It’s important when watching films, and old films in particular, to put them in the context of their time, and to try and understand why certain things appear in certain ways and appreciate other aspects despite their obvious dated nature. In order to be able to encapsulate the artistry and talent on display in a movie, one must look past the indelible watermark of age set on the motion picture. Take a film like the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance. At certain moments, Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the future seems obsolete and very much a product of its time. Not only that, but many of the sequences in the film have been aped to the extent that they now seem almost cliche. These things could hinder the enjoyment and appreciation for the modern viewer, yet they do not. 2001 still holds an unshakable visceral power of pure talent and filmmaking that transcends the constant degradation of time that so many films are subject to. The genius on display in Kubrick’s space epic still stands vibrant and visible today. It is very difficult to say the same, unfortunately, for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
For a film oft labeled under the horror and thriller genres, The Birds produces very few horror or thrills of any kind. It starts out at a near glacial pace, and slowly builds up to its main event and avian terror. After all of the tedious setup that introduces the film’s main characters and the world in which they inhabit, the audience is given little reward. The main antagonist in the film takes the shape of thousands of birds, crows, seagulls, and otherwise, that terrorize the citizens of a small California town called Bodega Bay. Yet, when the birds are seen in action, swooping down and bloodying the innocent civilians, it comes off almost as a failed absurdist comedy. Hitchcock’s film has aged so poorly that it is near impossible to feel any sense of fear toward the birds. This winged menace is anything but menacing.
During many of the (supposedly) more intense attack scenes, the birds seem to be wholly fake, and Hitchcock’s refusal to shoot on location gives the film the unfortunate and indubitably un-scary feel of an old campy television program better left forgotten in the dusty basement of some abandoned broadcasting station. The whole thing feels very stuffy and enclosed to the outside world, thus robbing it of any real gravitas. A film like Jaws works well because it’s grounded in the real and when watching it one feels like the events in the film could very well happen to them. This is far from the case with The Birds. It feels even more feigned than a stage play and as a result it’s nearly impossible to get any evocation of terror from the audience. A certain suspension of disbelief is expected from the audience with any piece of art, but nothing in The Birds gives the viewer any reason to suspend that disbelief. Hitchcock’s apparent genius and craft is lost in a fury of feathers.
One could hope that if the film fails at evoking any sense of dread that it could at least accomplish something on a thematic scale. The problem is that The Birds is not crafted to function at any other level than the immediate visceral gut punch of fear that it is supposed to elicit. There is a very broad metaphor at work in the film, but beyond that there is nothing even remotely intellectual about it. The onslaught of the birds symbolize the mother’s fear of losing her child to another woman. The birds are representative of nature (the mother) brought into panic mode when put in danger by a son’s love interest. Yet this is a thin metaphor as it is and there seems to be very little else in the movie, which is a shame considering the potential a premise like this could have. Imagine a situation in which a family going through tumultuous relationship difficulties are forced into an enclosed space because of some unexplainable natural disaster. In the right hands, it could create an almost Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque scenario of mounting tension and verbal assault. Instead, in The Birds we are left with a lukewarm melodrama and something that redefines the word dated.
There are multitudes of great 1960s films that hold up remarkably better than The Birds. Hitchcock’s own Psycho, made before The Birds, can still produce a shiver down anyone’s spine and works on numerous levels. The Birds works on few, if any, making it a sad example of the withering effects of time that make The Birds a largely unsatisfying and un-scary cinematic venture to revisit.