Two horror masterclasses from 1963 on Midnight Screenings.
At the apex of his commercial and artistic powers in 1963, Alfred Hitchcock was a cinematic god with a devil’s temper and an imp’s sense of cackling humor, both of which are fastened ruthlessly to The Birds. No other director could have masterminded the insurrectionist Psycho and survived on the A-list, but even Psycho, released three years before The Birds, had its condolences to the audience, markers of forgiveness that The Birds has no earthly investment in.
Let’s pair it with the otherwise rambunctious Psycho for contraposition and awareness of Hitch’s renewed confidence in The Birds. The final scene of Pyscho, a superior film overall, is ice water on the film’s lusty, libidinal fire, thawing everything out before our eyes by pushing his inexplicable film through the throngs of explication in a final, miserable scene. The greasy sense of sweat-soaked temptation, the morbid shattered-psyche suggestion of the images, and the jittery, frayed spark of the brutal filmmaking and psychosexual implication unravel before our eyes in the great cinematic cop-out ending, where Hitch dredges up a psychiatrist to explain away the terror of male desire and modernist aimlessness by diagnosing it with a name. The ever droll The Birds, however, has no salve for its fatalistic rapture. It saunters in like a volcano ready to erupt, hangs around, and although you may leave, this mordant thresher disfiguring the human species isn’t about to gift us an explanation or an excuse for itself. This late in his career, Hitch didn’t need one.
Even a narrative isn’t ancillary to his achievement here; it’s all in the filmmaking. When Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) runs into Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a little gift shop in San Francisco, she follows him to his little hamlet town of Bodega Bay. Her reasons are sequestered to the marginalia, inscribed in sideways glances as the characters impale each other, and the audience, with loaded glares laced with supercilious disaffection. Real love is foreclosed from the beginning, with every character more or less disenchanted with the world except for their own capacity to either make fun with it or judge it. Flirting isn’t foreplay but fissure.
The tone here is a comic fracas on ice, but the early goings of The Birds aren’t a preamble or an exercise in skirting the point. Rather, they’re a wide-angle powder-keg rising from a simmer to a distressed boil of fragmented community, a glimpse of hell to be paid. Soon enough, a body is discovered in staccato, expressionistic bursts, and suddenly the cover over this boiling cauldron of quaking, pitch-black insinuation blows its top and the film gives in to the coiled malevolence of the human species crumbling under its own emptiness.
Answers are circumspect once the birds make play and the film casually swivels from mordant comedy to stark, frigid terror. One hysterical woman attempts to quantify the avian fiends by blaming it on Hedren’s arrival (the old risqué woman’s mortifying sexuality is our downfall bit). But the film never corroborates the assumption, which would pacify the beasts by asking them to mean something. If anything, The Birds’ non-committal attitude toward explanation (along with its huffy superiority toward anyone who speaks) mocks the woman for attempting to reprimand the feathered invasion by asserting her moral righteousness onto it. The woman feels like a pitch to the squares who want a moral. But, now on top of the world, Hitchcock imbues The Birds with an inexplicable aura of libidinous hysteria and a lustful refusal to circumscribe itself by subscribing to reason.
Even Hitch’s most demented earlier features merely invert assumptions about individualist protagonists while ultimately still acquiescing to audience assumptions that the protagonist will be the primary instigator of action for good or ill (some films like Rear Window are images of how The Birds tests this assumption of protagonist virility). In these films, Hitch molds his protagonists into circumspect devils controlled by their obsessive virility, rather than men who conquer their worlds with it. The Birds, however, commits the even more heretical cinematic sin of simply throwing us into a morass of mostly irrelevant, pliant characters at prey to a world that lives to predate; people are no longer good, evil, obsessed, or anything but vacant voids. It’s relentlessly hip to mend Hitch’s cracked mirror films by taping over the broken angles with the assumption that he is one of the characters, his mind bending and breaking with the contours of the film. But in The Birds, we’re deprived of such an ingress point, any such character who is Hitch. The only potential Hitchcockian surrogate is the film itself: an inexplicable, domineering agenda of chaos here not even gifted with a character’s face for our safekeeping.
While the film refuses to commute our sentences in the void by explaining itself, Hitch stages an aria of alarm and panic, all the more unmooring for how hollow the whole thing feels. There is no undercurrent of logic. There are no scruples; just bedeviled, harried cinematic troublemaking with a fierce charge wary of human interaction and ever-primed to infect. The wispy smattering of airborne evil soon mushrooms into a cloud of looming dread hanging over this little community of people ensconced in a brittle, pristine prettiness that soon mutates into petrifaction.
Summoned from any number of potential wells, are the birds themselves punitive? Maybe, but they’re not picky about it, and neither is Hitch in colliding shrill Hollywood hyperbole (human shrieks, baroque imagery, looming fear) against the frigid vein of icy modernism (after all, the French New Wave made careers writing about Hitchcock and his friends, so why not Hitch steal a little from them?). Humans wander around in a broken shuffle with glitzy décor and product-petrified hair, glaring at each other but only speaking in clipped tones to suggest a world of teases and toyers for whom communication is an excuse to assert their personality onto others. All the while, Hitch takes a hit from Antonioni’s spatially-aware art-house cinema and utilizes empty space as his personal plaything. Hitch’s infamous proverbial piano playing extends not only to the brashness of the imagery but the toxic etching of the contours of humanity itself. He’s not just playing with our pulses, but our souls.
And, ever the cheeky devil, he’s having a blast while he’s at it. Ironically, for a film whose reputation is defined by its iron-clad grip on your throat, The Birds represents the old stalwart director letting his metaphorical hair down. Always one to boast about his size, he spends the film with ghoulish teasing and toying characters disaffected with humanity and then reminds them that not a single one of them is a match for his brand of monomaniacally self-conscious cunning. Having spent Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and numerous other films in the throes of understanding his disreputable, neurotic, even despicable self, The Birds is a kind of maximally proportioned self-love. He’s no longer a director pointing daggers into his stomach but one who hurls them every which way into the outside world. The Birds isn’t his greatest film, or his second greatest, or even his third greatest. But near the end of his career, it’s a much nastier imbroglio: Hitch’s dark playground. Rather than foraging through his mind for purpose, he revels in the purposelessness. The Birds is apocalyptic, but so casually indifferent and cool about it that you wonder whether Hitch thinks the world was worth saving at all. The Birds tilt their heads, and Hitch’s camera, glaring upward at their looming force, is him tilting his glass right back.
For this reason, any explanation would commit its violence upon a film which thrives on textures, sensations, and perceptions which defeat and perplex any thematic reading. Except, of course, those readings which gnaw at us with the fallibility and fragility of our own assumptions that it all has to mean anything in the first place, or that we can unlock the mysteries of a film that is so gleefully, malevolently, tragically inhospitable to any assumptions we might bear upon it, anything we might ask of it. Fittingly, then, in its final moments, the film threatens to tie-up its internal tensions, contradictions, and dialectics in an incredible, truly tragic vanishing act, a diffuse and violent acceptance that any resolution will necessarily be unsatisfying and that the only fruit this film, let alone the world, can offer us is a final admission of abjection. Until the very end, The Birds remains fascinatingly unresolved. L’Avventura by way of Fritz Lang.