Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Birds

A first for Cinema Bits, I present you, the original trailer for The Birds...
Luckily, I outgrew my fear of birds a long time ago, but I did have a fear of them during my childhood and it’s all thanks to my second favorite Sir Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds. You see, the one small scene—more like a flash—in the movie, where a character walks into a bedroom and sees a man sitting in the corner with his eyes gouged out, leaving two bloody dark holes, changed my life forever. In that time of my life, I was scared shitless of birds for years, avoiding them outside (we lived next to a creek that was lined with eucalyptus trees on either side and they were homes for many murders of crows) and never wanting to hold one if a friend had one as a pet and offered to let me do so. No, Mr. Hitchcock did a number on me by making this movie.

Over the years, I’ve watched this classic dozens of times (seems like it was always on TV when I was a child), especially now that I have it on DVD, and I love it more and more during each viewing.

The movie is based on a 1952 short story by Daphne Du Maurier and was made into a feature-length film in 1963. It’s a simple story (more like two separate stories), really, about a woman named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) following a man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) from San Francisco to Bodega Bay after a little altercation in a pet store that leaves her attracted to him. Soon after arriving at Bodega Bay and meeting up with Mitch, birds of all species start attacking the people of the coastal town.

I like how the film has subtle flashes of scenes that show you what’s to come, like the massive flock of birds circling above San Francisco at the beginning of the film. There’s also a bit of a message as well—when the scene plays out inside the pet store, we see dozens of cages with many birds inside, subliminally showing the audience how cruel it is to cage them up like that. Even Mitch mentions it during that scene when he first meets Melanie.

The choice to have the bulk of the story take place in Bodega Bay is brilliant. The view of the town while Melanie is making her way along the winding road shows how isolated and small it is and seeming like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Of course, the scenery is nice as well, showing the view of the bay and the green hills going inland. But probably the best reason to have it set near the coast is to have a reason to include seagulls as the majority of the menacing birds.

Now the special effects are still remarkable to this day. I still can’t believe how convincing each scene is when the birds are attacking. Of course, being older and used to today’s CGI effects in films, I can make out some of the flaws in this film, but they’re few and far in between. One of the most memorable attack scenes come when some of the townspeople are holed up at the local restaurant, right after a car explodes from ignited gasoline. A shot appears from the birds’ point of view, high above Bodega Bay, and seagulls start appearing and hovering over the destruction. It’s an amazing shot and I was amazed when I found out it was a painted matte framed around the people and the fire. It was done a few times in this movie and to great effect, especially the very end of the film…it gave the movie the shock value it needed to end it. But along with a few other key scenes, the attack scenes will make you think twice about walking around outside when birds are present. The scenes where the birds are nearly taking over the screen was created by a sodium vapor process which, being that this was done in 1963, had a much better effect than the use of blue screen many years later. I mean, those birds look like they’re in the same space as the actors…it’s amazing. And let’s not forget about those eerie bird sound effects, because those bird calls still give me the heebie-jeebies when I hear them. Which reminds me…no music score in this film…only the sound effects.

One thing about a lot of movies, especially from this era and prior, was that the dialogue was very scripted. Even movies today are heavily scripted where all the characters take turns with their lines, performing their dialogue one at a time. If you think about it, that’s not how life works. How often have you been able to speak your mind about something without being interrupted? Because that’s what makes this movie stand out from the rest of the films of the golden age of cinema, it’s the constant interruption to the characters speaking their lines. Whether it’s someone on the phone, ringing for someone while another person is talking, then being cut off as the person on the phone starts speaking to whoever’s on the other end of the line, or people having conversations face to face, interjecting each other, I think Alfred Hitchcock made an effort to include that in this film. In fact, as I noticed it happened the first time, it actually started getting on my nerves, just slightly.

Younger audiences might not enjoy this movie because it’s not all about birds attacking and killing people—that’s actually the background to the film. The real plot to it is how Melanie Daniels meets Mitch Brenner in San Francisco, is attracted to him, and follows him to Bodega Bay when she learns he’s travelling there for a birthday party for his sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). As she arrives, she happens to meet a past girlfriend of Mitch’s, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), and becomes the target of contempt from Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). So, really the story is a love triangle between Annie, Melanie and Mitch, not to mention how a mother doesn’t think any woman is good enough for her son. With the long and drawn out scenes, playing out the drama, the birds attacking are, at first, a backdrop until the climactic ending that never really comes to a conclusion, which makes this film all the more terrifying. Very few movies, these days, end in such a fashion. Most movies either end happily or crushingly, but almost always have a resolution. And that’s the brilliance of Hitchcock. He knew that ending the film the way he did would continue the terror for the viewer even after the film ended.

My final “bit” on The Birds is that it’s a wonderfully entertaining film with a nice story. One of my two favorite films from the master of suspense and I watch it at least once a year. I was looking forward to purchasing the film on Blu-Ray, but it was only released as part of an Alfred Hitchcock boxed set. I’m sure it’ll be released separately and when it does…I’m getting it. A must for your media collection, The Birds is one of Sir Hitchcock’s best!

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Thanks for reading!

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