Movie Night: TCM Presents Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds
September 22, 2012 § 3 Comments
I almost left my camera in the movie theater and Dia tried to take an elderly man’s walker, but we came out of The Birds unscathed.
Dia got to see lots of scary movies as a kid because her older brothers and sisters made her watch them. I got to see very few scary movies as a kid because my mom wouldn’t let me watch anything that would end up with me waking her up in the middle of the night and messing up her sleep. Dia and I have both seen plenty of Hitchcock movies, however, so we were totally down for the TCM Presents The Birds showing on Wednesday night. The Birds is my second favorite Hitchcock movie.
From the opening shot of Tippi Hedren (Hitchcock’s cool, classic blonde du jour) crossing the street in San Francisco and gazing up at the silhouette of birds circling in the sky, to the closing shot, this movie has “a life of its own,” as Hedren herself put it. One of my friends, T, nixed my movie invitation because it is directly responsible for her adulthood aversion to birds. I, on the other hand, have a bird feeder in my backyard. My ongoing joke with T is that when the apocalypse comes and the birds attack, they’ll be like, “hey, this is the girl that’s been looking out for us all these years. We’ll leave this one alone.”
Dia and I kicked off the evening at Plum Café, one of our favorite pre-movie adventure hangouts, and discussed how we, for the most part, aren’t that crazy about scary movies. Dia said all the people who like the Saw movies ought to be put on an FBI watch list. I said please don’t describe to me any more Saw scenes while I’m eating my Teriyaki chicken, thank you very much.
But The Birds, that’s more of a thriller, Dia said. Plus, it’s Hitchcock, I said. And it had been years since I had last stayed up late to watch it on TV, so I was excited to see it on the big screen. I was also curious as to whether it would have the same affect on me now as it had all those years ago.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds opens with Melanie Daniels (Hedren), a bit of a bad girl, who goes into a San Francisco bird shop to buy a Mynah bird as a practical joke. Instead, she meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who recognizes her from a smashed plate glass window prank that wound up in court. He pretends to think she’s a store clerk, she pretends she is one, and their interest in each other is sparked. Melanie secretly tracks Mitch to his home in Bodega Bay to drop off a pair of lovebirds that he had wanted to give to his kid sister for her birthday.
The courtship between Melanie and Mitch begins, and Melanie navigates the uneasy relationships with the women in Mitch’s life. His mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), still mourning her husband’s death and afraid of being left alone, is suspicious of Melanie. Annie, the local schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette), rents a room to Melanie but is also Mitch’s ex-girlfriend and a bit jealous of this new object of his affection. The only female who seems to really like Melanie is Mitch’s eleven-year-old sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), the one Melanie bought the lovebirds for.
Then trouble begins. A seagull dive-bombs Melanie and draws blood. Another hurls itself at Annie’s front door and drops dead on the porch. When an entire flock of gulls attacks the children at Cathy’s birthday party, Melanie and Mitch start to realize the danger they are in. Nobody else, particularly local law enforcement, believes the threat of the birds is real. Soon, it may be too late to escape.
When I watched the movie this time I noticed that a good third of the movie is spent on drawing out the characters, showing us their psychological failings, their past regrets, their family secrets. This is important because the characters become real to us and by the time things start getting crazy, we care about these people and what is happening to them.
I still love the way the suspense builds in a subtle, everyday event style, so that we feel like this is something that could be happening to us. A good example is the dinner scene when Lydia is on the phone complaining to the farm storeowner about the chicken feed that the chickens won’t eat. This seemingly mundane exchange is really a foreshadowing that pays off big time later in the movie.
The tensions between the characters makes it compelling to watch them come together in a crisis. In one of my favorite scenes, the undercurrent of female rivalry between Melanie and Annie is turned around when the two of them have to work together quickly and almost wordlessly to get a classroom of kids out of the school and to safe shelter.
One of the genius unique effects Hitchcock uses that enhances the realistic eeriness of this film is the lack of background music. We hear dialogue, we hear the kids singing in the classroom, and we hear the birds cooing, cawing, squalling, shrieking, or beating their wings in deadly flight. When Melanie sits calmly smoking a cigarette outside the schoolhouse, there is no “dum-dum-dum!” Just the late afternoon lull as catastrophe quietly brews.
One flaw: it’s apparently scary movie law that there has to be that “No! Don’t go in there, you fool!” moment. The Birds is no exception and those of us who have seen this movie know which scene I’m talking about. Tippi Hedren herself said she questioned Alfred Hitchcock before filming that scene. “Why would my character do this, after seeing everything that has already happened?” Hitch’s response: “Because I said so.”
Finally, I think the reason this movie resonates is that, as humans, we are strangely thrilled to watch usually passive and innocuous creatures mysteriously assemble and attack with effective force. Most of us spend a good chunk of our lives yielding and backing down. A familiar Bible quote is “the meek shall inherit the earth.” So even though we identify with, empathize with, in effect are the human family in the story, we may, on some level, also identify with the birds.
Which reminds me. I need to go refill the bird feeder.