Review: Even at 35, 'The Birds' still shocking, nutty
Web posted on: Tuesday, August 18, 1998 2:11:55 PM
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- This year marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock's psycho-sexual allegory, "The Birds," and two events will once again be placing this potently bizarre cultural artifact in the public spotlight.
Feminist writer Camille Paglia (another potently bizarre cultural artifact) will soon be releasing a book dissecting what she perceives to be the film's subtext, while a brand-new 35-millimeter print of the picture will be popping up in larger markets around the country.
If you remember the movie from years ago, or only catch glimpses of it when it's on TV, you really should give it another go. Because of the memorably shocking set-pieces, people tend to forget that this thing is nuttier than a Payday candy bar.
Hitchcock's 'Wacky Period'
The movie came out in 1963, three years after Hitchcock pulled off a huge commercial coup with the rebellious success of "Psycho." It also marks, probably not coincidentally, the beginning of what I like to refer to as his Wacky Period.
More than a few film historians have suggested that, after the director's public anointment by the French New Wave around the time of "Psycho," Hitchcock may have started reading his own reviews a little too closely. He had already been directing movies for 35 years at this point. However, even though he was widely hailed as a master of the form, he was held at arm's length by American critics for most of his career.
He had way too much fun with his movies to be taken seriously, while far more erratic (and inferior) directors like Elia Kazan were too "significantly" serious to avoid praising. So, once his cachet was belatedly revealed, Hitchcock may have decided to play up the symbolic stuff to a much more pronounced degree than he ever had before.
He was famously infatuated with his leading ladies over the years, repeatedly grooming each of them into his trademark "cool blonde," much in the same way that Jimmy Stewart reinvents Kim Novak in "Vertigo." This sexual obsession reaches its zenith in "The Birds," with lead actress Tippi Hedren serving as a soft-focus carnal abuse magnet, both in the movie itself and on the set during its production.
Tippi as oversexed playgirl
Hedren stars as Melanie Daniels, an oversexed, headstrong playgirl of sorts who unexpectedly finds herself falling for a handsome lawyer named Mitch (Rod Taylor). This happens during a rather sitcom-ish meeting at a pet shop full of birds. Mitch wants to buy his daughter (played by Veronica Cartwright, who you know as one of the adult crew members in "Alien") a couple of lovebirds, but the shop is sold out of them. Instead he spends most of his visit flirting with Melanie.
The first sign that Hitchcock has his phaser set on "loony" is when Melanie secures a couple of lovebirds the day after the flirtation, tails Mitch all the way to a secluded seashore town outside of San Francisco, and tries to secretly deliver the birds to his home -- via a small fishing boat. (All the while wearing a full-length mink coat!)
This takes forever, at least 15 minutes of prime screen time. Most of the minutes are used up cutting to gauzy close-ups of Hedren's Grace Kelly-like visage as she practically licks her lips over the prospect of nailing that hunky Mitch.
Combine this with Hedren's monotone line delivery and Hitchcock's penchant for inserting laughably phony studio set-ups while the rest of the film is shot on location, and the whole experience quickly starts to get surrealistically unhinged. At this point, it's far more fishy than it is birdy.
The women in the movie practically behave like they're dogs in heat when it comes to matters concerning Mitch. Melanie decides to stay in town for a few days when it looks like she might score with the big lug, so she rents a vacant room from a local schoolmarm. Wouldn't you know it, the teacher (played by a nearly sleep-walking Suzanne Pleshette) used to have a thing for Mitch. She eyes Melanie quite suspiciously, especially when she finds out that she's delivering lovebirds, but they still get along pretty well.
The same couldn't be said of Mitch's mom (Jessica Tandy), who, after the death of her husband, has started getting rather protective of her son. Pleshette references Oedipus at one point, and explains to Hedren that Tandy wants to give Taylor the only thing she can't really give him ... love. What she means by that, of course, is s-e-x.
So now Hedren has to walk around town with everyone staring at her as if she's the Johnny Appleseed of intercourse, coming to corrupt a fully-experienced grown man and probably anybody else who gets in her path. That's when the birds start getting extra aggressive, to say the least, and everybody would be wise to take cover from those peckers!
Most people, even if they barely recall the rest of the film, can remember a couple of the bird attack scenes. Some of them come off far better than others, but Hitchcock was certainly onto something here. There's no musical soundtrack whatsoever in the movie, just a chorus of electronic bird sounds that was supervised by the brilliant composer, Bernard Herrman (the man responsible for those shrieking violins in "Psycho," among many other legendary achievements).
Bird attacks give goose bumps
My favorite bird moment is when a little kid is getting attacked during a birthday party, lying face-first on the ground with a seagull nipping at her scalp. It's like a visual representation of the ultimate bad day. It's also very disturbing when thousands of sparrows pour into a living room via the fireplace. I get goose bumps every time I see that scene, in which a wooden door is slowly pecked into splinters by a mass of unseen, inexplicably cantankerous gulls.
For every scene like that, though, you also get one that's strangely aggravating. Foremost among these is a debate in a diner, during which a group of incredibly stupid, self-absorbed customers debate the possibilities of being attacked by thousands of our feathered friends. (Hitchcock's insertion of Hedren's reaction shots as she follows a streaking gasoline fire at the service station across the street looks like it was designed by an Eisenstein-loving 15-year-old).
Then there's the famous scene in which a bunch of crows gather on some monkey bars behind Hedren's back, as a classroom of school children chant an irritating nursery rhyme for what seems like twenty minutes. Without drawing a breath. You can't help sympathizing with the crows when they finally start dive-bombing the little creeps.
Behind-the-scenes hard on Hedren
And of course, there's the moment when Melanie, after screaming through an attack by thousands of birds (during which they nearly dismantle an entire house), walks upstairs and enters a darkened room because she hears scratching sounds! Bad move, kid. She's then taught an excessively cruel and sudden lesson in ornithology. Birds are bashing into her all over the place, nipping at her face, biting her hands, etc. It doesn't look like fun, but it was even less fun for Hedren than you might think.
The scene is traumatic enough as is, but when you know the back story, the effect is one of watching Hedren receive an industrial strength "Why you, I oughta" from Hitchcock. The director grew annoyed with Hedren during filming when she pooh-poohed his lusty advances towards her. When you couple this with the fact that the entire movie plays as a condemnation of uppity female sexual prowess, you have to figure that Hitchcock was in an extremely ornery state of mind by the time he was ready to film the scene.
Though he suggested to Hedren that they would be using fake birds and it would all be quite painless, what really happened amounted to a calculated, extended torture by Hitchcock of his lead actress. Technicians tossed live birds at Hedren for days on end as the cameras rolled. At one point, Hitchcock even tied a couple of seagulls to Hedren's dress, the better to get them biting and flapping right in her face.
I applaud Hedren's "the show must go on" enthusiasm, but I also have to wonder why she didn't stand up and belt the guy in the gut. Or lower. The quest to freak out popcorn-munchers should definitely have its limits, regardless of who's behind the camera.
Though tame by today's standards, "The Birds" is still rather shocking. One poor guy is found in his bedroom with his eyes pecked out. Little kids would definitely be frightened by the sight of youngsters getting attacked en masse. (Watch for Hitchcock's cameo at the beginning of the film. He's exiting the pet shop with a couple of dogs.) Rated PG-13. 119 minutes. My press kit also inexplicably tells me that the film itself is 10,710 feet long. Silly me -- I would've guessed 9,825.
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