Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Birds (1963)

Well, I finally made it through THE BIRDS! It certainly won't go down in history as my favorite Hitchcock film -- just the opposite -- but I'm glad that at least I now have firsthand knowledge of another of the great director's films.

THE BIRDS is also another title I can check off my list of 10 Classics for 2012. I've realized all along that I had put off seeing some of the well-known films on my list because of their dark subject matter, but I also suspect perhaps I had instinctively known some of the films might not be my particular cup of tea. Of the five films seen thus far from this year's list, I loved one (CRISS CROSS), liked and admired another (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS), and didn't really care for three others (THE APARTMENT and 12 ANGRY MEN in addition to THE BIRDS); links for reviews of each of these films can be found at my 10 Classics post.

The story of THE BIRDS, such as it is, is well known to many film fans: San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is smitten with lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and pays him a visit at his weekend home in Bodega Bay, which he shares with his mother (Jessica Tandy) and little sister (Veronica Cartwright). While Melanie is there, birds begin randomly attacking humans; they seem particularly motivated to attack when Melanie is present, but they also attack elsewhere in the town, killing some citizens. And that's pretty much the whole story: the Attack of the Killer Birds.

The film begins verrrry slowly. See Melanie walk down the street. See Melanie take the elevator in Mitch's apartment building. See Melanie drive down the coast. See Melanie take a boat across the bay. See Melanie take a boat back across the bay. Finally, see bird attack!

The entire film plays much the same, contrasting the humdrum of daily life with increasingly violent bird attacks. Unfortunately the "humdrum of daily life" scenes are just a bit too humdrum to be interesting. I really loved the family dynamics and depiction of small-town life in Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), but THE BIRDS? Not so much.

I think I also had an issue with the film because, while I enjoy suspense, I don't care to watch things that are as visually unattractive as these particular birds and the results of their attacks. Film noir may be violent, but at its best, it's absolutely gorgeous: the shadows, the rain-slicked streets, the fedoras. Film noir is a great American art form in more ways than one. Violent birds, on the other hand...ick. Who wants to watch them trying to peck people to death? They didn't scare me, I just didn't like them and looked forward to no longer having to watch them!

It was interesting to simultaneously try to analyze this rather peculiar film while also trying to figure out why I wasn't responding to it. I love Hitchcock and love Rod Taylor, and though it's not a film some Hitchcock fans rate highly, I very much liked Tippi Hedren's other Hitchcock film, MARNIE (1964). It's curious that despite these elements being in place in THE BIRDS, I found it dull and unpleasant.

Like MARNIE, THE BIRDS seems to have whole layers of story buried in subtext, but I was much more interested in unraveling Marnie's back story and motivations than I was in figuring out Melanie. Both Melanie and Marnie have some serious Mommy issues, for starters, and problems which lead to theft in Marnie's case and lying and strange stalker-type behavior in the case of Melanie. Somehow I found Marnie much more sympathetic. The prickly, distant Melanie comes off as rather a witch for much of the film, and edgy schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who's carried a torch for Mitch for years, isn't especially likeable either. In fact, both women are pretty odd in their own ways.

The film as a whole seems to be attempting a meditation on loneliness, but it never really arrives anywhere. I suppose one could say some of the characters made peace and formed a family under duress, yet at the same time, the abrupt and uncertain ending was, shall we say, pyscho.

Continuing the comparison with Hedren's MARNIE, I was also much less bothered by the (very obvious) fake scenery in MARNIE than I was in THE BIRDS, which has some really bad back projections mixed in with its location shooting. I think perhaps the fact that the fakery contrasts so strongly with the more realistic Bodega Bay location of THE BIRDS is part of my issue with it, and perhaps I'm simply more forgiving of MARNIE's periodic odd visuals because I responded much more strongly and positively to that movie.

Mine seems to be somewhat of a minority reaction to this film. My younger son, in fact, is a huge Hitchcock fan, and has seen even more Hitchcock films than I have. THE BIRDS is one of his favorites! He likes '50s and '60s Hitchcocks the best, while I'm more of a '30s-'40s Hitchcock fan, though I certainly like many of his later films.

THE BIRDS runs for 119 minutes. It was filmed by Hitchcock's longtime collaborator Robert Burks.

A few notes on child actress Veronica Cartwright: I first knew Veronica as a child from Fess Parker's TV series DANIEL BOONE, where she played his daughter Jemima early in the show's run. She continues to act in the present day. One of her best adult roles was as Betty Grissom in THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), and she was also a very good Ethel Kennedy in the 1985 miniseries ROBERT KENNEDY AND HIS TIMES. Veronica also starred in the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and in ALIEN (1979). Her younger sister, Angela, played Brigitta in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), and I had the pleasure of seeing Angela in person last May.

I watched THE BIRDS on a DVD from the 14-film Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection. The movie has had other releases, including a Collector's Edition and a VHS release. It's available on DVD from Netflix and can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

3 Comments:

Blogger mel said...

Thanks for your take on The Birds, Laura.

I would say that I have watched it more than I've watched any other Hitchcock films - which will indicate that it's my favorite.

Coincidentally, last evening I watched The Beast With A Million Eyes (1955) which preceded The Birds by eight or nine years. I'm sure that Hitch must have seen it - and that some elements of it stuck with him, to emerge later in The Birds.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Mel! So interested that it's your favorite. A number of people whose opinions I respect really like this film, which makes me wish I could enjoy it too!

Sometimes my initial opinions change so there's always the possibility I'll see it differently if the movie and I meet up again down the road. :)

Very interesting note about that sci-fi film!

Best wishes,
Laura

12:24 AM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

I saw this when I was an uncritical kid and as an adult and it's just not scary at all, and the premise is silly. I don't get the fuss over this film.

5:31 PM  

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