Friday, December 16, 2016

Movie Review - The Birds

The Birds
Based on the short story by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Tippie Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Suzanne Pleshette
Release Date: March 28th, 1963
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Melanie Daniels is picking up a mynah bird for her aunt when she meets Mitch Brenner. As is the nature of this young socialite who is inclined to play practical jokes, the mynah bird having been chosen to repeat certain four letter words, she pretends to be a sales associate willing to help Mitch in his search for two love birds for his little sister's birthday. Of course, it's really Mitch who's playing the joke on Melanie, knowing full well about this girl who likes to play in Italian fountains naked. Melanie, chagrined, decides to one-up Mr. Brenner and shows up later at his home with the love birds only to find he's headed to Bodega Bay to spend the weekend with his family. Never one to be deterred Melanie heads up there to deliver the birds in the most convoluted and confounding manner. Instead of simply driving up to his house she rents a boat to sneak up on his dock and therefore leave the birds as a surprise.

Melanie gets the result she was hoping for, Mitch races back to town to meet her... too bad she's attacked by a bird on the way back, marring her triumphant approach and perfect hairdo. That night she is invited to dinner at the Brenners, where she gets to meet Cathy, the birthday girl, and Mitch's mother, Lydia. After a persistent Cathy insists that Melanie stay for her party the next day Melanie stays with an ex of Mitch's and Cathy's teacher, Annie. That night after dinner with Mitch and his family a bird kills itself against Annie's door. The next day at Cathy's party birds come out of nowhere to harm the children. The attacks become more and more fierce, the death toll rising. The Brenners and Melanie eventually take refuge in a house boarded shut mourning the death of Annie and countless others. As night falls there is no end in sight of these ever vicious, ever increasing attacks that come in waves. As dawn breaks we are left with a minor victory, they survived the night. But how much longer will they live?

The irony of The Birds is that you can see that Daphne Du Maurier would have loved the movie if it hadn't been her own story twisted out of shape and stripped of all subtext. She loved the conventional being destroyed by the unexpected, be it a midget mistaken for a child or a lovely usherette killing RAF officers as a calling. Therefore a meet cute that goes apocalyptic starting with an unexpected braining by a bird in Bodega Bay, yes, this is right up her alley. Only it's not what she had written. The Birds is perhaps the movie by Hitchcock, more than any other, that could be labeled a summer blockbuster, even if this was before JAWS set the standard. That is the problem. Hitchcock wanted to make an apocalyptic blockbuster out of a story of subtlety and nuance. Of course by this third outing with Hitchcock Du Maurier should have known what she was in for. A story about one family's attempt at survival against the onslaught of birds was turned into a romantic comedy with a chance meeting that soon spirals into death, death, and more death, with a side of a man on fire. A world of feathers and blood. Where what you see is what you get.

I can't help but feel sorry for Du Maurier. Sitting, watching this film, you can see how Hitchcock's mind was working when he read and then cannibalized her story. There's the lone telephone booth taken off a Cornish Moor and the school bus that brings our hero's daughter home for school, which lead to Hitchcock thinking; how about an attack IN the telephone booth, and what good is a school bus full of children when you can put a whole school in jeopardy with no bus to protect them? Yes, you can see the genius of Hitchcock at work because these are images forever shared in our zeitgeist. But how must Du Maurier have felt? Betrayed? Again? No wonder people think her story "The Birds" is just about the apocalypse without any deeper meanings, because her story was eclipsed by the iconic images of Hitchcock. Yet it's a DAMN fine and original take on the end of days. Sure it's stripped down and went for shock value, but can you think of a Hitchcock film this memorable and bleak? This is just pure horror. Hitchcock had wanted to end this movie with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds... interesting thought, birds bringing about the end of days, no matter who's the storyteller.

The Birds also broke with convention. Movies have scores, it's a fact of life, they give out an Oscar for it. Heck even all television you watch is scored, some more professionally and competently than others, but we expect melody to underscore our acting. Hence when this doesn't happen, like in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where Buffy's mom dies it stands out as original and is lauded. Now I don't know if Hitchcock was the first to do this stunt, but it still packs a wallop to this day. Seriously, it was gutsy to make this movie with no soundtrack other than practical sounds. Yes, it goes in the exact opposite direction that Du Maurier had pictured with the ominous silent attacks. But having the attacks drown out the very voices of the actors leads to another kind of horror. A cacophonous nature versus a silent one. Aside from the shower scene in Psycho, the scene where Melanie waits outside the school for young Cathy while the birds slowly multiple on the jungle gym is one of the most ominous and scary in film history. The reason why it works so well is the counterbalance of the quietly massing birds with the children's innocent singing. This signing is the only music you'll get. This adds to the realism and also shows that birds turning against us is scary enough with their piercing cries that they don't need a Bernard Herrmann orchestral backing to get the blood pumping.

But a flaw in this film is that we are obviously supposed to be rooting for the humans to win. Or at least I assume we are. The problem is, aside from Annie, I don't like any of the characters. The Brenner family is a dysfunctional family worthy of comparison to the family in Du Maurier's The Scapegoat. While Melanie fits right in with her mommy issues that the distant Lydia can hopefully fix. So while I enjoy this film it's not really my favorite Hitchcock film. I take glee in the death and destruction. Melanie is a spoiled rich girl, Mitch is a magnetic man whom women flock too, which I can not see for the life of me, Cathy is a spoiled and clueless little girl, and Lydia is emotionally remote and almost a cold hearted bitch. This cast of unlikable characters being slowly tortured makes me laugh. I know it's some perverse, dark sense of humor that resides in me, I blame my grandparents, but I take joy in these characters's pain. Because if this is a cross-section of humanity? Let the birds loose. And that is why the ending is dissatisfying. No one wins. It's open ended. The humans are beaten but not destroyed. Yet what chance do they have against the number of birds in the world?

And that's what I really don't get about this film. The ending is inconclusive and the heroine is beaten. Hitchcock was known for subverting expectations with his films, especially with regard to his female leads. Psycho was sold as a new Janet Lee vehicle, and yet she is killed very quickly and the film falls on the shoulders of Anthony Perkins. But there's subverting expectations and then there's this. This feels like something different. I've always felt the ending was a little off. The bubbly socialite turned into a near comatose zombie never sat right with me, and then I watch The Girl, a TV movie about Hitchcock and his relationship with Tippi Hedren. Now I kind of get why the ending of The Birds never sat right with me and also why I hate Marnie, Hitchcock's followup with Tippi, so much. These movies were really about breaking Tippi's will. Subjugating her to Hitchcock's every whim. I think without ever knowing this I felt it in her performance, I felt unease. I felt creeped out. With the recent revelations about Last Tango in Paris you can draw a quick parallel to Melanie's attack in the bedroom. It feels like a rape scene, because it is one. That is the true horror of The Birds. Man's nature, not bird or beast's.


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