Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Film Review: The Birds

"The Birds"  *** (out of ****)

Birds. What do you think of them? I find them to be disgusting, worthless creatures. I find nature to be an evil, violent place. Animals preying on other animals. Liberals might say, well, birds / animals are no different than humans. Look how violent humans are; wars, assassinations, mass shootings..ect. That's all true but it is besides the point. Two wrongs don't make a right. So what about those birds?

Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963) takes a somewhat simple idea - a group of birds start attacking people, and then escalates the tension and the intensity of the attacks and scares us out of our minds because we think to ourselves, is it possible for birds to do this in real life? Maybe not on the scale we see in this movie, but, it could happen, right?

I was very young when I first saw Hitchcock's "The Birds". I didn't like Mr. Hitchcock's movies as a child. He scared me. I was frightened even watching episodes of his television show. I can't quite say this with absolute assurance but "The Birds" may have been the reason I am afraid of birds and animals. To this very day, I am hesitant to walk pass squirrels. I always look behind me after passing them to make sure they aren't chasing me. Why am I telling you this? I'm not sure. I guess to explain how relatable the premise of the movie can be.

Tippi Hedren makes her screen debut as Melanie Daniels, a spoiled San Francisco socialite who receives a lot of media attention due to her wild behavior, such as jumping into a fountain in Rome naked or "practical jokes" which result in the destruction of property. She meets a lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), at a pet shop. At first he mistakes her for an employee of the store but quickly, without telling Melanie, realizes she is not, and proceeds to ask her if there are any love birds he can buy.

The joke comes to an end when Mitch finally reveals he knows Melanie is not a salesperson. This upsets Melanie, as she does not like to have practical jokes played on her. She is attracted to Mitch though and decides to surprise Mitch by buying him the love birds, which were meant as a gift for his younger sister, and deliver them to him. What Melanie doesn't realize is Mitch has left town for the weekend and has headed to Bodega Bay. Stuck with the love birds she bought, she travels down to him.

When Melanie arrives at Bodega Bay she is greeted somewhat coldly by the residents. She looks out of place. Because she is wealthy she expects people to jump at her command and extend their services to her. The women in particular keep a cold distance. One woman Melanie meets is a local school teacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) who exhibits a bit a jealousy at the thought of Melanie spending time with Mitch. We learn Annie and Mitch used to date and Annie is still secretly in love with him.

Melanie doesn't allow Annie's feelings to stop her from meeting Mitch and his family. Once again Melanie is given a cold greeting this time from Mitch's mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), a recent widow. Lydia recognizes Melanie's face from the newspapers and the viewer can tell Lydia doesn't think Melanie is right for her son. Then again, what mother thinks any woman is right for her son?

Then there is the issue of those birds. As the movie begins we see a large flock of birds in the sky. As soon as Melanie arrives at Bodega Bay a seagull swoops down at her. Crows gather and attack school children. Seagulls again attack customers at a local dinner. Many of the attacks end with the birds killing a significant number of humans. What is causing it?

Watching "The Birds" it is inevitable you will ask yourself what do the birds represent? What is their social significance? Mr. Hitchcock doesn't offer an explanation for why the birds do what they do. Some have suggested the bird attacks have no meaning they are the MacGuffin in Mr. Hitchcock's story. MacGuffin was a term Hitchcock described as an unimportant detail which was mainly used a plot device to help drive the story forward. The best examples include "Notorious" (1946) and "North By Northwest" (1959) which involve "government secrets". What exactly the "secrets" the villains in the movie are after doesn't matter. In the example of those movies the MacGuffin theory works quite well. In "The Birds" it doesn't. The entire movie revolves around the bird attacks. It is the driving force of the movie. It must have a purpose.

Looking at the 1960s the birds can represent a few things. The most popular theory is "The Birds" is kind of an Orwellian "Animal Farm" story of animals revolting against humans due to the mistreatment animals have endured. Politically speaking America was engaged in the Cold War. "The Birds" was released prior to the assassination of President Kennedy so the bird attacks could represent the fear of outside forces attacking America. Feminism was on the rise in the 1960s thanks largely to the book "The Feminine Mystique" written by Betty Friedan. Some have correctly pointed out the cast in "The Birds" is largely female. In Britain "bird" is slang for woman. Could the bird attacks represent females fighting for the attention of the single male character prominent in the story? The attacks do stop after two of the female characters have joined together. And finally there is the theory that there is no theory. Bad things simply happen in the world and there is no explanation for it.

This represents the downfall of "The Birds", the lack of meaning behind the attacks. Mr. Hitchcock deliberately leaves it ambiguous. This may not have been a problem if the story revolving around the attacks wasn't so weak. There is not anything very interesting developed. Whether or not Melanie and Mitch get together is meaningless. The movie doesn't go to the trouble of creating interesting human characters. The Birds are the stars of the movie.

On the other hand, "The Birds" was perhaps the last movie Mr. Hitchcock directed that became part of American mainstream culture. I would argue the image of the birds swooping down attacking Melanie and the school children is just as iconic an image in film history as the shower scene in "Psycho" (1960). Nothing Mr. Hitchcock directed after this movie has left an indelible mark on the American conscience; "Torn Curtain" (1966), "Topaz" (1969) or "Family Plot" (1976) are all considered second-rate Hitchcock movies by the general public.

The movie was inspired by a story written by Daphne Du Maurier published in 1952 and has been interpreted in some circles as a metaphor for the Cold War. Ms. Du Maurier also provided the source material for two other movies Mr. Hitchcock directed, the Academy Awarding winner "Rebecca" (1940), Mr. Hitchcock's first American movie and "Jamaica Inn" (1939). The screenplay for "The Birds" was adapted by Evan Hunter, who also wrote an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents".

As is the case with his other movies Mr. Hitchcock is able to inject moments of humor into this story, though I don't find it blends as easily into the story as in "Rear Window" (1954) for example. One of the best scenes in the movie takes place at a restaurant where the costumers start debating why the birds are on the attack. An ornithologist dismisses the very idea of birds attacking explaining they aren't violent. At that very moment we hear a waitress put in an order for fried chicken. Subtly getting the idea across of how violent humans are towards animals.

You will also notice Mr. Hitchcock places a lot of emphasis on Ms. Hedren's beauty. The very first time we see her she is walking down a street when a man gives her a cat call. She turns around and has a beautiful smile on her face. Immediately bringing to our attention this is a beautiful woman. Her appearance is the reason the people of Bodega Bay treat her coldly. And there are plenty of close-ups and medium shots of her.

The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for its visual effects. A well deserved nomination. It was also a box-office success continuing on the popularity Mr. Hitchcock enjoyed with "Psycho", proving the old master (who was 64 when he directed this movie) still had a few tricks up his sleeve and was a relevant filmmaker. It will still get a reaction out of viewers today. But would I describe it as a horror movie?

I have been struggling lately with this very question. Are the films of Alfred Hitchcock horror movies? I have always classified his work as "suspense". There is a reason Mr. Hitchcock was given the title "master of suspense", though that title was given to him in reaction to his television show in the 1950s. Though the majority of his work is not "horror" is my opinion. A lot of people consider "Psycho" to be a horror movie. I believe it is a murder / mystery. Sometimes "The Birds" is thought to be a horror movie. I consider it a suspense / thriller. Which leads me to ask the question, how do we define horror? I suppose I have a rather old-fashion interpretation of it. I consider the monster movies of the 1930s & 40s as horror movies. But is the definition of "horror" broad enough that it may include a movie like "The Birds" or other suspense movies?

Regardless "The Birds", despite its flaws. is worth seeing. The premise is still able to shock us and cause debate. I don't believe this is the best movie to serve as an introduction into Mr. Hitchcock's work though it does contain certain elements we associate with his best movies.

[P.S. - I am also under the impression this movie influenced M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" (2008), another movie about unexplained events]