Friday, October 29, 2010

The Goosebump Moment -- The Birds (1963)

After a two-week hiatus, I'm back with a few more scares in prep for Halloween (it's for the best that I didn't continue at the pace I was going -- I needed to hold back some stuff for next year!)

First up is the perfect counterpoint to my first Goosebump post -- Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

This is an unusual Hitchcock film, but because of its repeated TV showings and subject matter, it became one of his most famous. It also was the best and most successful of the "nature turns against man" subgenre until Jaws came along 12 years later.

The Birds has a number of famous set pieces -- the most famous of which are the attack on the school by crows, and the climax in the attic. But the following scene is my favorite. I think I like it because of its complete absurdity, and it's the point where all hell has started to break loose in the movie.

The first hour of The Birds is very slow, and the audience is disoriented because it attempts to play out like a typical Hitchcock romantic suspense comedy. But there are several important differences -- first, there's no soundtrack, no background music at all, except for the cries of birds. Second, the normal playfulness doesn't really ring true -- the main character Melanie (played by Tippi Hedren) is so abrasive that the audience can't really warm up to her. Finally, the scenes go on (and on) with a lot of unnecessary exposition and talking. While there have been various criticisms leveled at the movie for this and other reasons, I think it serves an interesting purpose. Rather than building suspense, it builds a restlessness in the audience -- you find yourself wanting the attacks to start so something starts to happen. This complicity of the audience response is unlike any other horror movie of the time.

This clip is really a portion of a much longer scene that starts immediately following the attack on the school.

Here's the setup: Melanie has just been in the attack and has taken refuge in the Tides Cafe, where she has (another!) lengthy talky scene with various townsfolk and tourists, none of whom believe her. Soon enough, the attacks begin outside, the gas station explodes and everyone panics. Here's the absurdity, Melanie is really the only one at this point who realizes the birds are out to maim and kill, yet rather than staying in the relative safety of the Cafe she rushes outside (to help? to chase down her nascent boyfriend?) and immediately ducks for cover into a glass telephone booth. What follows is another masterpiece of editing and special effects.

Some other fun facts about The Birds:

The schoolhouse and the Tides Cafe are still both standing, but they are in two separate towns five miles apart. In the movie, it's edited so that it looks like the schoolkids run a couple blocks down the hill toward the cafe. Dianne and I had dinner at the Cafe and afterwards I called home from the phone booth, which unfortunately is now just an open booth rather than the glass cage you see here.

The artwork on the poster is not Tippi Hedren, but actually based on a still of Jessica Tandy (from the scene where the sparrows come down the chimney).

An alternate ending (planned but not shot) had the survivors driving to San Francisco among evidence of the damage, and then seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, covered in birds (!!!)

In an absurd (but cool) bit of licensing, Mattel put out The Birds Barbie a couple years ago (Dianne has it, of course!)


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