31 Days of Oscar: “The Birds”

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Some films, whether they’re classic films from long ago, or simply films we grew up on, hold special places in our hearts. They left that much of an impression, that it’s impossible to view them in any other way. Time, while still an interesting factor, doesn’t hold the same sway. We know what we like and want to keep it that way for as long as possible.

The Universal Picture film “The Birds”, based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier, is but one of those films and even now, with this umpteenth viewing complete, courtesy of “31 Days of Oscar”, it still manages to excite and interest me. It shouldn’t, but I find that it’s impossible to look away. Which brings us here. Why? It’s considerably old, and like I’ve known for some time, has many instances where I should be turned off from what I’m seeing. What makes this film one worth returning to time and again, whether it’s on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) or my own DVD copy? Perhaps some mysteries will never have concrete answers.

With Age Comes Glaring Negative Issues

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For as much as I love this film, and this viewing reminded me of this, not that I was looking for reassurances or anything, it’s still kind of cringeworthy. It’s the special and visual effects, including any green screen used for the driving scenes. It’s just bad. No, terrible is probably the better word. The effects are terrible. It can’t be helped or avoided. This film is about to turn 54 years old after all. It’s the cost of watching and loving, an older film of this nature. Just think about how awful something looks from the ‘30s. I shudder at the thought. But while it’s easy to criticize the way the effects all look now, understanding and acceptance of the time must first be had. Effects were pretty primitive back then, and filmmakers were working with what they knew. I must say, all things considered, what was pulled off is downright impressive. While I can’t be scared by anything I see in this film, or held in suspense, which are the next two biggest problems, I’ve always tried to just see how this film perhaps had an effect on its viewers. Prior to this, were people afraid of birds in the slightest? Creeped out, maybe, but afraid? Horror took on many different forms and meanings back then. Director Alfred Hitchcock may have tapped into just that, and for that, the world is thankful.

All that being said, while I more often than not chuckle at the effects and how terrible they look, I still somehow manage to get caught up in all the action. It’s fun! It does what it’s supposed to, except scare me. That will never happen. The sequences involving any and all of the birds and the various people attacked, are just creative. This in turn probably explains why I like them each and every time I watch this film. Even when we only see the aftermath of an attack, it’s fun. It’s almost twisted because I find that I actually care about the people. I don’t know who they are, but seeing them attacked, especially the children, just has me worried, even when I’m enjoying seeing them be attacked. Even with all the terribleness that comes with these sequences, I guess I should be pleased that after so many years and so many viewings, I can even respond with some joy. Not all older films, especially Hitchcock films, can do that.

Storytelling 101

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The thing with this film, more than Hitchcock’s other films, is that the story here has a rather basic feel to it. There’s not much to it. It’s not complex and there’s not really a lot of mystery that needs to be resolved. This is a film that will always work best because it doesn’t try to answer why the birds are attacking. Other Hitchcock films have to have answers. But even in its simplistic nature, it works. The story follows Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels as she decides to stalk a perfectly good stranger all the way to Bodega Bay. Then it’s just a film about this woman becoming more and more immersed in the town’s people’s lives and the sudden attacking of a bunch of wild birds. Simple. And yet, I’m completely enthralled. I don’t feel I should be, as it still maintains that slightly slow unspooling that all of Hitchcock’s films have, but I am. It’s all interesting. Every bit. The amazing colorization helps too, which I’m not even sure why that is, but I’m just as captivated. So much amazing color! You also get to spend so much time with Hedren and the Brenner’s, plus whomever else they run into. While I learned a lot about each character, none of it seemed too deep or impactful, but it got me invested enough. I could like and care about them, which then only helped make the bird attacks a bit more frightful and fun to watch.

Another benefit of this slow narrative approach, although not all that effective anymore, if it ever was, is the suspense building. Again, I wasn’t affected by it. Nothing got me to hold my breath or feel like I’d just gone through the most exhilarating moment ever. But, I can spot what was done and appreciate it. That, I think, is not only a great benefit of this film’s educational value, but is a reason I enjoy this film and return to it every so often. I can try and be that audience member from the early-‘60s and see what would’ve made it scary to step foot outside the theater again. There are so many moments, that somehow I feel I’ve forgotten about them, that it amazes me. Not only does it reaffirm what I’ve come to assume made Hitchcock so great, even though, again, it’s hard to fully agree, but it shows that writer Evan Hunter, knew how to craft suspense and fear. My favorite moment is when Hedren is waiting outside the school to get Kathy Brenner. She’s just sitting there, smoking, minding her own business and who should show up? A flock of birds. Slowly but surely they just appear. Sure you can see them come one at a time, but there’s an uncertainty within that. Will they attack Hedren? Is she ever going to notice? What? Eventually she does and we get that great sequence with the running children, but for a moment, it’s not too clear. I’ve seen plenty of older films that just can’t do it for me, no matter how hard I try or how many times I watch them, but this one can. So long as it does, it appears I will always have a reason to come back and watch. To hope that maybe, just maybe, so many random birds won’t attack a quiet coastal town on the west coast.

Originally Released: March 29, 1963

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Evan Hunter

Starring: Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGrawLonny Chapman, Doreen Lang, Karl Swenson, Joe Mantell, Ruth McDevitt, and Malcolm Atterbury

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