One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most graphic, chilling, and under-appreciated thrillers, The Birds is the mysterious tale of a small North Bay town under attack by birds gone wild. No real explanation is provided, and the film ends without an answer why. But it wouldn’t even matter if it did.
What does matter is how it affects the townspeople, both in turning against one another and how they deal with the bird situation. Themes of sexism and racism are strong undercurrents throughout the story, as the locals fear the birds came along with the wealthy, single yet sexually liberal protagonist who is new in town.
The theme of the changing role of women extends beyond the central avian conflict; the now-archaic term “Birds” used to be a derogatory word for “Women,” which can be seen through the story’s human narrative. There is one male character, and four women swirling around him, competing for his attentions and affections in different ways. At times, the melodrama of this storyline exceeds the drama of the bird action.
The bird sequences, however, are truly terrifying and unforgettable. I saw this film for the first time in theaters tonight, having grown up watching it on home video, and I have rarely had a cinematic experience as intense as this one. Hearing the audio in full stereo, the clicks and squawks of the birds truly envelop the audience as you hear them sweep through the air around you. The violence is actually quite graphic for Hitchcock standards, and the blood pops off the screen in lurid technicolor. This feature also contains one of Hitchcock’s more disturbing images, of children lying helpless on the ground as birds peck them to death.
When compared to Hitchcock’s more accepted masterpieces like Vertigoand Rear Window, The Birds is less impressive; but taken on its own for what it is, an unsettling thrill ride, it does stand out as a triumph of special effects and storytelling.