Tuesday, October 22, 2013

31 Days of Halloween 2013: The Birds (October 26th and 27th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

THE BIRDS screens Saturday October 26th at 9:40 pm and Sunday October 27th at 6:30 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

I would like very much to say that Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS, like the best films by the “Master of Suspense”, holds up quite well for modern audiences. Well, that's about half true.

THE BIRDS begins with a painfully stupid “meet cute” between well-to-do party girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and ruggedly handsome attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch has evidently met Melanie before, and didn't care much for her devil-may-care jokester ways, so he turns the tables on her by pretending to mistake her for a salesperson at a pet store where he has come to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister. Despite acting as though she is upset by this ridiculous ruse, Melanie comes down with a serious case of the hots for Mitch.

Using the kind of stalker skills necessary before the advent of the internet, Melanie finds out that Mitch lives in Bodega Bay, California and, pair of love birds in tow, sets off to leave the feathered pets as a practical joke of her own. Once having accomplished this task Melanie makes her getaway, but is attacked by a seagull before she can get very far. Luckily Mitch has spotted her by this time and, in his super suave fashion, invites Melanie to stick around for dinner with him, his controlling mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright).

Basically we spend an hour on this unappealing romance, with the presence of Mitch's ex, school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) not even adding much in the way of drama to the proceedings, as she and Melanie become fast friends rather than rivals. There are occasional bits of ominous foreshadowing as one would expect from Hitchcock, but overall there's more tedium than suspense. Once the avian assault begins in earnest with an attack on a group of schoolchildren, however, the excitement level picks up considerably. The viewer soon becomes so invested in seeing how the characters will survive their predicament that the silly contrivances that brought them together are almost forgotten.

The only other problem, and this will be much more pronounced among younger viewers I imagine, is that the special effects aren't very convincing by modern standards. Almost everything is done using a rear projection process, so that it's fairly obvious the birds aren't in the same physical space as the actors most of the time. This is also glaringly obvious in more mundane scenes such as when Melanie is driving her car or rowing a boat across the lake. There's nothing cheap or shoddy about it; that's just the way things were often done back then. That doesn't change the fact that far too many scenes in the movie are unconvincing, and it really brings home how lucky Steven Spielberg was that his state of the 1975 art mechanical shark in JAWS malfunctioned so much, forcing him to get by more with suggestion than actually showing the monster. Still, the effects aside, the second half of THE BIRDS is satisfyingly intense and exciting for those able to see the film in the context of its times and muster up the requisite suspension of disbelief. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.


  1. I think this is among the weakest of his best known movies. (Graham Chapman voice) Far too silly!

  2. I could be wrong, but I always thought that the extremely banal first half of the movie was intentional. Sort of a typical-life-in-a-typical-movie plot, where the cozy status quo is disrupted, bit by bit and then with a crescendo of the savage, apocalyptic bird attacks (which are not particularly foreshadowed, not even with the lovebirds - they just happen). No rhyme, no reason, just nature being red in tooth and claw, tearing apart flimsy celluloid civilization and all its magazine-layout love triangles. If that's what Hitchcock was trying to do, it worked for me. Then again, most biographers just say he had an obsessive dread of birds, period, and there is nasty bird imagery in most of his pictures if you watch for it (greedy gulls giving away the positions of some American spies in TOPAZ, I really dug that one).

    1. That may have been what he was going for, but the romance is so contrived and silly that it doesn't work for me as any kind of portrait of ordinary humdrum life. The one kind of interesting thing I do get from the movie (which I probably should have gone into in the review) is an ambivalence or outright negativity towards strong women/feminism. Camille Paglia seems to see it completely the other way, but to me it seems like after showing competence and fortitude early on, Melanie turns into an almost catatonic wreck during the big attack on the house (ala Judith Odea in 'Night of the Living Dead', which I think owes at least a little to 'The Birds'). Ultimately it's down to Mitch to save the day for the women he loves, boarding up doors and windows and fighting off the birds that make it inside. Further, the other strong female character, Mitch's ex Annie, pays a steep price for trying to do the man's job of being heroic. Of course whenever delving into a film's subtext, it's possible that what one sees is more in the mind of the interpreter than in the intent of the filmmaker, but that's how I read the movie, anyway.


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