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THE BIRDS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright            
Director:  Alfred Hitchcock             
Audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  March 28, 2000

Film ****

The Birds remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular films, and has become a quintessential horror picture.  With combinations of real and fake birds, elaborately planned trick shots and using the latest in matting technology (blue screen processing without the blue screen), it’s probably the most complicated movie Hitchcock ever made, yet he spared no effort in his quest to, as he put it, “drive the audience to the edge of their seat and keep them there.”  It also marks Hitchcock’s second foray into the works of Daphne Du Maurier, after having successfully bringing  Rebecca to the big screen over twenty years earlier as his first American picture.

So why birds?  It would have been a lot easier to create a horror movie using animals that are naturally more threatening and more terrifying, right?  Sharks, snakes, alligators, lions…why not use one of those familiar standbys? 

If that’s a question you have going in, you certainly won’t have it going out.  As one character in the film remarks, there are about 100 billion birds on the planet.  There are, what, 6 billion of us?  You do the math.  Plus, Hitchcock slowly shatters all illusions of safety in our world by massing our feathered friends against us.  Sharks, snakes, alligators or lions can be avoided fairly easily…just don’t go where they are.  How do you avoid birds?  Chances are, you go outside for even a moment, you’re bound to see, or at least hear one.  Birds exist among us, and we don’t think about it.  But they do grossly outnumber us, so Hitchcock dares to pose the ultimate “what if” scenario in his picture:  we’ve hunted and shot at them, eaten them for our Sunday meals, destroyed their natural habitations, worn their plumage, and caged them for our own pleasure.  What if they one day turned against us because of all that?

There is no explanation in the film as to why the birds are behaving the way they do…the closest it comes to it is a scene in a diner where some people gather and discuss the situation…and naturally, there’s the crazed loner in the corner quoting the Bible and declaring the end of the world is at hand.  An elderly ornithologist makes declarations about the natural behavior patterns of birds, which of course, is going against everything we’ve been witnessing.

I love the structure of the movie…in most man vs. nature films, the point of the story is the antagonist, be it the shark in Jaws or the snake in Anaconda.  There are human characters, of course, but their backgrounds are usually sketchy and underdeveloped.  Any story that belongs to them is merely token.  There is occasionally the obligatory love angle, but again, it’s usually no more than fodder to fill up the space between horror sequences.

The Birds begins like some pages were torn from a soap opera script.  A beautiful young socialite, Melanie Daniels (Hedren) keeps crossing paths with handsome attorney Mitch Brenner (Taylor).  It’s obvious they’re attracted to each other, but they prefer getting on each other’s nerves.  She even takes a small boat out to his house in Bodega Bay where he lives with his mother (Tandy) and little sister (Cartwright) just to play a practical joke.  But the first interruption to the story occurs on her way back, as a seagull literally swoops down from the sky for a sneak attack, leaving her wounded and bleeding.

The remaining picture plays out like it wants to continue with this cheesy love story melodrama, but the damn birds keep coming in to throw the tale out of whack, until finally, about halfway into the movie, it gives up and becomes a film about the birds.  It’s a frightening notion to consider how nature could unexpectedly rise up and throw a monkey wrench into our carefully structured lives and plans (see:  Magnolia), but sometimes, it does…and for my money, the way Hitchcock presents it here is scary, but also with a bit of his legendary wicked sense of humor.  The point is clear:  we take nature for granted all too often, and rarely consider that it could rise up against us at any moment.

The “master of suspense” builds upon his simple but unsettling premise, until the last half hour of the film, which is almost mad with tension.  It leads to the absolutely unforgettable finale, which is one of Hitchcock’s finest moments.

In the end, does the lack of explanation hurt the overall film?  For some, it does, but I don’t personally think so.  As screenwriter Evan Hunter pointed out on the included documentary, providing a reason for the birds attacking would turn the picture from horror to science fiction.  Plus, it leaves a lot open for discussion afterwards, with no right or wrong answers to be given, just thoughts and opinions.  My own take?  If you watch the included trailer (which is a hoot, and for once, I recommend playing it before watching the film), I believe you’ll understand Hitchcock’s own point of view.

Video ***1/2

This is an exceptional transfer from Universal…one that might have garnered a four star rating, if I hadn’t watched their DVD of Vertigo so many times.  The Birds pales slightly in comparison, but only in comparison.  If you haven’t watched Vertigo, I doubt you’ll find much to complain about here.  It’s only slightly less bright overall, and I emphasize slight.  Throughout the anamorphic transfer, colors are good and images are extraordinarily sharp and detailed well into the background.  The opening sequence in the bird store is a good example, as are some of the distant shots of the small town, where each structure and rooftop is singularly identifiable.  There are an instance or two of noticeable grain…again, very slight, and usually only against the blue sky background.  Nothing distracting at all…possibly not even that noticeable, unless you’re really looking for it.  A commendable job all around.

Audio ***

The soundtrack is a split channel mono, but it is without a doubt the liveliest and most dynamic mono track I’ve yet heard on disc.  The sound is so carefully structured and presented, so full of range and multi-dimensional, you might just find yourself fooled as to what direction the noises are coming from. 

Features ****

As per the norm with Universal’s Collector’s Edition discs, this DVD is loaded.  There is a lengthy and fascinating recent documentary “All About The Birds”, recreations of the famous deleted scene and alternative ending, using script, photos and storyboards, extensive storyboard drawings, Tippi Hedren’s original screen test for Hitchcock, two original Universal newsreels, production photos and notes, talent files, and of course, the immortal trailer, which I humbly beg you not to overlook.

Summary:

The Birds is an absolute horror classic made by the master of suspense, and presented on an outstanding quality disc loaded with terrific extras.  This is what DVD is all about!