Friday, December 27, 2013

Fridays With Hitchcock:
The Birds (1963)

I first saw THE BIRDS on TV (probably NBC Monday Night At The Movies with Victor Bozeman) when I was a kid and it scared the crap out of me. It really messed me up. The thing about this film is that it doesn’t just give you nightmares - when you are wide awake and walking home from school - there are birds on the telephone lines on your street - waiting to attack you! Birds are everywhere! What made it even more frightening for me is that the movie takes place in Bodega Bay... and my family went camping at least once a month a few miles north of Bodega Bay - so we always drove through town, and often stopped to fill up the old Ford Econoline at the gas station and have a bowl of clam chowder at The Tides Restaurant (they make it Manhattan style and with big pieces of bacon and fried onions) - I knew all of the locations the movie took place in, so it was like the birds were attacking in my backyard! Attacking me!

I can tell you the exact part of the movie that did it to me - when they show the farmer with his eyes pecked out. Up until that point, I’d never thought about how vulnerable my eyes were... how soft they were... how easy to poke out they were... do they just pop and dribble eye-juice? Is that what those birds on the telephone wires on my street wanted? My eye-juice?

Later I read the story - maybe even in a collection “edited” by Hitchcock (probably really Joan Harrison) - and it scared me, too. In the story, the farmer gets his eyes pecked out. Man, I needed to wear goggles or something when I walked home from school!

Though I’m a big fan of novelist Evan Hunter (also known as Ed McBain), I never really thought much about the screenplay for THE BIRDS and thought Tippi Hedren was kind of stiff... until I watched the DVD again for this entry. Tippi is much looser than in MARNIE and fits the role much better this time around. And the script has some great dramatic scenes in between bird attacks. Best thing about THE BIRDS - no shortage of great scenes, great moments, and the film holds up really well. I think kids today could easily develop nightmares after seeing it.

Nutshell: Spoiled society girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi - lacquered hair) does a meet cute in a pet store Mitch Brenner (ultra masculine Rod Taylor, who once played Travis McGee) when he pretends to think that she’s an employee and asks her about love birds as a gift for his little sister’s birthday. After she makes a fool of herself and lets some birds escape their cage, Mitch admits it was all a prank. After Mitch leaves, Melanie buys a couple of love birds and tries to deliver them to Mitch’s apartment... but his nosey neighbor tells her that Mitch has driven up the coast to Bodega Bay for the weekend.

When Melanie zooms up the coast in her convertible sports car, the love birds in their cage lean into the corners... and you know this is going to be a fun film. A little touch like that is above and beyond whatever is needed to tell the story - it’s a bonus. This film has fun and inventiveness to spare.

In Bodega Bay, Melanie finds out where the Brenners live... but no one at the general store knows the sister’s name and suggests she ask Annie Haywood the school teacher (played by Suzanne Pleshette). There’s all kinds of question and tension with Annie - does she have something going with Mitch?

Melanie rents a boat to sneak out to the Brenner house across the bay, and one of the cool things is that many of the townspeople introduced in a few seconds of film here will become major players later in the story. Melanie - completely out of place in a fur coat - zooms the outboard across the bay, breaks into the house and leaves the love birds, then gets back into the little boat to zoom back... when Mitch spots her. Again, we get a cool little scene where Mitch “races” her across the bay in his pick up truck. They could have just bumped into each other at the house and talked, but this race between boat and car is kind of a strange rom-com battle of the sexes (and transportation devices) scene - it adds to the fun of the film.

Just as Melanie is pulling into the dock, a seagull swoops down at strikes her. We are still early in the film, and so far it’s been more rom-com than when animals attack flick, so it’s kind of unexpected (yet - expected - the film is called THE BIRDS after all). Her head is bleeding, and Mitch takes care of her.

When Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) find them, Mitch asks his mother if Melanie can come to dinner. The framing is great, here, because we focus on Lydia - and she completely hates the idea... but reluctantly says “yes”. When we have these three characters, we often get framing that shows Mitch between Lydia and Melanie. The cool thing about Jessica Tandy in this film is that her husband Hume Cronyn was in several Hitchcock films and even wrote a couple. An interesting thing about Hitchcock is that he was loyal to people who had worked with him in the past. Maybe he was just comfortable working with the same people - but he would use the same crew people and often use the same cast people.

Veronica Cartwright is the center of my movie universe. She was a kid actor in a few episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS TV show, and here she gets one of the five lead roles in a major motion picture at *twelve*. When you’re a kid and you watch this movie, you identify with her in the school scenes and the birthday party scene. But Cartwright continued to work as an adult... in the Phil Kauffman version of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS... and then in ALIEN... plus a bunch of other movies I like. Oh, and she was a recurring character on X-FILES. There was a time in the late 70s/early 80s where it seemed like she was in every movie I saw. She’s quirky cute and has that tough-but-vulnerable thing going for her.

Okay, back to the story...

After the tense scene between Mitch and Melanie and Mitch’s Mom where it’s obvious why Mitch never married - the umbilical cord has never been cut - Melanie needs a place to stay the night and goes to school teacher Annie Haywood’s house - which had a Room For Rent sign in the window. Melanie rents the room for the night... but there’s no shortage of tension with Annie... see, she used to be Mitch’s girlfriend, until Lydia broke them apart. The cool thing with these scenes where there are no killer birds pecking out people’s eyes is that they are *dramatic* - filled with tension. The movie has two love triangle - Melanie/Mitch/Lydia and Melanie/Mitch/Annie. Both provide nice juicy scenes along the way... and allow us to have shifting alliances and sacrifices and redemptions. There is a great *people* story going on while the birds are attacking.

At dinner, Melanie agrees to stay for Cathy’s birthday party... and she’ll get stuck in Bodega Bay for the whole weekend plus a few days as the birds attack.

Before we get to the big bird attack scenes, there are birds shown on power lines and a bird that crashes into Annie’s door. While the story is setting up the characters, it doesn’t let us forget about the birds... and this creates suspense. We know the birds are going to attack, we just don’t know when.

Hitch Appearance: Walking his own pet dogs outside the pet store.

Bird Appearance: Hitchcock movies often have birds in them... this one is no exception.

Great Scenes: Lots of great scenes...

The Birthday Party: A kid’s birthday party in a big back yard overlooking the sea. Balloons everywhere, a cake. The kids are playing Blind Man’s Bluff - just like in Hitch’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT - with Cathy blindfolded... when a seagull swoops down and attacks her. She thinks it’s one of the kids... and when more gulls swoop down and attack kids, Cathy is still in the blindfold! She can’t see what’s happened - can see the danger swooping down from the sky. Melanie and Mitch have wandered away from the party for a little romance, and must run down a hill to save the kids (and blindfolded Cathy). This is a frightening scene with some great suspense because one of our leads can not see the danger and has no idea what’s going on.

The Fire Place Attack: Back at the Brenner house, Melanie and the family are trying to make sense of the attack... and Lydia is trying to break up the budding Mitch/Melanie relationship, when hundreds of birds blast out of the fireplace and attack. What’s really frightening is that this is an attack *inside the house*. The place where you feel most safe. The birds are relentless, and of course, Mitch yells, “Cover your eyes!” just to freak out the kid version of me even more back then. After they get the birds out, Lydia picks up all of her fine china - shattered by the birds. This is a great character bit - Lydia is an outdoor woman; but is a mannered, ordered person. The beautiful tea cups are symbolic of her life - shattered by the bird attack.

Fawcett’s Farm: The next morning, Lydia drives out to Fawcett’s farm when he doesn’t answer his phone. This character was cleverly introduced in a phone call - when Lydia’s chickens were acting strange and she called Fawcett, discovering that his chickens were also acting strange. At the time, you thought this phone call was just another reminder to the audience that the birds are coming... but it was also to introduce this character. When Lydia drives over to his farm, we know who he is. At the farm Lydia calls out for Fawcett - and he doesn’t answer. She enters the house, and the first thing she sees are shattered tea cups hanging in the kitchen. Okay, folks, what does that mean? No dialogue, no VO... just a set up after the birds attacked Lydia’s house and a pay off when she enters Fawcett’s house. As she creeps through the house looking for Fawcett, dread builds - we’re fairly sure we know why he isn’t answering her calls. But nothing has really prepared us for the eyes pecked out thing. This is not only a great scene, Hitchcock does a great *shot* to reveal Fawcett without eyes - really three quick shots - each one closer to Fawcett laying on the floor dead - ending with a close shot of Fawcett’s empty eye sockets dribbling blood. Yikes! As an adult who knew it was coming, it still scared me. The three shots replicate how we look closer and closer... and then wish we hadn’t. Lydia freaks, races to her pick up and roars out of there... blasting a cloud of dust in her wake.

At home, there’s a great scene where Melanie brings Lydia some tea while she is resting in bed. They have a little heart-to-heart, Lydia becomes less the controlling mother and more of a human being just trying to figure out what is right for her adult son - and afraid to let go of him.

The School Scene: This scene is so iconic, when Saturday Night Live lampooned Brian DePalma’s obsession with Hitchcock movies, they replicated this scene in THE CLAMS. Melanie goes to the school house, and has to wait for recess to talk to Cathy... so she sits on a bench near the playground and has a cigarette... the monkey bars behind her. As she smokes, we see nasty black crows landing one-by-one on the monkey bars behind Melanie... until there are hundreds of birds perched on them. She calmly smokes, unaware of the birds behind her. This is great suspense based on audience superiority - we know there is danger but she doesn’t. We want to scream at her to turn around. When she finally does turn around, there are hundreds of crows. Now she must carefully, quietly, get off the bench and move into the school house. The reason why Melanie came here in the first place was to check on Cathy for Lydia because the school house has such large unprotected windows. So once Melanie is inside, she isn’t safe. Neither are the kids. Now they have to quietly and carefully usher the kids out... past the monkey bars filled with birds... to safety. Kids have to be ultra well behaved so that the birds won’t notice them. They manage to get past all of the birds, and just when you think they’re home free... the birds attack! A black cloud of crows swoops down on the kids, pecking them like crazy. The kids run, but the birds can fly faster - and the attacks become more violent. The birds are biting the kid’s *ears* - again, something scary because it’s specific. When you see a bird beak tearing at a little kid’s ear, that’s just savage! A little girl trips, hits the pavement, glasses breaking... and now she can’t see! Cathy goes back to help her (putting one of our leads in danger) and Melanie and Annie work together to get the kids to safety. As the attacks continue, Melanie and Cathy and Annie take cover in a car parked on the side of the road. Doors unlocked, but no keys in the ignition. Birds slam down at the windows... then the birds fly away. Regrouping somewhere for the next attack. Annie takes Cathy to her house, Melanie goes to the Tides Restaurant to phone for help...

The Tides Restaurant: Another iconic scene - when I was writing the Hawaii script a few months ago I watched this scene again because it had inspired a scene in that script. Melanie enters the crowded restaurant and says that birds attacked the school kids. This provokes a big discussion about birds and man and just about everything else. My favorite guy is the drunk at the end of the bar who keeps quoting scripture and saying “It’s the end of the world!” as a toast before downing his drink. Everyone has an opinion, and there’s even a bird expert in the restaurant who rattles off all kinds of facts. We learn about birds, get some theories on why they are attacking, and have a pretty good discussion on how man constantly screws over nature... a great eco debate. It’s kind of a town hall meeting. I think one of the great things about a *good* popular movie is that the conflict can be something thought provoking, and you can explore the issue from every single side in a scene like this. We get to really discuss environmental issues... in an exciting horror movie about killer birds.

The Fire: One of the characters in The Tides is a single mother and her kids - she wants everyone to stop talking about bird attacks because it’s scaring her kids. Another character is a businessman having a few after lunch drinks before hitting the road. The mother convinces the businessman to lead her back to San Francisco before the next bird attack. He downs his drink and leaves The Tides... and the birds attack. Melanie and the other patrons move to the big picture windows and watch the attack... A man at a service station pumping gas is attacked by a gull, drops the hose as he fights off the birds. We watch the gasoline pour down the street... to where the businessman is lighting a cigarette before getting into his car. As the gasoline gets closer, closer, closer, the suspense builds. Finally Melanie yells for him to put out his cigarette... but he can’t hear her. When everyone yells, he drops the cigarette... into the gasoline! Now we get a great stylized bit alternating between shots of the fire shooting down the trail of gasoline to the service station and Melanie - in a still frame - watching the flames moving down the street. This ends with the fire reaching the service station - and a massive explosion. As the firemen arrive, they are attacked by birds - and the firehoses spin around out of control.

The Phone Booth: So far, we have had this amazing sequence of scenes - one great scene leading directly to the next... and it’s not over! Melanie ends up outside The Tides in the middle of the bird attack, and she runs for the cover of a phone booth. 4 glass walls. She can see people being pecked to death all around her. She can see people on fire from the service station explosion. She is trapped - but can see the terror around her. And then the birds start slamming into the phone booth - shattering the glass. She’s surrounded, she’s trapped, and the phone booth is claustrophobic. So many elements that create suspense and fear in one scene. As the birds begin to break in - and Melanie has no where to go, Mitch shows up to save her.

There’s a great shot before they get back inside The Tides where we see this high overhead of Bodega Bay with the fire linking two parts of the town. From way up here, it’s peaceful, serene... then a gull floats into the shot... then another... then another... and soon there are a dozen gulls obscuring our view of Bodega Bay.

The Empty Tides Restaurant: Melanie and Mitch walk into a completely deserted restaurant. Quiet. Empty. Spooky. Terror outside, quiet inside. Then they find people huddled in back, including the mother and her kids... and the mother is freaked out crazy - just completely insane - and blames Melanie for bringing on the bird attack. A big explosion of tension - ending with Melanie slapping the mother *hard* across the face.

More Monkey Bars: When the birds fly away to regroup and attack later, Mitch and Melanie go to fetch Cathy and get back to the house... but this requires them to walk past the monkey bars - filled with crows. Tension again as the quietly creep past - and one of the things that really makes this work is that the last time Melanie made it past the monkey bars, the birds attacked. So a pattern has been set, and we’re waiting for another attack the entire time. This is great suspense. They make it to Annie’s house without being attacked... but Annie is sprawled on the front porch. Dead. Eyes pecked out. This creates a great scene where Mitch covers her with his coat - and there’s a moment. This was Mitch’s ex-girlfriend. This was the woman he loved... that his mother wouldn’t allow him to love. And while Mitch has his moment with his dead ex-lover, Melanie watches... and allows the moment. This is a great emotional situation created by the story. While we were waiting for the birds to attack, this scene was secretly being set up by the Melanie/Mitch/Annie love triange.

The Non-Attack Attack: Once they collect Cathy, they go back to the house and fortify it. Storm shutters, every single window and door boarded up. They collect fire wood so that they can keep a fire going and prevent birds from flying down the flue again. Then, the sky turns black with birds and they go inside to wait out the attack. This is one of the greatest, scariest, scenes in the movie... and there are no birds in it (until later). The *sounds* of the birds attacking the house - slamming into the walls, breaking windows, shrieking - surround them and trap them in the living room. They huddle on the sofa in fear. As the sounds get louder the tension becomes unbearable. This scene is similar to the suspense and terror in the original version of THE HAUNTING (made the same year) where *unseen* elements create terror. Because we can not see the birds they become even more frightening. The front door gets hit again and again - and begins to splinter. Mitch nails a piece of furniture over the door. The attack continues - but the most we see of the birds are a few beaks as they splinter the door or break through a boarded window and Mitch has to push them out and resecure the window. There’s a great action gag here where Mitch fights with a bird as he tries to get a shutter closed and locked again - and the back-and-forth reversals keep the scene exciting for several minutes. But the thing that really makes this scene work are the people huddled in fear in the sofa as the *sounds* of the birds attacking surround them.

The Attic Attack: When the attack seems to be over, Melanie hears a noise from upstairs and - cool PSYCHO suspense stairway climb - goes to find out what it is. She opens the door to the attic and sees that the birds have ripped a hole in the roof... and there are a hundred birds perched around the room. Melanie tries to ease her way out... when the birds attack her. This is an all out attack - a hundred birds against Melanie. She can’t get the door open to escape - too many birds. She uses her flashlight to fight them off - but they keep attacking. This scene kind of plays like the end of PSYCHO - with her swinging flashlight like the swinging light as Mother attacks Lila Crane. The birds peck away at Melanie - ripping flesh off her - leaving her a bloody mess huddled on the floor... blocking the door. Mitch is outside, and can’t get in to save her! Eventually he gets in, pulls her out, and Lydia bandages her. Another great scene - since the jealous mother now must care for the woman she is losing her son to. The *situation* is packed with emotions, so the characters don’t have to say anything. Lydia bandages Melanie - and that action is a big emotional character scene that shows us how each character has changed. Find the great situations!

End Of The World: Once Melanie is bandaged - practically catatonic from shock - the four decide to get in Melanie’s car and drive to San Francisco... to safety. Or so they think. The San Francisco radio stations are still broadcasting - but Santa Rosa radio is just gone. When they open the door - every square inch of the Earth is covered with birds. They are perched on the roof, on the power lines, and they are ankle deep on the ground. They carefully creep out to the car, get Melanie into the car... which is a *convertible* - cloth top - not exactly bird proof! Mitch gets behind the wheel, and carefully drives through the birds to the rising sun... and maybe safety.

And that is where the film ends! With the car driving through an ocean of birds. Did they make it? Was San Francisco next? Not exactly a happy ending!

Sound Track: Really strange Bernard Herrmann score made up of electronic bird noises. Probably the first synthesized “score” - though it’s bird noises. No traditional music in the film.

THE BIRDS holds up really well, and Tippi Hedren's spoiled society girl character is perfect casting - it works within her limits. The film has so many great scenes - both scary and dramatic - that there's always something for a screenwriter to study. Evan Hunter's script is great! And those pecked out eyes still give me nightmares!

Tippi's Screen test.

- Bill


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Morgan McKinnon said...

"Between this *long* blog entry and some other work - 9,000 words! Since a page of typewritten stuff (like a story or article) averages about 250 words - that is *36* pages."

This is great!
I was simply counting *screenplay* pages. aaaah. I feel better now.

Can't wait to get back home and read your entire blog entry.

I absolutely LOVED "The Birds".


Stella Louise said...

The Birds scared the @#$% out of my Dad, too. And he was a lot older than you when he first saw it!

I remember a vacation at the beach where we kids were feeding bread to the seagulls and they would swoop in for the food. My Dad was practically having a panic attack!

Morgan McKinnon said...

I don't know...uhm, hmmm
Call me crazy, but ...
I think Alfred Hitchcock is HOT!

Morgan Elizabeth McKinnon

Morgan McKinnon said...

Sorry for wearing out my welcome...but I just have a correction...

"was HOT!" (is what I'm saying)

Don't you think so?


Mad Science Films said...

Thanks for your recommendation for Hitchcock/Truffaut. Ordered it last week from America (out of print in the UK) and it arrived yesterday. Started reading it last night and I couldn't put it down.



ObiDonWan said...

damn! all the videos on THE BIRDS are labeled as unavailable. i'll have to search on youtube.

ObiDonWan said...

I belatedly, some 50 or so years later, figured out the real story! Jessica Tandy's protectiveness of her son from female predators has animated the birds to act for her in doing awful stuff she cannot do to the women. In the last scene, when she forgives Teppi and acts tender toward her, that turns off the birds' motivation so they no longer attack.
At least that's my take and I'm sticking with it.

Morgan McKinnon said...

obidonwan says: At least that's my take and I'm sticking with it.

Morgan cries: What's your take on poor Mr. Fawcett?

ObiDonWan said...

He's "collateral damage"

Morgan McKinnon said...

*He's "collateral damage"*

That said,

Fawcett’s Epitaph:
"This is for the birds."