Birds, The (1963)

An exercise in suspense filmmaking from the Master, though it lacks narrative drive that leads to little payoff.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
1963 | USA | Drama/Horror/Mystery | 119 mins | 1.85:1 | English
PG (passed clean) for some disturbing scenes

Cast: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy
Plot: A wealthy San Francisco socialite pursues a potential boyfriend to a small Northern California town that slowly takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people.
Awards: Nom. for Best Visual Effects (Oscars); Official Selection (Cannes)
Distributor: Universal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 4 Jun 2012
Spoilers: No

Have you been attacked by birds before? I had, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant. A couple of large crows flew down on my head, brushed it with their claws, and then flew away. Thankfully, I was left intact, with just a mere scratch.

The protagonists in The Birds are much less fortunate. They get scratched, pecked at, and more. In fact, people are getting killed in Bodega Bay, the scene of nature going berserk.

After shocking the world with Psycho (1960), director Alfred Hitchcock pulls another suspense picture out of his seemingly  bottomless cinematic hat with The Birds.

The Birds is a mood piece, an exercise in suspense filmmaking with a bare-boned narrative, as if vultures have picked apart its story. What’s left is a film with tremendously tense moments, but without the kind of purposeful, forward-leaning narrative that has characterized Hitchcock’s earlier masterpieces like Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959).

In other words, The Birds moves at first gear with a consistently weak pacing. It also doesn’t help that the film has one of the slowest setups of all Hitchcock pictures. Thus, impatient viewers will find it difficult to get ‘into’ the film as they drift in and out of it.

Patient viewers have also reason to complain as Hitchcock’s film lacks a convincing and satisfying payoff. Still, what makes this film regarded as one of the master’s finer works is its technical achievement.

“Can I bring the lovebirds, Mitch? They haven’t harmed anyone.” 

With Hitchcock taking three years to prepare for production, and certain scenes taking an entire week to shoot, The Birds is arguably the most technically complex film the great director has ever done. And all it has to show is a miserly Oscar nomination for Special Visual Effects.

A breakthrough with regards to the use of trick shots and sound effects, The Birds dazzles when there is suspense ripe for milking. There are a couple of great set pieces like the one that starts with a woman sitting on a bench, unaware that birds have started to gather behind her, and ends with a head-on assault by those flying things on children of a nearby school.

Another sees the male lead boarding up the windows and doors of his home as he seeks shelter with his family from the marauding birds. Elements from the latter set-piece could have inspired films such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002).

The cast featuring newcomer Tippi Hedren (who would go on to star in Hitchcock’s next film, Marnie (1964)), Rod Taylor and Oscar-winning Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989) give solid performances without being too consumed in their roles. Although it must be said that Hitchcock spends too much time on character, and this is at the expense of story.

In a nutshell, The Birds is in my opinion an overrated film that could have worked far more effectively as a short film. After all, it is a mood piece and feels like a technical experiment, but truth be told, it is still an excellent exercise in mood setting.

Grade: B-



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