Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Birds (1963)

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from! I think you're evil. EVIL!” 

            Just like Psycho many people are very familiar with The Birds rather than Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier works. I can remember my brother Joe always renting this film when we were younger (though he claims not to remember but I clearly remember seeing the scene where Melanie gets attacked in the phone booth over and over again) and I thought it was so stupid. Of course I was younger at the time and thought old films were crap and really silly so I just laughed whenever Joe would rent it. I think he thought it funny as well because people were hysterically being attacked by birds. A few years ago when I became interested in Hitchcock and his films I found The Birds used on DVD for a reasonable price that I could not pass up and totally forgetting that my brother used to rent it over and over. When I watched the film again I had a better appreciation for it and for old films and I understood the premise of the stories. I still find The Birds totally hysterical and laugh whenever someone says it is a scary film. I am sure it was when it was first released but today it is silly.
            The film is based off a short story of the same title by Daphne du Maurier. The only things the novel and the film have in common are the location in a small seaside town (du Maurier’s location was Cornwall while the film’s was in California), the idea of birds attacking people, and an explosion.
            To quickly sum up the story of the film the main character is a woman named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). She is a play girl who has gotten into a little bit of trouble but now she is looking for something more meaningful in her life. While in a pet shop a man named Mitch (Rod Taylor) comes in. He plays a trick on her and lets her know that he is a lawyer and does not really care for her. Melanie decides to get back at him by bringing two lovebirds to his house in the small town of Bodega Bay. As soon as she gets there the birds in the town begin acting strange beginning with a gull attacking Melanie. The more she stays there the more aggressive the birds become and their attacks more violent.
            As he did with all his films Hitchcock masterfully created a great psychological thriller out of something that surrounds us every day. The director put it perfectly himself when he explained to Truffaut “…if the story had involved vultures, or birds of prey, I might not have wanted it. The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds.” The birds that were attacking Bodega bay were crows and gulls birds that would never bother anyone and are not known for violence or death. Knowing this bit of trivia it does make you think of birds when you see them. The film is nature turning on humans and that is scary since we know that forces of nature can be violent. Truffaut tells the director “I’m glad you didn’t give a specific reason for the attacks. It is clearly a speculation, a fantasy” to which Hitchcock replied “That’s the way I saw it.” So again he is mixing a fantasy with a reality to create great suspense and entertainment. He also said once that what is not seen or implied is scarier than what is seen because it allows for the viewer to make up their own scary thoughts and ideas of what happened.
            “[The viewers] come to the theater and they sit down and say ‘All right. Now, show me!’             And they want to be one jump ahead of the action: ‘I know what’s going to happen.’ So, I   have to take up the challenged. ‘Oh you know what’s going to happen. Well, we’ll just see about that.’ With The Birds I made sure that the public would not be able to anticipate from one scene to another.”
As the directors go on to say during the beginning of the film the audience expects the birds are going to attack there are clues and hints but all we know is that the animals are potentially menacing and will cause havoc.
            One thing I really liked reading about The Birds was Hitchcock’s little touches of irony: the beginning when Melanie and Mitch first meet in the pet shop he says the her “I’m putting you back in a gilded cage” adding to her characterization of a playgirl. Then later when the gulls attack she is not in a gilded cage but a cage like place all the same in a phone booth of misery. The director said it was a reversal of man being a cage and the birds on the outside. His other touch of irony comes at the end when Mitch’s little sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) asks if she can take her lovebirds with her lending “an optimistic note to the theme.”

            He also adds his little bit of dark humor when Melanie and Mitch are in the café before the large attack on the town. Here he gives the audience a breather from all the drama and tension. Truffaut said it was a bit too long but Hitchcock counters that when an audience is absorbed in a story the scene is short and if they are bored the scene is long.
            The four main characters are ok which I think comes from the fact that I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films from the ‘40s and ‘50s when he had all the great classic actors and actresses in them. Tippi Hedren is not horrendous but she was not the greatest. She was definitely one of his prettiest blondes he used in his films. Rod Taylor is not the typical leading male from his earlier film but in this new era he fits. I got a kick out of seeing a thirteen year old Veronica Cartwright as Mitch’s sister Cathy because I am so used to seeing her as the batty lady from the Witches of Eastwick throwing up all the cherry pits and yelling out “whores!” during a church service. Haha. Jessica Tandy played Mitch’s overbearing mother Lydia. I was not impressed with her because I was not sympathetic or impressed with the character. I did however like Hitchcock’s explanation in the scene where the sparrows fly in through the chimney and attack them that he filmed it from Melanie’s point of view which he meant as the audience’s point of view looking at Lydia cracking up.
            There are many more interesting behind the scenes stories and reasons for Hitchcock’s direction of The Birds in the book Hitchcock/Truffaut which I highly recommend reading. There were so many interesting things about the film that I could have added but why spoil a good book by giving away all its details.
            As I said at the beginning The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s films along with Psycho that are his most well known and one that everyone has either seen or heard of. It is not one of my favorites of his in the slightest but I appreciate it a little bit more after doing some research on it and learning some of the techniques and ideas he wanted to and did put across to the audience. The Birds is a film to see a few times (and separated by a stretch of time) just because it is a Hitchcock film and because the more you watch it the more you can appreciate it. 

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