Sep. 12, 2012 - Issue #882: Down On The Farm
Lasting Avian Terror
More than 50 years after its release, The Birds still feels inexhaustible
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1963
A young, attractive, single woman with a lot of free time and a penchant for practical jokes travels to an island. She seems to be trying to get the attention of an eligible bachelor—one with a domineering mother. She brings him some lovebirds. We seem to be watching the first stirrings of a romance of some kind, and the film's breezy tone and pacing, its elegant décors and fashionable costumes, most notably those worn by Tippi Hedren, the film's star, all seem to support this. But before the woman even reaches the man's home something very strange happens. Specifically, just as the woman is moving from one secure point to another, travelling by boat, alone, from one dock to another, she's attacked out of nowhere, or rather out of the sky. A gull torpedoes down and snaps at her head, drawing blood. As the film progresses there will be more birds, many more, filling the man's small town, filling the screen, their cries filling the soundtrack, attacking everyone in sight, women and children perhaps most especially. The romance turns into an apocalypse. Until, like a natural disaster, it simply ends.
By 1963, Alfred Hitchcock had commandeered the tools of mainstream cinema so confidently, so seductively, and with such commercial success, that he could seamlessly meld the vestiges of classical Hollywood storytelling, its romance and glamour, with something verging on pure abstraction, piercing his well-tailored generic narratives with shards from the shadowy unconscious. We can find this most readily in the barely disguised perversities of Vertigo, in the oneiric absurdities of North by Northwest and in the violence of Psycho, violence that spreads from the murderous nature of the film's plot out toward the rupture of its trading one protagonist for another at its mid-point. But I think The Birds is the key example of Hitchcock's balance between entertainment and unease. The inexplicable quality of the film's central event, the apparent meaninglessness of it all, is precisely what allows us to impose countless meanings into it. The Birds is a great movie because of its charisma and craftsmanship (the electronic score by Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann and Hitchcock's frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann, completely devoid of anything resembling melody or theme, built entirely of artificial bird sounds that become increasingly strange and cacophonous, is one of the great sound designs of cinema history, doing more to terrify you than anything purely visual). But The Birds is a masterpiece because of its audacious ambiguities.
Of course, as with Psycho, there is the hint of causality locked within its story of female transgression. Just as Psycho's Marion Crane stole the money so as to accelerate her go-nowhere affair with her married boyfriend, in effect, taking charge of the romance, The Birds' mischievous Melanie Daniels takes the role of sexual aggressor, actively pursuing the film's macho yet overly mothered leading man. Only a magical or mythical reading of the film can possibly allow us to see a direct connection between its heroine's actions and the violence that follows, yet the reading is there nonetheless, just as it is in Daphne du Maurier's source novella. It's one of many to be gleaned from the film, and is another reason to return to it again and again. Like all the best Hitchcock, and even some of the lesser Hitchcock, the film feels inexhaustible.
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