Sunday, 14 February 2016

Cutting Edge- Film Review: The Birds

Fig 1: The Birds Poster
Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film, The Birds starts as a love story between a young socialite, Melanie Daniels and lawyer, Mitch Brenner, who meet in a bird shop in San Francisco, as Mitch looks for a pair of love birds for his little sister's birthday. He also seems to know of Melanie, leading to her driving all the way to his home town in Bodega Bay to deliver the love birds and to find out more about him. However things don't go as planned when the birds in the area start to attack the bay, changing the lovey dovey romance into a survival horror.

Fig 2: The Meeting in the Bird Shop between Melanie and Mitch
Hitchcock is able to pull off another spectacular film with The Birds, the switching of genre that was also common in "Psycho" is also well executed here. The titular birds are a prominent feature throughout the film, not just the killer flocks of crows, sparrows and seagulls in the later half, but also the first shot of the film is just of birds and the audio of the first scene in the bird shop is drowned out by numerous bird calls. The use of the birds is interesting too, as it seems as though only the wild birds were aggressive and carried out the attacks on Bodega Bay, as the caged up birds don't have that freedom they can only chatter and tweet and watch the outbreak occur. It can also be assumed that the film is a message about Mother Nature, a female figure in symbolism, taking down Man-Made structure, which are usual symbolised as masculine, which is why the film features so many prominent female characters and a strong matriarchal figure in the mother Lydia.

Fig 3: The Deceased corpse of the Farmer, peaked apart by birds
However, at the films heart, it's about women, the relationship between the three main female characters in the film drives the notions of romance and family into the later half of the film. The Telegraph reviewer, Alastair Sooke, stated that "the way Hitchcock makes the malevolent birds seem like manifestations of his characters' mental unease" (9th June 2015, Telegraph)His statement can be seen with the way that the female characters in the film all have flaws regarding love and acceptance and the introduction of the birds doesn't help, with school teacher Annie dying while protecting Mitch's, her former love's, little sister and Melanie ends up a shell of her former self, grasping onto Lydia like a child holding onto her mothers hand.

Fig 4: Flock of birds gather on the climbing frame in the school yard

Melanie, as a character is uncommon as her rash behaviour and need to hide her true motives under a web of practical jokes is very unusual for a female character. Her interest peaks at the handsome Mitch Brenner, bachelor who reins from Bodega Bay, who comes into a bird shop, shopping for lovebirds for his sister's birthday. Melanie recognises his face and proceeds to pretend to be an employee of the shop only to fall for this mysterious man who knows of her embarrassing act featuring a fountain in Rome. This curiosity lands her into Brenner's home town where he spends the weekends, and this is where she meets his ex, school teacher Annie, and his mother, Lydia. Being the naive newcomer that she is, she doesn't understand what she has let herself in for,  leading to Annie spilling her heart out to her in the living room while all Melanie can do is listen, cigarette in one hand, telephone in the other to the school teachers woes. "there is discomfort in the way Melanie interacts with Annie and Lydia and yet no direct confrontation of it, because it is within piercing gazes and subtle euphemisms that true feelings are made known," (David M Keyes, March 2015, The Cinemaphile Blog)
Maybe the similarities of the two women, who leave the city to follow Mitch to Bodega Bay, only to be struck by the land mine that is Lydia Brenner the only woman that Mitch will listen too and follow willingly. However Lydia's behaviour changes after seeing the dead body in the farm house, reminding herself of her own husband, she becomes crippled with grieving and looks defeated. Melanie uses this as her chance to rekindle their connection after the bomb of their first meeting and the dinner they had together with Lydia's children. Melanie has to prove herself to Lydia like a a lower member of the hierarchy of animals proving itself to the dominate female. In the end it seems to succeed as Melanie is able to prove herself by facing the onslaught of birds in the upstair room of the Brenner household. Resulting in a gentle grasping of the hands between the two women as the car they are in drives off into the hillside, leaving behind the killer flock of birds. 

Fig 5: Melanie and the Brenner family drive off away from the bird covered house at the finale of the film
Overall Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" is another masterclass in how to make films brim full of tension and of brilliant cinematography. The music for The Birds was composed by Bernard Herrmann who also did the music in Hitchcock's "Psycho", was not a soundtrack but a build up of sound effects to emphasise the birds onscreen actions using a synthesizer. The effect of the synthesizer added to the eeriness of the birds and their unnatural actions throughout the later half of the film.
It is understandable that the film is once of Hitchcock's best as it is such a unique film with its premise of a romantic comedy turning into a horror movie about killer birds attack a town that resides in a bay. The way the suspense builds throughout, for the first time viewer who doesn't know where the drama will come from and how, will it be the lovebirds? A Mcguffin to draw Melanie to Bodega Bay to see Mitch, but are they the instigator in the bird's attack? Is this why Melanie is blamed for the attack in the cafe, not because of her presence but by bringing the two birds? Will there be drama between school teacher Annie, the former lover or domineering Mother Lydia against the new girl on Mitch's block? Moira Walsh wrote concludes to these questioning in that, "The picture pursues these false clues with excessive long-windedness and occasional fatuity. It is a tribute to Hitchcock's mastery of his craft that, even so, he makes overpoweringly real the menace of the birds" (April 20th 1963, American Magazine)
That through the film and the interactions and plot points between the characters that are well paced out to the point that their motives are clear and decisive, Hitchcock makes it so that those's aspects take a sort of back seat as so that the titular bird can wreck their havoc, from the port, to the school yard, to the cafe and phone booth, to the Brenner Household. Their destruction on mind and matter do not go unnoticed.

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The Telegraph:
American Magazine:
The Cinemaphile Blog:

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