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The Birds (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock was far better suited to small worries than big ones. In which case, I think it is wiser to see The Birds not so much as an alarm being raised about birds—or any creatures, winged or not—taking over the world but, rather, a nagging revery on why Jessica Tandy and Tippi Hedren have such similar hairstyles. In which case, The Birds was an uncommon amount of investment and time spent on real seagulls, special effects, and even painting the passing circumflexes of aggressive crows onto the film stock.

Look at it this way: Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) finds Melanie Daniels (Hedren) in a San Francisco pet store. He is attracted, so is she, but their flirtation is not quite natural—it begins to reveal the cracks of insecurity. So Melanie follows Mitch "home" to Bodega Bay, where he lives with his mother, Lydia (Tandy), and there's a schoolteacher in the town (Suzanne Pleshette) who's obviously a burnt-out flame from Mitch's past, frightened off by the mother and by Mitch's reticence about going beyond Mother's wishes. May I say in passing, or remind you, that The Birds followed Psycho in Hitchcock's career, a film much concerned with ways in which the mother-son relationship can get tangled. And Melanie and Lydia do have the same hairstyle—a front wave swept up off the head, with little vertigo curls at either end. And the mother is unhappy about Melanie, just as Mitch is nervous about claiming her while Mother is disapproving.

That is when the birds start to attack—and, by implication, it is what drives them. This all comes from a Daphne Du Maurier short story (set in England, with simple farming people). The script is by Evan Hunter, though he and Hitch did not get on too well as the project advanced. Once the birds take wing—with classically Hitchcockian shock effects tinged with comedy, as when the birds gather on a playground monkey bars—the movie is a prolonged and very taxing ordeal, in part because birds are spiky, alien, unpredictable, and ungraspable. And the climax of the ordeal is one in which Melanie (and even Hedren herself) is subjected to a kind of onslaught or rape—hell to film, and traumatic in impact. So a stricken Melanie becomes the child of the mother.

We know now that this strange drama was exacerbated by Hitch's infatuation with Tippi Hedren, in many ways the inevitable outcome of his lifelong adoration and torture of actresses. It is also instructive that The Birds comes after the huge success of Psycho, so he was unbridled, and the film was more abstract than anything he had done before. It was also his last unflawed film.

So it's an extraordinary, very troubling picture—not just because of the irrational hostility of the birds, but because of the deep-seated neurotic explanations for their aggression. It is as if Hitch had at last elected to act on his most insightful reviews and had admitted sexual insecurity as his subject. All in all, it's not just a brilliant if rather academic film, but something tinged with embarrassment—ours: We wonder if we should be watching. And these birds attack the eyes.

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