The Birds (1963) / Horror-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for scary images
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright, Alfred Hitchcock (cameo)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Evan Hunter (based on the short story by Daphne Du Maurier)
Review published January 26, 2007
The Birds is one of the best "creature features" ever made, possibly only rivaled by Jaws for best ever, though the latter does owe a debt of style to this film. Though not entirely realistic, the visual effects are still reasonably workable even by today's more discriminating special effects crowd, and it still manages to deliver a good deal of suspense and hair-raising tension. While most people probably won't view birds as scary before seeing this film, by the end, you will forever be reminded of this film when you find yourself surrounded by a large flock of our "feathered friends".
Tippi Hedren (Marnie, Citizen Ruth) plays Melanie Daniels, a spoiled, rich socialite who one day bumps into an attractive man named Mitch (Taylor, The Time Machine) in a pet store who is looking for a pair of lovebirds as a present for his younger sister (Cartwright, Goin' South). Melanie decides to surprise the man with the birds but finds she has to travel to Bodega Bay to leave them with him. After she gets there, strange occurrences abound when the birds in the town seem to attack the humans for no good reason, then all hell breaks loose.
With The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry) demonstrates here why he is a true master of his craft, though it is arguably the last of his great masterworks. One of the most striking elements of the film is Hitchcock's ability to create tension and terror without utilizing any traditional score. It seems that his early days making silent films paid off in his ability to create the proper mood through editing, montage, and proper story pacing. If you had never heard of the film, you'd probably think that there is no way such a ridiculous premise could be remotely entertaining. Credit Hitch; very few, if any at the time, could have taken such a laughable premise and made it work, and work so well.
The cast is solid, with Hitchcock going with a relative unknown in Tippi Hedren, a "find" from a diet soft drink commercial who caught his eye. Though a relative novice, Hitch guides her well enough through the more difficult spots with finesse, mostly utilizing her for reaction shots that don't require her to show a great deal of emotion other than romantic whimsy, until the trauma of the harrowing finale. Taylor, Pleshette, and Tandy (batteries not included, Driving Miss Daisy) round up the fine cast of supporting players, and a very young Veronica Cartwright holds her own in one of her earliest roles.
Watching the film today, one is struck by the fact that Hitchcock doesn't even unleash his horror film until the second half, which today would be almost unheard of. Perhaps this is why the film ends up working so well -- we actually get to know the characters before they are put into mortal peril, and the result is one truly disturbing scene after another. Most modern audiences will either grow impatient, or they will wonder why the film seems like a romance and horror film that somehow got mashed together, but, as it was in Psycho, this is Hitchcock toying with conventions. He lulls us into an altogether different kind of story, where everything seems to be going according to plan until nature decides otherwise, pulling the rug out from under us. Along with a very untraditional ending, Hitch coyly wipes the slate clean, as if to say that everything you came to know doesn't matter any more; the only thing that matters is the danger of the here and now.
-- Followed by a vastly inferior, 1994 made-for-TV, in-name-only sequel, Birds II: Land's End, which is only of note for having a small part for Tippi Hedren, though it isn't as Melanie Daniels.
©1998, 2007 Vince Leo