They're attacking again...
To try and top his previous hit, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock undertook his most technically complex movie, with the most visual effects he'd used on a film and the presence of hundreds of live birds on some of the sets.
While his most influential horror film remains Psycho, I was (and still am) far more impressed by The Birds. It often used to play on TV in the early and mid-1970s, beating Psycho to the small screen in the UK. I think the BBC were worried about showing Psycho and daren't cut it, out of respect. This delay meant that I impatiently spoiled all the twists and shocks by looking at the Psycho fotonovel. But I'd only seen a few photos from The Birds and experienced it quite young. The shock moments are as raw as Psycho, but it also has an apocalyptic theme and was my early experience of an animal attack film, before I'd even seen Jaws.
As a young teenager, I felt like I'd experienced the story of The Birds rather than just watched it. The open-ending left me up in the air too (Mum, what happens next?). I didn't develop a fear of birds, the same way people avoided showers after Psycho, but the story certainly went in deep.
Last October, we took the opportunity to see The Birds at an AMPAS cinema in Los Angeles. The Samuel Goldwyn Theatre was hosting a season of Universal horror films running up to Halloween.
Only $5 a seat, and there was a lavish display of scripts, artwork, photos and posters from this and many other classic Universal Horrors, plus, there were two special guests in attendance to be interviewed before the screening. The auditorium was rather imposing, with two giant golden Oscar statues either side of the screen. But it was fantastic to hear from two stars of the film, Tippi Hedren herself, and Veronica Cartwright who played the little girl in the film, but went on to star in Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Witches of Eastwick...
Veronica told the story of how she was invited to be interviewed by the director for this role. She'd already appeared in two TV episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but thinks he cast her because he saw The Children's Hour. She went into his office and he talked to her about wines and steak! Because she was born in Bristol, where one of his favourite wines originated. The fact that she was still only 12 didn't seem to faze him. She recalled the most difficult day of the shoot being when she was trapped in a house with hundreds of small birds. Of course this had to happen on her birthday. She was asked if the theme of the film was at all unsuitably adult for her, but she replied it was far less adult than The Children's Hour.
This was Tippi Hedren's first movie. She'd been placed under contract with Universal after being spotted in a TV advert. There's an in-joke replay of that ad (for Sego) when she first appears in the film. To become an actress, she had to quit her job with the modelling agency where she worked steadily. She loved appearing in the bird shop scene the best, flirting with Rod Taylor while pretending to be a shop assistant. Naturally she hated the loft scene the most. She recalled the assistant director, Jim, coming in and saying that the mechanical birds weren't working and she'd have to shoot it all with live ones. As she walked on set, it had all been rigged for live birds, betraying that it couldn't have been a last minute decision.
(More photos of Tippi and Veronica taken at this event on the AMPAS website...)
|Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
This was also my first chance to see the film with an audience. I like to half-forget movies before rewatching them, and The Birds was ripe for a revisit.
During the opening titles, the AMPAS audience applauded some names and not others. They would also clap when a new actor appeared onscreen, a similar custom with audiences of stage plays. The volume of applause is a telling barometer of popularity, keenly related to which celebrities are present in the audience.
|Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
She speeds up Highway 1 in her sports car to Bodega Bay, using tricks and double talk to execute her plan, but ends up being bloodied by a seagull, without provocation. Over the next few days, this isolated incident is only the beginning of a pattern of attacks of increasing ferocity. This high society socialite has ended up in a small town that's almost defenceless...
|Hitch on set, directing 'The Gull'
Just as important to the script were two incidents that made local headlines in America (also mentioned in the film) of disorientated seagulls smashing into two coastal California towns.
The story was then developed in collaboration with scriptwriter Evan Hunter, organically grown around fictional characters in real locations. Once Bodega Bay had been suggested, Hitchcock and his production design team visited, took photographs, made sketches and imagined how the town could be used both for filming locations and settings for the story.
For instance, the bay itself, that stretches around from the town, immediately suggests the scene where Mitch drives around the bay while Melanie cuts across it by boat. The location preceded the script, suggesting this scene. Similarly the church and schoolhouse on the hill, and its distance from the town centre, suggests the schoolchildren hurrying down the hill. This process is described by the production designers themselves as they revisit the location in the recent documentary Something's Gonna Live (2010).
But watching it again, the meticulous plotting and setting the scene felt far too long. Now that this is an infamous 'animal attack' movie, we're not going to fall for the director's original ploy that this is going to be a screwball comedy. I felt uncomfortable that the real business was a long time coming, and only relaxed once the birds finally showed their nasty side.
Another sign of age, was the pointed staging of characters to demonstrate their relationships. Mitch's mother is very protective of him and positively distraught that he might be attracted to Melanie. In one scene his mother is framed moving inbetween them, visually symbolising her blockading their possible romance, but to a movie-literate audience this is no longer subtle, and was getting laughs.
This total control on framing the image for psychological reasons, and staging the story in his head beforehand, is beginning to look like overplanning. Maybe it's not subtle enough. Maybe film studies have clued us all in. Even his editing has been decided beforehand - Hitch started doing this, only filming what was needed, so that studios couldn't recut his films later. He didn't catch everything on a master shot, he only shot the part of the scene that he needed.
But this pre-planning isn't as organic as the preparation work for his story, and he's stuck with his original mind's eye in the edit suite. One scene I've never fallen for is the inter-cutting of the travelling flame and the reactions of the people in the diner. As he cuts back to them, their heads are static, like stop motion characters frozen for a frame. It's a wonderfully stylised moment that doesn't work. I love that he did it - it's mad. It just doesn't work. It might if they were a frozen still frame, but we can see that they're posed, moving slightly.
|Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
It was getting more laughs than I'd expect from movie-lovers. But I love it when an audience is deriding a film and then a moment comes that still totally works, takes them by surprise and shuts them up. That the film still has the power to unsettle and shock, despite its age.
The Birds is at its best when dishing out peril and suspense. While much has been made of Tippi's bird attacks, particularly recently in The Girl, Rod Taylor also seemed to be suffering in the scene where he defends the family home. I'm sure there are several live bird scenes that looked unfakeable.
Another great scene is in the town diner, where a cross-section of the public interpret what's happening to them by way of hysterical arguing. It's a concise, funny, doomladen scene that pre-empts the much longer situation in Frank Darabont's The Mist. I was surprised that he expanded that scenario to almost the whole length of the film!
The digital restoration troubled me. Despite being forewarned that this wasn't being shown on 35mm, I was certainly never under the impression that I was looking at film. The grain is no longer pin sharp, and now swims around a little. The image is beautifully colour saturated, but no longer pin sharp.
|Blu-ray screengrab from DVD Beaver
Thankfully the more distracting faults from the layers of optical compositing (re-photographing elements into one image) have cleverly been disguised in this restoration, the matte lines aren't nearly as noticeable. Grain and lighting differences are now more likely to give them away, rather then the 'join' between elements. The action is often so frantic that there's no way you can figure out the complexity of each shot as it flashes by.
The back projection used during quieter scenes was very noticeable, and also weakens the effectiveness of the hill road attack. It's only powerful because of our empathy for the children. Hitchcock here rejecting the rule he made after Sabotage (1936), when he 'lost' the audience by portraying a child character getting harmed.
The blu-ray exposes Hitchcock's filming methods more than ever. Making it hard to relax into, but fascinating to study. As classic horror, an end of the world story or an influential animal attack movie, The Birds demands your attention...
The three screengrabs are from DVD Beaver's review and comparison of the US and UK blu-ray boxset releases - full article and many more examples, click here.
Half of this issue of Cinefantastique (from Fall, 1980) is dedicated to the making of the The Birds, with rare behind-the-scenes photos, storyboards, matte paintings, and colour make-up tests.
Incidentally, the actress under attack in this poster is Jessica Tandy and not Tippi Hedren. One of many things I learnt from Camille Paglia's account of the making of the film, together with her scrutiny of the women's roles and treatment of the actresses. Apart from Rod Taylor's character, the story is all about the women. Mitch's mother, sister, ex-girlfriend... (a lovely and accomplished character played by Suzanne Pleshette).
And here's a new book being published in March, The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds.
We don't collect Barbie dolls. We don't, honestly we don't. But this is a perfect, slightly warped collectable to commemorate the film.
That should all tide us over nicely until Birdemic 2: The Resurrection is among us...