Friday 6 January 2012

Movie Review: The Birds (1963)

A chilling horror film that succeeds in infusing birds with maliciously evil intent, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds is a thrilling masterpiece, packed with unforgettable visuals and impressive subtext.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) trades barbs with lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a pet shop. Afterwards she decides to surprise him by delivering two lovebirds to his sister, but Mitch has already left San Francisco to the small resort town of Bodega Bay. Melanie drives to the tiny community, where she meets local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) before making her way by boat to Mitch's house, where he lives with his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy).

Inexplicably, birds start to attack the humans in Bodega Bay. At first individual bird attacks cause minimal damage, but soon the birds start to flock together, attacking in large numbers, injuring and killing residents and terrifying children. With the attraction between Mitch and Melanie growing, the birds become more brazen, destroying parts of the town in a series of sky-darkening raids. Mitch, Melanie, and Lydia have to find a way to protect Cathy and save their lives.

In a case of quantity becoming quality, Hitchcock brings out the evil in the birds by harnessing their strength in numbers. One bird on a wire is not a threat to anyone. Thousands of birds packed onto all the wires suddenly become a fearful sight and a dominating force, and Hitchcock visually plays with this threat to great effect. Melanie at the school oblivious to the army of birds assembling on the playground equipment behind her is a classic moment in film history.

Interpreting The Birds is as fun as enjoying it as a macabre thriller. The more straightforward metaphor involves nature fighting back, perhaps as a revenge against pollution, and deploying even the weakest troops in massive numbers to over-run the humans with sheer volume. The crows and the seagulls team up for the attacks on Bodega Bay, even the tiny sparrows cause chaos in the Brenner house, and the talkative Mrs. Bundy, the bird expert conveniently stationed at the Tides restaurant, estimates that there are 100 billion birds in the world. Without rallying any other species, the birds would win this fight and chalk one up for mother earth. The Birds may be among the earlier movies warning of nature's ultimate intolerance of insensitive human behaviour.

Even more interesting than the Nature's Revenge theme is Hitchcock's not-so-subtle placement of Melanie in the bull's eye of each bird attack on Bodega Bay. Every horrifying on-camera assault by the birds coincides with Melanie's intrusion into the community. The birds fire a warning shot on the bay when Melanie sails onto it; and follow up with another intimidating knock on the door at Annie's house when Melanie sleeps there.

But she does not heed the warnings and stays in town, so the serious offensive commences: the birds attack Cathy's birthday party when Melanie attends; the Brenner's house when Melanie visits; the schoolhouse when Melanie drops in; the Tides restaurant when Melanie takes refuge there, and finally the Brenner's house again when Melanie is barricaded in it. In this last battle the birds unleash their savage fury on Melanie in the upstairs bedroom, and succeed in driving her out of Bodega Bay. They don't attack as she leaves the community.

Melanie's presence and its consequences may represent the damage suffered by a small community when big city elements creep in. More mouthwatering is the story of a personal and catastrophic battle between women. Both Lydia and Annie resent Melanie's presence in Bodega Bay, the clingy mother and the forlorn ex-wannabe girlfriend both immediately sensing that Melanie could easily poach Mitch from under their noses. Tellingly, Melanie's first brush with the bird on the bay occurs after her initial, uncomfortable encounter with Annie: the enemy becomes aware of the incursion, and the scouts are deployed to probe the foe's resilience. Both Lydia and Annie will incur damage during the battle: once war erupts, the instigators also stand to get hurt. The Birds becomes a representation of the gruesome war between a man's mother, his potential lover, and the woman who pines for his heart, with an entire town suffering as collateral damage.

Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock's personally selected new ingenue, delivers an underrated performance as Melanie, a woman with big city savvy easily navigating her way around the less sophisticated Bodega Bay culture. Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette provide a good counter-balance, The Birds unique in providing three sophisticated central roles for women in what is superficially a horror film. Hitchcock is less fortunate with the bland Rod Taylor, who is unable to deliver sufficient charisma as Mitch.

The Birds is a remarkable experience, as effective in delivering sometimes terrorizing thrills as it is in prompting more cerebral interpretive pursuits.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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