Hitchcock slows down markedly after PSYCHO — at first because he spent a long time publicizing his monster hit, and then because he developed MARNIE for Grace Kelly, who proved to be unavailable for a year, and then because THE BIRDS was a more elaborate and technically complicated production than anything Hitch had attempted before. From here on, also, there seem to be more false starts, movies that never saw the light of day, screenplays that stalled, writers who fled into the night.
But this movie doesn’t strike me as the obvious start of a decline, not a bit, even if the structure is more flawed than the strong of masterpieces that came before it. Hitchcock seems to have greatly enjoyed working with Evan Hunter, despite misgivings all round about the script’s overlong opening and failure to fully integrate the human drama into the apocalyptic crisis. A letter from Hitch’s old collaborator Hume Cronyn, who was also married to BIRDS co-star Jessica Tandy, neatly skewers the screenplay’s failings — the character tensions have a way of dissipating, leaving nothing for the people to work through except the bird attack: our spoiled heiress heroine Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is already a largely reformed character, the possessive mother (Tandy) isn’t really so terrible. And learning these undramatic facts eats up pages of boring conversation: photographs of people talking. Had these character dilemmas been allowed to fester, they could have actually been resolved via dramatic action at the film’s climax — since they’d all been cleared up, the movie’s ending cause Hitch considerable anxiety.
Another novelty logo, following on from VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO. Hitchcock seems to be the only filmmaker messing with studio logos at this time. Apart from Tashlin. Here, the Universal globe floats in a milky void — the same blank screen of death Jimmy Stewart topples into in the Special Sequence of VERTIGO, perhaps? There may be apocalyptic overtones here. Death for Hitchcock = a blank white screen.
No Saul Bass — the magnificent team built up over the previous movies starts to slowly fragment. But the titles are very good indeed. Hitch, like Kubrick and Wes Anderson, seems to have had a favourite font, although his is more classical than their sans-serif Futura. Bernard Herrmann has an advisory role here, supervising the electronic bird noise score. As with the avian visuals, the soundtrack is a mixture of the real and artificial.
San Francisco — Tippi — small boy whistles. This is a recreation of the TV commercial Hitch first spotted Hedren in. At one point, he’d planned to open on a montage of faces looking upwards at the unexpected cloud of gulls: arguably a stronger opening than this. But maybe too strong? The birds have to slowly flutter into this story.
Departing from Daphne DuMaurier’s short story (this is Hitch’s third DDM adaptation, although he denied any special interest in her work), and seeking perhaps to replicate the structural whammy of PSYCHO’s act II change of direction, Hitch planned with Hunter to begin in screwball comedy mode, dropping in little bird references, then shocking the audience with the ferocity of the second half. Evan Hunter would later regard this as a mistake. Screwball comedy is hard — by the 60s, hardly anybody could do it anymore, and Hunter had no form in this genre. The pet shop scene (with primo Hitchcock cameo) is nice, but then the film devolves into a strangely plodding, procedural account of Tippi’s following Rod Taylor out to Bodega Bay to deliver some love birds. The birds leaning into the curves as Tippi’s Aston Martin whizzes along is possibly the funniest moment in the movie, but feels a little too broad. This may be the problem — screwball is such a stylized tone of comedy, a transition into numinous horror would be an utter clash if you did it properly. So we have a romantic comedy that daren’t be too comical. Which is why the movie picks up enormously when the horror starts.
Then there’s Tippi. I like her fine. Fiona, watching along with me, is more critical. The point where Fiona wins any argument is when Suzanne Pleshette enters the frame. Pleshette is just inherently more interesting. She occupies the eye. We want to know more about her. Turns out the character’s backstory isn’t too exciting, but we’d still rather hear about it than Tippi’s glamorous hi-jinks. (This is the Fiona-and-I “we”, not the royal Kael “we”, you understand.) They’ve done everything they can to dowdy her down, but she’s still more alluring than Tippi, and she’s unusual.
Hitchcock said he found himself pushing the film more towards Tippi’s character POV as he made the film, departing somewhat from his usual predetermined approach. This seems to work: use of POV makes the film seem more like a thriller in the early stages than it ought to, preparing us for the genre-switch. Tippi’s approach to Rod’s place by boat, her leaving the love birds, and her escape, are all shot exactly like a sincere suspense sequence, so that the birdstrike doesn’t totally come out of the blue, so to speak.
With admirable economy, the gull-swoop now gets Rod and Tippi together (unlucky for Tippi: with THE TIME MACHINE and ZABRISKIE POINT on his CV, he’s MR. APOCALYPSE). “It’s just peroxide,” says an attendant townsperson, tending the wound. “You ought to know what that is, judging by the state of you,” remarks Fiona, somewhat cattily, I thought.
So now we’re into “hang around and get to know the folks” mode. There’s Jessica Tandy, as Hitch’s third overbearing mother in as many films (admittedly, Mrs Thornhill, Mrs Bates and Mrs Brenner are varied in other ways) — Hume Cronyn warned that the possessive mom was something of a cliché in American culture at the time. The powerful mom weakens Taylor’s character, then turns out to be weak herself, and the conflict with Tippi fizzles out before the climax. Then there’s the extraordinary Veronica Cartwright, later a genius screamer in ALIEN and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHER (Philip Kaufman version — almost my favourite) who is a terrifying child: every facial feature seems locked in a deadly war of attrition with its neighbours. She totally grew into that striking visage. Here, it’s like it’s growing into her, or something, I don’t even know what I’m saying. Her dialogue, which seems kind of too young for her, kind of emerges in a slightly mechanical way at times, but my God she can freak out. Her hysteria is sensational. A taste of things to come.
And there’s more Pleshette, which is good. And little foretastes of doom, but we’re more than halfway and still waiting for the movie to start. Everybody did notice the script’s front-loaded lumpen-ness, but they couldn’t solve it. Then, all hell breaks loose, and as everybody knew it would, the movie starts to work. Hitchcock, facing the biggest technical challenge of his career, aces it.
The children’s party is good, nasty fun (after we get past the turgid scene between Tippi and Rod, written by Hitch himself, alas), but only a starter before the school mayhem. And the farmer with his eyes pecked out: rammed home by two cuts taking us closer and closer to the orb-less stiff, like James Whale’s intro of Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN. An editing strategy copied numerous times since, notably by Spielberg (who also re-popularized VERTIGO’s exponential zoom trombone effect). The whole farmer scene is knockout. Just the shot of Tandy in the corridor is stunning. And she arrives in a truck with no dust, calmly, and leaves in a truck belching smoke and dust and panic.
The cops are no use at all.
The church scene, coming after that interminable two-hander between Tandy and Hedren, gets things up on their feet again. Hunter had to write extra verses for that song the children sing as the crows gather behind Tippi. Dramatic irony — poignancy — suspense — Hitch’s old line about the bomb under the table, we the audience know it’s there, but they the characters don’t. Tippi innocently puffing away at her ciggie the while.
Special effects mayhem! Cutting so frenetic yet clean and clear, it distracts us from some of the very odd special effects — the fact that the kids aren’t actually running down a hill — or rather, some of them are, the ones farthest from the camera, but the closer ones are on a treadmill in front of a yellow screen (Disney’s sodium vapor process, as grisly as that sounds). In all the madness, there are a couple of fakey shots with hand-operated crows, but a hundred other bits of artifice fly past — literally, fly past — while we’re digesting the one dodgy bird.
It’s all admirably sadistic.
And then the real meat of the film, the diner scene. Evan Hunter was rightly proud of his writing here. John Russell Taylor points out that the drunken Irish doomsayer is derived from various characters in Sean O’Casey’s plays, and a bit from O’Casey himself: JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was worth it in the end. And everybody in that diner is an emblem of human attitudes in the face of disaster, from the bird expert (85-year-old Ethel Griffies, whom Hitch had seen on the London stage as a child, and made a mental note of: “Must work with her someday!”) to the hysterical woman who scapegoats Tippi. It’s like THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, and also it’s the inspiration for THE MIST: Frank Darabont and Stephen King spun a whole movie out of this one sequence.
Charles McGraw! I never even realized he was in it before. When you meet him in a diner, as in THE KILLERS, you know you’re in trouble. I never recognized him because his face, described I think by The Guardian‘s John Patterson as “as beautiful as a knife,” has softened with age, become NORMAL. A shame.
Chaos! I dig the exploding man, but I don’t particularly dig those short static cuts of Tippi watching the burning petrol flow. It’s an interesting idea but for me it doesn’t come off. If the cuts were shorter? They’re already unusually short… Of course, naturalistically, Tippi should be in motion, her head turning to follow the burning gasoline. The idea of presenting that fluid motion in a series of snapshots is dramatic and striking, but it feels awkward. Some people have looked at it and said that Tippi Hedren can’t act, but if the sequence seems unconvincing it can’t be blamed on her: the reaction shots seem strange because of the stylization, not the performance.
After the gas station explodes, the ultimate Hitchcock God Shot, from on high, looking DOWN on the birds looking down on the scene of their triumph. A multiple exposure effect, with the fire filmed on the Universal lot, a matte painting by Albert Whitlock supplying the landscape, and matted-in gulls.
Tippi in the phone box as all hell breaks loose does remind me unfortunately a little of the “panic” scenes in AIRPLANE, with everyone screaming and shouting — the possibility of a topless woman or a couple of fencers passing through frame seems imminent. But soon we are back in the diner for the conclusion of that little play.
And the final siege of the house is excellent — particularly this slow pull-back, which seems like a foretaste of Sam Raimi and THE EVIL DEAD. This is where the character stuff should get settled, and there are hints of it, but I think Hitch may have been saving something for the climax — which he chose not to shoot. So Rod’s final choice between his mother and his lover isn’t quite there. In fact, that conflict is then folded away by the attack on Tippi in the attic. Of course, there’s no reason for her to go up there, but I have a feeling that if you watched the film in a cinema, the question wouldn’t arise. When two watch it together on DVD, one will always ask, “Where does she think she’s going?”
And the reason the bird attack doesn’t get the same praise as the shower scene in PSYCHO despite being possibly more elaborate, more brutal and more elegantly made, is that the soundtrack doesn’t back up the shock effect. The fluttering of wings is neither gently enough to make a striking contrast with the violence, nor loud enough to reinforce it the way Herrmann’s score does in the previous movie. Plus, I do think the scene might have been better darker, with the shaking flashlight doing more to dazzle the audience. That kind of piercing optical pain would really enhance the effect.
Fiona does allow that Tippi is excellent at being shellshocked in greige lipstick. Indeed, all the heroines do excellent shock and terror (only Suzanne is a tough cookie).
Escape — through an apocalyptic birdscape (in the name of realism, everything should be streaked and striated white, until it forms a blinding void like the one the Universal logo sits amid at the film’s start). Note the convertible. Hunter’s scripted climax would have had the birds attack the car as it races off along winding roads, pecking the roof to shreds to get at the tasty, expensive morsels within. At the last moment, some kind of Marnie-esque Freudian revelation, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, was added by Hitch, so that Tippi comes to terms with her absent mother just as the roof flies off the Aston Martin, and then they escape. The idea of a bird-dominated San Francisco, with our feathered friends lining the Golden gate Bridge, was discussed, but never seriously plotted as part of the script.
Hunter was horrified by the additional lines, but equally horrified by Hitch’s deletion of the ending (Note: Hunter had his problems with Hitch, and certainly was very critical of THE BIRDS, but he loved and respected the director and would have liked to work with him again). What does the ending, as it stands, say? I think as a kid I experienced it as an abrupt halt, almost SIMON OF THE DESERT style, abruption + incompletion. Sort of what Hitch seems to have intended. The widescreen DVD, however, has followed Hitch’s original wishes and removed the THE END title (I think that’s the case — or maybe that title was never there and it’s the final Universal logo he objected to? Anyone know for sure?). And my feeling this time, as we stray behind with the roosting birdies, os that they’ve won. Our fleeing humans have nowhere to go and can’t outrun the next attack, but that’s not even the point. This little spot belongs to the birds, and this is the wave of the future.
This, it seems, is exactly what Evan Hunter disliked, this sense of doom and hopelessness. Rarely has an ending in which a family drive off into the sunrise seemed so bleak.