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Monday, February 11, 2019

His Most Terrifying?

The Birds a Mixed Blessing for Universal

The Birds was a commercial disappointment. Not a flop, but a disappointment. So were 1963 releases Freud and The Ugly American, said a Universal spokesman to Variety. The Birds, an April 1963 release, had earned $4.6 million in domestic rentals by the end of that year. Variety's January 1964 round-up of "Top Rental Films" from 1963 estimated it would end up with five million. Alfred Hitchcock's previous Psycho had taken $8.9 million and cost way less than The Birds. I was surprised to learn that The Birds did less than expected business, for it had made large impact, especially on my age group. Hitchcock famously said "The Birds Could Be The Most Terrifying Motion Picture I Have Ever Made." Who'd argue at prospect of birds attacking en masse and pecking mankind to death? This seemed cut to order for youth, but therein may have been the rub, for might grown-ups find the concept silly? Similar things had been done along cheap sci-fi lines ... spiders, grasshoppers, all make of nature turned on humanity. Answer to "What's It About?" was/is anyone's threshold query, decision to stay/go based on preferred short answer. If you were nine at the time (which I was), that answer re The Birds represented 1963 ideal, but parents in receipt of same? ("It's about flocks of birds that kill people") Well ... maybe not so much.

Los Angeles Saturation Opening
Did Universal marketing sense a problem? Did Wasserman or anyone warn Hitchcock ahead of production that The Birds might not fly? When I finally caught it on historic NBC broadcast night (1-6-68, and a record audience for a movie on television), The Birds seemed vaguely a letdown for winged terrors not swooping down on San Francisco (or at least Oakland) for a wow finish. I was imposing monster movie expectations on something entirely different. Had others done as much? Did adults as well figure on a showdown where we'd defeat the birds or be overrun by them? I was a few more years adjusting to the quiet ending, was longer realizing that no other wrap could have worked, let alone birds vs. military might ("Guns, tanks, bombs, they're like toys against them!" was OK as applied to Martians, but to feathered former friends?). Hitchcock had taken on William Castle's sort of spook thriller with Psycho and won. Once-benign wildlife felling man gave him but qualified victory. Had AH seen enough sci-fi to realize how locked-in its formulas were? Most of us with price of admission and dime bags of popcorn looked for Godzillas on each moviegoing horizon. To withhold essential bumps was to incur our displeasure. Meanwhile Mom and dad sat home where entertainment was comfy and free.

Hordes, as in viewership, came for The Birds when NBC premiered it in January 1968. The network claimed 47,700,000 watchers, which was, said tabulators, an all-time high figure (unseated champ The Bridge On The River Kwai for ABC). You could believe the number or not, but all agreed that Hitchcock had made ratings history, and from that Saturday night came enshrine of The Birds as tip-top of home-audience getters. It would be a sharpest knife in a Universal drawer open to syndication, local stations knowing they could boost ad revenue by scheduling The Birds for prime or late hours. Psycho had been problematic as tube-cast. A network run was skipped thanks to controversy. The Birds went down easier because there was less tension to trim. As I recall, and someone correct me if I'm wrong, the only cut NBC made was close-ups of the farmer with his eyes plucked out. As I recall from that night of fifty years ago, we got a first glimpse only, the two more explicit shots to follow dropped by network censors. The sensation of its NBC broadcast and high profile after-play made The Birds seem in hindsight the biggest hit of all from Hitchcock, television a perfect venue for it.

I've lately watched the Blu-Ray again, and would wager The Birds looks better on this format than even 35mm. I now prefer build-up and quieter scenes to melee that starts almost an hour in. The bird attacks are still a little much for me, especially where children are victims, or worse, when Tippi Hedren ventures into a third act attic, which I chapter-skipped this time, having read more than enough of what Hitchcock put the actress through to get effects he wanted. The Birds' first half, then, is a most pleasing, with pace, structure, crisp editing, trick shots, mainly mattes, to enhance Bodega Bay locations. I could take the birds out of The Birds and like it as much. Was Tippi Hedren's Melanie Daniels the last of madcap heiresses to topline a major movie? Lots that is old-fashioned gets aired here. I ran The Birds at ASU/Greenbriar once and they laughed at the scene where Tippi/Melanie torments over the mother that deserted her, an on-the-nose crowbar of "depth" into the character. The college kids whiffed that and mocked accordingly, a reaction I'd not seen before and which surprised me. Still, The Birds had its legend, passed down by elders no doubt, Hitchcock a name to be reckoned with among the student body. This was over ten years ago, however, so I wonder if he still has that cache.

The Birds as seen through amorous eyes of Melanie Daniels HERE.


Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

When THE BIRDS aired on network TV I was not allowed to watch it, being 8 years old. That was a mark for me and I finally saw it a couple of years later. I was so excited but wound up thinking the film was 'OK".

9:38 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Although I may have seen THE BIRDS when I was very young on TV, the first time I remember seeing it formally was when I was around 15. The film seemed and still is OK, even though I felt that most of the visual effects felt cheap, but it is far from Hitchcock's most memorable works (some of the TV episodes he personally directed or even some which he only produced are better). The biggest shock I felt seeing it was the ending when the Universal logo appeared (which Hitchcock didn't like either). I never liked how the film ends but after a while I had to agree with you that I don't know what could have been a better ending for it.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I saw that 1968 airing on NBC, and distinctly remember the shot of the farmer with the pecked-out eyes because it scared the hell out of me -- and I was 12.

My wife and I saw The Birds on TCM a few years ago. What dates it the most are the obvious matte shots. But Bernard Herrman's bird squwaks are terrific.

1:28 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

If memory serves, in his interviews with Truffaut Hitchcock said that the shooting script had the schoolteacher in the attic scene, but he decided it would be stronger to have the heroine there; thus the teacher was killed off earlier. The ultra-prepared director said he didn't like to make changes after shooting had begun, but it felt necessary.

ANY explanation, direct or implied, would have diminished "The Birds" Or a conventional ending of any kind. How many horror or scifi films killed the terror -- deliberately? -- by giving it a voice or a seemingly logical basis? If a horrific space beast can articulate his contempt for Earthlings, he's far less horrific even if he wins at the end.

"The Birds" never explains anything; nor does it hint at what follows the fadeout. We only get a radio voice saying it's spreading. There's neither hope nor the catharsis of a definite finish; for all we know the heroine is already beyond help.

The MAD satire ended with Burt Lancaster bursting through a wall surrounded by birds. He was wreaking vengeance because he didn't get an Oscar for "Birdman of Alcatraz".

3:25 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

THE BIRDS is superb. When it comes to performance we do what we have to do to get what is required. Chaplin had a hell of a time on CITY LIGHTS with Virginia Cherrill. Good thing he got what he needed from her. She will shine through the ages.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

There was a 1953 radio adaptation starring Herbert Marshall which follows the original short story a little more faithfully, and is - in its own way - every bit as compelling as Hitchcock's film.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

AH's treatment of Hedren had little to do with her onscreen performance.

8:51 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Has any critic ever discussed the Freudian aspect of The Birds? Tippi Hedren's resemblance to Jessica Tandy is just a smidge creepy to Stinky.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The decision not to have a formal score was brilliant. You always know it's THE BIRDS when it's on tv.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Anyone catch the clever transition in the opening scene? Tippi is seen walking on location in San Francisco, walks behind a newsstand and is now on the Universal backlot!

10:00 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I've noticed that many of the newspaper ads don't list the addresses of the movie theater. Everyone then knew where the cinema was, like city hall.

10:02 AM  
Blogger RobW said...

I checked this out for the first time in many years on a TCM Classic Cruise a few years ago and I was in agony through most of it. Nothing but dialogue upon dialogue for far too long, none of it especially interesting or revealing as far as I was concerned. I doubt I will ever watch it again.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Barry Rivadue; I love that shot... the best special effect in the movie! Think some folks get a letdown on first viewing since it is often referred to as a horror movie and really isn't. I've always thought this to be the first of a later day Hitchcock era; technical methods he had mastered for decades begin to look a tad dated around the edges, long time collaborators either retire or die off, and director occasionally seems, well, just a little unsure. But I really enjoy most of these later films, and love, love THE BIRDS and understand why it remains one of Sir Alfred's signature works. And, yes, Stinky, I'm sure you could fill a library with critical essays on the off center mother-child relationships in the Hitchcocks, this one in particular.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

It was Hitchcock's intent to have a slow buildup to the bird attacks. I guess it didn't work for everyone! I'm also astounded when Tippi & Rod Taylor stroll on location along some dunes, and then into a massive indoor exterior set. That's a rather nervy illusion to pull off.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

The Monday morning at school, following the broadcast, was an absolute corner....all anyone, well, anyone male, could talk about was the pecked out eyes....and I think you're right about the was almost "did I actually see that?...."

5:42 PM  

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