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The Birds (1963)

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The other week I was walking in to Manchester Central Library for lunch and a spot of people watching when a leaflet caught my eye. On the front was a picture of Tippi Hedren running away from a flock of birds, and it was advertising a 4 week lecture course on Alfred Hitchcock at the library in conjuncture with Home cinema. As well as the four lectures, the cinema was to put on a screening of Hitchcock’s last great film, The Birds (1963). Hitchcock films have caught my imagination since I was a kid. I vividly remember my Mum describing me the plot of Dial M For Murder (1954), and telling me of this fat, funny director, whose films always had a blonde woman in, and you had to spot him in his own films. When I was a little older I was freaked out by an awful waxwork of Janet Leigh screaming in her shower at Blackpool’s Madame Tussauds. Then there was the Universal Studios tour in LA that took in Psycho’s (1960) Bates Motel, and a 3D screening of his ‘best bits’ at the same family holiday. Since then I’ve collected the DVDs, and had prints of the posters up in my room. There’s something in his style of filmmaking and storytelling that is imminently watchable, and an undercurrent of dark humour that I’ve always felt intriguing and unsettling in equal measure. He was brilliant at manipulating his audience, and controlling their emotion, and the History of Hollywood podcast LINK went in to that, his career, and personal life in fascinating detail. If you can get a hold of that, I strongly recommend it. Having forced Psycho and Dial M for Murder upon Charlotte in the last few months, she was keen to join me for the screening of the The Birds (if not the lectures), and I was so pleased we caught it.
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The Birds, based extremely loosely on the novel by Daphne du Maurier (much like Charlotte’s favourite Hitchcock film: Rebecca; 1940) is about Melanie (Tippi Hedren) – a serial prankster who tracks down love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor), to Bodega Bay, California. There, the birds of the area begin to act a little strangely, until eventually submitting the area’s residents to violent and completely unexplained attacks. I’ve always enjoyed The Birds, but felt it came off worse when compared to his other greats such as Psycho, Dial M For Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Strangers on a Train. It pushed the boundaries for horror violence on screen at the time (my Mum always said her older brother had banned her from going to watch it because it was too scary). I’m not sure whether it had been so long since I had seen it last, or whether having it on a huge screen made a massive difference, but I had a lot of fun watching it this time around. The odd moment of heavy handed foreboding (“Ooh, the chickens aren’t eating their food, that’s weird”…. “Ooh, that seagull nosedived that woman, that must be a one off”… we get it!), and the lovebird story MacGuffin a bit of a stretch (would a woman really go as far as to buy some lovebirds, drive two hours, coerce a teacher in to providing the name of the man’s sister, rent a boat, sail across a lake to a man’s house, and back again just for a prank?... really??), Charlotte and I were really pleased to have caught it. The sound was so loud and piercing right from the opening credits, and made up for the odd dodgy looking bird effect to create the feeling that sparrows, crows and seagulls were all swarming the cinema! I came close to covering my ears and taking shelter myself during a couple of the bird attacks. That the reason for the bird attacks was left open ended has always been the film’s most intriguing element. Although this gives audiences the opportunity to question what the film would be about, I would be lying if the teenage me that first watched it thought anything more of it than a representation of nature fighting back (in fact, the classic Hitchcock humour in the trailer for the film – one of my all-time favourites – strongly hints this may be the case). It wasn’t until we dissected the film at the second of the Hitchcock lectures that I began taking it for more than just face value.
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When you think of Hitchcock, themes of horror, psychology, suspense and obsession come to mind – but women, mothers and sex are just as prevalent in his films (Psycho, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest in particular). That obsession with women likely stemmed from his relationship with his mother, and watching The Birds a second time, I couldn’t believe how strong a part the potential mother in law plays. Mitch’s mother, played by Jessica Tandy, is controlling, intrusive and imminently fearful of Hedren’s Melanie, and potentially losing the company of her son. The group lecture discussion I was in compared this to the bird attacks – here was an outsider, and a potential danger and disruption to the mother’s perfect domesticity. Mitch’s mother wasn’t the only parent to be afraid of Melanie either. After one bird attach, she and Mitch take shelter in a diner and find a group of women and their children hidden in a hall. One even angrily accuses her of bringing these birds, saying that they only arrived when she did. In control of her own life at the start of the film, Melanie is beaten and broken down by bird attacks until she is the perfect partner to Mitch. The stories of what Hedren had to go through to get those bird attack scenes right say as much about Hitchcock’s perception and obsession with women as anything else. 2012’s brilliant tv film, The Girl, starred Sienna Miller and Toby Jones, and told the story of Tippi Hedren’s tumultuous relationship with Alfred Hitchcock – the man who spotted her on a commercial and decided to make her a star. As his choice leading lady, Grace Kelly, had rudely decided to retire from acting to become the Princess of Monaco, he was after another blonde bombshell he could control. Control was very much the correct word when it came to him and his actors (he even once compared them to cattle), but Hitchcock had a tendency to take that role too far with Hedren. He was determined to make her a leading lady moulded in his image, and the darker telling of that story goes as far to say that he wanted that relationship to go further than making films together. Whatever the truth, Hedren pushed back and was poorly treated by the man who had her career tied down to contract. He put Hedren through arduous retakes of the scene where she was attacked by birds, and then refused to break the contract binding her to him even when she refused to work with him again after they had made Marnie (1964). One of the first things we were asked to do at the lectures was to think of Hitchcock the man, and Hitchcock the director, separately – The Birds is one of the films of his where the two clearly overlap (another being Vertigo, 1958).
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Even were you to strip away the over-analysis and watch it as a straight forward plot, I think there’s a lot to enjoy with The Birds. The attacks themselves are as brutal as you would expect of a film of that era, it has some interesting characters, and some great moments of humour too (the drunk in the bar, the back and forth in the diner, and the two lovebirds in the car are all hallmarks of that killer Hitchcock humour). I really enjoyed the claustrophobia of the horror scenes (Melanie trapped in the phone box in particular… even if all I can think about is Hans Moleman in The Simpsons’ spoof of the same scene), and the suspense of the scene with Melanie sat with her back to a climbing frame that’s gradually getting more and more populated with crows. That’s one of my all-time favourite Hitchcock’s shots, and we discussed it along with his famous quote on building suspense:

“There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

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Hitchcock was famously labelled a master of creating suspense, but he was in fact a master of manipulating audiences to feel whatever emotion he wanted them to. The Birds may not be the most subtle of examples of that, and there are still others that remain higher on my list of Hitchcock’s movies, but I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking to work through the Hitchcock back catalogue.

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