Based upon the Daphne du Maurier novella, Hitchcock juxtaposes a playfully frantic love story and an apocalyptic fury of feathers and claws, which takes flight as a tense frisson of unbearable suspense and tragedy. Melanie Daniels is a flighty socialite and Mitch Brenner a down-to-earth Public Defender: two disparate people who discover love at the end of the world.
The film begins with Melanie, dressed in her green suite and expensive furs, crossing the street and looking skyward where a flock of birds ominously gather. An eerie hollow screech and sharp beating of wings dominate the soundtrack: Hitchcock doesn’t score the film and only briefly uses foreground music. As Melanie pursues Mitch to Bodega Bay with a pair of lovebirds, the atmosphere begins to subtly change. When the first gull attacks her nearly 50 minutes into the film, the tension begins to quickly mount. Melanie sheds her furs and Mitch soon discovers the true person beneath. Then the avian assault begins.
Hitchcock deftly builds each scene: Melanie at the schoolhouse, as a murder of crows secretly gathers behind her; a tiny finch flitting out of the fireplace moments before the torrent; Mitch’s mother’s quest for her neighbor which reveals broken china…and much more. The running and terrified children, the burning town, Melanie ensnared in a phone booth, and the townsfolk who silently huddle with vacant birdlike stares are sequences that are shockingly unforgettable. The human race has become imprisoned in a cage while the birds now hold dominion. His editing is masterful: from reaction shot to exposing bits of information, cut by cut until the bloody reveal quickens the pulse. The plot only falters with exposition as an ornithologist just happens into the dinner to discuss the impossibility of the attacks, a bible quoting drunk, and the quick accusation against Melanie barely clips the narrative’s tail feathers.
In the final act they take refuge in Mitch’s farmhouse and suffer the frenzied onslaught, bloodied and emotionally spent, while Melanie is reduced to a walking dead, raped by the piercing beaks and raking claws. The two caged lovebirds still nestle together, untouched by madness, a fleeting but hopeful metaphor for Melanie and Mitch…and the whole human race. But the ending is a bleak mise-en-scene as their car sputters through a parting sea of raptors, the world once again belonging to the dinosaurs.
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a chirp.
Final Grade: (A)