' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Birds (1963)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Birds (1963)

So Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a movie about birds wreaking havoc and/or seeking vengeance on a California coastal town. Now according to the modern day rules of filmmaking (by which I mean studio dictum) a movie about birds wreaking havoc and/or seeking vengeance would need to open with a sequence of birds ACTUALLY wreaking havoc and/or seeking vengeance. This would be called "foreshadowing", though in this case foreshadowing would actually mean "attention grabbing" for fear that an audience promised a movie of birds wreaking havoc and/or seeking vengeance that fails to immediately receive birds wreaking havoc and/or seeking vengeance will become confused and/or enraged.

However, as stated, this is Hitchcock, and Hitchcock really does foreshadow which is why "The Birds" opens in a bird shop where Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), socialite, the Kim Kardashian of 1963, meets kinda cute with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who is pretending to want to buy a pair of lovebirds for his kid sister. Melanie pretends to be an employee at the shop. But Mitch knows she is pretending because he has met her previously and was just pretending to want to buy lovebirds to talk to her, and not necessarily for the best of reasons.

So Melanie, troublemaker, buys the lovebirds and decides to track down Mitch at his weekend home up the coast highway in Bodega Bay. Upon her arrival she learns he lives on the other side of the bay and, rather than take the road around the water to his home, decides to cross the water via motorboat to sneak up on him. Thus, we find the movie's most masterful sequence.

The following, it must be noted, is all done without music, subtly heightening the mood and tension. As Melanie's motorboat approaches Mitch's home she sees him step into the barn off to the side of the house. So she zips into the dock, ties up the boat, dashes across the grass, through the open door and drops off the birds with a note. She dashes back out the door and down the grass and across the dock and into the boat and shoves off and paddles away. From her point-of-view we see Mitch exit the barn, enter the house, exit the house, and, obviously having found the lovebirds, scan the area, confused.

Then he spies Melanie on the bay. He recognizes her. She revs up the motor and speeds away. He hops in his car and races around the water to reach the dock on the other side. Hedren's facial expression changes back and forth. Is she happy he is going to intercept her? Or is she worried? We don't know. She doesn't know. Then, suddenly, a seagull swoops in, bonks Melanie in the head, wounding her, and swoops away.

At this I yelled at no one since no one was with me: "Alfred Hitchcock is a MADMAN!"

What he achieves here is to get us so invested in whether or not Melanie is going to be caught and then whether or not Melanie wanted to be caught that we get completely forget this is a film centered around a coming bird attack......until the bird attacks. Which knocks us for an exalting loop. The quote eternally associated with Hitchcock is when he said "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano." Boy, did he. That sequence is "Appassionata."

From that point Hitchcock ups the ante by having the birds, just endless waves of squawking birds, launch into an attack, then fly away and re-gather again and then go for another attack. This affords the movie a sound structure of Tension and Release, Tension and Release, again and again. Eventually it builds to Melanie locking herself in with Mitch and his family, clearly inspiration for M. Night Shymalan's "Signs" and the Hess family locking itself in, and that, of course, is when the master of suspense decides to take all his apparent life frustrations out on poor Tippi Hedren.

Whether there is a larger meaning to "The Birds" is debatable, and perhaps would reveal itself on further viewings. Or perhaps there is no larger meaning. The radio report Mitch manages to briefly hear indicates no one from the outside world understands the birds choosing to attack and re-group, why they sometimes sit in a foreboding flock and let the same people whose eyes they were so intent on pecking out a bit earlier just walk on by. Maybe this is merely code for the fact that nature likes to screw with us.

Not unlike how Hitchcock liked to screw with us, particularly in that sequence of Melanie & The Motorboat. Which is what I'll remember most about "The Birds."


keith71_98 said...

I just recently rewatched this movie again and it still holds up for me. I wouldn't call it Hitch's best but I do love it. Great write-up!


Nick Prigge said...

Thank you! I had never got around to seeing this one for reasons I couldn't tell you. Glad I finally watched it.