The Birds (1963)

 ★★★★☆ 


As beautiful blonde Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) rolls into Bodega Bay in pursuit of eligible bachelor Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), she is inexplicably attacked by a seagull. Suddenly thousands of birds are flocking into town, preying on schoolchildren and residents in a terrifying series of attacks. Soon Mitch and Melanie are fighting for their lives against a deadly force that can’t be explained and can’t be stopped in one of Hollywood’s most horrific films of nature gone berserk.

This could be Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film, although perhaps it’s even stranger that such a taut horror comes from Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca). Although he had already handled horror in Psycho, that was really a logical extension of his thrillers. The Birds on the other hand is more typical of the paranoid sci-fi b-movies of the 50s, with a small town facing an absurd threat that can’t be explained. So they don’t! The closest they come is a great scene in a cafe as the townsfolk argue over the reasons for the birds strange behaviour. It’s like a high class Twilight Zone with some classic moments and a wonderful atmosphere that borders on post-apocalyptic.

It stars Tippi Hedren in her first role and she’s very good as the Paris Hilton of her day, but that side of the story comes across as a bit odd. The first part is about her pursuing Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to Bodega Bay on a sort of whim, and the absurd lengths she goes to get two Lovebirds to his little sister after a brief meeting in a San Francisco pet shop. The story is about the dangers of complacency, so a bored socialite having no purpose in life heralding the attacks is ironic, but certainly not obvious. It is very witty though and her scenes with Taylor are great fun. He provides substantial support, along with the superb Jessica Tandy who brings another level of class to the whole production.

There’s a sense of heightened reality from the start in Hitchcock’s most consistently colourful film since The Trouble With Harry, with the sound design unusually prominent (overdone tyre screeching, etc) in place of an entirely absent score and used to grating effect when the birds start attacking. Those attack scenes are all brilliantly and indulgently staged with some very clever “yellow screen” effects. The moment when the gas station blows up is a highlight and followed with a wonderful aerial shot. Other stand-outs are the quieter scenes, like Jessica Tandy finding the body with the eyes pecked out in a fantastic three step zoom and her strangled scream shortly after conveys more terror than Wes Craven has ever managed in his entire career. The crows gathering on the climbing frame behind Hedren and the resultant attack on the kids is incredible, outdone only by the last act, with a frenzied, claustrophobic attack on one character followed by the classic final shots, most brilliantly parodied in a Simpsons episode!

Now I look again, I think this rather unassuming bit of fun has proved to be very influential. The aerial shot and Tandy’s scream, notable again for there being no theme, in particular contribute to an atmosphere you can pick up on elsewhere, like in Jaws maybe, whose story mirrors this one very closely in many respects. Regardless, this is a classic, simple horror that still has the power to turn your stomach in knots.

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