Fear the birds

You’d think this film shouldn’t work, not in 2023. The special effects aren’t outright hilarious at this stage, but they’re definitely ropey. Much of the time you can see that the swarm doesn’t actually exist in the same plane as the people running away from them. Your brain tells you: this is tricks, effects, it’s movie magic. And, more than that, it’s birds! There’s no way they can be this much of a threat, can they?

And yet: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds still works like gangbusters. When I came out of the cinema, I was tense, starting at every chirp and caw. The city I live in has birds in it – not many, no swarms like in Bodega Bay, but enough for me to look over my shoulder and listen out for the whoosh of flapping wings. I don’t often watch scary films, but when I do their effect usually dissipates quite soon once they’re over. Not so with The Birds: even once I was home and safely inside, I kept eyeing the windows – were they sturdy enough? – and the trees outside: Are those crows? Where are all the other birds hiding?

Hitchcock was brilliant at mise-en-scène; where many directors making films at the same time as he was making his greatest, most memorable movies, still used fairly theatrical means, he’s always been a tremendously cinematic director. But when I think of Hitchcock, I also tend to think of him as a crowdpleasing director, a showman, someone who mostly made films that were fun. Thrillers, certainly, but generally ones where you’d sit there and scream when he’d startle you, followed by laughing. Obviously this is not true for all of the director’s films, but more often than not Hitchcock’s movies leave you thrilled. The Birds, however, gave me a profound sense of dread and hopelessness, making it a predecessor to films such as Frank Darabont’s The Mist.

This effect in no small part is due to The Birds‘ cast and especially its female leads: Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and a very young Veronica Cartwright that basically delivers her audition tape for her later role as Lambert in the seminal sci-fi horror classic Alien. Where other, similar movies mainly focus on getting the screaming right, what Hitchcock and his cast did so effectively in The Birds was the trauma: the attacks leave these characters bruised and numb and at times practically paralysed with terror. And even when they make it to the car, slowly moving past hundreds of birds eyeing them but not attacking, at least not for now, it’s not clear if they’ll be safe. They might be able to get out of Bodega Bay, but The Birds is disquietingly open-ended. There is no explanation, no solution, and little hope. Most of all, there’s just dread.

Our favourite cinema showed The Birds as part of a series on animals in cinema, and this may have made it even more effective: the juxtaposition with other films. We’ve not seen all of the films in the series, but among the other movies we watched were Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar, Andrea Arnold’s ‘farmyard vérité’ Cow, the experimental fishing documentary Leviathan, John Huston’s enjoyable but fundamentally flawed Moby Dick (one of the very few adaptations where the sentence “This book is unfilmable” may be justified even in the face of a valiant attempt to do just that), and the original 1933 King Kong (another film that holds up surprisingly well, but its brand of horror definitely goes for popcorn thrills rather than dread). It’s another very enjoyable series of films, but more disparate than earlier series the Cinema REX has done, on samurai movies, vampires or on actors such as Sidney Poitier and Delphine Seyrig. The sheer range of stories, styles and genres indicates how different our attitudes towards, and treatment of, animals are – but none of the ones we’ve seen and will still see are likely to leave me as unsettled as The Birds. Though, admittedly, we’ll be missing Babe, so we won’t be lying in bed awake, hearing, rather than the rustle of wings and cawing of crows, the echoes of those words: That’ll do, pig… That’ll do.

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