Donald Spoto, in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, traces the director’s long bird fixation, culminating in 1960’s Psycho (“You eat like a bird,” Norman tells future prey Marion Crane as they sit in a room full of taxidermized owls): that film marked the Master of Suspense’s first venture into outright horror, and his greatest popular success. Add to that two previous Daphne du Maurier adaptations–Jamaica Inn and his first American film (and only Best Picture Oscar) Rebecca–and it is hardly surprising that he would base his next project on du Maurier’s nightmarish short story “The Birds.” What is remarkable is that out of these familiar elements, Hitchcock would come up with the most experimental film of his career, both artistically and technically.

He had also planned to work with one of his most constant partners, composer Bernard Herrmann (whose scores for Vertigo, Psycho, etc., form an immortal body of work and add immeasurably to Hitchcock’s own legacy). Though they would fall out one day over creative differences on Torn Curtain, Herrmann was modest (and hip) enough to take a backseat on The Birds, as “sound consultant” for Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala’s revolutionary soundtrack. It consisted entirely of bird noises composed on the Trautonium, a bizarre analog synthesizer with a long wire in place of a keyboard. In other words, Hitchcock was scoring a movie with cutting-edge German electronica when Tangerine Dream were still in lederhosen.

The famous lack of conventional ‘music’ lends power to scenes like the Dan Fawcett zoom-cut and the fluttering attic climax. The corollary to this, much less remarked upon, is perhaps just as significant: no natural bird sounds, either. This suits a film so dependent on visual artifice-and not only its thousands of blue-screened, mechanical, and animated stars. The film that made Bodega Bay famous has scarcely a location shot in the whole damn thing. Described by Robin Wood as “the most artificial of filmmakers,” Hitchcock has been criticized for his hermetic, studio-bound style and extensive use of processed backgrounds; this film contains more optical effects than any of his other works. Its birdies make Song of the South’s look like Dogme 95 purists. Even scenes you’d never suspect, like simple shots of Tippi and Rod walking down the street, were assembled by a matte artist (whose unlikely name, Albert Whitlock, makes him Hitchcock’s own Donald Regan). Another technical wizard drafted to Hitch’s effects team, Ub Iwerks, got an Oscar nod for his efforts here but probably remains better known for an earlier partnership that birthed a rather successful film creation: you’ve heard of Mickey Mouse?

Even minus the postproduction effects, the editing is some of the best in all of Hitchcock (and thus, the movies). The final assault in the attic, an echo of Psycho, has a spot on a Rolling Stone list of the Top 10 scenes to watch in slow-mo. Humane Society reps scrupulously guarded the avian talent, enforcing a strict 5 p.m. clock-out. If only the Screen Actors Guild had given equal protection to the first-time starlet: her eye was gashed, and eventually she suffered a nervous collapse, stalling the already-epic shoot by another week.

Hitchcock’s most ambitious effort in terms of planning, shooting, and post-production, The Birds also bears the hallmark of a ‘modern,’ auteurist understanding of the medium. The sixties were perhaps the height of international art-film culture, and Hitchcock was a major role model for the reigning notion of the director as ‘author’ with a personal style and set of thematic concerns. Yet though the nouvelle vague claimed him for their own, Spoto points out that Truffaut-as-interviewer expressed little interest in The Birds. Likewise, according to Patrick McGilligan’s recent bio, “Hitchcock watched all of Truffaut’s films; he kept up loyally with the output of anyone with whom he was acquainted. Curiously, though, the pictures that really struck him-startled him, really, out of his rut-were those of Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni.” It is the latter name that seems relevant here. In a documentary on its DVD, The Birds is judged “self-consciously ‘European’ in its lack of resolution.” More specifically, it recalls the tentative affirmation closing L’Avventura, or the silent, abstract spaces that conclude L’Eclisse. The artsy anticlimax (without so much as a ‘Fin’) was even more perplexing to audiences still reeling from the intense double-twist of his last film (Marion’s sudden death and her killer’s identity). While Vertigo’s last shot was also ambiguous, the events leading up to it were explained–but The Birds, a film about the unaccountable, could have been ruined by just one scene of a scientist offering exposition (that this is not the case with Psycho is a testament to just how stunning the rest of that film is).

Upon seeing Blow-Up, Antonioni’s ambiguous mod thriller, Hitchcock exclaimed, “These Italian directors are a century ahead of me in terms of technique! What have I been doing all this time?” A funny question, since Blow-Up was so obviously inspired by his own work, in particular Rear Window. (Nor was it Antonioni’s only variation on the Master: The Passenger ‘is but existential north-northwest,’ and was Rod Taylor cast in Zabriskie Point for that unbearably smarmy pet shop scene?) Even if Hitch felt he had fallen behind by 1966, his approach in The Birds indicates that he had his finger on the pulse of Europe for some time, and rather than the romanticism of most young French directors, Hitchcock was gripped by the Italian modernists’ cryptic examinations of empty glamour and moral unease among the well-to-do (mocked as “Antoniennui”). The Birds made the Top 10 favorites of another ex-neorealist, Fellini, who, fully grokking its intentions, dubbed it “an apocalyptic poem”–and perhaps the tabloid item about Melanie cavorting in a Roman fountain sounded strangely familiar?

Not unlike Stanley Kubrick with 2001 (which owed its glacial style even more to Antonioni, and also made Fellini’s Top 10), Hitchcock found a way to make a big-budget genre flick not just technologically groundbreaking but, in its own way, truly avant-garde. It deserves a richer treatment than can be given here; happily, that is available in Camille Paglia’s superb monograph for the BFI Film Classics series.

US, 1963. 120 min. Cast: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright; Music: Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman (with Bernard Herrmann); Cinematography: Robert Burks; Editing: George Tomasini; Animal trainer: Ray Berwick; Written by Evan Hunter; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

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