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Thursday, July 9, 2015

THE BIRDS (1963) -- Movie Review by Porfle

The Alfred Hitchcock classic THE BIRDS (1963) shows us how vulnerable we'd be if our little feathered friends suddenly started attacking us en masse for no discernible reason.
Long, talky stretches with no music (electronic bird noises take the place of an actual score) lull the viewer into a sense of normalcy that is suddenly shattered by the bloody, violent, and shocking (especially for the time) bird attacks. 

We also get the sense that all of the interpersonal drama between the humans ultimately means nothing in the face of nature's indiscriminate wrath. 

There's a coy will-they-won't-they romance between seemingly aloof jetsetter Melanie Daniels ("Tippi" Hedren) and down-to-earth Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who lives with his nervous mother (Jessica Tandy) and sweet-tempered little sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) in the sleepy coastal town of Bodega Bay.  Former lover Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), the town's schoolteacher, adds a touch of melancholy by still carrying a smoldering torch for Mitch.

Melanie follows Mitch home from San Francisco one day to deliver some lovebirds to Cathy for her birthday--an elaborate practical joke that demonstrates her impulsive nature and lack of responsibilities.  She will mature before our eyes during the oncoming ordeal, befriending both Cathy and Annie and becoming a worthy match for Mitch even in the eyes of his clinging, judgmental mother.

But none of this matters when the birds attack, except to increase the stakes for Melanie and Mitch who now have more to live for.  Melanie risks her own life without hesitation to help a class full of children escape when a flock of crows descend upon their school, while Mitch will perform heroically during the grueling nighttime siege upon their boarded-up house. 

Both episodes are Hitchcock at his most relentlessly cinematic.  Hitchcock builds suspense masterfully in these and other memorable sequences and delivers the occasional jolt, such as the startling discovery of a bloody victim in his bedroom.

Melanie's attic ordeal in which she suddenly becomes engulfed in a mass of ripping beaks and claws is Hitchcock's attempt to duplicate the shower scene from PSYCHO, to lesser but still impressive effect. (I love the fact that right before she passes out, the once vain and selfish Melanie mutters "Where's Cathy?")

His direction falls short only when the execution fails to match his ideas.  As in the horse-jumping sequence from MARNIE, also starring Hedren, Hitchcock's mental storyboards and creative fancy don't always transfer to film as intended. 

This is true mainly in a series of static closeups of Hedren intercut with a trail of burning gasoline leading up to a horrific gas station explosion.  Earlier, a process shot in which she sits in a rowboat in front of a Bodega Bay backdrop is fake-looking enough (on the big screen, anyway) to evoke laughter in audiences. 

Most of the time, however, Hitchcock proves himself to be one of the most brilliant film stylists of all time with one impressive sequence after another.  The attacks on the school and town are sudden, chaotic, and disorienting.  Jessica Tandy's discovery of the dead neighbor with the pecked-out eyes is a high point of horror, mainly in the way the director leads up to the reveal for maximum shock value. 

With Mitch's family and Melanie barricaded inside the Brenner house awaiting the most intensive attack of all, the final segment of the film is both harrowing and riveting.  It's also a clear influence on George Romero's 1968 zombie classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, including the idea of a sudden and unexplained rash of attacks upon humanity that force groups of people to seek shelter and wait in fear of an unknown, incomprehensible menace. 

The fact that these attacks are never explained helps to give THE BIRDS the feeling of a nightmare, perhaps moreso than any other Hitchcock film.  Its enigmatic, inconclusive ending, criticized by some, is Hitchcock's own Mona Lisa smile, hinting that a little mystery--along with a nasty little jolt now and then--is good for the soul.

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