Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Birds (1963)

The great thing about an Alfred Hitchcock movie is that you can really get lost in its story. That's a function of good writing - intriguing characters and clever dialogue. Unlike a lot of cheap horror films (especially creature features), The Birds is not simply a one trick pony. I was concerned that the movie's novelty - killer birds - wouldn't be able to carry the whole film, but it doesn't have to. And that's good, because its runtime is a robust two hours. But already fifteen minutes in, there hasn't been any threat from the birds yet, and I'm engrossed in the romantic mystery unfolding between a San Francisco socialite (Tippi Hedren) and a coy lawyer (Rod Taylor) who lives in a nearby bay town.

Therefore, when the birds do finally start to attack, we actually care about the characters - they're not just nameless victims caught up in the storm. But making the audience sympathize with the characters in a movie isn't as simple as giving them a back story, or watching them emote (actually, there isn't a lot of either here). It's an art, really, and I'm sure there's a lot of subjectivity involved, but the key, I think, is creating people that are relatable, and putting them in intriguing situations, so that the audience will be invested, and want to find out what happens. In a poorly written movie, you won't care that this woman gets these love birds to the strange man she doesn't know, because the story doesn't engage you. But one thing Hitchcock is a master of is creating mystery and suspense - he leaves out just enough information to keep you wondering, and wanting to find out more.

On the other hand, the argument could be made that all the non-bird related story development takes away from the horror premise of the movie. This could be seen as another example of Hitchcock's bait-and-switch technique - which was evident in Vertigo, and especially in Psycho - but here it doesn't feel so much like clever misdirection as padding to fill out the time. Maybe it's because going into The Birds, you pretty much already know exactly what to expect.

In any case, once all hell breaks loose, the movie switches focus nearly completely. However, it has some issues with pacing, and it still begins to drag as we move from one bird-escaping scene to the next. Individually, though, they're pretty remarkable for their time - Hitchcock must have had an exceptional bird wrangler. The attic scene is particularly horrifying, and must surely have been groundbreaking in its brutality at the time.

The bird attacks are suitably frenzied, but the quiet moments between are chilling in a different sort of way. My favorite scene is the one at the school, as the crows slowly gather on the jungle gym behind the unsuspecting lead (a textbook example of Hitchcock's approach to suspense), until the playground is just swarming with them, waiting to attack. You could cut the tension in that scene with a knife! Not even children are spared in this film.

Towards the end of the movie, the main protagonists hole themselves up in their house, after boarding up the bars and windows, in a sequence that seems eerily foreshadowing of Night of the Living Dead. But despite all the effort that must have gone in to making the birds seem intimidating, there's a limit to how scary you can make a flock of seagulls look, and the effects in some of the scenes are still not entirely convincing. Atmospherically, it's creepy, but it just doesn't have the visceral impact of walking, flesh-eating corpses.

And then we come to the ending, which is pretty open. There's no explanation for the bird attacks, no great resolution. You can argue whether this is an effective approach or not - personally, it left me kind of wanting - but it's certainly in line with Hitchcock's tendency toward abrupt, not entirely satisfying endings. He's a master of developing suspense, not resolving story lines. Which, in a way, kind of reflects my overall impression of the famed director.

Alfred Hitchcock was highly talented, no doubt, and deserves his reputation. But his films are not flawless, nor without peer. They are good enough to be appreciated by cinema buffs even today, but they are rather dated to their era. For all their influence and innovation, filmmaking has advanced by leaps and bounds since Hitchcock's time. And much like how Citizen Kane is revered as a cinematic masterpiece, but is hard for modern audiences to relate to, Alfred Hitchcock's greatest adversary is the unrelenting passage of time (for which we can hardly hold him responsible). So I will gladly rate him as one of the greatest and defining directors in history (particularly in the suspense/thriller/mystery/horror genres), even though his films are not likely to list among my top favorites.

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