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.
25 April 2009
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 119 mins.