That which does not scare us can make us laugh.
Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By PETER TONGUETTE
At the height of his career, in 1963, Alfred Hitchcock spoke of playing the audience like an organ: “I’m using their natural instincts to help them enjoy fear,” he said to an interviewer, adding, “I know exactly when to stop, to relieve them at the right moment, otherwise they’ll laugh in the wrong places.” Speaking on the occasion of the much-ballyhooed release of The Birds—the director’s third consecutive hit, following North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960)—Hitchcock was right to feel sanguine about his bond with moviegoers.
Alas, times change. Hitchcock died in 1980, and by 1998 Gus van Sant had decided to remake Psycho because, as he put it, there was “a whole generation of moviegoers who probably hadn’t seen” the first version. If they had, they would have found that much of Hitchcock’s original handiwork had dated miserably. Among film scholars, Hitchcock is still revered—Vertigo (1958) bested Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest movie ever made in a recent poll of critics—but, to adopt his own terms, the general public began literally laughing in the wrong places quite some time ago. In Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990), Anthony Perkins said he was doubtful that the Master of Suspense had been “prepared for the amount and intensity of the on-the-spot laughs that he got from first-run audiences around the world. He was confused, at first, incredulous second, and despondent third.”
Audiences have not gotten any more reverential toward Psycho, especially when it comes to the infamous scene in which a slick psychiatrist lamely explains Norman Bates’s madness. Contrary to critical consensus, Van Sant’s remake is the far smarter—and scarier—film.
But no Hitchcock film has aged as poorly as The Birds, which turns 50 this year. Inspired by a story by Daphne du Maurier, at first the film feels like a bubbly comedy in the mode of Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941). (Screenwriter Evan Hunter has said he wanted the film to have a screwball comedy flavor.) Headline-making society girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and successful, unattached attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) parry one-liners in a San Francisco pet shop as they are shopping for lovebirds. Smitten, Melanie shadows Mitch to his widowed mother’s house on Bodega Bay (where his little sister also lives), but before they can consummate their affair, the whole town starts falling victim to bird attacks. Explaining his intentions in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock said, “So you start, really, with a clear sky. And gradually, gradually, you darken it, and the events take over.”
Well, in the past dozen years, I have twice seen The Birds with large, paying audiences, and on both occasions they were more invested in the bauble-like beginning than the purportedly terrifying main story—surely the opposite of what Hitchcock had in mind. In wooing Mitch, Melanie engages in acts of subterfuge worthy of Hitchcock’s terrific early spy movies, such as The 39 Steps (1935) or the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). If nothing else, Melanie’s ingenious plotting is certainly more unpredictable than the bird attacks that follow. Later scenes stop working just when Hitchcock means for them to frighten. For example, a late-night conversation between Melanie and one of Mitch’s ex-girlfriends is nicely written and acted until we hear the blaring thump of a seagull hitting the front door. It is about as threatening as the sound of the town paperboy tossing the evening gazette. Even worse is the ensuing dialogue. Annie suggests that the animal lost its way in the dark. Melanie replies, in her best quizzical tone: “But it isn’t dark, Annie. There’s a full moon.” They share a look of foreboding, and the scene fades to black.
“The only characters in the film who aren’t birdbrains are the birds,” wrote Dwight Macdonald in his review of the movie. His examples include entire set-pieces that defy good sense:
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