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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright
Alfred Hitchcock had already redefined horror cinema with 1960’s Psycho, but three years later, he would take the genre by storm yet again.
This time, instead of focusing his attention on a very human monster with clear motivations, the master filmmaker would go in completely the opposite direction, giving us a much more primal terror, one that was all the more frightening by its ubiquity, it’s innocuousness and it’s complete and utter lack of explanation.
Based on Daphne DuMaurier’s 1952 story, The Birds would usher in a new era of creature features, proving that everyday animals didn’t need to be enlarged by radiation to be terrifying on the big screen and that even the smallest of creatures can be deadly if there is enough of them.
Melanie Daniels (Hedren) is a rich socialite with time on her hands and a playful sense of humour. When she encounters handsome lawyer Mitch Brennan (Taylor) in a pet store looking to buy a pair of lovebirds, she mistakenly plays along with him when he pretends to believe she works on the store, when he actually recognises her from a previous court appearance.
Coming off second best, but also attracted to the lawyer, Melanie decides to track him down to his family home in Bodega Bay and leave the lovebirds (which he wanted for his sister’s Cathy’s 12th birthday) in the house and slip away unnoticed.
Things do not go to plan though. When a gull randomly attacks her as she makes her escape on a boat, Melanie is brought back to the Brennan house where she bonds with young Cathy (future Alien star Cartwright) and is made to feel unwelcome by Lydia (Tandy), Mitch’s mother and the stern matriarch of the family. Promising to stay for the child’s party, Melanie lodges with Annie (Pleshette), an old flame of Mitch’s, who herself had fallen foul of Lydia’s disapproval.
Why nobody realises though, is that the random incidents with birds on the island were not random at all and the creatures are gathering en masse to attack the populace and will not stop until everyone is dead…
Alfred Hitchcock had already displayed a ghoulish delight in upsetting audiences, big just in his horror tour de force Psycho, but it any number of the thrillers and murder dramas he had made previously. With The Birds though, he was clearly having more fun than ever making us squirm.
As always, it’s all about the release of tension for him and boy, does he make us wait. For the first 50 minutes or so, The Birds could be mistaken for a charming romantic comedy in the style of Bringing Up Baby with it’s playful heiress and straighter love interest.
The tone is super-light, with Tippi Hedren’s movie debut revealing an absolutely astonishing screen presence. She’s not just remarkably beautiful, there’s an air about her that just radiates charisma. Even when Melanie is acting like a spoiled and self-indulgent child at times, you can’t help but warm to her, purely by dint of Hedren’s performance. It’s remarkable stuff and we are quite literally seeing a star born in front of our eyes.
As the love interest in question, Rod Taylor is the perfect foil for Hedren’s playfulness. He’s stoic without being stiff and while the pull of his mother is obviously strong, he’s his own man when it comes down to it. He’s no Norman Bates anyway, put it that way.
It’s all lovely, breezy fun, with whole scenes played for laughs, from the meet-cute in the pet store to the lovebirds sloping from side to side as Melanie slaloms her car around the tight corners of the road to Botega Bay.
Then the birds attack.
Okay we’ve had a couple of warnings with the gull on Melanie and the one that smashed into Annie’s door, but when they eventually, properly attack it’s the stuff of nightmares, made all the worse by the fact that it’s at a children’s party. It’s brutally sudden, going from nothing to carnage within a few seconds, with wings flapping, hair being pulled out and arms desperately trying to beat away their assailants and failing miserably. Add in the noise from both the victims’ screams and the birds themselves and you have absolute bloody pandemonium that hits like a bolt of lightning.
It’s only a warning of what is to come though, as Hitchcock masterfully raises the stakes again and again. The flock of sparrows through the Bennett fireplace reminds us that nobody is safe, even indoors, while Lydia’s discovery of a corpse with its eyes pecked out makes it horribly clear just what these monsters are capable of.
Possibly the worst thing of all is that feeling of dread we get after being shown all this and we see hundreds of sinister black birds massing on the climbing frame of the local school. The inevitable attack is horrific sure, but seeing them there, knowing what they are capable of, knowing they are about to unleash hell on a school? It’s almost too much to bear and a testament to how well Hitchcock has manipulated us that even the sight of them is terrifying.
From then on, it’s one devastating set-piece after another, with the carnage increasing with each attack, building to that wonderful base under siege that starts with an info-dump debate between the survivors, then escalates into an explosion before pulling back for a truly great wide high shot that we then realise we’re seeing from a bird’s eye view…and they attack in numbers. Astonishing.
The final attack on the Bennett house and Melanie in particular is a hard watch, as it brings the horror right back down to the personal level, but it works flawlessly. Hitchcock and scriptwriter Evan Hunter have put us through the wringer here, so they make very sure that there’s no let-up for it’s finale. There’s a sight optimistic touch of the motherless Melanie finally connecting with the softening Lydia, but there’s no real conclusion here, no explanation for what has happened, no glimmer of hope that it’s over or we can ever be safe again.
Despite our leads making their escape, The Birds ends in the most downbeat, ambient way possible, with it’s final shot of the car leaving watching birds and the death they have wrought everywhere. It’s their world now.
An absolute masterpiece from Hitchcock, in other words. Again.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy