Retro review–TCM’s screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller The Birds

By C.J. Bunce

(Insert a spoiler alert here as a courtesy to anyone who really thinks a 50 year old film needs one!)

Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time.  Having recently heard about the new Fathom Events series, where the satellite-video entertainment company transmits a one-night only event around to movie theaters across the country, I keep going back to the Fathom website to see what is next.  And I marked my calendar when a Hitchcock film made the list.  Last week we let readers know about this past Wednesday’s screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, a Turner Classic Movies presentation to celebrate the 100th year of Universal Pictures, on the cusp of the 50th year since The Birds first premiered.

For me, I am always excited to see another Hitchcock film on the big screen, adding this one to later era screenings Rear Window, Vertigo and Dial “M” for Murder.  The quality of this presentation of The Birds was perfection–certainly better than the film looked when it was in cinemas originally.  From the crystal clear credits in the opening to the vistas of Bodega Bay throughout, this could have been a modern historical picture.  Of course this clarity may cause you to notice things like Tippi Hedrin’s lip gloss changing colors or vanishing or her nail polish dwindling away throughout the film.  Originally no one would have noticed, as all prior versions had some level of pops, flickers, or other marks.  But those technical oddities were probably not even noticed by most people, especially those sitting in the back of the theater.  Actually that is all you can say technically that may be off with this new release and that amounts to nothing.

Whatever you remember about the actual bird special effects, on the big screen they make the swarms suffocating to the viewer.  Is this a horror movie like Psycho?  Yes and no.  It doesn’t cause the shrieks that more celebrated horror film has, but for being the next film Hitchcock made, it stands apart in its own right for superb storytelling.  And it has the unexpected scary bits, too, most notably when Jessica Tandy goes to visit her friend Dan to find he was attacked the night before and had his eyes plucked out.  For me this image has stayed in my mind equal in film terror to Anthony Perkins opening the shower curtain.  I had forgotten I listed this on last year’s top 10 movies to watch at Halloween time, too.  I still stand by that list, and with The Birds as my #5 I am still happy with that selection.

I noticed many new things at this viewing.  On the TV screen commercials and distractions sometimes made the film boring in parts for me.  Not so in the theater.  Like watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, I hardly budged for the entire movie, and never left the theater no matter how much I wanted to refill my drink.  The lack of a traditional soundtrack created a palpable quiet in the theater, so much so that when Hedrin takes her final walk up the stairs to the attic, a man at the back of the theater uttered the word “NO!”  and broke the silence with laughter.  There was so much to laugh about.  This really has some funny elements, from Hedrin’s playing a practical joke on Rod Taylor that backfires at a pet shop, to a diner full of local yokels denying that birds would actually attack anyone, to Rod Taylor teasing Hedrin for lying about coming to visit a friend.  The juxtaposition of humor and fear makes the fear all that much the scarier (and the humor that much funnier).  The relentless waiting by the audience for the second big attack was reminiscent of waiting for the bass notes to signal a certain great white shark in a later thriller.

The famed designer Edith Head designed Hedrin’s wardrobe, which consisted of three costumes–her black pet shop ensemble, the famous green jacket and skirt combo, and a loud and almost clown-like flannel nightgown topped with a fur coat.  Hedrin pretty much wears the green outfit in the entire film, because it all takes place over about 24 hours, and her character doesn’t bring a change of clothes.  But the birds finally get their revenge by film’s end, thrashing it to bits in the penultimate scene.

Intentional or not, a signature of Hitchcock films is both his cameo (here with a pair of pooches leaving the pet shop) to his abrupt endings (if you blinked you might have thought the film just ran out at the end).  I’ll never understand the befuddling ending to Vertigo.

Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright nailed their roles.  Pleshette played Taylor’s ex-girlfriend who appears jealous of Hedrin at first but ultimately rises above it all to help her out by giving her a place to stay in the little hamlet.  I would find it hard to believe if Pleshette wasn’t John Carpenter’s inspiration for Adrienne Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne in the original version of The Fog.  She sets the perfect tone for this isolated town.  Young Veronica Cartwright showed in her 11th broadcast role that she could cry on demand with the best of them, and you can watch her in The Birds but you instantly recognize her even then later–decades later–freaking out in Alien and The X-Files. 

And setting is so much a part of Hitchcock’s films.  San Francisco and the surrounding towns are to Hitchcock what Monument Valley was to John Ford.  Bodega Bay creates the feeling of desolation, maybe despair.  It works like Amity in Jaws and Antonio Bay in The Fog (there’s even a great reference in The Birds to an attack where birds and fog created havoc in another town).

Taylor is confident and rightly cast as the leading man Mitch Brenner, but the biggest surprise is Tippi Hedrin as Melanie Daniels.  Before this picture Hedrin had been a model. According to the TCM interview screened before the film, Hitchcock saw her and signed her to an acting contract before she had ever acted at all.  He took her under his wing and gave her master courses in acting.  Then he gave her this film as her acting debut.  His risk paid off.  Her timing, her responses, her reactions to other characters, all was as it should be.  She showed humor, fear, warmth, sadness, all despite at Melanie’s core she was something of a haute couture heiress meets Lindsey Lohan.

The use of kids as the target of most of the attacks was also a brave move.  The kids really look like they took some birds to the head in the film, fake or not.  Taylor in an interview said for some of the film they threw the fake birds at Hedrin over and over to get the right footage, and they must have done the same for the running and falling kids.  This was another element that seemed to be echoed by suspense director John Carpenter, particularly in his Assault on Precinct 13.

To top it all off, this film is a romance under the most unusual of circumstances.  Mitch’s mother (Tandy) is possessive of her only son.  Ex-girlfriend Annie Hayworth (Pleshette) provides the other woman bit.  Cathy (or is it Alice? or Lois?) gives Melanie someone to lean on.  What is love all about?  Are these two just like the love birds, stuck together in a cage?

Ultimately the film is completely enjoyable and can stand up against any suspense thriller made today.  Probably the best film I have seen in the theater in more than a decade.  That says a lot, but then again, what more would you expect from a Hitchcock film?

One comment

  1. I saw The Birds last Wednesday, with a semi-packed theatre of all ages, including a number of rugrats, along with several very elderly, though surprisingly enthusiastic folks, who might well have actually saw the film on its first run whilst in their thirties! Thankfully, there was no texting, yapping, or other distractions. Hitchcock’s slow (by 21st century standards), methodical pacing not only didn’t seem to bother the audience, but only added to the collective sense of foreboding and unease. Appropriately, everyone was sucked into the story, laughed at the comedic touches and were thrilled by the aviary action, most probably as theatregoers were some nearly 50 years ago. Hitch’s reliance on physical effects, primarily real birds, allowed the master’s effects to still shine almost a half century after their inception. Something that digitally-generated fx struggle to do after mere years. Upon exiting the theatre, instead of the usual morbid silence that always accompanies bleary-eyed patrons into the lobby, the crowd was animated, chatting enthusiastically of what a wonderful film they’d just witnessed. Several people informed me that it was their first encounter with Hitchcock, but that they were now eager to see more. For what it’s worth, The Birds may not be Hitchcock’s greatest film, but it’s great filmmaking by any standard… modern-day or otherwise.

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