Rapid Response: The Birds

If Hitchcock knew that a group of crows is actually referred to as a murder, do you think that would be enough to attract him to making “The Birds?”

Viewed as his last important and “unflawed” film in his otherwise spotless canon, it is unarguably one of Hitchcock’s most gimmicky pictures, but at times it is also one of the most gruesome and bloody he ever made.

The first stand out segment for me was the gory glimpse of a man with his eye sockets picked out by birds that had attacked his bedroom. Hitch paces this scene brilliantly, starting with Lydia’s (Jessica Tandy) slow walk down an eerily centered corridor and then first giving us a glimpse of a bloody pair of legs on the floor, the pajama pants poked through with tiny beak-shaped holes. Three quick edits that bring us closer and closer to the body confirm our suspicions in the best way possible without allowing it to linger on the shocking image for a second too long.

It’s a good example of how technically perfect “The Birds” is, despite some special effects and puppetry that aren’t quite up to today’s standards. We see his precision in the absolutely gripping finale as the birds attack the Brenner household as well as when Melanie (Tippi Hedren) silently approaches their house to leave young Cathy her present of two lovebirds.

These early moments of the film are not as readily remembered about “The Birds.” Watching them, they seem almost like a different movie, with minimal underscoring as to how the birds will actually attack. But like the first act of “Psycho,” these scenes are expertly done, alive with wit and tension and capable of putting in place Hitchcock’s patented MacGuffin, in this case, the lovebirds.

In fact, Melanie’s character is so peculiar in these opening scenes, expressing practically obsessive compulsive behavior to learn about and pull one over on the lawyer Mitch (Rod Taylor), that it made me think that if this movie were made today, it would be made as a social problem or morality picture. Either the bird attacks would symbolize some character flaw of Melanie, or it would be an environmental statement about how man treats nature.

Hitchcock does hint at these elements in one particularly fun scene including an elderly ornithologist, a drunkard claiming the end of the world and a paranoid mother accusing Melanie of being evil.

But Hitchcock isn’t quite interested in making a statement. He’s here to make a perfect thriller, and the real reason he was attracted to “The Birds” short story was that it was an opportunity for Hitchcock to experiment with sound. It is perhaps well known that there is no official score to “The Birds,” and instead the common Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann was brought in as a sound consultant for all of the bird noises. Hermann could have made a bang up score for “The Birds,” but Hitchcock’s goal seems to be focused on creating a never ending tension that if you are hearing something other than nothing, it could be a pair of wings or a cawing signaling a bird ready to strike.

The scene in which what look like a hundred birds simultaneously explode down the chimney was already done in the middle of the movie, to somewhat poor effect, so how do you create tension differently without having another swarm cluttering the screen? You manipulate sound to make it appear as though a threat could be coming from anywhere, and the attack scene on the house is rightfully chilling because of Hermann’s effects and Hitchcock’s subsequent control of the camera to create a terrifying looming sensation overhead.

“The Birds” is far from Hitchcock’s best film and is not an overwhelming runaway favorite of critics, but it’s a thrilling gem all the same.

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