Recently, my sister randomly said to me, “You need to watch The Birds (1963).” She did not also say “1963,” but I am a prisoner to convention. When I asked why, she reminded me of a time that I only vaguely recall when my mom made us watch it. She did the same thing with us for The Sound of Music (1965). I remembered the latter of these better. Whatever it was that I thought of the former, it did not stick with me. And yet, The Birds was directed by arguably the most famous film director of all time, the lapsed Catholic Alfred Hitchcock. His religion had nothing to do with his fame. What brought him accolades were thrillers like Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and particularly Psycho (1960). When you have the run of successes as he did, you can afford to play around with your offerings. I say this because while The Birds contains all the usual Hitchcockian elements (well shot, acted, tense dialog, etc.), but it came off as rather hokey in my most recent viewing. This has nothing to do with the special effects. The film comes is pretty well done for one made in 1963 as the visuals go. At the same time, I believe most of what Hitchcock was going for pertains to a possible apocalyptic scenario at which the plot never truly arrives.
We open The Birds with the young, handsome lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) visiting a bird shop in San Francisco. He intends to purchase a pair of lovebirds for his little sister Cathy’s (Veronica Cartwright) birthday. That is his excuse, anyway. His other reason for being in the store was to confront the beautiful (and blond, of course) socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), whom he had seen earlier in court. It is actually part of a joke he is playing on her, and he leaves without the birds. In order to return the favor, she uses her contacts with her father’s newspaper to track him down to a small seaside village a few hours’ drive from the city. She arrives there, unbeknownst to him, with the two lovebirds, and surprises him by taking a boat across the small bay to his house. She then sneaks in while he is not looking and delivers the birds. She is halfway back across the bay when he notices, and jumps in his car to meet her on the dock when she makes it all the way back. As she climbs out of the small dinghy, a seagull swoops down and attacks her. Once the cut is cleaned, he invites her to dinner at their house. She plays coy, but ends up going anyway. This leads to another invitation, this time to Cathy’s birthday party the next day. It is here that we see a flock go for the gathering in earnest, which forces them to flee indoors. It is a strange event, but as soon as it dies down they go back about their business. Yet, later on as they are cleaning up, another swarm comes through the chimney. This prompts Mitch to invite Melanie to stay the night, to which she agrees. The next day, there is mounting evidence that the birds mean serious trouble. Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), visits a nearby friend with a chicken farm, and finds him dead in his bedroom, an apparent avian victim. When she gets home, she is rattled and asks Melanie to pick Cathy up from school. When she arrives at the school, there is a murder of crows (did you know that is the word for a group of crows?) waiting on the playground. Melanie enters the school and warns the teacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), of the danger. They try to make a break for the town, but are set upon anyway. Melanie and Annie are separated, and Mitch eventually catches up with Melanie at the diner. Shortly thereafter comes the largest attack yet, and as the chaos settles Melanie and Mitch find Cathy at Annie’s house, Annie dead in front of it. They manage to make it back to Mitch’s where he shores up the house as much as possible in anticipation of another round of bird raids. It comes, and though the house holds up reasonably well, for who-knows-what reason, Melanie takes it upon herself to check the upstairs during a lull. She finds that the birds have managed to punch a hole in the roof, and mangle her pretty badly as she struggles to get out of the room. It is only when Mitch comes to save her that she escapes death. Feeling like there is no other option, Mitch cautiously makes his way to Melanie’s car and loads everyone in it with the intention of driving back to San Francisco. The film ends with them driving slowly down the driveway amidst a sea of temporarily docile birds.
I know in my introduction I said that the special effects in The Birds were not too bad considering it was 1963. I stand by that statement, though it is evident that there were limitations to what Hitchcock could do. In order to give a sense of the danger everyone was in, you could only see the aftermath of a few victims, some liberally splattered fake blood and limbs akimbo to complete the mirage. It is quaint, in its own way, as much as a corpse could be seen in that manner. Yet, there is also the supposed apocalyptic tone of the story. Here, Hitchcock had to tell instead of show, and that is when it starts to get boring. He did what he could with people running about and frantically waving their arms in the air in defense, while the flapping birds were overlaid onto the film in post-production. It looks fake, of course, and if he had done more of this it would have bordered on the absurd. Hence, you have scene-after-scene of people sitting in rooms talking about how scared they are at that moment. It gets a little tedious, particularly when the one person calling it for what it is meant to be, the end of the world, is a drunk in the diner loudly misquoting the sixth chapter of Ezekiel. To be sure, there are many apocalyptic moments in the Bible. Ezekiel 6 is one of them, though it says nothing about birds. The problem with such predictions, cinematic or otherwise, is that they all have gotten it wrong to this point in time. Christians have not been alone in predicting the end times before they are truly nigh, though they seem to get the most press. When it comes to looking forward to doomsday, give me the closing verses of the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. Jesus tells us there that the day will come like a thief in the night, and it is meant to be a warning to be prepared. The preparation is, of course, a Spiritual one, and for us Catholics we have the Sacraments to help us along. Then, when it does arrive, be it of the avian variety or otherwise, the soul will be ready to meet its maker.
If you want to see an Alfred Hitchcock film, do not see The Birds. It is for them, in my opinion. Sorry, could not resist. At any rate, he has far finer selections that do him credit. And if you want to see an interesting one about a priest, see I Confess (1953). I will not spoil that one now as I think I will talk about that one at some point. In the meantime, avoid The Birds, the film not the animals. The creatures are lovely.