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The Birds: Collector's Edition

Universal Home Video

Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy
Suzanne Pleshette, and Veronica Cartwright

Written by Evan Hunter
Based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    

Between Alfred Hitchcock's first days as a silent film director in 1925 and his landmark Psycho in 1960, the hard-working director released an average of one film per year — a breakneck pace by today's standards, helped in part because Hitch was a creature of habit who hated time-consuming location shoots (the soundstage or back-lot was always his favorite domain). However, after Psycho Hitchcock's output began to wind down, and The Birds, didn't arrive until 1963.

Conventional wisdom holds that the vast amount of special effects, and some necessary location shooting, was the cause for the delay of The Birds, but when viewed in the context of Hitchcock's entire career, the film represented a key turning point — perhaps the key turning point — since all of Hitchcock's post-Birds films were spaced apart by a few years, and few of them were very good. (Some Hitch aficionados argue that the 1964 Marnie, with Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, was his final masterpiece. I will respectfully disagree and say it's The Birds. Nobody I know of will suggest that such films as Torn Curtain, Topaz, or Family Plot represented anything more than a prolonged, disappointing denouement to a monumental career).

But such theories aside, The Birds was a substantial undertaking for a studio director like Hitchcock, as he had very little experience with such things as complex matte shots, synthesized sound effects, and (especially) bird wranglers. Even Hitchcock's greatest films, such as Notorious, Rear Window, North By Northwest, and Psycho, were conventional films, shot quickly with conventional methods (Rear Window, for one, was shot on the largest soundstage ever made at that time). But The Birds forced Hitch to deal with the sort of special-effects issues that are routine nowadays for such high-profile directors as Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, Burton, et. al. — and in some ways he broke new ground for his successors. The Birds was the first film to use an entirely synthesized score (which consists of nothing more than bird sounds, not music), and the famous final shot is a remarkable pastiche of 31 separate film elements — not so hard to do nowadays with software, but a real pain to do optically in the '60s. And even with such age-old processes as rear-projection (again, that dislike for location shooting), The Birds employed new processes that radically improved the matching of location and studio elements. Everything about the production was progressive — and that also includes the unconventional script.

Well-known homebodies who enjoyed nothing more than having close friends over for multi-course meals, adult libations, and shop-talk, Hitchcock and his wife (and frequent collaborator) Alma Reville nevertheless also enjoyed traveling, in the United States and abroad, and while the Hitchcocks never lived anywhere but Los Angeles after 1940, they were familiar with many parts of the world (both The Man Who Knew Too Much and To Catch a Thief came after an extended Mediterranean holiday). In the case of The Birds, Hitch found himself drawing from many sources, in particular San Francisco and its surroundings (the locale for 1958's Vertigo), the works of Daphne Du Maurier (who wrote the novel Rebecca, the source of Hitch's 1940 Oscar winner), and his appetite for newspapers. A brief news item about a freak bird attack on the California coast, along with his familiarity with California, led Hitchcock to adapt Du Maurier's short story The Birds as his next project. And "adapt" may be a misnomer, as Hitch noted in pre-production "We're only keeping the title and throwing everything else out."

The story centers on socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who has a chance encounter with defense attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco pet shop. Mitch pretends to be a customer, while Melanie humors him and pretends to be a salesperson. However, before long Mitch reproves her for a high-profile prank that got into the local papers. Confused but oddly smitten with the good-looking lawyer, Melanie decides to travel to Mitch's nearby hometown of Bodega Bay, and she buys two lovebirds for his young sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who has an upcoming birthday.

However, once Melanie arrives in Bodega Bay, strange things start to happen. Taking a small boat to the Brenner family home, she inexplicably is struck on the head by a seagull. Mitch's mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is strangely cold to the attractive, well-spoken Melanie, but she's just as concerned about the fact that her chickens have stopped eating. And when Melanie decides to stay in Bodega Bay overnight, she lodges with schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who is in love with Mitch and thus is unsure what to make of Melanie's ambiguous arrival. Meanwhile, birds constantly seem to be flying overhead.

If the exposition seems a bit on the long side, it rarely loses pace, and it makes the "payoff" of The Birds far more worthwhile — the audience is given ample time to get to know the characters, which only increases the tension and sense of helplessness as the violence gets underway in earnest. The fact is that The Birds isn't merely a spectacle of savage bird attacks, but instead it is a small story about a few people and how those people interact in the midst of an incomprehensible crisis. And while some viewers have complained about the lack of plotting in The Birds (and the odd, unresolved conclusion) it should be noted that The Birds does not function like a conventional movie. Reviled by many pundits when it was first released, most contemporary critics now see it as a triumph of experimental cinema (and this was, believe it or not, Fellini's favorite movie). The Birds doesn't have a conventional plot by design. It's more akin to a song or a poem, with various verses that build upon themselves and an oft-repeated chorus. The key to understanding — and appreciating — The Birds is to watch what happens during the quieter moments between the various characters, and how these scenes relate to the increasingly savage, eventually apocalyptic bird attacks.

Hitchcock's choice of Tippi Hedren for the central role of Melanie had little to do with her and everything to do with him. Hitch had a well-known infatuation with statuesque blondes, and while such actresses as Madeline Carroll and Eva Marie Saint played the icy bombshell in Hitch-flicks over the years, Grace Kelly was Hitch's platinum princess, appearing in three back-to-back films (Dial 'M' For Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief) before marrying Prince Ranier of Monaco and retiring from the film industry. Hitch reportedly was hoping to lure her back to Hollywood someday, but it was when he saw a television commercial with the unknown Hedren (in a non-speaking part) that he decided to find her and give her a screen test. If the rest isn't exactly history (Hedren only appeared in two Hitchcock films, and there reportedly was a falling out between them), it illustrated just how fascinated Hitch was with the Grace Kelly type, and what he was willing to do to get her — or a reasonable facsimile of her — back in front of the camera.

Hedren's performance in The Birds, while adequate, is unmistakably hampered by her first-timer status. While completely gorgeous, she delivers some lines with a flat, unemotional quality, which may be partly due to her talent at the time, and partly because Hitch was trying to get her to speak in a tone that was lower than her natural voice (which was much more nasal than Kelly's mellifluous, pouty inflections). However, Hedren's first screen tests with Hitchcock (thankfully included on this DVD) suggest that she was a much more vibrant, funny actress than either The Birds or equally subdued Marnie allowed her to be. Joined by Psycho-veteran Martin Balsam for the test, the duo improvise with each other, pretending to be illicit lovers or a fighting married couple, while Hedren models several outfits by the legendary Edith Head and Hitch offers direction from off-camera. Relaxed and flirtatious with each other, Hedren and Balsam actually generate chemistry in these short segments, and Hedren (thanks in part to Head's outfits) has a lot of that legendary Grace Kelly charm. Based on this footage, it's little wonder that Hitch chose her as Kelly's successor. (Hedren and Balsam also did screen tests of scenes from Rebecca, Notorious, and To Catch a Thief, although only a brief reel from the third one is included here, and without sound, which is now lost).

Universal's The Birds: Collector's Edition is sure to satisfy Hitchcock fans, and it's well worth the purchase price. The source print is of excellent quality (in anamorphic 1.85:1), with solid color and very little damage. Audio is in DD 2.0 (mono), and is very clear. Additional supplements include the 80-minute documentary All About The Birds, with numerous insights from Hedren, Taylor, Cartwright, Hitchcock's daughter Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, and members of Hitch's crew; Hedren's screen tests; two newsreels; a deleted scene and an alternate ending, both told with elements of the shooting script, storyboards, and some production stills; a still gallery of publicity shots, posters, and lobby cards; Hitch's original theatrical teaser trailer (wherein he is his usual dry, witty self, carving up a roast chicken and talking about man's relationship with birds); production notes; and cast-and-crew bios and filmographies.

— J. Jordan Burke

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