You know the lockdown has warped your brain when, after watching Hitchcock’s classic horror-thriller about the flocks of killer birds terrorising a small seaside town, you’re still thinking wistfully of a coastal weekend getaway.
That is not to downplay the effectiveness of the film, which unnerved me significantly more than I had anticipated. I have the greatest respect for Hitchcock as a master of suspense, but let’s face it, you don’t really expect much from the 1963 special effects; like the monster in Alien, the bird attacks would have undoubtedly provoked laughter if screened in a movie theatre for today’s audiences. Watching the movie by myself, dated though the visuals may be, they still made me squirm with discomfort. They do enough to make you feel the terror of being attacked by dozens of small flying feathery bodies, with the vicious claws and sharp beaks coming from all directions.
Before all hell breaks loose about an hour into the film, The Birds plays like a lighthearted rom-com about a young wealthy socialite from San Francisco with a fondness for pranks and lots of free time on her hands. While visiting a bird shop one day, Melanie (Tippi Hedren) engages into some flirtatious deception with Mitch, a craggily handsome lawyer (Rod Taylor) who in the end turns the prank on Melanie. Partly enraged and partly attracted, Melanie decides to follow smartass Mitch to his weekend getaway in Bodega Bay just north of the city, and deliver a pair of lovebirds.
Melanie’s elaborate joke ends up with her making acquaintance with a local schoolteacher, who turns out to be Mitch’s old flame, as well as his much younger sister (Veronica Cartwright) and mother (Jessica Tandy). While the former latches on to Melanie with a puppyish enthusiasm, the latter strikes a more chilling note as a possessive mother hovering over her son. Despite the ambiguous silences and loaded glances passed between the characters, the movie still keeps the light tone, but little by little the isolated incidents, such as Melanie getting a peck from an aggressive seagull, grow more nerve-wracking, leading to the first truly shocking scene in the movie involving a dead body with its eyes plucked out.
It was maybe half-way into the movie when I became aware of the complete absence of musical score, during another memorable, perfectly crafted scene in which Melanie is smoking quietly outside the school while the camera occasionally cuts to the nearby playground. A single black bird lands on the playground equipment… then another… then some more… before there are dozens of black birds covering the place. Soon after that, the whole town is plunged into chaos as the birds swoop and attack people for no rhyme or reason, with no music to cover up all that relentless flutter of wings. There’s a sequence set in a local cafe full of frightened townsfolk that reminded me a lot of The Mist, including the local crazy wailing about the end of the world, before Melanie, Mitch and his family desperately barricade themselves in their home in anticipation of more avian invasion.
Perhaps wisely, the movie doesn’t offer any real resolution or explanation of this mass bird psychosis, leaving it as an inexplicable phenomenon, a random cruelty of unpredictable nature, which is more scary than any rational explanation could be. I’m sure there’s been plenty of interpretations as to “what it all means”; fear of nuclear attack, environmental allegory, and so on. Maybe it’s the strength of Jessica Tandy’s performance, but I couldn’t help but feel some sort of vague connection between the birds and the jealous mother figure, even if her initial sinister effect is eventually dispelled.
In the end I had to take a hat off to this movie, which proves that genuine directorial powers and good character work can well and truly overcome the terribly dated special effects.