Friday, August 10, 2012

The Birds

Warning: This review contains a few spoilers. 

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a feisty, flirtatious young socialite, catches the eye of defense attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and tracks him down at his weekend home in Bodega Bay, California. She meets one of Mitch's previous love interests, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), and learns that Mitch is a bit of a heart-breaker and tied to his possessive mother.

Undeterred, Melanie spends time with Mitch, enjoying their flirtation and bonding with this 11-year-old sister Cathy.

Various signs reveal that something is amiss. Melanie is attacked by a seagull. Mitch's mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) notices that her chickens are acting strange. We catch ominous glimpses of birds clustered together, still and silent, as if waiting for something. Then for reasons that are never explained, birds of various species flock together and attack humans. It happens in waves, with lulls between the attacks. During these reprieves, birds gather together, silent and menacing, as if waiting for their next assault.

This was my first time watching this classic horror film. Perhaps because we're more jaded in this generation, for the most part, we found the bird attacks more humorous than frightening.

What really worked for me was the heightening sense of unease, blossoming into growing fear. The interplay of light and darkness, looming shadows, and panoramic shots of a beautiful, eerily silent landscape at dusk. The smooth, soundless way birds gathered, waiting. The growing unease and fear of townspeople, who react in diverse and often inexplicable ways. One bar patron drunkenly avers that this signals the end of the world. A serious amateur ornithologist explains why -- scientifically -- none of this can be happening. A young mother panics and hysterically lashes out at a scapegoat. Seemingly innocuous moments of silence also build fear. These quiet moment in films, when there is little action and important feelings and events are left unsaid, often feel the most real and powerful.

This masterful building of suspense, along with gorgeous cinematography and the interesting, continually shifting dynamics among characters make this an unforgettable movie.

One iconic scene -- the climactic moment when Melanie is attacked by birds in the attic -- punctured my suspension of disbelief a bit. Yes, the scene was beautifully done. But I couldn't get past the fact that after everything that had happened, including several deaths, after the house had been boarded up to protect its inhabitants, Melanie hears some flapping in the attic ... AND SHE GOES UP THERE. Alone. It's like one of those "Grade B" horror flicks where the nubile young blond is traipsing down into the creepy basement. The viewer is screaming at the television: "Don't go down there! DON'T! Stay ... the fuck ... OUT of the BASEMENT!" But she soldiers on.

Nevertheless, this is a beautifully crafted movie which reflects all the reasons Alfred Hitchcock was a master of his art. I also loved the ambiguity -- we're never told why the birds attack. A modern thriller would have attributed it to some sort of scientific experiment gone wrong, killing the sense of mystery and shapeless dread. I also liked the inconclusive ending, with Melanie and the Daniels family moving forward into a dim, mysterious, and uncertain future. Part of Hitchcock's genius seems to be that he knew what not to reveal and when to draw a scene with a light hand. This film's status as a classic is definitely well earned.

Rating: (4/5)
Cherished FavoriteExcellent FilmGood Movie MehDefinitely Not
For Me


  1. I watched this movie when I was too young and, yes, afterwards I was scared of birds for months. Last month, my family and I went to Bodega (where it was filmed) for lunch and I immediately thought of this movie, even after all these years, and felt a residual twinge of unease.

    1. I bet Bodega Bay was a gorgeous place to visit! :-)

  2. My 12-year-old daughter and I watched this a couple of weeks ago and had a good laugh. I bet it was creepy, though, back in the day.

    1. Yes, we laughed at a lot of the scenes, too. :-) But I still felt the creepy atmosphere worked, even 50 years later.

  3. This is one of my personal favorites from Hitchcock. (Planning to revisit his movies soon.) I think you were spot on about the slow unraveling of fear. Instead of barraging us with one jump scene after another, it was as if Hitchcock, once a creepy scene just happened, wanted us to think about what we'd just experienced. He's very patient behind the camera, knowing when to bide his time versus pouncing on his prey (us), and that's why I think his thrillers stand the test of time.


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