Friday, March 2, 2012

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Tippi Hedren
Rod Taylor
Jessica Tandy
Suzanne Pleshette
Veronica Cartwright

As I wrote in this review of The Hills Have Eyes, radiation from nuclear weapons being tested out in the deserts over the ocean and from sea to shining sea has often been the blame for nature running amok in films ever since the development of the first atomic bombs. If it isn't cannibalistic mutants in the desert (The Hills Have Eyes I & II), then it's giant locusts (The Beginning of the End), Giant Ants (Them), Giant Dinosaurs (Godzilla), Giant Humans (The Amazing Colossal Man) or awakening Giant Dinosaurs in the Arctic with radioactive blood (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms). These so called B movies ran the gamut from being Mystery Science Theater fodder to sometimes being somewhat entertaining and even better than average.

However, there is one "critters that run amok movie" that makes the A list, and that would be Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. And there isn't one single rad of radiation to be found anywhere in the script. In fact, if you only like your creatures features to come with some goofy explanation of how things came to be the way they were, then you are really out of luck in this film. Just like it was in Daphne Du Maurier' s novelette on which the film is based, there is no real explanation or pat answers to the events that take place in Bodega Bay, so you're pretty much left to fend for yourself.

And as in most of his films, Hitch does it in grand fashion.  In some ways, the first half hour or so reminds me of Psycho whereas if one didn't know what the film was about, it could just as easily be a romantic drama or comedy unfolding where we have our two main characters meet, have total disdain for each other, seem totally incompatible, but later are going to fall in love. Except of course we know that's not what the movie is about and the meeting of Melanie and Mitch in the Pet Shop is part of an extensive exercise known as getting to know the players. Plus, it enables Hitch to start playing his little games with us right away by introducing the lovebirds into the mix which may have something to do with the events that follow, but then very well may be nothing more than a red herring.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the daughter of a newspaper magnate is in a San Francisco Pet Shop purchasing Mynah Birds when she is recognized by attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who sees her as nothing more than a spoiled rich heiress, used to getting her way and has a penchant for playing elaborate practical jokes on others. Think of her as the Paris Hilton of 1962.

Wanting to give Melanie a taste of her own medicine, Mitch pretends that he has mistaken her for a sales lady and confronts her to inquire about purchasing some
lovebirds. Melanie, not knowing that Mitch is on to her, plays the part of the sales lady just as Mitch expected she would. Mitch of course, asks her one bird question after another, each and every one of which Melanie gets wrong including not being able to recognize a canary when she sees one. After she has done enough to totally embarrass herself, Mitch reveals that he does in fact know who she is. When she confronts him about it, he tells her that he wanted to her to see how it felt to be on the other end of a practical joke. She in turn let's him know that he is nothing more than a louse.

But if Mitch was trying to cure Melanie, it doesn't work. Using his license plate number to track down his identity, Melanie purchases a couple of the lovebirds to take to Mitch's apartment. When she finds out from a neighbor (Richard Deacon) that Mitch has gone home to Bodega Bay for the weekend, she decides to drive up the coast and deliver them herself.

Upon arriving, Melanie discovers that Mitch is staying with his Mother and his younger sister, but unable to find out the name of Mitch's sister, Melanie is directed to the home of the schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette).

After revealing that the name of Mitch's sister is Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), Annie becomes very inquisitive in regards to Melanie's connection to Mitch and the Brenner Family. When she tells us that as far as Mitch is concerned, she is a closed book, it doesn’t take a genius to know that they were involved with each other at one time and that the chances of them becoming involved once again are slim to none.

Before heading across the bay to make her delivery, Melanie replaces her original note with one addressed to Cathy, which leads us to believe she may not entirely be a cold and aloof person prone to practical jokes.   After leaving the birds, Melanie takes her boat off of the shore a ways so that she can see Mitch's reaction when he discovers her gift.

Unable to start the boat's motor quickly enough, she is spotted by Mitch who races in his truck to the other side of the Bay to greet her. As Melanie approaches the dock, and when we least expect it, we get our first sign of trouble as she is unexpectedly attacked by a seagull. Hitchcock had almost managed to make us forget what we came here for in the first place, having lulled us into a false sense of security.

As Mitch is tending to Melanie's wound inside the diner, his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) happens by. Mitch tries to explain to her whom Melanie is, what her purpose is  for being in Bodega Bay, and what had happened to her. Without hardly saying  anything, the look on Lydia's face tells us that not only that she is suspicious of Melanie, but that she is also none too pleased that Mitch has a new friend. The mark of a great actress is being able to tell the audience so much using only  her eyes and facial expressions, and Jessica Tandy does just that in this particular scene.

Much to the obvious chagrin of Lydia, Mitch invites Melanie to dinner. Melanie, having boxed herself in by telling Mitch that she was staying with Annie Hayworth, tells Mitch she will try and make it unless Annie has other plans. Shortly thereafter as Melanie asks Annie if she can stay at her home, we see a swarming flock of seagulls overhead, again warning us of what is to come. It is similar to a scene we had witnessed  at the beginning of the film where before entering the Pet Shop, Melanie had looked up to see a huge flock of birds gathering in the sky.

It is simply another example of Hitchcock's brilliance that he is able to take something that we take for granted, then use it to not only heighten  the tension, but to raise our expectations as well. Hitchcock knew that anticipation is often just as important as the actual event itself. And as the movie begins to move along more quickly, these foreshadowing events become more and more frequent until we get to the big enchilada.

When Melanie arrives at the Brenner farmhouse, we quickly find out that there is a chicken problem as Lydia's chickens won't eat their feed. Later, when Melanie leaves we see crows (blackbirds?) gathering on the telephone wires.

At Annie's, after a revealing conversation between her and Melanie, a bird inexplicably crashes into the house killing itself. When the first real attack comes, Hitchcock makes it even more horrific by having it occur during the innocence of a children's birthday party, and then later, surprises us again when an innocent conversation is immediately and unexpectedly interrupted as the birds come flying down the chimney in full attack mode. From that point on we know that it is no longer a matter of defeating the birds, but just trying to survive the onslaught.

In horror film after horror film we are seldom given anything but cookie cardboard cut out characters who are put into a horrific situation, probably similar to what we have here. Sometimes we may get to know them on some level and may even care about their predicament. Hitchcock takes it a step further. He breathes life into his characters, not just by letting us getting  to know them on some superficial level, but by filling us in on their flaws and all of the little idiosyncrasies that make them tick, thus bringing a level and texture to the film we probably wouldn't have otherwise.

For instance, in less capable hands we would be given the character of Melanie. Somewhere along the way, probably in the early going, we would in all likelihood be told that she is a poor totally misunderstood rich girl, probably in a three or four minute scene where she pours her heart out to one of the other characters. What Hitch does is to reveal Melanie's traits, flaws included, layer by layer throughout the film, thus making her a far more interesting and complex character that she would be otherwise.

With Mitch, Lydia, and Annie it is no different. They are revealed to us in much the same way. When Melanie first meets Annie, we suspect that there is or had been something between her and Mitch at one time, and Hitchcock gives us time to dwell on it for a while until Melanie returns and it is then that we learn of Annie's past in regards to Mitch. And even though she does her best to convince Melanie that the relationship is over and ancient History, we can see through
her charade.

But we also sense something that I'm not sure Melanie does. We sense that even though she says it doesn't, the very fact that Melanie is staying with her and talking to her about her own supposedly non-relationship with Mitch, is painful. Annie is the most sympathetic character in the movie. She hopes for something she can never have, and one suspects that Bodega Bay is what she has settled for not what she really desires.

We might understand Mitch’s  ditching of Annie at one time due to the death of his father although we can't really forgive him for it. But we also see something that Annie doesn't. We can tell that Mitch is at the end of his rope as far as his mother is concerned. It's not that he isn't understanding, but when we see Lydia doing her best to drag Melanie down much in the same way that she did Annie, we can tell from Mitch's reaction that his patience has worn thin,  even if he never states it aloud, thus making Melanie  a much bigger threat to Lydia.

In the film, Lydia has become way too dependent on Mitch much in the way that she was totally dependent on her husband when he was alive. The funny thing is, as the movie progresses there is no doubt that she knows it too, and we suspect that she is just too afraid to function on her own, and just as Annie says, not
afraid of being alone at all. And as Annie also says, "one is not the same as the other".

And no, all of this is not thrown into the story just to be there. As we witness each attack, it is how these characters cope with this enormous threat, what happens to them during before and after, that will finally resolve some of these issues one way or the other, mostly because they are pretty much forced to deal with them. It is not that these conflicts are solved and wrapped up in a neat tightly wrapped bow or that everything is cut and dry, because they are not . But we can surmise how it could all end, that is if there is an ending other than the total devastation of mankind.

We never really know for sure.  Just like in many of his other films, Hitchcock never lets us become too sure of the events unfolding in front of us. We are left to fend for ourselves, to put the
jigsaw puzzle together on our own so to speak.

Do the Lovebirds really have a part in all of this, and if so what? It is left totally to our imagination to decide although he brings up those two damn birds often enough, along with the fact that they aren't very lovable. And why are the birds that we have always lived in harmony with for the most part suddenly turning on us? Is there a reason?

At one point, a lady in a restaurant accuses Melanie of being the cause of it all as if she were the devil herself out to destroy mankind. What makes it even worse is that as Mitch and Melanie walk slowly into the restaurant, the looks on the others hiding in a corridor tell us that they too have been talked into believing in Melanie's culpability. The scene is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode called The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. It's as if they view Melanie as Linda Blair and she has just finished doing the spider walk that was excised from the original cut of The Exorcist.

To be perfectly honest, when viewing the film you do feel as if somehow something Melanie has done or is doing is responsible even if such a possibility makes no sense at all. It's because you almost feel the need for some kind of explanation, the kind we have been trained to expect but it never really manifests itself. The most logical explanation for all of this then, is that it means nothing more than the fact that Hitch is once again toying around with our psyche in the brilliant manner that he did time and time again.

Tippi Hedren, who was making her film debut in The Birds, is cast perfectly as Melanie, the sophisticated daughter of a big shot newspaper publisher. Sometime I'm not sure her performance here is given the credit that it deserves. You can see a bit of the character's  father in her, because she has this look like she is analyzing what Annie, Mitch and Lydia are telling her against what she can actually surmise from their behavior. Whereas Mitch often questions motives, Melanie finds out what she can and compares it to what she knows and what she can see on her own. In one remarkable scene, we see Lydia trying to clean up the house after one of the Bird attacks. Normally, the camera would focus solely on Lydia but in this case it cuts quickly between Lydia and Melanie, and we can see Melanie trying to size up the situation.

As for the bird attacks themselves, even in 1963 terms, they are impressive and frightening. Making matters worse is the fact that two of the most violent attacks come against children, at the aforementioned birthday party, and later at the Bodega Bay school.

It is at the school where once again Hitch weaves his magic wand. As Melanie sits out
by the playground, we see what she cannot as her back is turned. We watch in horror as one bird becomes two, two becomes four, four become eight and so forth and so on while the children sing a playful song inside. It is not until Melanie stands and turns that she sees what we have seen all along. The attack on the school children that follows is still one of the most horrific sequences ever to be put on film, emphasized by the fact that it once again is an attack on those that are least capable of defending themselves.  (The videos below from hulu have been somewhat problematic.  You may or may not have to refresh your browser in order for them to load.)

But there is more. In a scene played to perfection by Jessica Tandy, Lydia goes to a farm house and discovers the mutilated body of Mr. Fawcett, it would be at this point that most directors would have her simply scream and the guy outside would come running into the house. But Hitchcock plays the scene for every cent it is worth making Lydia so horrified that she when she opens her mouth there is no sound and she can only run in total terror.

In another scene we watch as a
puddle of gas flows to where a man is lighting a cigarette while standing next to his car. The patrons in the restaurant yell at him from the window, but of course since they are yelling different things simultaneously he's not sure what exactly it is they are hollering about. After he drops the match, we see the different looks of horror and helplessness on Melanie's face in cut stills as the flame works it’s way to the pump.

As the birds descend on the town, Melanie becomes
trapped in a phone booth, and it from here that just like Melanie, we have a front row seat to the devastation. By the time Tippi Hedren had spent a week filming a later sequence that takes place at the Brenner home, she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion.

I have to admit that the first time I saw the film, I was a little put out by the ending. But I was about fifteen at the time and watching it on NBC where it became (at that time) the most watched theatrical film on television ever until it was taken over some years later by Love Story. I was used to seeing films wrapped up with that pretty bow at the end of the story, and it wasn't until later that I began to appreciate the fact that sometimes its best to write your own ending and decide for yourself.

As I matured, I realized that any other ending would have ruined the film although Hitchcock at one time had the idea to have Mitch, Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy drive into San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge covered with birds.

The Birds was once voted the
Seventh Scariest Movie of all time in a poll conducted in Britain in 2006. I won't disagree with that assessment. In the over forty years of its existence, the film is just as superb in 2012 as it was in 1963 or even 1968 when I saw it for the first time. And when you combine all the ingredients put into this film, you can bet that I have no choice but to give it my grade which is an A.

The Birds is available to buy on DVD from Amazon, or to rent from Netflix.  The best news is that in celebration of Universal Studios 100th Anniversary, they will be releasing a remastered edition on Blu-ray some time this year (2012), although there is no specific release date.  But you can do as I did and preorder from Amazon with their lowest price guarantee, something I’ve already done.  I really look forward to that.

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