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The Birds (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on December 7, 2012

I’ve often felt the need to defend The Birds.  A film once considered one of Hitchcock’s major works, it now seems relegated to “B+” status, one of the “good but not great” movies.  Some think even less of it.  I’ve always liked it a great deal, partly because it’s unique to his body of work.  It is the only one (at least that I know of, still haven’t seen many of the pre-39 Steps movies) that deals with the unexplained, the supernatural.  Why the birds attack is completely open to interpretation, Hitchcock leaves few clues.  In the past I’ve read it as the birds specifically targeting Melanie Daniels, the universe conspiring to put this impulsive, manipulative symbol of unchecked female sexuality in her place.  Not everything in the film supports this idea, however (the killing of the farmer nowhere near Melanie, for instance).  Perhaps it’s simply a “Violent Unknown Event”, as Greenaway refers to it in his unofficial, highly conceptual pseudo-sequel The Falls.

Besides the film’s wonderful ambiguity, the second half is a masterpiece of suspense, building and releasing tension in eerie waves.  The last half hour (from the calm after the gas station attack to the chilling final image) is completely creepy.  Tippi Hedren isn’t on the level of a Grace Kelly or a Kim Novak, but she does fine work here as she descends into terrified madness, near catatonia by the end.

And yet, watching it now, it is indeed a “good but not great” film.  It’s not even in my top 10 Hitchcocks anymore.  A large problem is the special effects.  They’re often laughably poor, dated beyond hope.  The schoolyard scene, for example.  The beginning is incredible, one of my favorite Hitchcock moments.  Cutting between Hedren obliviously smoking a cigarette and the crows gathering on the jungle gym… wonderful.  But then the attack comes and it looks ridiculous.  It’s a fantastic buildup with a lousy payoff.  Or even something simple, like the horribly phony sand dune where Hedren and Rod Taylor have a chat.  Hitchcock’s unwillingness to venture outside the studio really hurts a scene like that.  Oh, and Taylor?  A complete zero of a leading man.  I couldn’t be less interested in this guy.  Also much of the cinematography is very flat, very bland.  Visually, the film only really comes into its own in that final act.

It’s a movie with great scenes and a beautifully intriguing premise, but too uneven in the execution.  Rating: Good (79)


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