CAPSULE: THE BIRDS (1963)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Alfred Hitchcock

FEATURING: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, , Veronica Cartwright

PLOT: Without explanation, birds begin attacking the quiet seaside town of Bogeda Bay, interrupting a burgeoning love affair between a socialite and a lawyer.

Still from The Birds (1963)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A great movie, but only the raw inexplicability of the avian attacks makes this Hitchcock worthy of any particular weird notice.

COMMENTS: The crow has long been an omen of death, but never have our fine feathered friends been so conspicuously thantatotic as in Alfred Hitchcock’s first true horror (as opposed to suspense) film. Hitch’s typical plotting trick—beginning with one situation, then springing a twist in the movie’s first half that makes the opening irrelevant—has never worked as well thematically as it does here. Melanie and Mitch’s coy flirtations, cultured as they may be, are rendered ridiculous midway through the film in light of the raw realities of the assault from above. And yet, by the time the first wave of pecking finches swoop through the chimney, we’re invested in the pair. The birds—natural, inexorable, and inexplicable, brooding on their makeshift roosts—are the perfect images of death, looming for all of us. Thoughts of romance may occupy the early reels, but as the story moves on, the birds’ inevitable victory over our heroes becomes clear, and the tale turns to the desperate, if doomed, fight for survival.

Incredibly, you will sometimes hear people complain that the movie is flawed because it does not explain why the birds are attacking. Providing an explanation would have turned The Birds into the silliest type of B-movie fare. How unsatisfying would it be if  it turned out the birds had gone mad from drinking water contaminated with waste from an experimental nuclear reactor? The heart of The Birds‘ horror is the incomprehensibility of the attack, which reflects the incomprehensibility of our own mortality. The inconclusiveness of the scene in the restaurant where the townsfolk debate the cause of the catastrophe is the centerpiece of the film, dramatizing the residents’ utter failure to come to grips with the situation and the futility of their plight. One citizen theorizes that, unmotivated, the birds have suddenly declared war on humanity; a scientist absurdly spends her time explaining why what is happening can’t be happening; the crazy old coot in the corner warns that it’s the end of the world. (That last guess is probably the closest to being correct, though there’s no Biblical element to the story).

One woman assumes that, because there were no bird attacks before Melanie came to town, the disaster is the interloper’s fault. Perhaps; Melanie’s reaction (slapping the woman) suggests guilt. Melanie’s arrival stirs the Freudian pot between Mitch and his widowed mother, and brings schoolteacher Annie’s buried feelings back to the surface—she’s a destabilizing sexual force. (Curious that almost all the major roles in the film go to females, with Mitch alone at the center of a web of women). Besides those psychological teases, there’s also an inevitable Cold War subtext the film. When the birds strike and the family is holed up in their homes, seeking any news of the disaster on the radio, it surely must have struck a cord with American audiences still on edge from 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. The chilling final shot of a bird-strewn pre-dawn landscape is like a post-apocalyptic world covered in feathered fallout.

Universal’s 2014 Blu-ray release is essentially the single disc version of The Birds disc from the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection ” 15-disc box set. It’s packed with extra features too numerous to list here; there are actually more minutes devoted to the bonuses than to the two-hour movie itself. Hitch’s blackly ironic trailer where he “lectures” on humanity’s historical relations with his fine feathered friends is typically droll and brilliant.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Few films depict so eerily yet so meticulously the metaphysical and historical sense of a world out of joint.”–Richard Brody, The New Yorker

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE BIRDS (1963)”

  1. after reading this excellent write-up, i went home from work last night and watched the Birds. it’s probably been ten years or so since i last watched it. the thing that struck me this time was how acutely i did not like The Mother. she’s horrible! staring her disapproval all over the place. and i know old Hitchcock planned it that way, for the veiwer to have this deep aversion about her.

    so: where did the birds come from, what’s making them go crazy? why, from The Mother, obviously. the birds are the harridan physical avatars of Mother’s subconcious desire to destroy all that prevents her from consuming her young. if freud was here, he’d tell ya, by golly.

    1. Yes, that’s a common interpretation and a very valid one. I think the movie is open to many interpretations, but Hitchcock was a Freud fan, and so going straight to Freud usually yields some results.

  2. G, your capsule on “the Birds” has sent me on a Hitchcock tear. i was fired up to watch either “Marnie” or “Vertigo” last night, but i decided to fill in with one of his many earlier movies i’ve never seen, “Shadow of a Doubt” – what a wicked movie, for the 1940’s. i have got to hunt down some contemporaneus commentary on “Shadow…” , i want to know if 1940’s audiences/critics were picking up on the sexual tension between niece and uncle. that Hitchcock was a perverse old turd!

    and i just now discovered that a group of Big Brain critics recently declared “Vertigo” the greatest movie of all time, or something similar. and i must say No, No, No way.

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