Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pecking Order

If there's one film that manages to pry into our psycho-sexual fears and stay wedged there, it's Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Social critic Camille Paglia was so intrigued by the film's subtext she wrote a scene-by-scene analysis of the movie over ten years ago, so any observations I can make will probably pale in comparison with her astute and scholarly decree.

On the surface, the film's impact relies on its conceptual conceit of a normally benign denizen of nature -- the birds of the air -- suddenly turning on mankind. While that's a surprising and formidable source of terror, the complex interplay of sexually-charged elements between the human characters is what's really unsettling.

The action takes place over just one weekend, so the events seem to be unspooling in something like real time. Tippi Hedren's spoiled heiress Melanie Daniels never even has a chance to change out of her sea foam green Chanel suit. Essentially, after a flirtatious encounter in a San Francisco pet shop (one that I actually used to frequent for cat food until its recent demise) Hedren's character purchases two love birds and drives them up to Rod Taylor's ranch in Bodega Bay, as a kind of prank. She's supposed to be a smug socialite, given to nude drunken escapades in Roman fountains, so this kind of caper is in keeping with her Paris Hiltonesque persona. Her arrival in the small fishing village with the pet birds in a cage seems to have angered the avian gods, perhaps because she dared besmirch true love by carelessly gifting love birds. Birds of all types start misbehaving, and she and Taylor's attraction grows against the backdrop of increasingly ferocious attacks.

Forget the pecking and dive-bombing sea gulls and ravens. The film's real perversity lies in Taylor's relationship with all the women in his life. Acting veteran Jessica Tandy, her patrician accent sorely out of place in rural Northern California, plays his needy, fearful widowed mother, threatened by the appearance of the cool blonde Hedren. Then there's his ex-girlfriend, the school teacher Annie Hayworth, played with a sultry resignation by Suzanne Pleshette, who ends up sharing her cottage with her far more sophisticated rival -- and getting pecked to death in her own front yard. And Veronica Cartwright, who would go on to scream-queen fame in such epics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and The Witches of Eastwick, plays his little sister Cathy. There's more than a vague incestuous vibe between Taylor and his mother, who seems a bit too young, and his sister, who seems more like his daughter. It's these four females who are plucking and pulling at him, and though the film was based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier with the same title, I wonder if, in naming the film, the British Hitchcock wasn't making a reference to the derisive Cockney term for women -- birds.

My favorite scene is when Tandy, terrified by the latest fatal bird attack on a neighboring farmer, urges Hedren to go to the school to collect her daughter. While she waits impatiently on a bench smoking a cigaret, the monkey bars behind her fill up ominously with crows. Talk about your problems coming home to roost.

There was Internet chatter recently that the film was going to be remade with Naomi Watts in the Hedren role, but that project seems to have stalled. While it's intriguing to consider what today's CGI technology could do visually with the story -- Hitchcock had to nix the final scene he'd planned of the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds because it was too costly to create -- I somehow doubt the end result would approach the original's ability to get under, and stay under, the viewer's skin. I think it might even lay an egg.

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