Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Studio: Universal Pictures
Starring: Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, (introducing) Tippi Hedren
Tagline: The Birds is coming!
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: suspense, thriller, animals, unexplained phenomenon
Scare score: B
Plot overview: The young, attractive, and scandalous socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) bumps into Mitch Brenner (Taylor), a charming lawyer, while in a San Francisco – wait for it – bird shop. Brenner, who is shopping for lovebirds to gift to his kid sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), manages to insult the effortlessly flirtatious Daniels after revealing that he knows she has been to court for her crude playgirl behavior. Hoping to learn more about Brenner, Daniels embarks on a long, scenic drive up the California coast to Bodega Bay to deliver two lovebirds (“I see”) to Brenner’s family home, where the lawyer spends his weekends with his sister and hard-to-please mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Upon Miss Daniels’s arrival to the tiny hamlet, however, freak bird attacks begin plaguing the town and its residents. While the attacks start small, hundreds upon hundreds of birds begin to amass, attacking individuals, then children, then the entire town in vicious bouts of winged violence. Soon, Melanie and the Brenners find themselves in an all-out battle for survival against the birds.
It’s only appropriate that Hitch is the Master of Suspense since the first bird attack doesn’t actually occur until about an hour into the film. In fact, aside from the whole, you know, bird attack thing, this could be a pretty sweet ’50s/’60s drama/romance film. Rod Taylor reminded me exactly of Cary Grant throughout most of the movie. But back to the horror: Once the good birds go bad, I found myself physically squirming in my seat and biting my nails during the attack scenes. While the special effects are very outdated, a lot of the scenes were filmed with real birds which, combined with the constant blood, do make for some pretty thrilling, panicked sequences. Hitch’s masterful camera angles add such suspense to some scenes, especially the all-out bird barrage against the Brenner home. I loved the different shots of each character in the bottom quarter of the screen with the ceiling taking up the upper 3/4s as we soon learn the birds have broken in through the roof upstairs. Lastly, the first scene of true terror that we see is when Lydia discovers the dead neighbor with his eyes pecked out—which is creepy—and then Hitchcock zooms in 3 TIMES straight into his bloody eye sockets. Excellent.
The scene in the restaurant before and while the birds amass their first large-scale attack on the town is excellent. There is mob psychology; frantic, accusative mothers; panicked townies; and even a village drunk— “It’s the end of the world!” There is a very human aspect to this scene as suspense and fear simultaneously rise via discussion about the cause and solution of the town’s winged dilemma. This is also the first scene in the film that verbally brings to the audience’s attention that the bird attacks started the very afternoon that Melanie arrived to Bodega Bay. Is Melanie the cause of the attacks? Is Melanie, as she is publicly accused, evil? Are the various species of birds in the area reacting to the caged lovebirds that Melanie brought to Cathy? Or is there no natural, logical explanation? This question is never answered, which leaves the suspense unresolved and the film pretty awesome. It kind of reminded me of The Happening, only not terrible.
The acting in the film is extremely impressive. As I learned in TCM’s preview before the movie actually started, Alfred Hitchcock literally saw model Tippi Hedren in an ad and had the studio call her to arrange a meeting. This was her first professional acting gig, which might explain why, the first time I saw this film, I thought Melanie seemed pretty aloof. Upon a more thorough viewing, I think she was really great for a debut role: Miss Daniels is both active and reactive, naturally flirtatious and pleasant with a slight edginess, and even towards the end when she goes into shock she plays that very well. I need to give a special shout out to the very young Veronica Cartwright in the role of Cathy, who in both solemn, scary, and pleasant scenes (a combination of all three would be her ‘birthday party from hell’) is a tremendous actress. The other characters are also believable with much more depth than you will probably find in a modern horror. Like I said, even without all the bad birdies there is still a big film going on here, with creepy silence, plenty of build up, and a fulfilling amount of terror added in. That’s suspense at its best.
Final critique: This is a freaky film. Unpredictable, unexplained, unending terror at the hands, er, claws of a crazed, scary-sized, fast-moving, numerous, and so natural enemy. This film kind of has a Jaws affect to it, but in the air instead of the sea. We’ve all seen the people that scream when a pigeon flies by about a yard away from them in the city— just picture them if forced to watch The Birds. The acting is great, the setting is charming but creepy in its own way (that old victorian school, the church always in the background), and even with the outdated effects, all of the bird attacks are still scary (although the occasional giggle is still permissible). I recommend this film for all audiences who aren’t looking for a simple slasher or screamfest of a movie. For those who scare really easily, I think this flick will provide more than a few jumps and reasons to cover your eyes, but it will only help toughen you up. The world should appreciate Hitchcock for all that he brought to the horror industry, so naturally one of his most famous films is fine by me.