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October Spooktacular closes: “The Birds”

October 31, 2012

To wrap up this year’s October Spooktacular, I decided to go with a sure thing: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, The Birds. It’s one of those films that’s so tightly ingrained in our culture that you feel like you’ve seen it, even if you never have. The big, showstopping scenes—Tippi Hedren being attacked by a flock of seagulls (not the band), the eerie final scene—are as well-known as anything in cinema. But the rest? Well, that’s a bit of a surprise, actually.

So, do I need to recap the plot? Probably not. Tippi goes to a small Northern California town, and is promptly attacked by flocks of seriously pissed-off raptors. Wackiness ensues. At the end, the birds graciously allow Tippi and the main characters to leave town amid their disdainful gaze. Simple, right?

What’s surprising about The Birds is how much psycho-sexual baggage Hitchcock unpacks throughout the film. This is a slow-moving film—even after it becomes clear that birds are ticked-off about something. It runs a weighty 119 minutes, which seems like about 30 minutes too long for an animal-attack movie. That’s because Hitchcock plays his characters’ troubles inner-lives so close to surface, making the bird attacks seem like manifestations of their tumultuous inner-lives.

To start with, you have the passive-aggressive attraction shared between Tippi’s Melanie Daniels and Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner. He gets under her skin at their initial meeting in a San Francisco pet store. She, a wealthy socialite with a wild past, rankles at his arrogance in treating her like a mere shopgirl. But she’s also hot for him, so she decides to chase him down to his weekend place in the town of Bodega Bay with a pair of love birds he ordered.

Initially, this has the makings of a typical battle-of-the-sexes comedy that was so big in the ‘60s—you know, the ones where the leads find themselves attracted to one another in spite of the fact that the other seems to stand for everything they despise. Down With Love did a good job of lampooning these movies.

Except, as we learn, Rod pretty much is a cad. Not so much with a heart of gold, but just a confused, vaguely-ambivalent guy who (most likely) had more than his fair share of hotties track him down. Suzanne Pleshette (yay! Suzanne Pleshette! She’s awesome!) plays one of his former conquests who now teaches school in Bodega Bay and has reconciled herself to the fact that she—nor, probably any woman—will ever manage to land Mitch in the boat.

As she explains to Melanie—and as Melanie will later learn for herself—Mitch’s possessive mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is so terrified of being left alone, she instinctively takes a dislike to any woman Mitch becomes close to.

And, for her part, Melanie has some knots in her own rope. Her own mother left when she was a girl, and hasn’t been in contact since. She carries a load of bitterness over this, and in one fraught exchange with Mitch, compares her own maternal abandonment to his situation of being stuck with a mother who has let her love for her children be subsumed by her terror of being alone.

There’s even a scene in which Lydia confides to Melanie that she is not brave or strong—she got that from her husband, and now he is gone. Over and over, she plaintively says she wishes she could be strong.

Yeah, so note how I haven’t mentioned any birds? Now, it would be absolutely bugnuts- crazy to say that the birds are a subplot, but they do seem to be more effect than cause. Hitchcock never literalizes this correlation (spare one scene wherein Lydia freaks out and blames everything on Melanie, pointing out—correctly–that this all started when she came to town), but instead weaves their assaults upon the townsfolk into the human drama rippling beneath the surface. Think of the The Tempest.

So what about the ending? Are the birds satisfied that they’ve punished this group enough? Is Lydia’s joining with Mitch to get Melanie to the hospital evidence of her letting go, thus quieting the emotional turmoil represented by the birds? I dunno.

And the bird attacks? Well, they still retain a shocking brutality—appropriate, I suppose, since Hitchcock was basically torturing his leading lady (see The Girl). But the attacks are also generously spaced out, as the film refuses to explode into action, before we’ve had plenty of time to puzzle through the insanity of the situation with the characters. The film, then, works on our nerves as it refuses to give us even a clue of what’s happening. Even to very last frame.

Okay, so that’s this year’s October Spooktacular!  I hope you enjoyed these reviews as much as these movies tortured me.

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