We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
7. The Birds, 1963
It is a shame, but the behind-the scenes drama of the making of The Birds, specifically Hitchcock’s unforgivable abuse of Tippi Hedrin, has, in some circles, become the dominant narrative of this spellbinding, if often mysterious movie.
From the earliest Hitchcock movies, birds are a notable visual motif in his narratives. In Blackmail (1929), Hitch’s first talkie, chirping birds above the heroine’s bed become more shrill as her sense of isolation and danger increases. In Sabotage (1936) a bird shop serves as a cover for a nest of spies. In The Lady Vanishes (1938) birds escape their cages into a railroad boxcar. To Catch a Thief (1955) gives us the unforgettable image of Cary Grant sitting between Hitchcock, in one of his famous cameos, and a lady with two green birds fighting in a cage. In Vertigo (1958), Kim Novak as Madeleine, wears a gold bird pin on her suit. And Psycho famously features stuffed birds as a dark and looming presence. The Janel Leigh character is named Crane. Norman Bates tells her she eats like a bird.
Crime novelist Evan Hunter (author of The Blackboard Jungle) adapted Daphne du Maurier short story The Birds, which Hitchcock had under option. The story is a meditation of man against the implacable forces of nature. The Tippi Hedren character does not exist in Du Maurier’s story. And the Mitch Daniel’s character, played by Rod Taylor, bears little resemblance to du Maurier’s hero, a British veteran on a pension struggling to support his family with farm work. In fact, du Maurier’s story feels like a Victorian Gothic. Evans, with Hitch’s constant input, turns the dark, noirish tale into a widescreen technicolor nightmare about a cool, beautiful woman who seems to unleash the forces of nature as an ornithological apocalypse.
The Birds takes place in Bodega Bay, a charming village on Northern California’s coast. There, playgirl Melanie Daniels (Hedren in her screen debut) pursues Mitch Daniels in order to play a prank on him, a gift of two love birds for his little sister. But Melanie’s true mission is to seduce Mitch, to punish his superior male nature with her sexuality. Melanie arrives in Bodega Bay, and with her comes a vast army of sharp-nosed birds, dive bombers who attack singly, and then in uncountable swarms.
Watching the narrative unfold, the viewer waits for an explanation. Why are the birds attacking? Are they being directed by some outside malevolent force? Is this science fiction or horror? But Hitchcock refuses to give us neat explanations, or to provide the framework for a genre in which the audience can comfortably settle. Today, Hollywood would use so-called global warming as the reason. But Hitch was far too sophisticated for such facile story-telling. His birds are unleashed by nature. They represent the eternal tension that exists between man and woman, between the domesticated female, and the female who defies the architecture of home and hearth.
These two poles are represented by Melanie Daniels, the notorious, shallow heiress, and Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) an overbearing, jealous mother, who protects her only son like, well, like a ferocious mother bird. Even her hair, like Melanie’s, is styled like an elegant a bird’s nest.
The suspense builds through a series of bird attacks that for Hitch, recalled the German bombings of London during WWII. The attacks grow more ferocious, more impersonal, as the birds gather for what seems to be the final destruction of Bodega Bay, and by implication, the entire world. Running parallel with the combat scenes, as in any good war movie, is the love story between Mitch and Melanie, complicated by Mitch’s grasping mother, and school teacher Annie Hathaway (Suzanne Pleshette), who fell in love with Mitch, followed him to Bodega Bay, and just stayed, defeated by Mitch’s domineering mother. Annie is now a village schoolmarm, living a life of diminished expectations.
It is astonishing to go back and read the original reviews of The Birds to discover that Tippi Hedren’s performance was treated unkindly, as was the film, which was, much to Hitch’s chagrin, a box office dud. In fact, Hedren’s performance is nothing less than astonishing. And it is in a long, dialogue-heavy scene with Pleshette, beautifully written, where Hedren’s performance, subtle and underplayed, truly shines. In Pleshette’s plain cottage, the two woman, in love with the same man, probe one another with delicate questions and declarations that, ultimately, bring them to a touching if tentative friendship. Both actresses are highly attuned to the nuances of this scene. That Hedren, a newcomer to films from a modeling career, has never been recognized for the perfection of her performance in this one scene is something of a critical crime.
Movie endings traditionally give us closure. The story ends and hopefully resolves itself. This can be tricky. The Birds ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. And resolution can be found in its very non-resolution. Evan Hunter wrote a rip-roaring ending, much like a final combat scene. But Hitch resisted. He understood that a traditional ending would be false. The very premise of The Birds is a mysterious, unnamed force. Though Mitch’s mother blames Melanie, “Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil — evil!”
Hitch understood that a true apocalypse resists all natural and supernatural explanations. Thus, the stunning ending, as the wounded members of the family squeeze into Mitch’s tiny car, and cruise down the road, surrounded by millions of cruelly indifferent birds. The image lingers in our memory, open-ended and wonderfully mysterious. Hitchcock even wanted to drop the traditional THE END on the screen. At the time Universal deemed this too radical. But now the current MCA Universal release has honored Hitch’s wish and THE END is not there.
A fitting end for a great movie.