There are some reviews you dread writing because you know sufficient numbers of people think highly enough of a property you're about to drub that nothing but a punishing reaction can come from your comments. You also dread writing them because they fly in the face of a personal icon and art touchstone. The Birds is one such film for me. It may be understating it to say that I adore Hitchcock. As some astute person said, he stands as the very definition of the term film director. But, try as I might, I cannot muster full and enthusiastic appreciation of this film. Having followed The Birds, as it were, checking in to view it and review it several times over the last three and a half decades, I find that it gets worse instead of better with age, for a couple of reasons.
Perhaps the major problem, for me, is that by this point in his life, Hitchcock seems to have decided his destiny lay in making honest-to-God Art Films for the masses. It's a confused mixed pot that Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie comes from. A French auteur critic-influenced pot. His montage called more attention to itself than ever at this time; his pacing slowed, also becoming more deliberate; and a European stillness, almost Bergmanesque, began to pervade his films. I don't know if the man felt personal confusion at this time about whether he was an artiste or a roller coaster designer (to use his own frequent parallel), but his films seem to betray such a state of confusion. There are stretches that are downright odd in these films, so slow and floating in some abstract space. For the first time you are moved to ask, of this brightest of directors, "what on earth is he getting at here?"
The scene where the Pleshette character sits taking a smoke while the birds cover a playground set is brilliantly constructed of "pure montage". --But also slow as molasses. It takes one of the master's hallmark gambits (letting us in on something that the people in his film do not know yet, and tightening the screws until, as he said, we want to cry out to them "don't go in there!") and inverts it by dragging it out to the point of comedy/absurdity, not tension. This time, we want to scream "we get the point already!" by the time the scene reaches it's flash point. Am I wrong to read this as arty conceit setting aside the vitality of the Hitchcock of old? But there is perhaps, too, a bit of uncertainty about how to proceed, how to pace things that all this attention to Hitchcock the Artist may have thrown off kilter for good. The sureness and lightness of touch seems impaired.
The other big issue I have with The Birds is that it looks and feels like a Universal TV show. Gone is the grit and bleakness of Psycho (which one could describe as like Universal TV, too), replaced by Universal City in Hollywood cheapness. The color is garish and the sets look freshly painted and put up. But this isn't just a question of production values. The look and feel of the film adds to the impression that nothing about the Birds (or Marnie) seems to be taking place in the real world. The production screams back lot. This problem, which one overlooked for a decade or so after the films release, becomes harder to ignore over time. It wasn't long after this that films began shooting more and more on location, in natural light on faster speed film. This replaced the 60s TV look with the grit of real locations and images of Rembrandtesque palette and color control. Film cross-processing would come along in a couple more decades and make the universe of the Birds seem even more alien.
Now, I didn't wake up one day saying to myself, "I want to beat up on my all time favorite director." But hearing a radio adaptation from the 1950s of Daphne DuMaurier's original story reminded me of how great a director Hitchcock really was. He recast the story for the film and expanded it to something mythic and universal, far removed from its pulp melodrama origins. Then, a couple of weeks later, a local theater showed The Birds in a retrospective. That reminded me of the limitations of The Birds of which I had been aware for some time.
Final report: The Birds is a film by one of the two or three most brilliant, innovative, influential and visionary directors in film history. Here, he is in absolute control of his medium, but not at the top of his form, sorry to say.
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