Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in June 2018. — J.R.
A subtle, complex follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest hit, Psycho, his 50th feature (1963) is quite different — and not just because this apocalyptic fantasy is his most abstract film, as Dave Kehr has noted, but also because his shift from black and white to widescreen color works in tandem with the abstraction. The same abstraction extends to cosmic long shots worthy of Abbas Kiarostami that seem posed more as philosophical questions than as rhetorical answers. And as soon as we notice that the flippant heroine, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), has been color-coordinated, thanks to her blond hair and green dress, with the two lovebirds in their cage that she’s bringing to Bodega Bay as part of an elaborately flirtatious grudge match waged against a disapproving stranger, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), it’s already clear that Hitchcock has something metaphysical as well as physical in mind.
What keeps his scare show so unnervingly unpredictable is that the explanation we crave for why birds have started to attack humanity is never forthcoming. (Hitchcock said in interviews that The Birds was about “complacency,” without spelling out whether he meant that of his characters, his audience, or both.) What we get instead, as one possible parallel to Psycho, is murderous violence as an arbitrary dramatic premise. A blond heroine’s sudden flight from a city becomes a trip to the wilds — a movement towards the irrational, inexplicable fury of divine retribution, related somehow to those stuffed birds in Norman Bates’ office.
When we hear that a flock of birds has also hit Santa Rosa, this is Hitchcock’s way of cross-referencing his own Shadow of a Doubt, an earlier double-edged look at life and family dysfunction in a California small town. Recalling that earlier film’s rhymes between a niece and uncle both named Charlie (Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten), this film juxtaposes characters made stronger (like Melanie) and/or weaker (like Mitch’s mother, Jessica Tandy) by a shared mortal crisis, surrounded by eccentric neighbors of diverse temperaments.