Birds, The(SE)/A-,B+
Universal/1963/120m/ANA 1.85

      It was just another ordinary school morning as the sun forced its way through the cracks in my bedroom Venetian blinds. But this particular morning, it was a little different. I awoke to a grating, rattling noise accompanying the first break of light. It was disorienting, but through the sleep crusted slits in my eyes, I  located the the source of disturbance coming  the window. Rolling out of bed with trepidation, I approached the window. As I pulled back the blinds, a black bird burst from between the blinds and the window. The panic-flapping wings of the wildly flying bird sent chills up my spine, as I threw my arms around to fend off the blind fury of the trapped creature. Screams brought my mother and together we opened the window wider and forced the black bird into flight outside. Just one black bird, not hundreds, had cast panic over my school morning.

Canaries or love birds? ©Universal

    The Birds is Alfred Hitchcock's most devious concoction. The pure horror of the inexplicable behavior of birds surrounding a small, seaside town sixty miles outside San Francisco is enough to provide a childhood of nightmares for a young viewer. I remember, in its first release, a queasy discomfort about seeing The Birds. I blocked out memories of my own black bird encounter seven or eight years before, resisting the pure fear Hitchcock created in this film. The Birds provides Hitchcock with some of the most cruel and grisly scenes he has ever filmed. Psycho, admittedly Hitchcock's most revered horror masterpiece, pales in comparison to the claustrophobic panic The Birds presents. To turn a "Star Trek" phrase, resistance is futile: The Birds is coming!
     Character takes a back seat to the ornithological stars of The Birds. While the film starts out as a light romance set in San Francisco, hovering over every move is the specter of what's coming. With the initial meeting of main characters Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner in a pet store, Hitchcock makes sure we don't lose sight of what's in store for us. 
     The screenplay is laced with hints at the action to come from the very first lines of dialogue as Melanie Daniels enters the pet shop, she comments, "Have you ever seen so many gulls? What do you suppose it is? I was a little antsy to cut to the quick and get past the romantic set-up, but retrospectively, watching for bird droppings, if you will, makes a an interesting path to the panic that erupts in Bodega Bay. 
    Most of the action takes place in and around Bodega Bay. The school house, the local restaurant and the Brenner farm are the key settings. The Birds never gets too complex, and that's one of it's great strengths. Birds flock. Birds attack. People panic. It may not sound like much, but the horror is palpable.  The attack of The Birds at the Brenner house is reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead several years later. Everyone could learn from Hitchcock. The photographic compositions and the incisive Hitchcock editing are terrific. Once the bird attacks begin, Hitchcock increases the tension with the precision of sadist torturing a victim, and it never does let up. Perhaps there a couple cheats, like someone opening a door beyond all reason, but the result is a harrowing scene never to be forgotten.
     Tippi Hedren plays Melanie Daniels with an excess of wide-eyed élan. There are moments when her cool is beyond comprehension, but she certainly makes an attractive target for The Birds. Rod Taylor is solid as the romantic lead who spends most of his time fending off the birds. Happily, romance gets buried under the feathery assault. Jessica Tandy provides stiff support as Brenner's Mom, and twelve-year-old Veronica Cartwright (Later to co-star in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gets to hover in the corners in fright as the little sister. Too bad Suzanne Pleshette didn't get more screen time as Brenner's former school teacher flame.       An outstanding documentary, All About The Birds, accompanies the film and gives a thorough understanding of the challenges involved in creating the chaotic visual effects of the film. The Universal team has put together a formidable group of observers to share their revelations about the making of The Birds. Tippi Hedren shares her delights and horrors as well, in an articulate interview cut up in pieces throughout the documentary, as does co-star Rod Taylor. Veronica Cartwright also shares her memories of a little girl making a horror movie. Evan Hunter is wonderfully demonstrative in describing the script, especially the scripted ending that was never shot. I think the original ending may have been even more powerful than the existing one, but Hunter's explanation for the change is reasonable. Patricia Hitchcock adds her insights into her father and other principals involving in creating the look and feel of The Birds share their experiences as well.

Coming attractions. ©Universal

     The DVD package indicates under the special features both a deleted scene and the original ending. It should noted that these are not on film, but showcased with script and storyboards or stills. There is also a comparative storyboard sequence of the attic attack using stills. A split screen treatment would have been more illuminating instead of the alternate frame approach used. The delightful Tippi Hedren screen test is included in the package, with Hitchcock's off-screen instructions to Hedren and actor Martin Balsam adding to the pleasure. Two newsreels promoting The Birds and a droll theatrical trailer featuring an extended Hitchcock introduction make this first rate special edition a core collection selection.
     The color on this special edition DVD of The Birds is quite simply spectacular. Perfectly stable, with glorious saturation, colorful background details stand out richly against the monochromatic bird treatment. Flesh tones are outstanding, presenting a realistic range. Black are rich and lighting atmospheric lighting is preserved.  Everything is in sharp focus save for most of the Tippi Hedren close-ups, which appear to have been shot through a softening filter. There is very slight edge enhancement which might exaggerate some of the grainier sequences. The process shots particularly are very grainy, typical of the effects used at the time. Happily, I could not detect any obvious artifacts associated with the furious movement of the birds in the attack sequences. There was slight choppiness to some of the early San Francisco panning movements. The two channel mono sound is clean, capturing the shrill din of The Birds to perfection.


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