Wednesday, 20 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 34 - The Birds

#67 - The Birds:

No, the subtitle is not “and the bees” for those who thought it was that kind of list. As I said in the entry for Rope, I wouldn’t say I’m a Hitchcock fan since I haven’t seen that many of his films but he was indeed a genius. It’s a bit ironic that he has the reputation as the master of suspense when he only ever made two horror films in his whole career. And of course I’m reviewing one of them now.

Meet young Melanie Daniels, a typical socialite who loves to have fun and spend Daddy’s money, especially on several practical jokes. She may have found a match for herself when she encounters Mitch Brenner shopping for love birds for his sister’s birthday. Melanie decides to buy the birds herself and take them up to his hometown of Bodega Bay in order to see him again. Things seem to be going well enough where she gets along with his younger sister but the mother is a bit cold and distant. However all of that turns out to not really matter when the town gets attacked by a flock of birds. Well, an army of birds is probably a better explanation. Do we know why the birds are attacking? Of course not. Do we find out? Now why would we have to?

Of course I did enjoy Rope but this here was always one of my favourite horror films, mainly because of how it worked. The film starts out like a romantic comedy, getting to know the characters etc. It seems like we’re being set up for some Lifetime movie style defrosting cold old woman plot with Lydia warming to Melanie and then the whole plot gets turned on its head by becoming a horror film about bird attacks. Of course bird attacks are genuinely scary enough before this film but, as one reviewer put it, “you’ll want to kick the next pigeon you see”. The film has no music at all, apart from one incredibly eerie scene where Melanie is waiting outside the school and she notices the birds gathering, all while the school children can be heard singing a creepy song in the background. But this film is far from quiet as be prepared for the sounds of birds screeching, wings flapping and beaks pecking all at once.

Our lead is Tippi Hedren who was called “the new Grace Kelly” after the latter left Hollywood behind to become the Princess Grace of Monaco. Miss Hedren is brilliant as the slightly spoiled Daddy’s girl who’s trying to better herself. She has a natural charm about her that makes her unique and interesting. And I’m sure the girls will go mad over the fur coat she’s wearing for half the film. Oh and yes she is indeed another blonde (Hitchcock thought the audience would be suspicious of brunettes). Alongside her is Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner – as an aside note, the role of Mitch was originally written for Farley Granger who was busy on Broadway at the time. It would have been interesting to see Mr Granger in the role but Rod Taylor does a good job as well and his and Melanie’s chemistry makes the first half of the story work when it could become boring for most people. Jessica “Driving Miss Daisy” Tandy is playing Lydia, Mitch’s mother. Her performance isn’t exactly Oscar worthy but she falls into line with the rest of them. Fans of the Alien films might like to know that little Cathy Brenner is played by Veronica “Lambert” Cartwright. For a child actor, she does alright but she does have that forced quality about her delivery sometimes. As something of a one-scene-wonder we have Ethel Griffies as an ornithologist who acts as our sceptic. Apparently she was born in 1878 if you’ll believe that.

While some of the bird effects do look dated now, the film still holds up and the bird attack scenes are some of the best in the film. One of my favourite scenes is mentioned above, where Melanie sits outside the school to see the birds gathering and the children singing that creepy song. That is one of the most suspenseful parts and when the children do get attacked...well I won’t spoil that particular scene for you. I also like the big one in town that follows this where Melanie is trying to explain herself to people in the cafe. The aforementioned ornithologist is arguing in favour of the birds and the entire cafe eventually joins in the discussion before the birds start attacking outside. The whole chaos of the scene is just brilliant and it’s just Hitchcock has spent the first hour setting you up for a big all-out chaotic disaster. Melanie ends up trapped in a phone booth unable to move and she has to watch all the destruction the birds cause.
I also like the way the film’s third act is set up – with Melanie, Mitch, Cathy and Lydia trapped in the house. You can see something borrowed from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and what would later be used in something like Night of the Living Dead with the claustrophobia of the house and not being able to see any of the attacks, only hearing the birds outside. And let’s not forget to mention the scene where Melanie foolishly goes upstairs into the attic where she finds the birds have broken in and is attacked by an army of them. Apparently Hitchcock threw live birds at the actress to get a genuine fear response out of her. 

I mentioned above that some of the film’s effects do look dated now. The one that does stick out is the attack on the school children. While the children’s acting is pretty good for a bunch of one-scene child actors the birds don’t appear to cast any shadows and they don’t have as much of an impact in that scene as they do in other attack scenes. There’s another really bad part with a mother in the cafe who just randomly starts crying when everyone else is talking about the birds. Later on after the attack she yells at Melanie, blaming her for this and dramatically yelling “I think you’re evil!” prompting Melanie to slap her out of her hysteria. That scene is just awful and that woman could not act to save her life.

So in closing let us raise our glass to Alfred Hitchcock for making us wary of our winged fiends...I mean friends. One very important thing about this film is that we never learn exactly what the cause of the bird attacks is: could it be the birds are just lost? Is it Melanie’s fault? Is it the love birds who are attracting them? Or are the birds seeking revenge for humans hunting them and putting them in cages? I guess we’ll never know. Until tomorrow, my fellow Hitch-hikers (see what I did there), don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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