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Review: “The Birds” (1963)

The idea that some large part of the natural world could turn on humankind is more frightening than the coup d’état itself. (M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” is a prime example.) When the man telling the tale, however, happens to be Alfred Hitchcock, this is not the case. Hitchcock intuits, in that masterful way he has, that the terror lives not in the takeover but in the moments of quiet before that shift of power happens. Fear thrives on the silence, feeds on it, and so does Hitchcock. He uses the calm to make us dread the storm.

To understand exactly how Hitchcock, the master of suspense, plays his audience like piano keys, look beyond the storyline — a half-hearted, ill-conceived romance played well by Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor — to the way the director uses the camera. Too often the camera is a silent observer, meant only to record this conversation and that embrace, this right hook or that teardrop. Hitchcock imagines other uses for the camera; he allows it to act as a soothsayer, something capable of foreshadowing gingerly but unmistakably the host of bad happenings down the road out of our sightline. Imagine a scene where a nervous woman walks into a house expecting to find an old friend. She needs to talk to him. How could that be suspenseful? Take that camera and zero sharply in on her face right before she steps into the long hallway (movie law: nothing good awaits at the end of a long hallway). That shot mimics a sharp, sudden intake a breath, the preparation for a terrible, inevitable shock. Thus, without so much as a peep, Hitchcock has wrested control of our deepest-buried fears, and even in the final moments of “The Birds” he does not give them back. Especially not then.

“The Birds” isn’t about the characters, really, so much as it is what happens to them when they are thrown together for the purposes of the plot. These people, possessed of mysterious pasts, give the story the human element necessary for Hitchcock to manipulate his audience. The film centers on Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a socialite with a scandalous past who meets a lawyer, Mitch (Rod Taylor), in a San Francisco pet shop. He’s looking for a pair of lovebirds for his sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), and Melanie pretends to be an employee. But he reveals that he knows her from an encounter years before. His smug grin intrigues her enough to prompt Melanie to buy the birds, track down Mitch’s address and drive out to Bodega Bay to surprise him. By way of schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Melanie discovers Mitch is a womanizer, yet she stays for dinner with him and his family. His mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), a widow, has met enough women not to trust this one will stay. A leery matriarch turns out to be the least of everyone’s problems when the birds — every kind — begin launching eerily calculated attacks on the townspeople. No one can explain this change in behavior, though an ornithologist (Ethel Griffies) offers some ominous thoughts: “I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance!”

Griffies puts to words the roundly unnerving  theme of the film, a work of suspense that flirts at times with the horror genre. Certainly the nature vs. man concept isn’t revolutionary, but Hitchcock brings such a level of sophistication in “The Birds” that the idea seems new. He shifts the focus from the attacks — which are frightening, particularly the one near the Bodega Bay diner that leads to massive explosions and chaos — to the people’s anticipation. The most famous shots, the ones of birds slowly and almost silently gathering on monkey bars while Melanie, oblivious, nervously smokes a cigarette, raise the tension to near unbearable levels. These are quick cuts, but they are lethally effective. Everything converges during Mitch, Lydia, Cathy and Melanie’s self-imposed quarantine in the house. Holed up in the board-covered house, they are powerless to stop what’s about to happen. All they can do is wait. The waiting is what kills you.

Grade: A-