When lawyer Mitch Brenner gets the better of socialite Melanie Daniels in a prank pulled at a pet shop, Miss Daniels–not to be outdone–takes a two-hour trip from San Francisco to the California coastal town of Bodega Bay to leave the attorney a surprise in his family home. That simple act of one-upmanship seems to have the potential to blossom into romance, Daniels decides to spend the weekend in Bodega Bay–a decision that turns out to have calamitous consequences, as the town is soon beset by attacks by large flocks of wild birds.
Alfred Hitchcock is generally considered to have been highly skilled in the art of shocking and scaring people, so it may come as a bit of a surprise that the purest horror movie he ever made (to me, Psycho has always been more of a psych thriller) actually spends most of its first hour as a screwball comedy, complete with Meet Cute between romantic leads Tippi Hedren (as Melanie Daniels) and Rod Taylor (as Mitch Brenner).
It isn’t uncommon, of course, for a film to start off in one mode and gradually shift to another across its running time. For that matter, it’s not even the first time Hitchcock did it. But it doesn’t really work for me here. I never found myself all that invested in Melanie’s adventures as she injects herself/is injected into the Brenner family’s upper-class melodrama. The characters seem to be a little bit too stock for the situation, particularly Mitch’s too-precocious-by-half kid sister Cathy. And Hitch and screenwriter Evan Hunter (a prolific novelist who was best known for writing police procedurals under the pen name Ed McBain) spend way too much time exploring these characters in that melodrama.
Hedren and Taylor do well in the leads, although don’t have quite the chemistry they should. (Might the romantic scenes have worked better if Hitch had been able to cast his first choices–Grace Kelly and Cary Grant? We’ll never know.) Most of the supporting cast put in good if largely undistinguished performances. There are several exceptions, of course: Jessica Tandy as Mitch’s clingy/creepy mother Lydia, a very young Veronica Cartwright as Cathy, and a number of minor players in a particularly harrowing scene set inside a diner.
None of the cast get much in the way of Hitch being the star of his own movie. I don’t mean this literally, of course, although he does sneak in his trademark cameo (walking a pair of Sealyham terriers). But it’s his presence that’s strongest in the film, not that of anyone you actually see on screen. When The Birds finally starts to move it’s exceptionally effective and most of that comes from the director’s artistic and technical senses. It’s even easy to notice how the compositions contribute to establishing and maintaining that all-important sense of queasy dread, particularly during the playground scene (seen above) and in the final showdown (as it were) at the Brenner house. And the panic sequence that plays out in the aftermath of the diner scene is a textbook example of how to portray explosive chaos on film (Michael Bay, please take note). Even some of the more eccentric aspects of the production–including some stabs at a musique concrète score and endearing if not-entirely-convincing bird effects from pioneering Disney animator Ub Iwerks–work very well within this context.
The end result is a film that, as I find myself saying so often, pay off rich dividends if you’re willing to invest a little more than the usual amount of patience. There’s quite a few things that could have used tightening up, but all in all, The Birds is a well-constructed and occasionally outright terrifying film.
120 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy.