The recent release of The Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray prompted me to revisit some of the best films in the set. I have always liked The Birds because I saw it as a child and it has stuck with me over the years. It's interesting viewing such films again with a critical eye, rather than as a young boy who just needed to be entertained.
There are frequent spoilers ahead, so stop reading now if you haven't yet seen the film.
Like Psycho, The Birds starts off with a light tone, as Hitchcock leads us to believe that the film will develop into a romantic comedy. I admire this approach because it's realistic. People would be acting normally a few days before a disaster or a terrifying turn of events. So you can expect to see the main characters introduced at the start of the film, and you'll see them flirt and develop a mutual attraction. This paves the way for Melanie Daniels' (Tippi Hedren) subsequent actions as she drives to Bodega Bay to deliver a gift for Mitch Brenner's (Rod Taylor) daughter, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright).
If Hitchcock had decided to make the entire film a romantic comedy, I'm sure he would have done a good job. There's a depth present that doesn't exist in most examples from that genre. The dialogue gives us important insights into the characters, as well as supplying some of the exposition for the basic plot. We learn that Melanie is rich and works several jobs on different days of the week. She seems to have a wild, impulsive streak, and that fits her actions when she decides to visit Mitch. She also lies often, although never in a malicious way. Mitch is playful when he interacts with Melanie, but we soon learn that he is dependable in a crisis.
Melanie is also resourceful, and we see her charter a boat and use it to approach Mitch's house unobserved. The first indication that the world might not be idyllic comes when Melanie is attacked by a gull as she is returning the boat. The scene is so out of place because there hasn't been any suggestion that the film will be anything but fun up to that point, and it seems all the more shocking for it.
The events begin to turn darker in tone, and the pace increases from the moment of the initial attack. Other people begin to report attacks, and we witness several instances of unusual behavior by the birds. This is exactly the kind of novel that Stephen King might write; the world is apparently normal, but one thing is out of place. What would you do if you witnessed similar behavior from birds or small animals? It's so unexpected that it can be quite frightening in places. There's no campy humor to relieve the tension like that found in many modern horror movies. Hitchcock slowly increases tension throughout the film, without ever explaining why the birds are behaving in such an odd way.
I have always enjoyed seeing what happens when events cause society to begin to break down. What lengths would you go to to keep yourself or your family safe, or to provide food when it was scarce? The story takes place over a couple of days, so there's no serious breakdown of order in The Birds, but we do see how people start to band together and take care of each other.
The film was made in 1963, so you can't expect the special effects to be as convincing as modern techniques would allow. The bird effects are a combination of puppets, machines, and a few live birds, using a blue screen to insert them into the action. The special effects earned an Oscar nomination at the time, so try to forgive the somewhat dated feel.
As usual, Hitchcock assembled a strong cast. Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren are convincing as potential romantic partners, and both give good performances as their characters encounter stressful situations. Mrs. Brenner (Jessica Tandy) is an important character too. She's reluctant to embrace Melanie's arrival and fears that her son Mitch may abandon her at some point. There's one particularly good scene in which Melanie talks to Mrs. Brenner and tries to allay her fears about the birds. You can sense some level of acceptance from Mrs. Brenner, although she can't decide whether she actually likes Melanie.
One of the best scenes occurs outside the town's school, where Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) is teaching a class. She makes the children sing, while Melanie waits outside to collect Cathy. In typical Hitchcock fashion, we see one or two birds landing behind Melanie. She's unaware of their presence until she turns and sees hundreds of them. She comes to a decision and goes inside to warn Annie of the potential problem. This leads to one of the most dramatic sequences in the film as the children leave the school.
The Birds is elevated above the level of most horror films for several reasons: The characters are real people with genuine fears, the dialogue means something, the acting is strong, and the audience is given time to absorb the danger of a situation rather than being bombarded with gory or shocking scenes. The ending (intentionally) doesn't completely resolve the story, but it leaves us with a sense of optimism.
With the exception of the song sung by the children at the school, there is no score in the entire film. It reminds me of The Mist in that way, and I think the scenes contain more tension because we make up our own minds about how to feel, rather than having the music inform us that there is danger or a scary moment approaching.
Most of the whimsical scenes happen early in The Birds. Hitchcock's cameo is impossible to miss, and when somebody whistles at Melanie, it's a reference to a TV ad in which she first caught the attention of Hitchcock. By the end of the film, you'll feel as if you have been through a grueling emotional journey. It's a journey well-worth taking. It doesn't even matter why the birds were behaving so strangely, or whether their behavior was only present in Bodega Bay, or more widespread.
As for the Blu-ray, it's a mixed bag. The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track enhances the experience considerably. The sound of fluttering wings is particularly effective. However, the picture quality is disappointing. While some of the brighter scenes do show good detail, far too many of the shots appear soft. It appears that Tippi Hedren's close-ups were intentionally softened, in a way similar to the female characters on the original Star Trek show. As for the effects, the additional information offered by the Blu-ray transfer highlights some of the weaker shots. This is probably as good as it's going to get for a long time, and I do recommend that you upgrade, but I'm still a little disappointed.