosion at the restaurant; I admired Hitch's achievement without really feeling it. But then came the ending which is still a small masterpiece, entirely effective from the moment the family bolts themselves into the house and then wait, on edge, for the birds to attack to the moment the car pulls out in a truly gorgeous composite shot (try doing that in CGI).

To me, the final 20-30 minutes redeem the movie, which is otherwise a flawed misstep for Hitchcock. Back to my point about The Birds being perhaps overrated by auteurists at the time...Hitch was celebrated for his classicism when so many filmmakers (many inspired by him in spirit, if not in form) were speeding things up, going wild, mixing and matching as the French New Wave and Italian cinema and British bubbled over and the nascent American New Wave bubbled under the surface. But if you look at where Hitchcock had gone in his previous films, they were much more subjective, taking us further and further into the characters' reality (think Norman Bates or Scotty in Vertigo) and The Birds' vaunted classicism with all those master shots and medium close-ups and precise, almost geometrical editing sense may have been a step backward for the director - a retreat into an intellectualized formalism and away from the feverish, flamboyant cinema of his best work.

At least, I'm inclined to think so. I admire, respect, and am intrigued by the movie yet it doesn't really grab me, at least until the fantastic conclusion.

T.S. 01 May, 2009  

Thanks for your comments, all. I may need to come and revise and extend my remarks because I'm this rather quickly.

What you all have to say is rather interesting, particularly the divergence in opinion between R.D. and MovieMan, who literally function as critical opposites on the film. My own sense is that The Birds is really a troubled work, something Hitchcock struggled with and perhaps even knew (subconsciously?) was not his grand film. It's still an impressive film, I think, even in the ways it falls short, and it's certainly the last film Hitchcock made that raises my pulse — in a good way, at least.

I'm not sure what explains the fact that The Birds is a departure from the high-level entertainment/art Hitchcock had produced sequentially since 1956 (The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho, all in a row!). I'm not sure something can be specifically pinpointed in Hitchcock's career or in his movie-making prowess that would be an *exact* moment things began to change. Certainly, I think, he never had the same control of his material after Pyscho. The 1960s and 1970s were demonstrably cruel to Hitchcock's films (Psycho exempted, for it has more in common with his 1950s ouevre than 1960s). It might explain Ford's decline, too, as MovieMan mentions, although I find myself much more of a fan of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than he; I think Hitchcock's the sort of director that spoke of the '40s/'50s and to the '40s/'50s in a profoundly unique way, something that didn't exactly translate as well after Psycho. I know this is largely why I continue to be skeptical of films from 1970-onward billed as "Hitchcockian," particularly Brian De Palma's. There's an attitude that was specific to a particular era, and The Birds, while somewhat allegorical (supposedly Hitchcock toyed with the idea of linking the birds to Communists), is simply different. Theme can be repeated and recreated, but there's something inescapable about tone, and De Palma, as far as I'm concerned, has always been tone-deaf in his homage to Hitchcock.

But I've gone astray. Many films Hitchcock seemed particularly proud of during production emerge somewhere in the middle quality of his canon. Obviously he was proud of something like Vertigo, but those films we consider his true masterpieces never received such boastful on-set talking from the director. I'm not sure the drop in quality is as large you suggest (even many 5-star films still pale in comparison to Psycho), but it is entirely noticeable. I understand the criticism of 'takes too long to get going,' which is think is a gamble Hitchcock made and for many doesn't payoff. I enjoy the slow start because I think it gives more emphasis on the middle and ending. Spielberg did it better later (Jaws and Jurassic Park), but I enjoy that angle from Hitchcock. Whether subconscious or not, I think he learned from Psycho that the front half of a film can tremendously affect our reading of the back half, although obviously Psycho does it much, much better.

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