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Birds, The (Collector's Edition)  Print E-mail
DVD Mystery-Suspense
Written by Bill Warren   
Tuesday, 28 March 2000



title:
The Birds


studio:
Universal Studios Home Video
starring: Tippi' Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw
release year: 1963
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

PSYCHO had been such an incredible, unexpected hit in 1960 that Alfred Hitchcock reportedly worried about how to top himself. He toyed with several ideas, but began to focus on tales of animals taking revenge on human beings. He was referred to Daphne du Maurier's short story "The Birds," and found his next project. At Hitchcock's direction, the screenplay by Evan Hunter discarded most of Du Maurier's story (already dramatized on television), retaining only a seacoast setting and the unexplained attacks by flocks of birds of all sorts.

The movie received far more publicity than PSYCHO had, probably become the most-promoted movie in Hitchcock's career, complete with the slogan "The Birds is coming." And it, too, was a smash hit, moving straight into popular legend; even "Peanuts" referred to the movie.

Unfortunately, it's not really in the top-most rank of Hitchcock's films; he fretted over the script and characterizations, and was right to do so -- even if ultimately it didn't pay off. One problem was linking the characters and their story to the attacks of the birds. With his wartime movies such as FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, LIFEBOAT and SABOTEUR, Hitchcock was able to connect the characters and their interactions and personalities to broader issues, but he chose to offer no explanation for the attacks in THE BIRDS. Without an explanation, the only possible links between the characters and the bird attacks is metaphorical, and that gets pretty fuzzy, since it's not entirely clear that Hitchcock even chose to go that way.

The attacks themselves, however, are the highlight of the film. Each is set up in a different way, each has its own rhythms and moods, and each is vividly effective. There are few eerier scenes in movie history than the one in which 'Tippi' Hedren, as heroine Melanie Daniels, sits on a park bench near a school where children are singing a nonsense song; behind her, in a series of cuts we see a jungle gym gradually fill with hordes of silent crows.

In terms of characters, the story works itself out well enough, even if the ending satisfies few, but it stands apart from the attacks of the birds. In San Francisco, rugged Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) is amused when wealthy, well-known playgirl Melanie Daniels tries to pass herself off as a pet shop clerk. She's irked when she realizes that he has been putting her own, so to retaliate -- she's famous for practical jokes -- she takes a pair of lovebirds to his home town of Bodega Bay, on the coast north of San Francisco.

Mitch's possessive mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is annoyed by Melanie's arrival, though his much younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) is glad he's showed up. Schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who clearly had once been Mitch's lover, is of mixed feelings.

At first, there are just ominous comments about birds flocking in curiously large numbers, but then Melanie is dive-bombed by a gull. Dozens more attack the children at Cathy's birthday party; flocks of small birds erupt from the Brenner fireplace. And on and on the attacks continue, increasing in ferocity each time.

Some commentators have worked hard to find a link between Melanie Daniels and the bird attacks. Are the lovebirds (which she continues to carry with her) somehow masterminding these assaults? Or is it entirely metaphorical? The film never does decide -- but for the most part, it doesn't have to. It works as a thriller, even if one has a hard time warming up to Hitchcock's latest ice princess, Hedren, whose first name, he insisted, had to be enclosed in single quote marks. This is one time where his instincts somewhat deserted him; the film would have been more engrossing and frightening if the central character was likable, instead of a spoiled rich girl who has to learn better over the course of the movie.

Being that as it may, the bird attacks are tremendously effective, Taylor is a good leading man, and Pleshette smolders gorgeously from the corners. THE BIRDS may not be one of Hitchcock's greatest thrillers, but it's a very good one.

It's been given outstanding treatment in this "Collectors' Edition" DVD from Universal Home Video. The film itself is preserved in great shape, shown in the right aspect ratio, the color balanced and the chirps, squawks and screeches of the birds rendered in precise, clear Dolby. The movie has no score, but you'll never notice the lack.

There's an excellent, lengthy brand-new documentary on the making of THE BIRDS by writer/director Laurent Bouzerou. Many of Hitchcock's colleagues, such as designer Robert Boyle and screenwriter Hunter, are interviewed, as well as his daughter Patricia and actors Hedren, Taylor and Cartwright. It's one of the best such documentaries available on home video, and boy howdy is it ever thorough.

Other extras include 'Tippi' Hedren's screen test, in which she does brief scenes from other Hitchcock films with a cooperative Martin Balsam. Several newsreel clips of the day are included as well, which are more interesting for seeing how promotion was done in the early '60s than for their content, although Hitchcock's comments before a press club are amusing. There's also a hard-to-operate link to the Universal website which, in any event, doesn't turn up anything related to THE BIRDS.

There are also the usual stills, bios, scene access, language options and so forth. All in all, a handsome package. This is one in Universal's "Alfred Hitchcock Collection." The director held rights in many of the films he made for Paramount, including VERTIGO and REAR WINDOW, and they ended up as the property of Universal, so this collection includes a great deal more films (and better ones) than those he made for Universal itself. The company is heavily trading on Hitchcock's fame which, in some ways, might seem a little distasteful, but his daughter doesn't complain, and the movies are becoming widely available to those who want to see them. And the always publicity-conscious Hitchcock would have loved that.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digita
special features: many extras, described above
comments: email us here...
   
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR








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