I don’t really like to complain about multiplexes showing classic movies on the big screen. It’s rare enough that we movie lovers have the opportunity to watch great classics in a theater environment. However, and isn’t there always a however, after the last experience recently at a local Regal Cinema (Citrus Park Mall in Tampa), the real life horror was the theater experience itself, more so than Hitchcock’s excellent film.
I arrived at the theater about twenty minutes before show time. As I headed to theater five as it stated on the ticket, other patrons are all filing out mumbling about a change in the theater. “The Birds” they were told will now be showing in theater nine. So like a wandering herd of sheep we all went strolling over to theater nine only to discover “Finding Nemo 2″ was already in progress. The manager, now on the scene, was as perplexed as the rest of us. He gets on his handy dandy intercom and promises to straighten this out. A few minutes go by and we are told to head over to yet another theater on the opposite side of the lobby. The sign reads 2016 (shorten for the documentary “2016 Obama’s America”). For many of us it felt like it may be 2016 before we find the correct screening room. Happily, this was the right theater, as the pre-show entertainment i.e. advertisements on the screen were TCM related.
To the theaters credit, the show began on time. I mention this because another theater chain has serious issues with starting films on schedule. The friendly face of Robert Osborne finally appears on screen providing the three quartered filled theater with an introduction as well as some interviews from the past with the film’s stars, Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette. Unfortunately, about halfway through the interviews we lost the picture! A young member of the audience, probably in his early 20’s, ran out and notified management. It took about five minutes and the picture came back on. Oh yes, throughout the introduction and interviews, the theaters lights were never lowered.
As the introduction/interviews end, Hitchcock’s film begins. The audience, a surprising diverse age group, settled in for what was going to be a treat. But the horror to follow was still not going to be confined to the screen. Twenty minutes into the film, just as Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is attacked for the first time while in a small motorboat after coyly dropping off two lovebirds at Mitch Brenner’s (Rod Taylor) home in Bodega Bay, the picture was lost once again! The groans from the audience grew loud, the same young man in his twenties jumped out of his seat once again to find management. A few others followed. Five minutes passed, ten minutes, some people was getting antsy, others just left. By now we not only lost the picture but the sound was gone too. Finally, after fifteen, if not more, minutes the film was back on and reset to start where we first lost the picture.
Fortunately, the remainder of the film played without any further incidents though when the film ended, the lights, which were not lowered when the film first began (they eventually did lower), now did not come on after the film finished, so the audience had to stumble out of the theater in the dark! To his minor credit, the theater manager was out there listening to complaints, apologizing and giving everyone a free movie pass. Small consolation to a long anticipated event.
The shoddy experience just gives me more fodder for the multiplex mentality we are forced to live with these days. Yes, years ago, film did break in the projector causing an interruption but this particular incident was mostly just a shoddy, poor performance by the theater management and staff. Shifting the audience from one theater to another, lights that did not go out when the film began and did not come up after the film was over, and most irritating two complete interruptions with the screen going blank. No regard for their customers or for the product they are selling and while we as an audience may see film as art or at least as entertainment, for the theaters, it’s a product to sell and their performance was poor, embarrassing and pathetic.
Okay, so what about the movie? Well, whenever I think of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films I come up with a list that looks something like this, “Psycho,” “Rear Window,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Notorious,” “Suspicion,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Vertigo,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” The point being, “The Birds” has never made my best of Hitchcock list. Admittedly, after this most recent viewing my list needs to be revised.
The film starts off like it’s going to be a lightweight piece of fluff with its ‘meet cute’ setup between Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, a segment that really goes on for quite a while, something like twenty minutes into the film before Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels, suddenly gets pecked on the head by a sea gull and we start to realize something more horrific is about to happen. With this opening, Hitchcock, ever the sly jokester, has lulled us into a false sense of security. Of course, other Hitchcock films have begun with meet cute openings, “The 39 Steps,” for example. The major difference is “The Birds” get darker and darker as the movie goes along whereas say, “The 39 Steps,” though it deal with spies and misidentification, never really gets too dark or bleak.
In “The Birds” it all turns rather nasty and vicious. Why are these creatures attacking? Is it some sort of revenge on mankind by Mother Nature or a cosmic black joke by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter? The filmmakers never say for sure why. Ever one for leaving his audience unsure why things happen, the film remains ambiguous about the cause of the birds attacks and as the dark ending reflects, though our characters escape from the trapped house and the village of Bodega Bay, we and them are left unsure whether this is the end or will the attacks spread and how far. Its unresolved ending is one of fear and uncertainty.
“The Birds” was Hitchcock’s follow-up to “Psycho,” financially his most successful film. The audience had great expectations. It took Hitchcock three years, his longest period between films up to that point in time, to decide. Originally, a script called “Mary Rose” was considered as was a novel by Winston Graham called “Marnie.” “Mary Rose” was never made while “Marnie” would have to wait a few years before turning out to be his follow-up to “The Birds.”
“The Birds” is arguably Hitchcock’s last great film, though some may make an argument for “Frenzy” which is very good and contains some nice Hitchcockian touches. In truth, most of his films from the 60’s and 70’s were uneven. “Torn Curtain” just didn’t work, for many reasons. The less said about “Topaz,” the better and “Family Plot” was uneven. While Hitchcock is considered the father of the modern day horror film, in actuality, Hitch only made two films that can be considered true horror films, “Psycho” and “The Birds.” If “Psycho” is the father to the many slasher films of the 1970’s then “The Birds” is the natural link to nature gone wild films like “Jaws,” “Willard” and “Jurassic Park.”
Hitch longed for Grace Kelly and Cary Grant for the leads but Kelly was already the Queen of Monaco and was not about to appear in a film where she would be viciously attacked by birds. Grant was busy with “That Touch of Mink” plus the long shooting schedule, due to the many special effects, would have made Grant’s salary too expensive. Hitchcock found Tippi Hedren, a model at the time, doing a TV commercial in which a wolf whistle’s at her as she walks down a street. He was entranced by her cool blonde beauty and after many meetings and deliberations signed her to a contract and the lead in the film. The wolf whistle scene from the commercial was recreated in the movie as we first meet Hedren’s character just before she enters a pet shop as Hitch himself walks out of the shop with two dogs.
Even though limited as an actress, Tippi Hedren possessed the icy cool look that turned Hitchcock on and works so well in the film. Her character, Melanie Daniels, is a typical Hitchcock spoiled rich girl, her father owns a newspaper in San Francisco, a celluloid sister to Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont in “Rear Window.” Throughout half the film Melanie wears a fur coat, a visual symbol that separates her social standing from everyone else in the Bodega Bay community.
Rod Taylor has always been a lackluster actor, a second tier Cary Grant. His Mitch Brenner is another in the Hitchcock line of mama’s boys; Norman Bates in “Psycho” and Alexander Sebastian in “Notorious” being examples. The difference being here is Mitch, a San Francisco lawyer, though still somewhat under the influence of his mother, played by Jessica Tandy, when he comes home on weekends is a good guy as oppose to wacky Norman and the Nazi Sebastian.
Beside the two mama’s boys, other similarities to “Psycho” abound in “The Birds” most obviously, the references to birds in “Psycho.” Norman Bates stuffs birds as a hobby and there are examples of his work hanging on the walls. At one point, Norman tells Marion (Janet Leigh) she eats “like a bird” and Marion’s last name is “Crane.”
One other scene reminiscent of “Psycho” is when Melanie ventures up into the attic of the Brenner home and is brutally attacked by seagulls. The sequence is cut in a similar frantic style to the shower sequence in the earlier film. Originally, mechanical birds were supposed to be used but they were unconvincing so Hitch went with live seagulls that had to be basically tossed into Hedren’s face and body. Once she falls to the floor, according to Hitchcock biographer John Russell Taylor, “frantic birds were tied with elastic bands and nylon strings to her arms and legs.” It took an entire week to film this sequence which Hedren endured only panicking when one gull almost clawed at her eyes.
This was the first collaboration between Hitchcock and Evan Hunter, author of “The Blackboard Jungle” and “Last Summer.” Hunter also wrote under the Ed McBain name for which he wrote the long running series of 87th Precinct crime novels. The movie is based loosely on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, an author whose works (Rebecca and Jamaica Inn) Hitchcock previously filmed before.
What makes “The Birds” so brutally terrifying is how Hitchcock has taken one of nature’s more gentle and melodic creatures and turned them into vicious brutally terrifying monsters. As Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist, played by English actress Ethel Griffes says, “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! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”
“The Birds” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art on March 28th 1963 which was hosting a retrospective of Hitchcock’s films, the first by a museum. Peter Bogdanovich, then a film critic would put together a monograph in conjunction with the retrospective. The day after the MOMA premiere “The Birds” opened to the general public playing to long lines at the RKO Palace on Broadway and the Sutton Theater on the East Side. Critically, “The Birds” was received with mixed reactions but the public, still savoring the love affair with Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” made the film a financial success. Surprisingly, New York Times honcho critic, Bosley Crowthers whom generally misses the boat on so many great films gave “The Birds” a favorable review though like most other critics of the day found Tippi Hedren pretty but ‘bland.’
A remake of “The Birds” was announced a few years back. Names like George Clooney and Naomi Watts were tossed around for the leads. Fortunately, the project was put into turnaround and has seemed to have ‘spun’ itself into oblivion. Recently premiering on HBO, a made for TV movie, “The Girl” which takes a look at the off-screen relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren. Of course, Hitchcock is not around to defend himself but he was known for being tough on actresses, and actors, using them as pawns in his game. Whatever his means he got a decent performance out of Hedren just as he got from Doris Day who gave one of her best performances in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” despite her feelings that Hitch gave her no direction. As for “The Girl,” well there is nothing wrong with it though some facts are left on the cutting room floor, the acting is rather bland as is the entire film, something one can never accuse a Hitchcock film of ever being.