The Birds (1963)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 10/11/20
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Tippi Hedron, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron) is a wealthy and aloof socialite who delights in practical jokes and toying with peoples' feelings. A lawyer named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) catches her fancy at a pet shop, and she sets out to one-up him by delivering a pair of lovebirds to his sister along with a scathing note. This takes her on a road trip to Bodega Bay, where the local birds are acting strangely. Melanie is attacked by a gull, children are attacked at a birthday party, a local farmer is killed, and soon the entire town is under siege. No explanation is given for their deadly behavior, and Melanie is severely injured during the final assault on Brenner's house.

While it was probably considered extraordinary at the time, the visual effects have not aged well in the film. Some of the matte paintings and sodium matte composites are very effective, but there are about a dozen shots that are extremely distracting and derail the film. Hitchcock's quirky sense of humor also seems misplaced, which leaves the film struggling to find an identity. The film has no traditional music score, and uses an unsettling cacophony of electronic bird sounds instead. It's annoying and overused, but it has the intended effect. The birds themselves are a mixed bag. Some scenes are highly effective while others look odd, awkward, and unconvincing. Hedron went through a week of hell being attacked by live birds in the film's climax, and had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and emotional trauma afterwards. Hitchcock may have been a creative genius, but he was also cruel maniac.

The cast is wonderful, and Tippi Hedron was touted as being groomed to be Hitch's next Grace Kelly. She's attractive and delivers an excellent performance, although her makeup is inconsistent and often garish. She looks best with a more subtle palette and is her absolute sexiest when she's reacting in fight-or-flight mode. What I found most remarkable were the amazing catchlights in her eyes. They're simply astonishing and pull you right in. I'm sure this was done on purpose, and even when there are other characters in a scene, her eyes are lit up WAY more than everyone else's. Her establishing shot in the bird shop is breathtaking, and assaults the viewer with so much seduction and sex appeal that it lingers over her for the rest of the film. I found the female characters to be extremely well written, and Melanie is a strong, capable, and fiercely independent young woman. Her interactions with the equally strong-willed Suzanne Pleshette were my favorite parts of the film.

The film does an excellent job of creating tension and dread in a small seaside community that seems cut off from the rest of the world, but the other aspects don't fare so well. The romantic angle between Melanie and Mitch is unconvincing, as the cold and calculating Melanie seems content to just toy with Mitch as if he were a wounded bird, while Mitch tries to figure out how to break her. The birds definitely affect their relationship and tear down their societal walls, but you never get the feeling that they care for each other. As it was based on a short story, there's a lot of filler in the film which tends to drag the pacing to a halt. The protracted and cringe-inducing dialog scenes in the Tides Restaurant go on WAY too long and are nearly unbearable to watch. The only poignant piece of dialog is when the flustered mother says "She just said she was attacked. Why won't you listen to her?" The sexual subtext is chilling and even more relevant fifty years later. There's also the question of the birds' motivation. Are they somehow connected to Melanie's arrival in Bodega Bay? Is she a catalyst or is her presence merely coincidence? Is she a manifestation of sin and the metaphorical downfall of Man, or is she a convenient scapegoat simply because she's a pretty outsider? Her beauty has a profound effect on the entire town, but does that also make her a harbinger of doom? The prolonged climax is also baffling and nearly ruins the movie. Why does Melanie go into the attic, by herself, knowing there are birds in it? Is it some kind of divine punishment? Is it a reflection of her own self-destructive behavior? Or was it merely an act of barbaric cruelty on Hitchcock's part? The scene of her hand on the doorknob feels like a deliberate metaphor for Pandora's Box, and literally all hell is let loose at that moment. It's overkill and does nothing but drag the film down. By that point, I was just anxious for the film to be over. But maybe that was the intended effect?