Nearly a half-century on, Alfred Hitchcock's legendary shocker The Birds remains thrilling, amusing and profoundly disturbing, despite having a premise that on a stark, white page seems borderline laughable. Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, the big-screen adaptation depicts a small seaside Californian town terrifyingly and inexplicably besieged by random flocks of very angry birds.
While death by seagull pecks may sound like a fairly silly way to die, on the screen, thanks to the bone-chilling master craftsmanship of one of the medium's greatest directors, the results are truly horrifying. Fright fans and, frankly, any fan of classic movies will have a unique chance to be scared witless once again this weekend, as the historic Redford Theatre presents The Birds for three screenings Sept. 28-29, with a very special guest, the film's star, Tippi Hedren, in attendance.
Hitchcock had intended to reunite Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, the co-stars of the director's immortal hit North by Northwest, but when they were unavailable, he cast ruggedly handsome Australian actor Rod Taylor and the pretty newcomer Hedren.
Hitch had a well-known fetish for leggy blondes, and he was notoriously hard on his leading ladies, subjecting them to passive-aggressive and sometimes cruel treatment on set. Most of this animosity would come after a starlet rejected the portly, socially awkward director's fumbling advances, and Hedren was no exception. The actress endured his verbal and psychological abuse through the making of 1964's Marnie, before forcing her way out of her contract, a struggle depicted in a recent HBO original film, called The Girl, in which Sienna Miller plays the stressed-out Hedren. Today, the 83-year-old Tippi claims that Hitch's torture may have hampered her career, but not ruined her life, and she seems pleased to be connected with such an iconic film.
The Birds, to this day, with the possible exception of Psycho, is Hitchcock's most easily identifiable film, though in many ways it's the least representative of his canon. Throughout his long, extraordinary career, suspense maven Hitchhock dealt in nonsupernatural, earthbound threats, frequently involving the malice hidden inside the hearts of seemingly normal people. With The Birds, he took a leap into more speculative fiction with an external, inhuman and mostly unexplained menace.
Most human killers are driven by greed, jealousy, revenge, or some understandable motivation — but a murderous flock of ravens can't be reasoned with. Why are our feathered friends turning against us? No one in the movie is ever certain what is causing this sudden revolt from the animal kingdom, and that uncertainty lingers over the proceedings, and ratchets the tension up to unsettling levels.
Where Psycho famously made people afraid to step into hotel showers, The Birds left theatergoers edgy at the sound of flapping wings, and infused otherwise reasonable people with a nagging sense that there might be unknown danger lurking on every tree branch or telephone wire. The film represented a break from the atomic monsters, mad scientists and commie allegories that had previously dominated the genre, and brought about a new form of creepy, almost ecological terror — in which nature turns on humanity. The Birds would start a continuing trend in horror, with all manner of critters great and small — snakes, insects, grizzlies, and even fluffy bunny rabbits — suddenly attacking.
And yes, The Birds continues to inspire filmmakers today, sometimes with disastrous results. M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening tried and failed to tap the vibe. There is also what could charitably be called "an homage," the inept, low budget knock-off Birdemic: Shock and Terror, which has been held up by many as the new standard for the worst movie in the world, and will soon be mocked live by the wiseacres of Rifftrax.
Despite all the lore and baggage attached over the years, The Birds remains a classic, as does the venue hosting it. The Redford Theatre is an ornate movie palace that has served Detroit-area moviegoers uninterrupted since 1928. Any opportunity to see a film presented at this local gem is an opportunity to step back into the days when going to the movies was a more elegant affair, and it was easier to get lost in the world on screen, than in the generic big-box parking lots of modern cineplexes.
The Birds screens at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, and at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser Rd., Detroit; 248-615-3651; redfordtheatre.com.