In yet another installment of the Atrocities Cinema.com Horror Classics series of DVD reviews, I'm taking a long, loving look at Alfred Hitchcock's nature-run-amok flickie The Birds. There's a reason why Hitch' was called the "Master of the Macabre", and aside from Psycho, no film in the master's ouvre fits so neatly into the horror genre as The Birds. It's sublimely low-key and subtle, shocking for its time, and despite some highly dated dialogue and costuming, it holds up suprisingly well as one of the high-points of post-Dracula-pre-Night of the Living Dead horror cinema. Furthermore, it's the "nature run amok" or "wild-beasts on the rampage" film that set the standard for the genre, and remains the example against which all other entries...usually unfavorably...are judged. It's ambiguity, use of silence, performances, special effects (which hold up remarkably well even after all this years), and sheer force of direction make it a wonder to behold.
It all starts simply and rather quietly, with intrepid lawyer and handsome leading-dude Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) visiting a San Francisco pet shop to buy a birthday gift for his daughter Cathy (Veronica "Alien" Cartwright in an early role). There, he encounters a beautiful but wild and spoiled rotten rich girl named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who he immediately recognizes as being the, well, wild and spoiled rich daughter of a publishing magnate...and whom he had seen by chance in court some time before. Melanie recognizes Mitch, too, and she decides to play a flirtatious charade. She poses as a salesgirl in the shop, and when Mitch drills her about various types of birds, and what kind of pets they would make, the charade collapses, and Melanie, not to be undone by the likes of this...this lawyer, decides to take her game a bit further. She discovers where Mitch lives, with his daughter and mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy...jeez, was this lady ever young?) in a sleepy (and fictional) coastal town called Bodega Bay (apparently, even in the early 1960's, long commutes were already common in California). She buys a pair of lovebirds and a gilded cage (symbolism!), and drives out to Bodega Bay to give the birds to Cathy herself. Upon arriving in Bodega Bay, she has some difficulty finding out just where Mitch's house is, and she visits the local school under the ruse of asking the schoolmarm (yes, they still had schoolmarm's in the 1960's) where little Cathy could be found. The schoolmarm turns out to be a husky-voiced sexpot named Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) who, it's suggested, may have had something of a romantic tangle with Mitch some time in the past. So, naturally, Annie eyes Melanie with more than a bit of suspicion and jealousy, and the two exchange some extremely catty pleasantries, where nothing is revealed except their mutual attraction to Mitch, and Mitch's address, of course. So, off Melanie goes to complete her weird and highly elaborate practical joke. She rents a small motorboat (which she's clearly never piloted before) and scurries off across the Bay to Mitch's house (which is conveniently located in plain sight just across the Bay on the water...apparently, Mitch is absolutely loaded). Melanie then sneaks into the empty house (!) and leaves the birdcage, along with a snarky note that is as much a dig at Mitch as it is a "birthday card" for Cathy. Smugly satisfied with her own cleverness, she hightails it back across the Bay, but not before she is spotted from the shore by the returned Mitch, who proceeds to drive around the Bay road to intercept Melanie at her dock. As Melanie's boat pulls up to the dock, she wears a sly smile to greet Mitch, but then suddenly, a seagull swoops out of absolutely fuckin' nowhere and nicks her on the scalp with its beak. Dazed and alarmed, as well as bleeding a bit, Melanie pulls up to the dock, where Mitch (who's seen all this happen) pulls her out of the boat and takes her to the local diner (!) for some quick medical attention. So, we have all of our major players in place, and after the Rock Hudson/Doris Day-style banter of the opening act, the film slowly and suddenly gives way to sheer horror, as unexplained bird attacks pop up all across town.
And that's it. That's the plot, and the bulk of the story, not to mention the lion's share of the characterizations. Damn near everything we need to know about these various people and their motivations is neatly established in the first twenty minutes of the film...a Hitchcock trademark. Oh, there are side-characters and a few incidental side-plots, but for the most part, we're established, and free to start the inevitable and numerous bird attacks (this movie ain't called The Birds for nothin'). And bird attacks there are...this film is justifiably famous for the attack sequences, mostly using the then-new rotoscoping technique to place the ravenous flocks of birds squarely in the frame with the various fleeing characters. That technique, combined with real birds, fake birds, and a bit of animation, must have had them screaming down the theater aisles way back then, and the effects work mostly holds up now...at least well enough to get the point across. If this film were made today...and a big-budget remake seems inevitable at some point...all of this stuff would be achieved through the (over)use of elaborate CGI. Call me old-school, but that would be a damned shame. There's something...I don't know...tangible about the birds in The Birds, and swooping, blurry CGI would completely ruin the effect for me. It's believable enough in this context, is the point. Of particular note are the famous "school-yard attack" and the even better "gas station attack". Both sequences start very quietly, and Hitch' lets the tension build, and build, and build, until it hits critical mass, and in the notable case of the "gas station attack", a beautiful overhead shot of the burning gas station is "polluted" by first one, then another, then another...followed by dozens of screeching birds, primed to go in for the kill. Never before nor since has nature seemed so completely and nonsensically malevolent, and Hitch' milks it for all it's worth in scene after harrowing scene.
The Birds succeeds on nearly every possible level as a horror film, and not just because it's "scary". The source material, Daphne Du Maurier's short story, was a relatively scant piece of literature, and Hitch knows when not to fuck around with a good thing. One of the most intriguing elements at work here is the sheer vagueness of the whole thing; no explanation is ever given for the bird attacks, nor is there any attempt to rationalize the proceedings, outside a bit of existentialist rhetoric spewed by an odd "know-it-all"-type character, whose own theories and factoids prove to be disastrously wrong. Hitchcock knew how to play with an audience, and he does it here with sublime mastery of his form. Besides, he had the courage...nay...the balls to actually show the birds attacking children, and not the typical children as represented by so many other 1950's and 1960's genre films. These are normal, helpless kids, and Hitch takes glee in having them running in terror whilst being ripped to shreds by nasty flying things. In true Hitchcock form, though, some of the most tangible scares in The Birds come during near-silent moments. It's a far cry from Psycho, where Bernard Herrmann's wonderful score provided the perfect backdrop for the onscreen scares. Here, there isn't a "score" to speak of...Bernard Herrmann provides a soundscape comprised only of electronically-modified bird squawks. This must have been groundbreaking and totally unnerving way back then, and it's a shame that more filmmakers don't utilize similar strategies today.
This DVD release, from Universal Home Video as part of their incomplete "Alfred Hitchcock Collection", is pretty damned fine. It boasts a beautiful, sparkling 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen Transfer, an un-defiled 2.0 mono soundtrack, and a slew of extras, including a featurette titled "All About The Birds", a deleted scene, some storyboarded alternate scenes/endings, Tippi Hedren's screen test, original trailers, and lots more. What it's lacking, sadly, is any kind of commentary track. Obviously, Hitch has been dead for quite a while now, but many of the original cast are still kickin', so it would have been quite interesting to hear their thoughts and ruminations about their involvement with this amazing film in "commentary" form, rather than just the "talking head" mini-interviews that are included. Oh, well. We can't always get what we want. The Birds is such a seminal film by such an amazing force of a director, it belongs in every true horror fan's collection. It's a certifiable classic, and as such, it gets the Atrocities Cinema Essential Award.