Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ — still strange after all these years

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By any standard of any era in movie history, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is a very odd concoction.

What begins as a half-baked romantic comedy — about a San Francisco heiress (Tippi Hedren) and a mother-smothered newspaper publisher (Rod Taylor) — makes a left turn about 40 minutes in, and becomes an end-of-the-world horror film about nature turning against man.

Largely on the strength of Hitchcock’s popularity the movie was a financial hit in 1963 — despite a very high budget due to the unusual number of special effects shots — but it was pretty widely disliked when it came out and only attained “classic” status after years of TV and rep house screenings.

I was just a kid the first time I saw “The Birds” and I loved all of the weird elements that turned off a lot of my friends — the ambiguous ending, the replacement of a musical score by synthesized bird sounds, and the absence of any explanation as to why so many different types of birds decided to suddenly begin attacking the population of Bodega Bay, California.

When I look back on that period, I now realize that we were all living in a time of intense paranoia and fear. Many people thought nuclear war was a matter of when rather than if — just six months before “The Birds” opened the country went through the nuclear brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis (still the scariest couple of days in modern American history).

Hitchcock’s view of a doomed society, stumbling around with no answers to important questions and with no apparent meaning behind their lives and deaths probably hit moviegoers on a subconscious level.

“The Birds” was the director’s follow-up to “Psycho” three years earlier and was clearly an extension of that landmark film’s nihilism. “Psycho” and “The Birds” were made by Hitchcock after he had given up notions of guilt and innocence in his work.

In “Psycho,” the “star” of the picture, Janet Leigh, doesn’t die because she took $40,000 from one of her boss’ clients — she’s sliced to ribbons while taking a shower because of her bad luck in deciding to spend the night at the Bates Motel.

Hitchcock teases us with different explanations for the attacks in “The Birds” — environmental disturbances of various kinds, the introduction of two “love birds” to the isolated community, even one crazy woman’s suggestion that San Francisco socialite Tippi Hedren is some sort of witch who is behind everything.

The master of suspense turned into a master of alienation who was completely in step with Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni whose icy drama “L’Avventura” made him famous in the same year as “Psycho” and whose “Blow Up” in 1966 was a mystery with no solution.

The fashions and some of the attitudes in “The Birds” set it firmly in the early 1960s but the style and the content of this endlessly intriguing movie are timeless.

Tonight at 6:30 I’ll be hosting a screening of the digital restoration of the film at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Bridgeport. I have a hunch the post screening discussion will be as lively as ever.

Joe Meyers

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