Friday, May 21, 2010
#15 The Birds (1963)
"An interesting examination of the human psyche"
Our final movie of this our first of many Hitchcock weeks is The Birds. This movie is exceedingly notorious, and was, in fact, the only Hitchcock movie I knew of for the first, probably 14 years of my life. This movie is interesting in that it is nothing at all like the other Hitchcock movies of this week; the story is not at all complex, nothing is explained at the end, there are no big twists. The lack of twists in this movie can itself almost be considered a twist. Throughout the whole of the movie I was expecting a twist, expecting the crazy birds to be explained, but it never came. I was so surprised, I felt hollow inside because of it. But that’s the point. This movie isn’t about why or how, it’s about what. The film is really an exploration into what people do when a disaster sets in, how people respond to terror and mass hysteria, and in this realm, the movie is extraordinarily successful.
The film is about Melanie Daniels, a wealthy daughter of a newspaper magnate living in San Francisco. We first see her in a pet store, where she is picking up a bird, when she meets up with Mitch Brenner, a lawyer, who reveals that Melanie is quite the prankster. After their brusque meeting, Melanie takes a fancy to the man, and tries to find out where he lives, which turns out to be a sleepy little port town 60 miles up the coast called Bodega Bay. She follows him up there, and their courtship begins. During this period, however, weird things begin to happen, starting with a seagull attacking and injuring Melanie. Things get weirder and weirder as time goes on, resulting in the climax in which hordes of birds of many species start launching coordinated assaults on the people of Bodega Bay.
As can be expected in a Hitchcock film, the casting of this film is absolutely superb. Tippi Hedren, who plays Melanie, and Rod Taylor, who plays Mitch both do stupendous jobs. Mitch’s clingy mother, played by Jessica Tandy also gives a stupendous job. The shooting of this film is equally stupendous as always. There are so many great shots in this film, too many to count, and too many to list off. One of the most striking, however, is the first character who gets killed by the Birds. We are shown a man sitting down, with both of his eyes pecked out. The film then cuts to a closer look at him, then again to an even closer look at his eyes. It’s a very striking scene, and really sends a message to the viewers that these birds are dangerous. Another great scene is the scene from above showing the town from the perspective of the birds. Another striking part of this film is the sound. There is nearly no music in the film at all – the only music being a short number by the schoolchildren. This really gives a sense of isolation and almost paranoia. The film also does a great job with sound direction. It makes great use of the sounds of bird calls and the sound of flapping wings to really create tension and fear.
What this film does really well, however is the emphasis on the psychological aspect of the film. The truly key scene of the film is the Diner scene, just after the first major attack, and before the start of mass panic. You have Melanie telling people about the attack, and a bird expert telling people there is no danger. Slowly, but surely the people start to realize the danger, and start panicking. Then the attack comes, and after 10 minutes of action, we are returned to the diner, where we see everyone crying, the selfsame bird expert is cowering in the corner. Another great aspect of this film is the exposition. The film does a great job of building momentum. The action doesn’t begin until 40 minutes into the film, and those first 40 minutes are a story in of itself, which really gives you a chance to get to know and like all of the characters, giving the rest of the film meaning.
This is truly a great film. Although the birds are cheesy, and the action scenes are all very silly and cheesy, and the effects are quite stupid, the film is effective. The horror is there, the film is frightening. This film is on the list for a number of reasons. Firstly for it’s cultural impact. As I said before, this was the only Hitchcock film I knew of before I saw North by Northwest in High School. This film, not Vertigo, not Psycho, but this one. Second, the film is on the list for its investigation into how people respond to paranoia and hysteria. Thirdly, this film is on the list for Hitchcock, and his filmmaking ability. This movie took something as innocent as a bird, and created a terrifying monster. This film is a testament to the power and skill Hitchcock has in creating tension and horror. This man is truly the master of thrills.