The Birds: On-This-Day Thursday Review
Every Thursday, an older film released on this opening weekend years ago will be reviewed. They can be classics, or simply popular films that happened to be released to the world on the same date.
For March 28th, we are going to have a look at The Birds.
Alfred Hitchcock had one of the greatest runs in cinematic history. From his silent work, his early mysteries and his television serials, to his masterful artistic works and straight up horrors from later on in his career. He's crowned the master of suspense, because he has investigated the many avenues into the human psyche for many decades. Of course, all good things must come to an end. The latter part of Hitchcock's career was much sloppier (can we forget Frenzy, Marnie, and company?), but you cannot fault a guy that has brought countless masterpieces to the world.
That final page before the closing chapter includes The Birds: the film that many consider the last great Hitchcock film. It's peculiar, because it was not well received at all at the time. Many years later, it has been deeply reevaluated. It's as if Hitchcock knew The Birds was far too shocking for its time, and tried to keep going down that disturbing avenue, only to wind up short each and every subsequent time. The Birds lived on. It remains one of Hitchcock's more gruesome efforts. There isn't much suspense compared to many of his previous works. There's only hysteria. This is one of the few cases where Hitchcock let the premise do most of the work, thus why it is one of his more polarizing films. You either love it, or you don't quite get its cult status.
The Birds plays like one of those B-movie bug pictures but with much more wit. Instead of waiting a long time just to be killed by giant ants, we see different types of birds in clear view the entire time. We start off with the incessant need to purchase a pair of love birds (as if the ornithological gods are being tested). Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is then later attacked by a seagull. It happens. They're the type of bird you would see just milling around, being easily tempered. But the instances get more and more absurd. For Hitchcock's standards, they even get downright extreme, with some of the more colourful deaths you'd ever find in one or his films.
The shock feels necessary. You can imagine being invaded in your own privacy by a stranger. You can fear a wrong identity burdening you like a curse. You worry you will one day witness a murder and get wrapped up in it. Unless you are already afraid of birds, the concept seems much more stupid in comparison. This way, with some freak accidents, daunting numbers of the damn creatures, and even (gasp) blood, The Birds not only works in this way; it becomes unforgettable.
There is also a lack of complete certainty: something Hitchcock usually favoured in his films. The final scene is a nod of acceptance, and an agreement to just continue on. That is further confirmation that this is more of an attempt to create an unnerving environment, than it is to tell a twisty-loopy story like he usually did. All of the attention went towards creating a fearful tone.
On that note, it's also difficult to discuss this film and not bring up the less-than-stellar motives Hitchcock had to make Hedren be the part. Constant bullying, mind games, and even sexual harassment galore. At this point, many decades past his earliest works, Hitchcock was powerful and aiming to achieve more through different means. It's a shame, because you'd like to think that one of the greats could achieve results without humiliating a rising talent like this. It also showcases an a use of hierarchy. It is also depressing, because a filmmaker like Hitchcock that usually championed female characters in a number of ways, was now resorting to exploitation.
All of the attempts to make this -- what Hitchcock considered -- his scariest film of all time kind of work, and also fail at the same time. Do we get frightening images? Absolutely. Is the void nauseating? For sure. For what it's worth, though, the spiralling plots and genuine character studies are what make Vertigo, Notorious, Rebecca and countless other films the mind worms that they are. The Birds is about being in-the-now, with little care of how much lingers with you (outside of the scares) after the fact. It shows, from the way the film was made, down to the final result.
The Birds is an experience, that is for sure. It remains a solid staple in the history of pure horror films. It is, indeed, the last good film Hitchcock made. It's an experiment that yielded mostly good results (some effects haven't aged too well). Some ideas are brilliant (the cross-cuts during the explosion sequence). At the end, this is one of the first instances of Hitchcock seemingly trying in his films (before, it all felt effortless; he was that good). The following works pale in comparison, because The Birds was the actual final hurrah. The last time, before uncomfortable means and patchier results began for good. Considering this was the start of the descent, it is still a commendable film by all means. It remains understandably infamous.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.