Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Quote of the Day (Dwight Macdonald, on Illogical Thinking in Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’)

“Tippi [Hedren] warns a teacher that crows are massing outside the schoolhouse; their jointly worked-out response to the threat is not to put the kids into the cellar but to march them outside to walk home. To no one’s surprise but Hitchcock’s, the birds come shrieking like Stukas onto the helpless little column.” —American cultural critic and editor Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982), on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in “Films: Mostly on Bird-Watching,” Esquire, October 1963

Sixty years ago this week, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds premiered in New York City. The above quote is only a sample of Dwight MacDonald’s ironic takedown of this film from the “Master of Suspense.”

A post of mine from nine years ago discussed how Hitchcock radically transformed Daphne DuMaurier’s dark, short tale of isolation and terror in a British cottage into something quite different. But I thought that Macdonald’s quote was not only worthwhile in itself to read, but pointed to the sharp critical divide that quickly developed around the film.

At the time, detractors assailed the film for a variety of reasons: a weak script, awkward acting, sadism, special effects at the expense of logic or motivation. 

Movie fans paid no heed to the naysaying reviewers, making this a financially successful follow-up to Hitchcock’s Psycho from three years before.

Even so, the film continues to split opinion, only this time Hitchcock critics call the director out for using live birds for the avian attic attack on Tippi Hedren—an experience that understandably traumatized the actress. (And that was before even  worse treatment she would suffer at his hands during the making of Marnie, when the director subjected her to sexual harassment.)

The Birds, then, is certainly controversial. Yet I hardly think I am alone in regarding it as mesmerizing and chilling, all the way down to its final, ambiguous—and deeply foreboding—image of a landscape filled with the birds, silent and watching.

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