Jul 26, 2013

[Movies] The Birds (1963)

I'm continuing my journey through the colorful works of the great Alfred Hitchcock - an interesting journey that has covered movies with very different subjects. And after the brilliance of Rear Window, I'm back in his more horror-like films with The Birds.

I suppose I need to revise my usual statement that "I don't handle horror movies well" to "I don't handle traditional horror movies well." And for good or for ill, Hitchcock is certainly anything but traditional in the way he approaches telling stories through films.

You'd think that know the premise of the movie would be enough to understand it - it's the movie where people are attacked for birds for some reason. But that barely scratches the surface of this story and the fact that there are so many other layers to things is part of what makes it so much more fulfilling than your typical horror fare.

And seriously, where did this man get all of his ideas? I can only hope to tap into a thimble's worth of the same creativity that Hitchcock masterfully demonstrated from film to film. That man's genius just overwhelms me.

Synopsis: The Birds is a 1963 thriller / horror movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock as generally based on the 1952 Daphne du Maurier story of the same name. The screenplay had been written by Evan Hunter, whom we owe a lot in terms of the characters in this movie.

We first meet Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a beautiful young woman as she explores a local pet shop in search of a bird. She is mistaken for one of the shop clerks by Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), but she entertains him given she finds him attractive. He was there in the hopes of buying a pair of lovebirds for his sister's birthday, but eventually it is determined the shop has none. And he wasn't at all fooled by Melanie given he had recognized her from a prior encounter. She tracks him down and personally delivers a pair of lovebirds to his Bodega Bay home. He eventually spots her in her little boat after finding the lovebirds and meets her on the opposite shore - but not before she is oddly attacked by a seagull.

Moving beyond the unusual incident, Melanie eventually gets to know Mitch better and meets the rest of his family - his rather protective mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). She eventually meets Cathy's schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), who turns out to be an ex-lover of Mitch. Things begin to get stranger as they first find a dead bird on their front porch after it rammed into their door. And then the next day at Cathy's party, everyone is attacked by a flock of seagulls. More and more unusual attacks come and go and no one can explain what's going on. Soon the challenge is just trying to find a way to survive - the birds more than outnumber all of us.

The movie promises to be about birds attacking humans. But as you can get a glimpse of through the synopsis above, the attacks start out rather slowly with isolated cases. Hitchcock being the master of suspense that he is does an amazing job of dragging things out and continually building tension by keeping things, well. normal. Even if you have a basic idea of what the movie is about, it will not fully prepare you for what the movie is actually going to be like. The sort of "slow burn" pace that it starts with is there to help you forget about everything you've heard about the movie beforehand. And thus by the time the action starts, you are truly primed and ready to be scared.

I'm not too big a fan of the lead actress, Tippi Hedren. She wasn't all that powerful a character and clearly she was written to be a bit of a damsel in distress - which feels like a bit of a contrast to other female characters that I've seen in past movies who were a lot stronger. There were many times in the movie that I was sort of rooting for her to die since she wasn't exactly playing a vital role in terms of the group's survival.

The birds themselves were just awesome. I know the movie is more than 50 years old, but the effects at the time weren't that at all. Sure, today we'd overdo things with CGI birds flying left and right. Instead Hitchcock made full use of what he had (thanks to Walt Disney Studios, apparently), understood their limitations and arranged his shots in a way that kept the illusion constant all throughout. I could totally buy into the illusion that these people were indeed being attacked by hordes of birds - and I was pretty scared by them as well!

It's interesting how again it feels like we're in a story discussing a man's many female relationships. Thus the movie has a number of parallels with other works like Psycho, although here the first deaths happen much later in the movie instead of up front. Despite Tippi's screen time, Mitch is our true protagonist here and things revolve around him since most of the primary and secondary characters are really tied to him. Melanie is really a distraction - both for Mitch and the audience. And how these complex relationships work out is part of the charm of this movie.

And Hitchcock is know for twisting things around and finding new ways to surprise his audiences. And there's certainly a number of such twists, but the ending is really what sent me over the hill. Please don't try to research it if you haven't already seen the movie. I promise you, it'll be worth waiting for once you get to the end of the film.

The Birds was certainly an enjoyable and most unique film experience although not necessarily my favorite Hitchcock movie. Still, it will certainly make me look at birds a lot differently from now on, and I don't foresee wanting to visit an aviary or bird park any time soon. It still rates a stellar 4 surprise bird attacks out of a possible 5.

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