Saturday, September 10, 2011

For the Birds: "The Birds" (1963)

Boy, am I gonna get it for this review. After watching yet another AFI Top 100 Whatever Films of All Time, I realized I had never seen "The Birds." I think Hitchcock's best film was "Rear Window," his worst "Topaz," and I can safely place this above "Topaz."

Watch out for swooping spoilers: Tippi Hedren plays Melanie (and her daughter is Melanie Griffith, see the connection?), a spoiled newspaper owner's daughter. She sees attorney Rod Taylor in a pet store looking for lovebirds for his eleven year old sister. She pretends to work at the store and tries to help him, he is on to her and pretends to be helped. Taylor calls her bluff and leaves, and Hedren takes down his license number and buys the lovebirds for him anyway, hoping to surprise him. She goes to his apartment, but he is in Bodega Bay for the weekend, so she drives up with the dang birds. She goes to his house, walks in the front door, leaves the birds and a note for the little sister, then leaves.

Let's pause. Hedren's character is a criminal, a pathological liar, and a stalker. This may have been 1964's way of meeting cute and falling in love, but today I found Hedren's pursuit a little discomforting. The entire love angle here is so forced, I felt a little ill.

Taylor finds Hedren and pursues her back to Bodega Bay. Hedren again lies about why she is there, saying she is visiting Suzanne Pleshette, a local school teacher she met when she came into town. I check my rental receipt, making sure I rented the right video, since the only bird attack so far was Hedren getting conked on the head by a gull, and that was not hard enough to satisfy me. Hedren stays with Pleshette, who also fell for Taylor years before. Taylor goes home to cold as ice mom Jessica Tandy, worlds away from "Driving Miss Daisy." Veronica Cartwright plays the little sister...I finally recognized her as an adult in such fare as "Inserts" and "The Witches of Eastwick."

Eventually, the birds begin attacking. Poor special effects also begin to attack. There is one good scene where Taylor's home is attacked by wrens or something, but the scene goes on way too long as the actors unconvincingly dodge birds that are not there. The silliest scene involves the attack at the school. I know Hitchcock hated location filming, and it shows. The children are running in place against a back screen process while shots of birds are superimposed over that. Very poor effects that made me laugh more than anything.

We also get questionable scenes where the citizens of the small town do not believe Hedren and Taylor's stories of the attacking birds, never mind the house attack, a neighbor is killed by birds, and the school is attacked. Anyone who has ever been in a small town knows the opposite would be true.

Pleshette is eventually killed, ridding us of the only likable character, and the cast board themselves up in the house for the final onslaught. Tandy starts going a little hysterical, too. Most of the cast at this point makes special mention of the fact that they do not know why the birds are attacking. If one person says it, fine. But when at least half a dozen cast members say it at least half a dozen times, I figured Hitchcock was pandering to an audience that did have legitimate questions about why. Especially after the tacked on explanation about Norman's behavior that almost ruined "Psycho." Curious viewers want to know.

The movie ends on an unsatisfying note, as the cast drives off with birds all around, and I was stumped. The film just has no point. There are some creepy shots, like the beaks pecking through the door at the house, and some beautiful shots of the sunset, but the special effects here are pretty awful. Just because Hitchcock directed it should not be an excuse. Rod Taylor, Tandy, Pleshette, and Cartwright are fine, but Hedren's character is so weird, and she does not play it well. She is often stiff, and her scenes where she is in shock after a bird attack is again unintentionally funny.

"The Birds" just does not deserve the praise it has received over the years. Hitchcock was a genius with the camera, but often he picked some poor scripts to do ("Family Plot," anyone?). The interior scenes with back screening, and the poor special effects ruin what should have been a good film.

I cannot recommend "The Birds." (* *) out of five stars.