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Alfred Hitchcock: Masterpiece Edition Vol. 10: Tippi Hedren goes to Bodega Bay and meets some fine, feathered friends....
Universal / 119 Minutes / 1963 / Unrated / Street Date: October 30, 2012
[As preparation for our comprehensive review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, we're investing each of that massive Blu-ray sets films one by one chronologically. If you missed them, check out our reviews of Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho.]
"It's the end of the world!"
The Birds is probably Hitchcock's most dense and enigmatic work. Or so it would seem. I remember reading a while back that Hitchcock approached this project by saying something like, "I want to make a film about bird attacks," so whether or not he meant anything by the film is debatable. But intentional or not, The Birds turned into one of his most unsettling films. If Vertigo was a man's decent into obsession/madness, and Psycho was a man in the midst of madness, then The Birds is the whole world gone mad: or at least, nature gone mad. And again Hitchcock was treading into groundbreaking territory. In Vertigo, the events were explained away as the plot of a husband to rid himself of his wife; and while Psycho had thrown audiences into turmoil destroying the very rules of storytelling, Norman Bates' actions are fully explained at the end of the film, almost as if once having thoroughly disturbed the audience, Hitchcock felt the need to assure them that there was, at least, some explanation for the events.
But in The Birds, Hitchcock further unsettles us by offering no explanation at all: by showing us that horror can start without warning, and end the same way. And as if to drive home this fact, the repeated question, "Why are they (the birds) doing this?" is always met with the same answer: "I don't know." While television in the sixties was telling us over and over again that any problem could be solved within a 30 minute time frame, Hitchcock flew in the face of convention, boldly demonstrating that some mysteries could never be solved. The Birds is about Melanie Daniels, a lost, morally ambiguous jet-setter who has a chance encounter with Mitch Brenner in a pet store, where she's attempting to buy a bird for an aunt as part of a practical joke.
Intrigued by Brenner, she follows him to Bodega Bay, the small coastal town where he spends his weekends, ostensibly to bring a pair of love birds to his sister (who she's never met) as a birthday present. When she arrives in the town, the bird attacks begin, starting with one vicious gull and escalating into mass attacks by all species together. Although Daniels seems to have been the catalyst for the attacks (and the story follows her), the attacks are actually random: some happen when she's not there, and we hear of attacks taking place in other locations.
The question will always remain: what does this all mean? Maybe nothing, and maybe everything. One thing that can't be dismissed is that it's a stark cautionary tale. The hapless ornithologist that Daniels runs into in the diner just after the legendary attack on the schoolhouse says, "I've never known of birds of different species to flock together. Why, if that were to happen, we wouldn't stand a chance!" And it's clear from the end of this film that we wouldn't!