Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Birds

The Birds is Coming.

 The film's ungrammatical advertising slogan.

  I am an unashamed Alfred Hitchcock aficionado! Unfortunately though there are many of the master's films I have yet to see from his immense repertoire. But of the films I have watched 1963's The Birds is the one I have seen the most followed by Psycho. In my recent review of To Catch a Thief I talked of there being a top 10 of Hitch's films. It would be hard not to place The Birds in that top 10. In fact in most lists I see of Hitch's best films The Birds is generally in there somewhere.

 The Birds though is what you can only describe as being at he bottom end of Hitch's best. For me if I had to rate it out of 10 it would be around 9 or 10! But remember this, he made over 50 films in his career, so that is still a high place to be. For me I consider Vertigo to be Hitch's greatest film. Some would disagree and say no, it is Rear Window. The thing here is the sheer gulf in between his two acknowledged masterpieces and The Birds.

Hitch's cameo at the start of the film.
  Even though I rate Vertigo Hitch's best, and my personal favorite, I consider The Birds my sentimental favorite. I honestly cannot begin to recall how many times I have watched it over the years. It is like the James Bond films. No matter how many times I have seen them I will always watch them again and again. It goes to show that the really great films are not always the ones that draw us to them. This is of course where our ' guilty pleasures ' come from. But I in no way consider The Birds a guilty pleasure. It is just a film I love in a very sentimental way.

Ah Tippi....sigh!!!
  Either way, sentimental or not, The Birds is a fine film. It is  based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier. This was the third time Hitch was to adapt a du Maurier story. Of course the other two occasions being 1940's Rebecca ( which David O. Selznick meddled with much to Hitch's fury ), and 1939's Jamaica Inn. First published in 1952 in her The Apple Tree collection, it is the story of a farmhand and his community who are attacked by a flock of seabirds. They have organized themselves into a quasi-avian suicide group. The story is set in England just after WW2, and by the end of the story it is apparent all of England is under attack.

 Du Maurier was inspired after seeing a man ploughing a field while a group of seagulls wheeled and dived above him. She developed the idea of these birds becoming hostile and attacking. In the story it is implied the East Wind is connected to the attacks, which many see as a reference to the threat of communism and the Cold War. When Evan Hunter of The Blackboard Jungle was given the task of adapting the story Hitch told him to discard it all, as he wanted to use the title and the idea of birds attacking people alone.

 Hitchcock also used an event in California as a basis also. In 1961 residents of a small Californian town, Capitola, awoke to find birds slamming into their homes and the streets covered in dead birds. News reports suggested shellfish poisoning as the cause. At the time Hitch requested copies of the local newspaper to use as " research material for his latest thriller. " With the material in place a cast had to be found. At first Hitch wanted both Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Wonder why??! But because of budgetary considerations Grant had to be discounted. Of course Kelly was now Princess Grace, and the people of Monaco were against her returning to films.

 Instead total unknown Nathalie Kay 'Tippi' Hedren was cast in the lead female role, as rich socialite Melanie Daniels. She was a highly successful model when  Hitch unexpectedly spotted her in a television commercial. He felt she possessed the sophistication, self-assurance and cool blonde sex appeal of Grace Kelly. After a screen test Hitch signed her to multi-year deal. As with actresses before he went onto carefully control her her style of dressing and grooming. It was he who wanted her nickname 'Tippi' used as he felt it gave her a distinctive mysterious air. She was almost instantly called  " The new Grace Kelly ", but she responded as not wanting to be the next Grace Kelly but the first Tippi Hedren.

 On release of the film critics gave her a tepid reception even though she was awarded a Golden Globe as most Promising Newcomer. Hitch found and tried to make Hedren a star, but on the set of Marnie he broke her career as she refused his sexual advances. On the same set he treated Vera Miles even worse. For years afterwards Hedren's career stalled. Funnily enough in 1992 she starred in The Birds 2 : Land's End. It was made for television film and met with negative reviews. Hedren didn't reprise her role of Melanie Daniels and has over the years been against a re-make of the film that made her famous stating, " Why would they do that? Why? I mean, can't we find new stories, new things to do? " Tippi.......I couldn't agree with you more!!!

 Rod Taylor was an Australian actor who had been around for some time as an actor. In 1960 he had landed the lead role in the adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. As of writing he is 81 and his last film appearance was in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. Both Hedren and Taylor have come in for a fair amount of criticism for their acting in this film. Many critics state that the two alone are why they don't like the film. Personally I don't see anything wrong with either of them. With Hedren it must be remembered this was her first major role so she couldn't be expected to be perfect first up. Over the years though many critics have eased up on her in particular and have reassessed her performance.

 Of course Jessica Tandy needs no introduction and was a fine actress. She is superb as the somewhat aloof, cool, anxiety ridden Lydia Brenner. Tandy though does show the gap in talent between her lesser known co-stars. But over all the acting isn't as poor as it is made out to be. For me the two important parts of Mitch Brenner and Melanie Daniels see Taylor and Hedren gel well on screen. But to be critically honest in an overall fine film, both Tayor and Hedren are its only weak points, even though it is quite minor really. Just remember their respective lack of experience before being overly critical!

 Unfortunately I haven't been able to find anything on how the film was received when released in 1963. I believe Hedren was the main talking point. But as I have already stated her performance has been reassessed in later years and is generally better recieved now than in 1963. But for me The Birds is a film I love not because of the actors, the script, etc, but because of the fact that in 1963 this was an incredibly technical achievement. Ever since its release there has been endless arguments and hypothesis as to what it all means. But I have never seen it or been interested. This is a film I marvel over for its technical accomplishments and some very Hitchcockian cinema techniques.

 The use of blue screens goes well back into cinema's past. The problem with it in Hitch's time was that it left a visible blue hue around the images it projected. A talking horse for instance would have a slight blue mane around its body. Hitch got around this by using a new technique developed by Walt Disney studios which used a yellow screen, or sodium vapour process. The results gave a very precise shot that eliminated the blue fringing of before. This was important because this fringing would have been all too apparent with the rapid wing flapping of the birds. On set though many hundreds of the birds were real. A bird trainer was hired to help with handling them. In the scene where Melanie Daniels is attacked in the Brenner house many of the birds are real. And didn't Hedren come to know this??! Although the effects are now visually dated they were cutting edge in 1963 and were nominated for an Oscar. Unfortunately it lost out to Cleopatra with its overblown budget of millions and millions!

 The other technique I love in this film is the use of hand painted backgrounds and scenery. They are particulalry obvious when Tippi Hedren is rowing across the bay to the Brenner house. If you look behind her the scenery is very obviously a special effect. They were painted onto glass and had the live imagery of Hedren overlayed later. It was a common effect in its day. Again it now looks dated but it still has a certain look that is wonderful. If you watch The Sting the technique is used to replicate the skyline of 1930's Chicago in certain scenes. In the birds the town of Bodega Bay is at times filmed in this way. I personally love the technique and I believe the artist was a highly accomplished landscape artist in his own right. In the glory of Technicolour his artistry and the technique are one of the reasons I love this film so much. The colouring right throughout the film with its green tinge is wonderful. Hitch used this a lot as he didn't like filming outside due to the inability to control the surroundings and noise.

 The last technique is pure Hitch. It is so simple and yet so effective. Remember that The Birds is actually a horror film. It may not seem so today but in 1963 this was a film that pushed boundaries like never before. The scene where Lydia Brenner finds the farmer with his eyes pecked out is a fine example of this. But that is the first true horror moment of the film. Notice how Hitch closes in on what Lydia sees with three shots that get closer and closer to the face. Each is almost a still shot that lingers just long enough so as to register the image on the audience before the next, even closer shot. It is a simply brilliant piece of cinema and Hitch at his masterful best.

 That scene is so simple and one modern horror film makers should study. With so little and with subtle technique Hitch made that a frightening scene. He uses it again later when Melanie Daniels watches the flames spread from the exploding car to the gas station. Again Hitch shoots her reaction in four individual still shots that change the angle of her face and the look of horror on it. For me that very short sequence is my favorite part of the film. It is Alfred Hitchcock in perfect command of the medium of film. Honestly if you have never noticed the scene in question watch it again because it is superb. Just watch as in the space of seconds we see Hedren's face change angle and expression before the gas station explodes. Masterful just masterful. And again such a simple technique, but a scene that said so much in expressing fear and horror, of an uncontrollable event.

 So how scary was The Birds in 1963? A friend of my parents saw it on release and said it scared him senseless!! It may look dated now but like Psycho the horror elements are all there. Notice how The Birds opens with a humorous, almost light air about it. We see this in the scene where Melanie Daniels is seen driving to Bodega Bay. On the floor of the car she has the two Love Birds. Notice that as she corners the two birds lean with the cornering of the car! It is hilarious stuff and I laugh every time I see it. But the humour dies off once she is attacked by the gull in the boat. From there the film changes into a dark moody horror film.

 As a horror it may be dated but all the ingredients we see in so many modern horrors are there to see. The humorous start is often seen in a bunch of teens or twenty somethings jumping into a vehicle, all laughs and jokes, before setting off to a cabin in the woods. Once there the laughing, sex, pot smoking, and boozing slowly give way to horror. The formula is lifted straight from The Birds. But where The Birds is so sinister is the lack of a score. Right throughout the film the only sound is of the cast and the birds themselves. Even the opening credits doesn't have a musical score, instead using screeching birds. Hitch was a master at knowing that music in a suspense film gave a scene away and didn't use it. He felt it signalled too much to an audience. I agree, because in many modern horrors the overuse of music in building suspense actually dulls it. In the process what is about to happen is well and truly sign posted.

 Yes...this is a fine film and one I love. If I was trapped on a desert island with the choice of only 10 DVDs this would be one of them. As an Alfred Hitchcock film it ranks as one of his finest. It has dated visually but it was an incredibly advanced film technically in 1963. For me this is why I love the film so much because it was so technically excellent. Even though visually dated it still has a visual appeal I like, especially with it being in Technicolour! My only critisim of the film isn't one of the film itself, but one of Hitchcock's treatment of Tippi Hedren. The scene where she is subjected to a sustained bird attack is now infamous. It took far too long to film and was nothing but sheer sadism on Hitch's behalf. Genius as he was he had an unsavoury side, especially in regards to women.

 There is apparently symbolism behind the bird attacks, but I've never gone into it, or even been interested in the whys. For me The Birds has been, and will always be, a film that visually appeals to me. Whilst that may be a strange reason alone for loving a film, it is also the best, because cinema doesn't have to be rational as to why we like or dislike its offerings.

 As a film The Birds is way above 'guilty pleasure' quality. And yet I have watched and enjoyed it countless numbers of times it almost has become a film of that nature!! I think it definitely one of Hitchcock's top ten films. Against the recently reviewed To Catch a Thief I think it slightly inferior mainly because Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren can't compete against Grace Kelly and Cary Grant acting wise. If I had to put it into a position it would be down around 9th or 10th place in the top ten.

 A masterpiece, but one of Hitch's lesser ones. It is my sentimental favorite Hitchcock film rather than my absolute favorite.  I certainly don't rate it near his best. But I love it, love it, love it none the less!! IMDB has this with 7.9/10 which is probably about right. A perfect 8 is probably a bit too much even though only 0.1 in difference!

Click here for a synopsis and more:

 And click here for a fine site that explains the relevance of why the birds are attacking. It is the best analytical explanation I have ever come across:


  1. Brilliant write up as usual Brent. I haven't watched this in years - it may actually be time to watch it again as I will get more out of it now

    K :-)

  2. I love this film sooooooo much! It is not Hitch's absolute best but it just has that certain 'something' that keeps drawing me back. We all have films like that don't we...whether they be truly great or not.

  3. The Birds is one of my favorite films from my childhood, still hold it very close to my heart.

    Rod Taylor being in another film I loved as a child, The Time Machine, really helped.

    I need to revisit this film again soon, I think it'll be just like putting on a familiar pair of pants.

    Great work Brent!!

  4. Same Daniel I've loved this film from an early age. It is one of those films that you don't need to find a defining answer to as to why you love it so much!!
    I haven't seen The Time Machine in 20 years and now want to just for the Rod Taylor angle.
    And I know what you mean by revisiting a film and the familiar pair of pants analogy. I felt exacty that way when I watched The Sting several months ago. That is a film like The Birds for me and a film that would join it in my top 10 DVDs for my desert island.