The Birds

The Birds

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

On an impulse, a wealthy socialite drives to a remote lakeside village in pursuit of a man who has insulted her, taking with her a pair of lovebirds for his little sister's birthday. As she crosses the lake, she is inexplicably attacked by a seagull. It is the first of an escalating series of incidents, never fully explained, which place the inhabitants of the village in a state of siege. When the birds can force their way through almost any opening, how can they keep themselves safe? And with the phone lines down and no rescue on the way, how can they ever hope to escape?

All of this sounds like the premise of an excruciatingly twee horror movie, but in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock it's something else. He starts by providing us with real, complex characters. Watching Tippi Hedren play the heroine with such confidence and flair, it's hard to believe that this was her first starring role. Opposite her, Rod Taylor is suave and caddish and yet undeniably likeable. Jessica Tandy makes up the odd threesome as his possessive widowed mother, desperately dependent yet perhaps, all along, only really needing the reassurance of having somebody depend on her.

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The way The Birds is shot is the stuff of legend, and its stunning photography is essential viewing for anyone interested in directing a film themselves (or even taking a good snapshot). Throughout the easy going early scenes, the big sky looms over everything, bleak and empty, setting the stage for attacks that seem to come from everywhere. Later, in one classic scene, Hedren sits down to wait on a bench outside the schoolhouse. A single crow sits on the climbing frame behind her. When the camera turns that way again, there are four more. Then ten. Then Hedren turns round to see the whole structure covered in birds, all looking at her in that sidelong way, waiting for their moment. As she backs silently away, her terror is palpable.

Much of the trouble with latterday attempts to explore this kind of threat is that they tend to substitute gore and violence for this kind of tension. The horror in The Birds runs deeper than our reaction to the brutality of the attacks themselves. It's of an existential sort, related to their unexplained nature. If birds can suddenly turn on people like this, what else might happen? Can anything be trusted? With a fundamental rule broken, the whole world starts to seem alien.

In many ways The Birds might be seen as a precursor to a certain sort of zombie movie. All the important factors are here. There's a suggestion that their behaviour might have arrived with gulls and spread like a disease. Somebody suggests that it's the end of the world, a Biblical style Apocalypse. Or have they just gone mad? The only thing we know for certain is that they show no signs of stopping.

The Birds is a textbook exercise in taking a simple story and creating a devastating film. These days the special effects may look shoddy and some of the complexities of character and period may be lost on younger viewers, but it's still a powerful film.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2009
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The Birds packshot
Chaos comes to an isolated community when birds begin attacking people in this Hitchcock classic.
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Evan Hunter, based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier.

Starring: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright

Year: 1963

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Cannes 2013

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