The Birds

Spoilers, of course.

I’ve been on a Hitchcock phase of my Netflix queue lately, and by and large enjoying them. Took “The Birds” out of the envelope and popped it in last night. Wow.

It impressed the heck out of me several times. I was amazed how well Hitchcock pulled off a total lack of musical score–I didn’t even really notice the absence until the scene revealing the dead farmer, a quick zoom-in that any other movie would have thrown some sort of jarring shock chord in, and suffered for it.

The attack scenes were dated, sure, but the massing scenes were genuinely unsettling, especially when they kicked into high gear. I particularly enjoyed the playground scene, where first there’s a handful of crows perched on the monkey bars, and the next time the requisite icy blonde looks at it, it’s simply coated with them. A small flock of sparrows vomiting out of the fireplace was also pretty damn neat.

And I enjoyed how sadistic Hitch was with the ending–twisting the tension slowly up, and then not providing any release from it by simply showing the main characters slooowly driving away in the midst of a very creepy ominous sea of quiet birds…and cutting to credits. I see in one of the IMDB trivia bits that there was intended to be an ending shot of the Golden Gate bridge covered in birds, but budget constraints kept that from being filmed–a damn shame.

Damn good. I’m amazed no one’s done a crappy remake with computer-animated birds yet.

Don’t forget to give credit to Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), who expanded Daphne du Maurier’s short story into the feature-length screenplay.

He’s dropped lines of dialogue into his post-1963 novels like “I loved it in The Birds when Hitchcock had Melanie go upstairs…” and “That movie Hitchcock wrote, The Birds…” So you can tell it’s one of his pet peeves.

I still think this is one of the scariest movies ever made, along with The Shining and The Exorcist. It’s just so masterfully done – manipulative, really, when you get right down to it – that you’re just so unsettled and filled with dread and just wanting it to stop; you feel like you’re in the situation with the characters.

And Ike, as much as I hate to hear about people having their work go unrecognized, I can’t say I have any sympathy for Mr. Hunter. What makes The Birds work so well is definitely not the screenplay. It’s not particularly bad, but it’s just not particularly remarkable, either. I will say that it was really nice how it shows the relationships between Jessica Tandy’s character & Tippi Hedren’s, and between Suzanne Pleshette & Hedren. They both (along with the rest of the town) treat Hedren as an outsider who’s come in to ruin their lives, they don’t understand why she’s come, and they feel powerless to do anything about it. So that parallels the bird attacks and gives the story a little bit more “weight.” But I’ve never read the short story, so I don’t know if that was Hunter’s creation or not.

Drastic, did the Netflix version have the “special collector’s edition” stuff on it? There are a couple of interesting documentaries on there. In particular, they point out how the movie was pretty ground-breaking from a technological standpoint, at the time. So I don’t think tons of CGI birds would’ve ruined the movie (if that’s what you were saying by “crappy remake”); I bet that if they’d had the technology back then, they would’ve appreciated being able to add more.

But I would agree that a remake just wouldn’t work – for one thing, it wouldn’t have an audience (“Oh yeah – lots of birds. Real scary.”) And it’d probably be redone by somebody (like Gus Van Sant did with Psycho) who just didn’t get what makes the movie work in the first place. They’d try to play up stuff like the dead farmer scene for more shock value, or they’d try to make the birds themselves scary. Or even better, have a giant Queen Bird at the end, with frost breath and laser eyes.

When I first moved to the SF Bay area, I went to Bodega Bay as kind of a pilgrimage. I was disappointed. There’s really not much there! I was hoping that all the street-crossing signs would have the people running away from iconic birds or something.

Hey, hey, now! I drive up there all the time for lunch and to enjoy the bucolic splendor. I don’t need yet more kitchy touristy crap in this corner of CA :D. But if you must, you can stop at The Tides restaurant and gift shop ( which is decent and has nice seats by the bay ) and see placards and paper placemats about the movie :).

  • Tamerlane

Even with all that typing, I forgot one of the things I was going to say: I think that the scene in the attic is the best scene in any horror movie, ever. I’ve seen the shower scene from Psycho picked apart and analyzed and re-analyzed for years, but never the scene from The Birds, which is even more brilliant. It’s unexpected, but not sudden like a cheap surprise. And it just goes on and on, and you can’t stop it, so you feel like you’re stuck up there with her. The timing of it was done so well; it lasts right up to the point where you think you can’t take any more of it, and then keeps going on longer.

In a way, The Blair Witch Project reminded me of The Birds. I don’t think it was as well-made, or even as scary, and yeah, I do think it got entirely too much hype. But I do think that they learned some lessons from The Birds and had the right idea – if you keep breaking the conventions of what people are expecting out of the movie, you make the act of watching the movie itself unsettling and uncomfortable. And then you get more payoff from your scary scenes. For them, it was the shaky camera and all the pointless arguments. For Hitchcock, it was all the scenes that went on just uncomfortably too long, and the complete lack of music.

It did have the extra bits on it, but I seldom spend much time with that with netflix rentals–gotta keep that queue moving. And I’ve got nothing at all against CGI, and bet Hitchcock would have had that technology used just as masterfully as the rest. I’m just saying any remake would be crappy, and use lots of CGI just as a function of being now. And yup, there’d probably be something like the Queen Bird Hive Mind, and the ending I just don’t see any modern film attempting any time soon–test screenings would howl at it.

One other noteworthy–the lingering shot of the main characters after the boarded-up house has withstood the first full attack. It reminded me instantly of a lot of why X-Files irritated me so much when I used to watch it–by doing well what that show almost never did, namely, using darkness (in terms of lighting) well. The room was dim, the lighting very subtle, just enough to bring out the characters’ tension stares–but still enough to actually see.

SolG: The short story was wonderful (it was du Maurier, after all), but the screenplay was pretty much made up out of whole cloth, characters and everything, keeping only the theme of “scary, mysterious thing with birds attacking humans.”

I’m not saying everybody should go around calling the flick “Evan Hunter’s The Birds”…just that, if you came out of the theater liking the story, remember that somebody WROTE it. And, auteur theory and all, it most likely wasn’t the director.

I would just add that there was a similar story aired on an episode of either “Lights Out” or “Tales of Tomorrow” (1950s anthology series). However, I remember that the writing credits did not list du Maurier as the source.

Despite that, one similarity in the two was that is that at the beginning of the TV episode was that it showed the birds very calmly fluttering around–but caged–much as in the movie (like the pet store scene. In the TV episode, one of the first scenes is of the happily chirping birds caged in the garden.

At the end, it’s the people who are caged–in the movie, in a car; in the TV program in a house.

I just wish I could remember more details, but it’s been a while. I do remember that the male lead was either Robert Stack or Cliff Robertson (they were pretty interchangeable).

A favorite image of mine is Tippi Hedren in a beautiful dress, overcoat, matching pumps, and gloves getting into a boat and pilotting herself across the bay. She doesn’t even take her gloves off. I keep thinking to myself, “How many times did she fall in before she got in the boat.”

I was a little kid when I first watched that film, and it scared the holy piss out of me. It still does. Why I didn’t develop a tremendous bird phobia I’ll never know.

Drastic and SolGrundy, excellent point about the ending scene. Isn’t that characteristic about Hitchcock, that he could film a scene where nothing actually happens and make it scarier than hell?

We just returned from a trip to the Sonoma coast, and learned that you have to travel a little inland to the town of Bodega (not Bodega Bay) to find the old building which served as the schoolhouse. We actually couldn’t find it at first, and as we drove slowly down a hill, I looked back and discovered the old school, looking precisely like it did in the movie – and because we were driving slowly, the effect was precisely like the famous scene where Tippi Hedren is shepherding the kids down the hill and keeps checking over her shoulder for the crows. Brrrr!

Made me laugh.

Small trivia note regarding the lack of musical score – As I understand it, the new M. Night Shyamalan film, Signs, has no music, for similar artistic reasons.

There are so many shots I find exceptional in this movie: the ominous descent of the gull from high above the town prior to the first attack; the gathering of the crows on the jungle gym; the broken cups hanging in the neighbor’s house. I think my favorite scene, however, is the sparrow attack. That first sparrow in the fireplace, and Hedren’s reaction…then BAM! A river of sparrows flood the room.

Hedren, Tandy, and Pleshette’s complex relationship is interesting to watch unfold. I agree that Hedren is initially viewed as a rival and outsider. But Pleshette accepts her as a temporary boarder and eventually offers up information about Tandy that no rival would give. Pleshette has apparently accepted her role as the former girlfriend. After the gruesome neighbor attack, Tandy also bares her fears to Hedren, something she’d likely not do to someone she distrusts totally. And in the end, she offers herself as a mother figure to the wounded Hedren. Their storyline is subtle enough not to overwhelm the basic story of birds flying amok (something I wish more movies would do).

I loved this movie when I was a kid, and I love it today. It influenced me enough that I did undergraduate research on American Crows, my doctorate on Black-billed Magpies (a crow relative), post-doc’ed by chasing radio-tagged crows, and now follow the development of West Nile virus in corvids. Even my username reflects my love of crows (brachyrhynchos is the species name of the American Crow). Hey, at least my obsession pays the bills.

No Birds music? Then what’s this “Turn, turn, turn” think I keep hearing?

(picturing a teeny little brachyrhynchos goggled-eyed in the movie theater, staring up at the Crazy Bird Lady in the final scenes, and saying under her breath “I wanna BE her when I grow up!”)