Birds, The (1963)

The Birds (1963), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

First review

I was pretty young when I first saw The Birds and I remember the shocking realization -- both a sinking sensation and one of exultation -- that the mystery is not going to be solved! I'd been trying to puzzle it out: is it the love-birds? Are they some sort of avian royalty that the other birds are trying to rescue? (Tell me you aren't yelling "Don't take the love-birds!" in the final scene). Or is it as the hysterical woman in the diner says: Melanie Daniels is evil! Or is Mother Nature responding to the unstable mother-lover-daughter structures we find in Bodega Bay?

We are not to know. Some thrillers shock us by showing us shocking things; Hitchcock moves off our safe center by not giving us what we expect. My father used to complain about his TV shows: "They don't end, they just quit!" It's true; it doesn't end... My best example of another good film that doesn't solve the mystery is Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).

This is Hitchcock's last great film. I keep it with the best of his post-1954 work: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960). It's not that I don't enjoy To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959), but those are Hitchcock-genre romantic-comedy-action pictures. The other four are unique, nothing like each other.

I can see how people might not like it as well as I do, even apart from the non-ending ending. It's slow-starting, although this gives us time to study the characters, each mysterious in their own way. This is Tippi Hedren's first film and she doesn't seem like a pro actress yet, although that cool demeanor concealing hidden depths is appropriate for the character. Rod Taylor is manly and stalwart, a good survivalist, but sometimes wooden and impenetrable, perhaps just a male figurehead surrounded by all that female energy?

We have a rich supporting cast, often more fun to watch than the leads. (Suzanne Pleshette Fan Club). And when the action begins (the phone booth, the upper bedroom) it is tremendously well done.

Misc notes:

Available on Blu-ray.

Second review

I've given the film another viewing after enjoying Camille Paglia's slim book, The Birds, BFI Film Classics (1998).

Like a lot of academics she is able to find endless correspondences. Everything means something, symbolizes something else. A more common viewer might find films filled with happy accidents as well as designed structures.

She more than compensates for this lit-crit habit by showing a sincere enthusiasm for the film and all of Hitchcock's work. She gives a meticulous scene by scene analysis and really does come up with interesting observations that had not occurred to me.

Her favorite bit: after Melanie is first hit by the gull, Mitch tends her cut with a bottle of peroxide in the restaurant. Peroxide blonde, get it?

She likes all the actors and characters with the exception of young Cathy, who she finds too goody-goody. She defends first time actress Tippi Hedren, describing her performance as spot-on. She provides excerpts from interviews she did with Hedren.

She presents the restaurant episode later in the movie as a perfect little 14 minute three-act play:

Paglia delivers one provoking thought almost as an aside. Everyone notes Hitchcock's style, but he doesn't begin with the intent to be stylish. He researched the street layout of Bodega Bay, the design of farm and school buildings there, what different types of women would have in their closets and handbags, how they carry their cigarettes (hard laquer case for Melanie, crushed paper pack for Annie Hayworth).

The director's "style" emerges from the hard work of creating a deep world supporting the movie, a "reality" he then manipulates and photographs. Other directors who want to immitate his "style" are always going to fall short because there is more to the film than its surface appearance.

Finally she points out something I had never noticed. Everyone presumes that is Tippi Hedren in the film poster, but it is actually adapted from a shot of Jessica Tandy as Lydia:

I've seen Paglia described as the "anti-feminist feminist" and she does seem to spend a lot of time criticizing feminism and academic ideologies. I think a kinder label would describe her as a "sex positive feminist" who loves the interplay of the passions in life and art.