The Birds (1963)

birds1The Birds (Blu-ray)

I first saw The Birds many, many years ago- I remember it was a Sunday evening airing on ITV. It’s to the films credit that I can so clearly remember when I first saw it- it evidently made an impression on me. I was a kid and more forgiving back then about the pitfalls of rear-projection and bad mattes and dodgy puppets. The film was strange and exciting and scary.

Watching it again now that I’m older and subjecting the film to the demands of bigger screens and HD presentation in an age of sophisticated CG effects, that rear projection work and fuzzy mattes are rather more off-putting, but the film remains an effective thriller even if its technology is rather dated. It’s left me rather conflicted though, as I usually don’t care about dated effects etc but the effects in this film really haven’t aged well, and it just highlights the other weaknesses of the film. The casting is one particular issue for me- there is no chemistry between Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor and they seem uncomfortable and unconvincing. Imagine if the film had been somehow made ten years earlier with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant and you know it would have been much more effective even had it been saddled with even weaker effects.

But maybe Hitchcock was simply a better director when he was making those films with those great leads. Following the triumph of Psycho, Hitchcock’s career would move into a spiral of steady decline, never recapturing his earlier glories. That said, while many describe The Birds as his last good film, I much prefer his later Frenzy. That film didn’t depend on effects and it had a better cast, and of course had a more conventional story. Maybe Hitchcock’s heart just wasn’t into supernatural horror- this film does seem rather unique amongst his films in that respect. The Birds lacks something, some of that Hitchcock genius that his previous films had. Perhaps he felt frustrated at having little control of the effects and therefore rather less control of the finished film. It does raise the tantalising question of what would Hitchcock have done with all the technological wonders we have today. Its like wondering what would Kubrick do were he shooting a film today with all the stuff he could do now. I’d certainly like to think Hitchcock and Kubrick would have keener eyes and wiser applications of CG effects in their films compared to the young turks of today who seem to have the subtlety of a brick and prefer bashing audiences over the head with it.

Most alarmingly, The Birds lacks the fascinating psychological stuff of Rear Window and Vertigo and Psycho and the real-world thrills of North By NorthwestThe Birds feels like something of a dream. Maybe that’s indeed the problem- it doesn’t feel quite real and Hitchcock’s best films all feel very real and disturbing and thrilling.

The one thing I will say in the films favour is that the film never explains why the birds are behaving in the way they do. They can’t be reasoned with or argued with; they simply act the way they do without sense or reason and thats the most disturbing thing about the film. In a modern film there would be a need to explain everything and describe what is happening in the wider world, but here that’s left to the audience. When our heroes eventually manage to get in a car and drive out of town, they might be fleeing to safety but they might be driving to a further horror. Is the birds behaviour symptomatic of all of Nature finally turning on mankind in a supernatural Apocalypse? We just don’t know. It lends a rather dark, dour note to the ending which is pure Hitchcock and the films saving grace.


3 thoughts on “The Birds (1963)

  1. Yes, it’s an odd film. Lots of things in it are, as you point out, sub-par but it still works overall for me. I saw it when I was quite young, probably early teens and on the recommendation of my parents who recalled it from their dating days.
    Sure it feels different than a typical Hitchcock film, but that’s more due to the subject matter than the filmmaking style, I think.

  2. This would go down like a lead balloon if made today — “nothing was explained!”, “the CGI birds were awful!”, “why wasn’t there more gore?!?”

    It’s always both fun and fruitless to wonder what great directors would be doing were they around today. I was trying to think of modern Hitchs and came to David Fincher and (early) Christopher Nolan, which then led me to wonder: today, would we get an Alfred Hitchcock superhero movie?

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