Universal // 1963 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // March 16th, 2000
Suspense and shock beyond anything you have seen or imagined!
Is there any doubt that Hitchcock, like a fine wine, got better with age? Made toward the end of his storied career (in terms of number of films shot, at least) The Birds must be his most horrifying piece. After directing Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and North by Northwest (among others) in the 1950s, Hitchcock hits us in the gut with Psycho and then The Birds in the 1960s. Prolific can't even begin to describe the genius that this man was. Not even close.
The Birds is certainly one of Hitchcock's best-loved masterpieces. There can be little doubt of that. You may like a specific film of his more. But, I bet if you added the world's top 5 Hitchcock films, assigned each one a number from one to five (with five being your favorite and so on) and them averaged them out, this one would rank number one or number two behind Psycho. And it has to be for the sheer terror of tyhe experience that it would rank so high.
The Birds begins innocently enough, with a chance (or not so chance) meeting in San Francisco between our protagonists Mitch Brenner, attorney and Melanie Daniels, bon vivant. Melanie immediately takes a liking to the counselor, and who wouldn't. He is funny, debonair and a good bit handsome. She plays a bit of a practical joke on him by pretending to work in the pet shop, which offers the locale of their meeting. But he plays one right back because he recognizes her. Indeed, he followed her into the store to give her a bit of a ribbing in the first place.
Melanie takes such a shine to Mitch that she decides to continue the prank by buying Mitch the lovebirds he was supposedly looking for. They were to be a gift for his baby sister on her birthday. Melanie discovers Mitch has gone north to Bodega Bay for the weekend to celebrate his sister's birthday bash and she follows him there in order to deliver the birds. Yeah, right. She's sweet on him all over, and we know it. No sooner does she arrive than all hell starts to break loose in the form of random bird attacks.
Gulls, crows, and every manner of species begin attacking humans for no good reason. And there's the trick to the horror part of our story. Let me say that again -- for no good reason. Unlike the insanely bad formulaic horror films being spewed forth by all manner of studio the last few decades, Hitchcock gives absolutely no reason for these attacks, which makes the film all the more terrifying. In fact, I might say the very same thing of a nearly every other great horror story I can think of. Jaws? The Exorcist? Silence of the Lambs? The Shining? None of these give a REASON (are you listening Hollywood?) for the terror that grips us for their respective two hour time frames. Now let's examine the flip side of the argument. Genetically altered sharks in Deep Blue Sea? Sucked! In fact, Hitchcock took this notion so far as to eliminate his typical "The End" at the finale of the film in order to engender the feeling of continuing terror. You know what? It worked!
Everything about this disc is absolutely terrific. But the best thing may just be the video. I doubt we will ever see this movie look any better than this. The colors were deeply saturated and very, very vivid. Shadow detail never lacked. Black levels were deep and rich, especially during the nighttime sequences in the Brenner house. The disc simply looks marvelous. You will probably notice, as I did, that every time Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is shot alone in a medium or closer close up, she looks a bit hazy. That is not a flaw in your disc, but rather a film technique employed by Hitch. Why? Who knows? He was the master, and you don't question a master (except for me a little later in this review). As we all know, Hitch had a thing for sumptuous blonde leading ladies, and Hedren is no exception. I suspect this was his way of trying to make them seem ever so slightly angelic. More angelic than the rest of us, surely. Besides, he had no idea DVD would be so big and that it would reveal every little flaw in his movies. Cut him some slack.
The acting here is first rate. Hedren was a new discovery of Hitchcock's. He saw her in a diet soda commercial and called her in for a screen test (which is included on this DVD by the way). She does a marvelous job for a first timer. Rod Taylor, probably most famous for his leading role in The Time Machine, does a grand job playing Brenner as well. Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy, Cocoon) is fabulous as Brenner's mother and Veronica Cartwright (Lambert in Alien and the cherry pit spewing Felicia in The Witches of Eastwick) is Brenner's wide-eyed baby sister, barely comprehending the mayhem that surrounds her. Lastly I certainly have to mention the fine job done by Suzanne Pleshette as the local schoolteacher, Annie. Her screen time is a bit too short, but the performance is well worth mentioning.
The audio is presented in 2-channel mono and all is well in the audio world of Bodega Bay. The audio effects of shrieking birds filled the theater with gusto and stayed in my memory for a few extra days. The soundstage was quite narrow, as would be expected from a mono presentation. But the dialogue was always spot on and very intelligible. The interesting thing is that there is no soundtrack for this film. It is filled with nothing but dialogue and sound effects. Cool.
This disc is filled with quality extras too. There is a wonderful documentary, All About The Birds, which is filled with great interviews, including cast members and Pat Hitchcock, the master's daughter, reminiscing about the making of the film. The back of the Alpha Keep Case tells of a deleted scene and an alternate ending. These are presented in script form only, so don't expect video presentations of some long lost scenes or anything. There are detailed production notes, photographs, a couple of interesting newsreels from way back when, and one of the greatest theatrical trailers I have ever seen. Hitch wanders around a stage and...well, I don't want to give it away. Let's just say it was totally tongue in cheek and leave it at that.
My only complaint about this whole disc (this is where I step out on a limb and give you the saw by criticizing the master) stems from Hitch's controlling nature. He loved to be in control of as much as humanly possible during a production. As a result, he wound up shooting many, MANY shots as special effects, which could have been and would have been wonderful location shots instead. The most egregious example of this is the shots of Melanie crossing Bodega Bay in a little outboard dinghy. The background mountains are so clearly effects that it threw me totally out of sync to have to watch it. There are a number of longer-range shots from this very same sequence which are wonderful to see because they are the real thing. I just can't see why he didn't throw a boat in front of her and let the film roll. The same could be said of an early scene where Melanie is driving to Bodega Bay. Why even bother showing a close-up of her with such an obvious effects shot. Why not just leave it at a distance to make it more real?
This is not to say the effects were not terrific, because they were. From an overall perspective, this was a pioneering movie in many ways. Special effects techniques were pioneered, developed and refined for this film. So many so that it' affect can be felt to this day in the movie industry. I just had t find something to pick on and this was it.
If you are a Hitchcock fan, the you've probably already pre-ordered this disc. Rest assured your money is well spent. For the rest of you, break out those credit cards. This is a must have for every movie fan. Now, I can't wait to see what universal is doing with Rear Window and Marnie! Bring 'em on boys. We're waiting!
All parties acquitted. The judge issues a contempt of court citation on the prosecutor for even bringing this case. He should have known better than to suggest that Universal would muck this disc up. Throw him in a cell with a flock of crows and see how he likes it!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* All About The Birds
* Deleted Scene (Script)
* The Original Ending (Script)
* Storyboard Sequence
* Tippi Hedren's Screen Test
* The Bird's Is Coming (Universal International Newsreel)
* Suspense Story: National press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel)
* Production Photographs
* Production Notes
* Cast and Filmmakers
* Theatrical Trailer
* Universal Web Link
* Veronica Cartwright Official Site