Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Birds

The Hitch-fest kicks off a couple of days later than anticipated ... My apologies. Due to limited connectivity (I only have a laptop at the new house at the moment) the next few postings might be a bit haphazard. Please bear with me.

Daphne du Maurier's short story 'The Birds' is a grim, tense, open-ended tale of a working man on a remote farm fending off an avian attack when a flock of feathered fiends go beserk. In adapting it for the big screen, Hitchcock made it clear to scriptwriter Evan Hunter* (better known by his pseudonym Ed McBain) that he was not interested in the farmer and his wife as protagonists. Also, du Maurier's story is probably good for 20 minutes of screen time.

Thus Hunter took the basic dramatic dynamic of the original (birds vs. humanity) and grafted it onto an unlikely romance between bored little rich girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) - a sort of 1960s Paris Hilton, except without the home video fellatio - and hotshot San Francisco lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). There's sparky comedic scene between them in a pet shop (look out for Hitch's cameo as a customer leaving the store with a couple of ludicrously fluffy poodles on a leash) which, while nonsensical, is nicely played. The backdrop of domestic birds, all behaving impeccably and tweeting away in their cages, sets up an obvious but effective point of comparison for the carnage to come.

Itching to get one up on Mitch, Melanie tracks him to his hometown, the sleepy fishing village Bodega Bay, where he spends his weekends at the family home with his 11-year old sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and his domineering mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Melanie meets a bunch of eccentric village folk straight out of Central Casting as well as Mitch's old flame Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), now installed as Bodega Bay's school teacher.

Parenthetically, I never had as a schoolteacher a shapely brunette with a knockout 60s hairdo and a talent for drawling wry dialogue. But then again, I didn't grow up in Bodega Bay. Which is probably just as well, since the little darlings of the town are the most annoying squeaky clean kids you've ever seen in the movies. During the birds' attack on the school - a sequence whose build-up is justifiably famous but the pay-off to which is shriekingly amateurish - you can't help cheering the birds on. Either that or wish Hitchcock had cast some 1960s version of the Li'l Rascals instead and let them loose with catapults and BB guns ...

You've probably gathered from the above that (a) I don't like the kids in this film and (b) I'm more taken by Ms Pleshette than Ms Hedren. Indeed, the only good performances are by Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy. Overall, 'The Birds' is an appallingly acted film. It's an easy shot to lay the blame at Tippi Hedren's feet - yes, she's utterly wooden, but the same can be said of square-jawed plank of four-by-two Rod Taylor. The townsfolk - played by people you've never heard of but are sure you recognise from something you saw on TV one night but have completely forgotten what is was - are uniformly caricatures rather than characters.

Okay, that's enough cheap sarcasm. There may be no getting round the fact that 'The Birds' is saddled with a pointless first hour, some shoddy back projection and a woeful dearth of decent acting, but I really don't want this write-up to be an exercise in critical scalpel-wielding or cheap jibes. Why? Because 'The Birds' - when Hitchcock does hit the right notes - is bloody good horror movie.

The initial lone seagull attack on Melanie, the gull hurling itself to its death against Annie's front door - these moments work well - but 'The Birds' really hits its stride when Lydia visits the Fossett farm to find the eponymous freeholder dead in his bedroom, eyes pecked out. The scene builds subtly and Hitch's use of editing literally puts the image of horror that sends Lydia fleeing right in the audience's face. From hereon in (ie. for the second half of the film), 'The Birds' delivers a series of great set-pieces:

The aforementioned attack on the school, Melanie desultorily smoking a cigarette outside as she waits for Cathy's class to end, the children singing an interminable nonsense song in the background. Again, a textbook exercise in how editing can build up tension, a murder of crows (oh, how appropriate that collective noun) silently amassing behind her.

The diner sequence, internal pressures leading one of the locals to denounce Melanie hysterically ("This started when you arrived ... I think you're evil"), while chaos erupts outside. A gull swoops down on a patron of the gas station, the pump falling from his hand as he collapses from the attack. This being the movies, it doesn't click off the moment he releases the grip, but spews petrol over the forecourt, across the road and down into a nearby car park when a slick suited salesman is lighting up a smoke as he steps out of his car. A couple of cut-aways to reaction shots of Melanie and the customers in the diner watching the flow of petrol and the flame racing towards the gas station kind of spoil the effect as they look like nothing more than tennis spectators, eyes following the path of the ball, but Hitchcock effectively demonstrates how quickly panic erupts into physical chaos.

The siege of the Brenner family home, Mitch boarding up the windows and locking the doors as he, Melanie, Cathy and Lydia prepare themselves to weather the birds' climactic attack. As with the school, the build up is more memorable than the catharsis, but here the ensuing attack is grimmer, bloodier, more intense. It paves the way for the last two set-pieces:

Melanie breaking the horror movie golden rule and venturing alone into the attic. The roof has been breached. Birds are everywhere. Rescued (too late?) by Mitch, she emerges traumatised and stays that way. There's a glimmer of humanity at the end, as the hitherto vituperative Lydia becomes her comforter, but it's a dim and guttering glimmer.

The finale emphasises the bleakness. With no reason established for the birds' behaviour, and only an understanding based on observation that attacks are followed by long periods of inactivity and regrouping, this small band of survivors leave Bodega Bay, the whole place overrun by birds, with no certainty of safe passage. 'The Birds' closes silently (the film is devoid of music) with an image as bleak and unforgettable as the screen door closing on John Wayne in 'The Searchers'.

For all its first act attempts at mismatched rom-com, 'The Birds' achieves a shattering pessimism in its conclusion.

It is a horror film, after all.

*See Hunter's short but affectionate memoir 'Me and Hitch' for an enjoyable behind-the-scenes account.

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