Birds, The (1963)
Cast: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Nutshell: Classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller
Reviewed by: Shaharyar M. Khan
Some serious cinema critics consider Hitchcock’s The Birds a classic for two reasons. First, because of Hitch’s technical achievement of training swarms of birds – crows, seagulls, ducks, sparrows – to become nature’s avengers against man and for these seemingly innocuous creatures to assume a murderous, threatening role towards human beings. Secondly, by projecting almost 40 years ago, the dangers of ecological imbalance in the world, Hitchcock depicted a world that man was exploiting without paying due regard to the subsequent imbalance with nature.
I enjoyed The Birds but it is not one of my favourite Hitchcock films partly because I had so closely followed Hitchcock’s preparations for the film, (for instance, the extraordinary lengths to which Hitch went to train real birds. In one scene, which was later edited out because it was too gruesome, Hitchcock trained birds for months to peck at hamburgers. He then placed the hamburgers over the eyes of the actor who plays the farmer and let the birds attack the hamburgers, showing a dead farmer with his eyes gouged out). The tenor that the birds actually strike in the film did not, therefore) come as a surprise to me.
Secondly, the main actors in the film Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren were wooden and unsympathetic. There are, however, three aspects in The Birds that, for me, we utterly memorable. First, the scene when Tippi Hedren waits outside the children’s school and lights a cigarette. Gradually, behind her, first one crow, then 10, then 50, then 500 gather menacingly to attack the children. It is one of the greatest scenes of suspense in cinema rivaling the famous shower scene in Psycho for sheer dramatic effect. It was achieved through the brilliant use of the camera.
The second is the superb acting of the support players – Suzanne Pleshette the school teacher and Jessica Tandy as the mother of the hero – I wonder if an actress has, without uttering a word, ever conveyed though her face language as does Suzanne Pleshette that she was once the hero’s girl friend, that he has ditched her and that she still loves him. Similarly, Jessica Tandy conveys an entire kaleidoscope of emotions towards her son’s new paramour only through voice-tone and body language. The third interesting factor of The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s specialties – the use of off screen, natural sounds like the cawing of crows to achieve effect.
The Birds is a thought- provoking film which French critics like Truffaut and Chabrol consider to be one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Even if you do not agree, it is a rollicking thriller based on a Daphne du Maurier’s short story.