Hitchcock's The Birds
TCM presents The Birds in theatres
One day only event September 19, 2012
The remastered The Birds (or should we say, "Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds") had a special one-day showing across America in September 2012. The remastered version looks good, with heightened color and sharpened picture compared to older DVD releases. Still, the film does show age and a general "softness" in focus that is probably due to aging or perhaps color-shift in the (50 year) old film elements.
The TCM Presentation in Theaters
The September 19, 2012 presentation in theaters was preceded by an interview with star Tippi Hedren, who talked about her career and how she came to be in The Birds. Hendren had been modeling prior, and had no film experience beyond TV commercials. Prompted by Robert Osbourne's questions, Hendren recounted how the film was made and the difficulties she faced both as an inexperienced actress and working for Hitchcock, which could be unpredictable and intimidating.
Though they do not dwell on Hitchcock's personality quirks (if sudden streaks of cruelty can be called a quirk), anyone who has read much on Hitchcock the artist knows that Hedren has spoken of how he focused upon her in a neurotic fashion. Most analysis of this purports that it was an extension of the director's obsession with Grace Kelly (and that obsession had an impact on his other films, particularly Vertigo)
Hedren has stated elsewhere that Hitchcock was deliberate in sabotaging any success later in her film career as a payback for rebuffing his advances. Is this Hollywood gossip? Hitchcock is obviously not available to give his side of the story.
Personal lives aside, the interview with Osbourne and Hedren is mostly full of funny, or fascinating anecdotes of film-making, and Hedren offers an analysis of why The Birds is frightening (nature strikes back) and why it is a unique motion picture.
The Movie The Birds
The presentation of the tale is leisurely and unassuming at first. The film seems to be about the flirtation between Tippi Hedren's character (a prank-playing, wealthy daughter of a newspaper-magnate father) and the lawyer played by Rod Taylor, all set against a backdrop of San Francisco and the northern California coast of the early 1960s.
Hitchcock's ideas about psychology (which were pushed significantly further afield in his other movie with Hedren, Marnie) are played out here in cross-family interactions and with the ex-girlfriend in the small town played by Suzanne Pleshette.
There is a tangle of tensions with these interactions, and characters sometimes stop and report on their psychological state and their personal history. Such was more common as a storytelling technique in films of the 1950s and 60s, which often chose to tell the audience (through a character suddenly turning into a one-man Greek chorus) the mechanics of psychology instead of just showing it via a character's actions.
Hitchcock may have done this just to get a few unexplained matters out of the way before we get to the piece de resistance, which are the birds attacking. Note that all of this explanation comes from the abundance of female lead characters, lone male lead Rod Taylor barely mentions any such personal history throughout the entire film. Was Hitchcock perhaps just simply more observant of the fads of storytelling then in Hollywood filmdom?
The crowd of characters who make up the populace of Bodega Bay, California, are various movie stereotypes. A crusty fisherman captain, a heavily-drinking barfly ("It's the end of the world!" he repeats frequently, hoisting a drink up), and the Ornithologist bird-watcher played by Ethel Griffies, who is an expert on everything to do with birds except why they would attack people for no reason.
Noticeable are the carefully matched outfits for Tippi Hedren, and the lack thereof for the very casually dressed Suzanne Pleshette character, the discarded former girlfriend (who on the whole seems a lot more interesting). Pleshette has mentioned in her interviews about the film that she was deliberately toned down with heavy woolen outfits, presumably to ratchet down any physical competition between her character and Hedren's.
Jessica Tandy's character is a bundle of obsession and anxiety. An interesting story in the pre-film interview with Hedren told how Jessica Tandy pointed out to Hitchcock after shooting had wrapped, that Hedren's character was too arrogant and sharp-tongued in a certain key scene, and that "Hitch, nobody is going to like this girl". Hitchcock agreed and they pulled the set back together to reshoot the long monologue (Jessica Tandy's Mother character has to explain her odd behavior, and win the sympathy of Hedren, who has become her competition for Rod Taylor's attention).
Hitchcock's script (writing credit to Evan Hunter) tries to give each of the characters a few bits of information to provide a sense of identity and thus community. When the hysterical mother (Doreen Lang) tries to come up with a scapegoat for the insanity of the birds, and zeroes in on the outsider (Hedren) and then intones "I think you're evil! Evil!" her comment either makes for an unintentionally funny moment or demonstrates the mob mentality Hitchcock is hinting lies beneath the claustrophobic veneer of an isolated small town pushed to the edge.
The whole matter of personal feelings and the back-story of characters gets shoved out of the way when inexplicably, birds of all kinds suddenly go berserk (well, except for the two little love birds given as a gift to the young Cathy Brenner, played by actress Veronica Cartwright).
The wild birds assault every human being in sight, only to stop suddenly for no apparent reason and gather onto electric lines and roof gables, cooing and cleaning themselves, until the next round of mass murder begins.
Why are the birds doing this? Like the film Night of the Living Dead, and many others that followed after The Birds, raw analytical information comes to us via radio and newspaper reports playing in the background (this is a technique also used in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center). What does it amount to? Nothing.
No information is given about radiation, or meteors, satellites, disease, pollution, etc., which is the standard way out for a typical horror film. No similar explanation is provided in The Birds as a basis of understanding what's happening. (In the original short story by Daphne du Maurier, it is the end of the world that brought the birds to assault the trapped family in Cornwall, England).
Part of the lasting ability of The Birds to stay modern is that no reasonable explanation is given for the sudden change in bird behavior - the ambiguity lets an audience from any time period insert their own contemporary fear and explanation. As I heard a fellow filmgoer trying to explain to his companion as they left the theater, "See, it's all metaphors!"
The Remastered film
The soundtrack is probably the most improved element of the movie since the remastering. CD-quality sharpness is in the sound (which almost borders on brittleness in the high range) and there's more breadth of sound from low-to-high in general, versus the previous version on VHS and DVD. The pattering noise of wings is clear and part of the aural atmosphere.
Seeing the movie on a large screen brings out much of the process film work Hitchcock used to create his special effects and to combine certain scenes together (for example, something as simple as Hedren crossing the water in a boat). Compared to the digital work done in modern films, this 1963 process work is too easily (and distractingly) seen on such a large scale. Something that would have been better hid in a black and white film is more obvious on color film.
Dark-bordering occurs around some of the bird images during processed shots, and there are some other deficiencies that show up in the likely places, like darkened rooms or night shots. State of the art for 1963, but primitive compared to today.
But on the whole, except for the soft-rounding and loss of sharp focus with some of the scenes, the movie looks much better than it ever has on home video incarnations. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright and Jessica Tandy are so large on the screen you can inspect their every mole, freckle, application of makeup and hair styling.
In Psycho (1960) murder had moved beyond rational motivation, however bent, into the edges of human insanity. Birds is different. The theme of murder that appears in the vast bulk of Hitchcock's movies has in The Birds been taken to the final extreme: murder is transplanted to an agent in which no psychological explanation will ever suffice to explain it.
In a way, The Birds and Marnie, are the ultimate Hitchcock films. The movies Hitchcock made after these two no longer explored new territory, but returned to scenarios that were familiar and had antecedents already in previous Hitchcock films. Marnie in particular seemed to satisfy some geometric problem of personality that Hitchcock wanted settled, if not the simple task of taming Tippi Hedren's character in that motion picture. But it is a strange aside of a Hitchcock film, though it is packaged and presented as a typical mystery thriller, it is instead a psychological question with an answer provided (wrapped around a Hollywood happy ending.).
The Birds is unique in that it is the 'no-explanation Hitchcock' on screen at the end, something that doesn't happen in his other films. Hitchcock liked to tie up his films in a firm knot. By the end, he has mapped out why the villain does what he does, and how the hero overcame it. In The Birds, all that is left in the final moments is the task of escape, as the family, in the automobile convertible with a fabric roof, tries to move humbly and quietly through the expanse of massed birds towards what they hope is a distant place where the birds are 'normal'.
One more note about zombies
The template of humans made hostage to events (and creatures) beyond anyone's control was solidified in this Hitchcock movie, and certainly informed Night of the Living Dead and all the zombie epics that followed in its wake. Hollywood had presented siege dramas before, of course, with hundreds (or maybe thousands) of Cowboy movies, many featuring trapped settlers surrounded by Indians who are racing in circles around the hostage white people, trying to gain entry so that they can be destroyed. Some medieval film dramas also feature similar war situations.
The simplicity of the siege drama (boarding up windows, shoving big furniture up against doors) whether it is to keep out birds or something else, can work with any attacking entity that refuses rational conversation. How do you tell a bird you're willing to talk over whatever is bothering him so that he doesn't need to assault your home? You can't. Whether it is birds or zombies, an entrapped family has only force and their wits to protect them.
Ticket sales across the country were through Fathom Events.
Original page September 22, 2012 | Updated Dec 2015 +