Posted by Greg Ferrara on September 12, 2012
If you asked me what my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film was, the list would be narrow but nowhere complete. On any given day, it changes. It could be Shadow of a Doubt or Psycho on one day, Notorious or North by Northwest on the next. Of course, I also love The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. And Foreign Correspondent. I really love Foreign Correspondent. Others might name any one of these or substitute Rear Window, Vertigo or Strangers on a Train. There’s also… well, you get the idea. With Alfred Hitchcock, there are enough favorite movies to go around for just about anyone. Ask anyone else and you’ll get different answers than even those, from Rebecca to Marnie. Now if you asked someone what Alfred Hitchcock’s riskiest movie was, the one where he really went out on a limb, most people would say Psycho. Given the recent press surrounding Psycho thanks to the excellent book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello (and the upcoming feature film), it’s become more widely known for its risk taking steps outside Hitchcock’s normal mid-century comfort zones of technicolor and movie stars. And there’s more than a good case to be made for that answer. But if you ask me, his riskiest, edgiest film is The Birds. It’s damn near insane.
I’ve written a lot about The Birds over the years and have even brought it up here, last year, in a post on endings. It’s a film that’s problematic for a lot of audiences, then and now, because it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. It doesn’t follow any damn rules about story or plot or the proper way to neatly tie everything up with a bow. I’ve talked to a few people who think the film doesn’t have a good ending when it has the only ending it can, the end of world. Or does it?
A good place to start is with the short story by Daphne Du Maurier upon which the film is quite loosely based. It’s a very good short story but one that takes the attack of the birds and turns it into something more symbolic, something more identifiable. The story begins, “On December the third, the wind changed overnight, and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden-red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plow had turned it.” Soon, the wind turns and blows in cold from the east and Nat, a World War II veteran who works on a farm (the story, written in 1952, is set shortly after the end of the war in Britain) notices the gulls gathering in larger groups than before. The farmer he works for notices too and remarks, “It will be a hard winter. That’s why the birds are restless.”
Later, as the birds begin to attack, first in small numbers and finally in large, swarming flocks, all of England is under siege and Nat’s neighbors have all been killed. As we near the end of the story, there is this short passage from Nat’s wife: “Won’t America do something?” said his wife. “They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?”
It’s a fine story and one I enjoy very much but it also has a strong cold war undercurrent that’s evident throughout. It doesn’t seem all that much of a stretch to see the birds as a feared Communist takeover of Europe and America as the last hope against it. At the same time, the birds are a reminder of the German attacks on London and America’s entry in the war turning the tide. In the movie, all that’s out the window and everything improves as a result.
If Psycho was Alfred Hitchcock’s break with his technicolor, big budget period, The Birds was the subversion of it. It has the technicolor and the stars (not big stars but Rod Taylor was popular enough) but nothing else. See, The Birds makes you think there’s a story when there really isn’t. It gives you Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron in her first lead performance, after a couple of extra roles in the early fifties) chatting up Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco pet shop before buying his little sister a couple of love birds. After she’s secreted her way to Mitch’s house in Bodega Bay, she’s attacked by a gull as she heads back across the water. Mitch takes care of her, introduces her to his clinging mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), his ex-girlfriend Annie and his sister and none of it matters. None of it.
Also, birds attack. Lots of them.
People in Bodega Bay try to explain the birds attacking: Maybe they’re at war with people. Maybe it started when Melanie showed up with those love birds. Then there’s the local bird expert, hanging out in the diner telling them they’re all crazy and that birds don’t coordinate attacks or flock together in different groups. And then she’s proven wrong. Disastrously wrong.
And none of that matters either.
In fact, the whole setup – the domineering mother who won’t let her son go, threatened by the sophisticated newcomer – is kind of a wild, off-hand joke on Psycho. Mitch is no Norman and Lydia doesn’t have the gumption to up and stab Melanie to death so the birds become a kind of perverse personification of the Pyscho knife, repeatedly stabbing from the air. And every single plot line resolves into this: people vs. birds. That’s the beauty and the risk of this movie. There is no story going on here. Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter have given us a soap opera power play (mother vs lover vs old girlfriend) and shut everything down before it even starts because the whole point is the world, or nature, or something, just said, “You know what? We’re done sharing this planet with you guys.” Much like Psycho misdirects the audience with a story of intrigue and embezzlement before revealing it’s really about a killer, The Birds turns out to be about nothing more than the end of the world.
There were disaster movies before and after The Birds and there were certainly plenty of horror movies but they all followed a similar formula. Whether it was The Hurricane or War of the Worlds before or The Towering Inferno or Gremlins after, the formula was the same: Set up back story for several characters, have them deal with the crisis at hand, resolve conflict with characters through crisis, end story. But not The Birds. Its formula is downright devious: Set up back story for several characters, have them systematically fail at dealing with crisis, resolve nothing, fade to black.
When The Birds ends, there’s nowhere else to go. Birds cover the landscape and as there is absolutely no explanation for their behavior, there is no hint of relief from it. As Mitch drives his mother, daughter and Melanie away, he’s driving towards nothing. Does he really expect to ever get to a point where the birds haven’t taken over? And the birds could just be the beginning. After this first stage, other animals could “revolt.” Then, who knows?
To add to the feeling of utter disquiet and unease, Hitchcock made the important decision to use not a note of music for the score. There is no lush Vertigo or shrill Psycho score composed by Bernard Herrmann. There is only the sound of birds. And not even just the sound of birds, but electronically altered bird sounds and combinations of bird sounds with other sounds to create an even more eerie effect. One song exists in the film, the children’s song, Risseldy Rosseldy, sung by the schoolchildren while Melanie sits in the playground, oblivious to the gathering murder of crows behind her.
And so, after Hitchcock’s surprise left turn with Psycho, The Birds seemed to be a return to the norm, as in technicolor, lush scores and glamorous leading ladies who don’t die halfway into the picture. But it wasn’t. Hitchcock still had one experiment left in him and it was The Birds. No music, no resolution and unlike even the groundbreaking Psycho before it, no explanation. Nothing. Just a back story that becomes meaningless, characters that devolve into empty shells of exhaustion and a town that becomes the center of a losing battle in the war of humanity vs. nature. Then it ends. And that’s ballsier than anything Hitchcock ever did and that’s why The Birds matters.
* NCM Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and Universal bring this American classic back to the big screen, newly restored and in celebration of Universal’s 100th Anniversary, for only one day on Wednesday, September 19th at select movie theatres nationwide. Go here to check participating theatres – http://www.fathomevents.com/upcoming/alllocations.aspx?eventid=1104
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