Monday, October 04, 2010

Hitchcock Month - The Birds

The Birds (1963)
Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Before I delve into any discussion on The Birds, let me tell a little story.  The year is something like 1989 or 1990 and I'm nine or ten years old.  It's a Saturday in the second weekend of September.  My mom and aunt are out at a local arts festival and I am home with my dad and uncle.  My father heads out to a local video store and brings back the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds.  The movie gets put into the VCR and I am immediately frightened.  Right from the get go, there's an eeriness on display.  About halfway through the film, I run upstairs and lock myself in my parents' bathroom and refuse to come out.  My mom comes home and reassures me that it's just a movie, but this moment is my first experience with Alfred Hitchcock.  Apparently, even at a young age, I recognized the Master of Suspense was an expert at creating some of the most tense movie moments ever put to celluloid.

I haven't seen The Birds in a really long time and I must say that it truly stands the test of time.  This is perhaps the only Hitchcock film with a lack of a human enemy.  Facing an attack by groups of birds, the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, California, are at a loss to explain why these avian creatures are turning against them.  The lack of explanation is what makes the film so incredibly frightening.  Yes, it's scary enough that birds (who with their long beaks and cackling calls are kind of freaky in real life anyway)  are acting in such a menacing manner, but the lack of any viable reason for their attacks is what is so disquieting.  It's man versus beast and man is on the losing end of the battle.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is the Paris Hilton of her day.  Traveling across the globe, living off of her rich daddy's paychecks, becoming well known for jumping into fountains naked.  She meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a pet store and after he pokes fun at her socialite status, Melanie decides to play a practical joke on him.  Surely, there's an attraction there between the two of them, but Melanie attempts to brush that aside even as she travels two hours to the bayside town of Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of love birds to Mitch at his home.  Shortly after she arrives, strange things begin happening with the gulls and ravens in the town as they gradually begin to shift towards a vicious nature.

As a whole, there isn't really much of a plot beyond attacking birds.  The audience gets a small glimpse into the world of Mitch Brenner's family as we learn about his overbearing mother (Jessica Tandy) and how she doesn't seem to approve of any of Mitch's girlfriends.  The fact that we're just given tidbits of information about the Brenner household is interesting in that we are essentially in Melanie's shoes.  She's an outsider, being welcomed into the Brenner home simply because of the horrors physically going on outside of the home.  The film takes place over the course of two or three days and the lack of any true plot or character development feels incredibly natural and realistic.  And it surprisingly isn't the least bit boring.

I find Tippi Hedren's performance (which was her first movie role) quite good.  She's slightly standoffish, but I believe that's the point.  Melanie is a rich bigwig who only came to the waterfront town in order to perform a practical joke on a man she barely knew.  Used to getting everything she desired, Melanie actually becomes quite strong by the film's end, stronger than she probably ever thought she could be.  Also quite good is Jessica Tandy as Mitch's mother and Suzanne Pleshette as one of Mitch's former girlfriends.

Ultimately, what's scary about The Birds and what makes it stand out from the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre is that there's an unknown entity wreaking havoc without the least bit of explanation to as to why.  While Hitch usually presents us with explanations as to why evil exists and often gives us a comeuppance for those evildoers, The Birds gives us no resolution.  And that's the most frightening thing of all.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

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