Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is a masterpiece of suspense that many critics consider to be his last truly great film. The director’s use of editing, composition and sound design are simply magnificent throughout, carefully structuring a slow descent into terror. As much as the majority of the film’s running time leaves me in awe of the filmmaker’s incomparable skill, I must confess that there’s a small (admittedly very immature) part of me that can’t help but find certain aspects of the movie to be sort of… comical. That’s right, I said it. A tiny part of me thinks that Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is funny.
With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to try to analyze the reasons behind these dueling reactions. To do so, I will unashamedly borrow from one of the great Stephen Colbert’s trademark bits. And so, without further ado, I will now debate myself on the unintentionally humorous content of ‘The Birds’. On one side, we have Steven Cohen, award-winning experimental filmmaker and classic cinema enthusiast. On the other, we have Steven Cohen, some bearded buffoon who can pretty much quote all of ‘Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead’. Let the opening remarks commence!
Steven: First of all, I’d just like to say what an honor it is to be here debating with such a fine young gentleman like yourself.
Steven: Why thank you, Steven. You flatter me, sir. All pleasantries aside, though, I guess we should just get started. So, ‘The Birds’, pretty damn hilarious, right?
Steven: Hilarious? Steven, you unbelievable fool. ‘The Birds’ is a terrifying masterpiece of suspense. There’s nothing funny about it.
Steven: But… there’s birds… attacking people. That’s kind of ridiculous.
Steven: Oh, my silly, so very handsome friend, that’s the whole point. Hitchcock takes something we usually view as innocuous and harmless and then slowly and believably turns it into a credible threat.
Steven: Sure, but birds? Come on! We’re talking about sparrows and gulls here. There’s one point where they’re pecking at some little kid at a birthday party and I just can’t help but smirk.
Steven: Steven, you sick sadistic bastard. Laughing at a child being pecked to death? Perhaps your bizarre reaction to the movie says more about you than it does the film.
Steven: Hey! I don’t think I like what you’re trying to imply there, buddy. Them’s fighting words!
Steven: Well, I suppose the gloves are officially off!
Steven: OK. You called down the thunder. Well, now you’ve got it! What about the laughable supporting characters? Like Suzanne Pleshette as Annie? She slinks around the screen with a palpable, sultry malaise and sounds like a washed up lounge singer, and yet she’s a… school teacher. Come on!
Steven: Palpable sultry malaise? What the hell are you babbling about? She’s a jilted ex-lover and acts accordingly.
Steven: Fine, what about the exposition-heavy, overly telegraphed dialogue and meticulously mannered performances? The scene where Annie tells Melanie her life story is rife with little bits of unnatural business to keep the actors active while they spell out everything the audience needs to know. I half expected Annie to start stacking some boxes in a corner like an interrogation scene straight out of ‘Law & Order’.
Steven: Steven, you ignorant slut. ‘Law & Order’, really? That’s an incredibly important scene that reveals a lot about the characters’ relationships.
Steven: And then there’s Cathy Brenner. That little girl is way too happy to meet Melanie. She runs up and hugs her the second they meet and then immediately invites her to her birthday party. How come it’s that easy to get invited to your birthday party, Cathy? Huh, how come? No, really. How come? I didn’t get invited…
Steven: Steven, you gorgeous bearded ninny, how dare you disrespect the little girl from ‘Lost in Space’! Melanie is an alluring socialite from the city. It’s not hard to believe that a small town girl would take an immediate liking to her. Also, she bought the kid lovebirds. Lovebirds!
Steven: Still seems silly to me. Also, Veronica Cartwright wasn’t in ‘Lost in Space’. That’s her sister, Angela Cartwright. Now who’s the ninny, you ninny?!
Steven: Wait, then which one was in the ‘The Sound of Music‘?
Steven: That’s Angela too. Veronica was in ‘Alien‘, though.
Steven: Oh, I mixed up my Cartwrights. Silly me.
Steven: Common mistake, Steven. We all do it, but please let’s get back on topic. What about the film’s overabundance of hilarious clichés and stock characters? Take for instance the incredibly helpful small town store clerk who greets Melanie with oscillating suspicion and enthusiasm (and a delightful accent).
Steven: Well, Steven, I think that there’s actually some intentional humor that…
Steven: And don’t get me started on the diner scene. That sequence is a perfect storm of clichéd horror/suspense movie characters. We’ve got the craggy sailor, the doomsayer shouting about the end of the world, the scared mother growing hysterical, the clueless police officer, and of course the extremely convenient and totally random person who happens to be an expert on the exact subject at hand – in this case, an old woman who is an ornithologist.
Steven: Steven, If you’d just let me…
Steven: What is an ornithologist, you ask? Well, an ornithologist is someone who studies birds. That’s right, a bird expert happens to be in Bodega Bay during the bird attacks! It all plays out like the prototype for every other crazy suspense/horror/disaster movie and becomes laughable. You’d think the Master of Suspense would be a bit more original.
Steven: Steven, you poor misguided cur! Did you ever stop for one second to think that the reason the movie seems like the prototype for every other crazy suspense/horror/disaster movie is because it is one of the prototypes for every other crazy suspense/horror/disaster movie?! These characters seem like clichés now, but that’s just because they’ve been recycled so many times since.
Steven: But that doesn’t make them any less…
Steven:Sure, I highly doubt that ‘The Birds’ is the first to feature such archetypes, and it’s likely that they were already a bit tried-and-true in 1963, but Hitchcock’s use of them is what helped to establish them as clichés in the first place! The film sort of takes a classic B-movie premise and elevates it to high art through the director’s incredible cinematic technique. Just look at his mise en scene! Just look at it!
Steven: His what?
Steven: His mise en scene.
Steven: What the hell is that? Sounds French.
Steven: It is French.
Steven: Well, what does it mean?
Steven: It means… uh, well, it’s not important what it means, but people often use it to describe all of the components of a director’s visual storytelling, and Hitchcock’s is breathtaking. The use of POV tracking shots when Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s home, the perfectly timed reveal of the birds collecting outside the school, the exercise of rhythmic editing to control pace and momentum without any kind of traditional score – it’s all just fantastic.
Steven: But they’re birds, Steven! BIRDS! Birds attacking people. That’s funny.
Steven: It’s not funny, it’s terrifying, you statuesque baboon!
Steven: Fine! I’ll admit it. It’s suspenseful, and the filmmaking is certainly impressive, and the birds do actually become a credible threat. But you have to concede that there are at least some inappropriate moments that make you smile just a little bit.
Steven: Well, that just isn’t the case…
Steven: Steven, be honest.
Steven: OK, I guess that part at the party when the birds start pecking at that little kid is kind of…
Steven: I knew it!
There you have it. Immature chuckling aside, if there’s one thing we can take away from this debate, it’s that ‘The Birds’ is a masterpiece of suspense. Well, that and I’ve now learned that I should probably be on some type of medication. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m now off to see a doctor. I suggest you go see ‘The Birds’.
For the purpose of this discussion, I watched the film on Universal’s Collector’s Edition DVD. While the source print is in fairly decent condition, the standard-definition transfer leaves a bit to be desired with some noticeable artifacts. Thankfully, the title is scheduled for a Blu-ray release sometime this year.
In association with the National Film Preservation Foundation, High-Def Digest is proud to join the 2012 Hitchcock Blogathon. During the week of May 14th to 18th, we will blog about topics related to the films and career of the legendary Sir Alfred Hitchcock. This year, the NFPF hopes to raise money to fund a new musical score and online streaming distribution for ‘The White Shadow’, an early silent film that young Mr. Hitchcock (then officially a writer and Assistant Director) used as a stepping stone to launch his own directorial career. To contribute, please visit the NFPF’s donations page.