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Birds, The

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Man vs. Nature
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Directed by: 
Alfred Hitchcock
Tippi Hedren
Rod Taylor
Jessica Tandy
Veronica Cartwright
Suzanne Pleshette
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 "The Birds" was a 1952 short-story by Daphne du Maurier. Hitchcock originally purchased it for his television series, but after reading newspaper reports about seabirds inexplicably attacking the residents of Monterey Bay (recently discovered to have been caused by the effects of their eating contaminated plankton), he decided it would make suitable source material for his follow-up to "Psycho". Du Maurier's story was set in Cornwall and told of a war veteran who, while scraping a meagre living from the land, notices that the behaviour of the region's birds is changing. Eventually they begin attacking, and the protagonist and his family hole-up in a farmhouse for protection. Evan Hunter was commissioned to come up with a viable screenplay, in the process jettisoning everything but the title and the basic premise of 'birds turning against mankind'. The stories' location was changed from the bleak Cornish coast to a fishing village north of San Francisco called Bodega Bay.
The film became Hitchcock's greatest technical challenge and his most expensive movie up to that point. He was to spend three years meticulously planning and story-boarding all 1,400 shots (twice as many as the average Hitchcock film), and assembled a special team -- which included his regular cinematographer Robert Burks and Ub Iwerks (Walt Disney's right hand man), as a special photographic adviser; along with Lawrence A. Hampton on special effects and Al Whitlock who was famous for his matte work -- to work out how to create the huge number of effects that would inevitably be required. After principle photography was completed, several units carried on working on various superimpositions and optical combinations, with the finished film featuring 371 trick-shots. The final image in the movie ("the most difficult scene I ever shot" according to Hitch) is a combination of 32 different pieces of film.
Although receiving a lukewarm reception from the critics of the time, "The Birds" became a huge box-office success, and since then the "special-effects extravaganza" and the "big-budget blockbuster" have become the main oil on the wheels of the Hollywood machine. But, unlike the vast majority of those films, "The Birds" harbours a great emotional depth beneath the surface thrills. The film opens with the bland certainties of the Hollywood screwball comedy, but ends on one of the most ambiguous notes in film history. Everything is left unresolved — from the cause of the birds' sudden malevolence to the fate of the main protagonists. When the film was originally released, Universal insisted on adding "THE END" over the closing 'apocalyptic' scene -- if only to lessen the jarring quality engendered by Hitchcock's flagrant disregard for resolution (and maybe create the illusion of one). This latest release on DVD removes this concession to audience expectations: the film now ends in the way the director intended.
Critics and viewers are still divided today over the "unfinished" quality of the ending, but Hitchcock undoubtedly achieved his aim with it: to make the audience uneasy; to deliberately (and audaciously) leave them frustrated; and hopefully cause them to reflect on the possible deeper "meanings" behind what they had witnessed, without making anything too explicit. Ultimately, the movie plays like an enigmatic parable, encompassing such themes as the unpredictability of (and conflict between) human desires, and the need to keep them under control -- but also, the danger of their erupting destructively if repressed; the tensions between different conceptions of femininity and how they are paralleled by notions of nature as both "nurturer" and rapacious destroyer of life; Ideas of captivity and domesticity -- and how the family home represents both a safe-haven and a trap. But, casting a shadow over these local themes like a giant mushroom cloud is the global theme of the artificial and fragile nature of civilisation: mankind has appeared and flourished during just a tiny blip between ice-ages; and for all our ability to cut ourselves off from the reality of our situation by occupying ourselves with frivolities, human civilisation is but a shiny trinket on the vast beach of geological time -- ultimately of no importance in the grand scheme of things, and like most of the species that have ever lived, probably doomed to be washed away on the monolithic and inscrutably indifferent ebb and flow of nature's tides.
Hitchcock's mordantly witty trailer for the film makes fun of mankind's complacency in the face of these timeless forces by drawing attention to the way we have used and exploited birds throughout history. Hitch faces the camera and informs the audience that his new 'lecture' entitled: "The Birds and their age-old relationship with man," will soon be delivered at theatres around the country. The director points to various items such as a cave drawing depicting a dead bird and a plumbed hat from the time of George the second, and explains how the birds have helped develop human culture: "How proud the birds must have been to have their feathers plucked out to brighten man's drab life!" he deadpans. When mentioning some of the species of birds which are now extinct, he informs us: "This is nature's way -- man merely hurries the process along whenever he can be of help". Publicising the film after it's opening, Hitchcock mused on it's meaning and declared: "I like to think that our birds are merely getting back at the human race for centuries of being hunted and shot".
The idea (humorously expressed by Hitchcock in the trailer) of nature taking her revenge on humankind for it's profligacy, is a romantic one: nature is seen as a benign 'giver of life', abused by her progeny. But a much darker view is being expressed in the film -- life is as cheap and harsh in the state of nature as it is ubiquitous. When the birds begin their organised attacks on the residents of Bogeda Bay, it is the children who are the first major targets -- a young girl's birthday party is blitzed by screaming gulls, and then a whole school-full of distraught youngsters are descended on by crows as they flee down a hill. The weakest are often the first to go to the wall -- the maternal instincts of the females who try to protect them are set against nature's vast, pitiless and unyielding cycles of destruction.
Although the overarching apocalyptic theme still has resonance today, it is the subtle relationships between the characters created by Hitchcock and Hunter - and the way the bird attacks can be interpreted as an expression of the psychological tensions underscoring them, that continues to make the film a beguiling experience worth revisiting again and again.
The principle character is Melanie Daniels, a spoilt San Franciscan socialite, played by Tippi Hedren. Hedren was discovered by Hitchcock after he saw her in a commercial for a dietary drink which featured the elegant actress reacting to a wolf-whistle from a young boy ("The Birds" opens with a recreation of that scene). Melanie is the daughter of a rich newspaper proprietor; she lives a superficial lifestyle full of practical jokes, and regularly appears in the cities' gossip columns. We first see her in a bird shop, trying to buy a minor bird for one of her aunts (another practical joke: she plans to teach it swear words to give the starchy aunt a shock!). When a lawyer called Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) apparently mistakes her for a shop- assistant while looking for some "lovebirds" (a birthday present for his young sister), Melanie can't resist the chance to take part in a little subterfuge.
So begins a typical Hollywood comedy scenario: a flirtatious cat & mouse game of wits, which in this case ends in Melanie being tricked into making a fool of herself when Mitch reveals he knew all along who she was, having seen her in court after one of her previous pranks resulted in a plate-glass-window getting smashed. Being both attracted to and angered by the handsome lawyer, Melanie follows him up to Bogeda Bay with some lovebirds, which she sneaks into the house where Mitch is staying with his widowed mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his young sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). As she rows back across the bay, Mitch spots her and drives round to confront the young practical joker. However, before she can reach the other side, a gull attacks her, leaving a nasty gash on her forehead. From here on, the tone of the film begins to change. The bird attacks escalate -- both promoting and reflecting the emotional tensions between the characters; the first small attack on Melanie symbolises a shift in the relationship between Melanie and Mitch...
Mitch takes her to the local cafe to tend her wound where they run into Lydia, Mitch's mother; Melanie gets a cordial, but frosty reception from her. Not wishing to admit that she drove all the way up to the bay just to drop off the Lovebirds (and by implication, just for Mitch) Melanie pretends that a local school teacher -- who gave her directions when she first arrived -- called Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) is an old school friend. Mitch, to the obvious displeasure of Lydia, invites Melanie to dinner with the family that night; and so with nowhere else to stay, she rents a room with Annie who turns out to have been an old flame of Mitch's. Melanie soon seems to be at the centre of the increasingly disturbing behaviour of the birds; and the dysfunctional nature of the Brenners' relationships is exposed as the town plunges into avian induced chaos.
The film's trajectory eventually closes in around the Brenner house, and the main protagonists barricaded inside as the maelstrom all around them increases. This is where the unusual sound-design of the film is most effective. Hitchcock did not want a conventional music score; instead, once the film was fully edited, he collaborated with Bernard Herrmann in designing a "sound-scrip": a pattern of sound, with different levels of intensity mapped out for each sequence. Hitch then had Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala, electronically create the bird noises to be used in this sound-map. They created some unnerving effects that keep the viewer on edge almost without them being aware of it for much of the film. Some of the sequences inside the house at the climax, are shot with no dialogue desrenable at all; instead, the desperation and fear of the characters is portrayed through the intricate layering of sound, which starts of with natural birdlike effects but builds into an abstract metallic screeching. To get the same level of reaction from each member of the cast while filming, Hitchcock had someone tap out a drum roll on set -- gently at first, then building up until it became a deafening thunder.
The home and the traditional family roles designated within it represent and provide security against the forces of the unknown. Mitch though, is caught between two roles, neither one of which he can completely fulfil because they tend to cancel each other out: that of the traditional masculine patriarch, a role left vacant by the death of his father; and that of a son to Lydia. Lydia is an anxious woman, dependent on preserving the collapsing family structure of the Brenner house because she is afraid of being left alone after the death of her husband. Because Mitch is very much older than his sister Cathy, and spends most of his time in the city, he can't properly play the role of son -- and because his father has been put on a pedestal as the apotheosis of the confident male figurehead, Mitch is under impossible pressure to live up to his 'standard'.
Any prospective relationship Mitch might have with a woman is a threat to the delicate balance Lydia needs to maintain. The school teacher, Annie Hayworth is one casualty. She has stayed on in Bogeda Bay to "be close" to Mitch but has given up any thought of rekindling the relationship. Her passive acceptance of her plight is symbolised by a single dead gull that flies into the side of her house and is found slumped dead on the porch!
Melanie though, is a different proposition altogether. She represents everything that perturbs and distresses Lydia. She is disdainful of authority and represents a threat to the rigid family structure Lydia needs to maintain. Worse, she has a specific antipathy to "mother" figures (or rather, they seem to have an antipathy to her). Melanie's own mother left home when she was a child and she hasn't seen her since; at one point in the film, the frightened mother of two children accuses Melanie of being responsible for the Bird attacks ("Who are you? What are you?"), Melanie slaps her across the face.
The controversial cultural critic, Camille Paglia has described "The Birds" as "Hitchcock's ode to woman's sexual glamour in all its phases, from brittle artifice to melting vulnerability" Hedron manages to represent most of these phases at some stage with her portrayal of Melanie. Hitchcock's notorious hatred of location shooting was at least partly fuelled by his desire to have as much control over lighting conditions as possible, and this was something he absolutely insisted upon when shooting Tippi Hedron's soft-focus close-ups. Consequently lots of scenes are composed of location shots combined with studio based process shots of Hedron. This has the effect of emphasising the artificiality and deception of her (Melanie's) beauty as opposed to the 'naturalness' implied by Lydia's mother role.
The most memorable scene in the film is the attack on Melanie in the attic near the end of the film, where she is metaphorically 'destroyed' as a human being, reduced to a catatonic state and virtually infantilised by nature's squawking emissaries. It is perhaps one of the cruellest scenes in Hitchcock's oeuvre and was certainly hard on Hedron who suffered a breakdown as a result of having to fend off the angry gulls being thrown at her all week. Marion Crane's demise in "Psycho" was constructed in the cutting room and orchestrated with zinging curtain rail and stabbing strings, though no flesh is ever actually seen to be defiled by Norma Bate's blade. Melanie's ordeal is equally the result of skilful editing, but this time we see the painful results, as her outward veneer of emotional independence is slowly pecked away -- along with the artificial trappings of female beauty -- by a thousand sharpened beaks. This attack comes from inside rather than outside the house, and leaves the heroine helpless: one of the last images of the film is of a scared, childlike Melanie clutching at the arm of Lydia. On the face of things, a touching coming together of the two adversaries; while a more cynical (and Hitchcockian) interpretation is that Lydia has won their battle, and the price Melanie must pay to "find" the mother figure she has never known is to lose her playful confidence and independence while Mitch takes on the traditional role of male protector. Although the ambiguous ending suggests that many more similar battles will be fought in the future.
Universal's Region 1 DVD presentation of "The Birds" for once, lives up to the "Collectors Edition" title. We get an extremely thorough eighty-minute documentary "All about the Birds", which features interviews with Tippi Hedron, Rod Taylor and Veronica Cartwright, as well as many people involved in assisting on the technical side of the film. The documentary is very exhaustive and goes into great detail on every aspect of the production -- one of the best documentaries I've seen on any disc. Also included is a very extensive collection of production photographs; production notes and cast and filmmakers information -- as well as the original theatrical trailer.
As if that wasn't enough we have the script and some photographs for a deleted scene, as well as the storyboard for the original ending. Then there is some newsreel footage of Hitchcock and Hedron publicising the film; and the surviving scenes from Tippi Hedron's screen test. A bumper harvest indeed -- there's as much material here as you're likely to find on most double disc sets! A word of warning though for region 2 buyers: although it contains the same extras, the actual print of the movie used in the R2 version is 4:3 pan & scan, while the region 1 version preserves the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film. Another good reason to go multi-region!
"The Birds" remains one of my favourite Hitchcock films and this DVD is the best way to experience the film. There are a few rather grainy scenes but the colour and clarity of the image is as good as could be hoped for and the mono soundtrack crystal clear if a little thin at times. A classic!

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