Thursday, March 28, 2013

For The Birds

As I have written here before, I am a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock's work.

It's something I picked up from my parents. They were Hitchcock fans, too, and they introduced me to many of his best movies.

And a lifetime of watching Hitchcock movies has convinced me that you can learn a lot about a person based on which Hitchcock movie is his/her favorite.

But I'll be darned if I know what it is.

Personally, I'm torn. I really like 'em all, but my very favorites are "North By Northwest" and "Psycho." I can, however, make a case for "Vertigo" or "Rear Window" or "Strangers On A Train." Depending on my mood, I can even make a case for "To Catch A Thief."

Well, I told you I'm a Hitchcock fan!

I know several people who would tell you that the Hitchcock movie that premiered 50 years ago today — "The Birds" — is their favorite.

It's never been my personal favorite. I watched it for the first time when I was about 20, and I thought it was good, but, if anyone had asked me at the time, I would have said that I preferred maybe half a dozen Hitchcock films to that one.

My opinion hasn't really changed over the years, and I have often wondered about why that is so. Here is what I have concluded:

"The Birds" is the only Hitchcock movie I can think of in which the villain is not a human.

That's an important distinction for me. You see, however bizarre their behavior may have been, anything that birds do falls under the heading of natural phenomena in my book.

It is not a conscious choice. Blaming animals for behavior that leads to the loss of human life makes as much sense as blaming a tornado or an earthquake.

Human behavior, on the other hand, frequently is the result of a conscious choice — at some point and on some level.

Well, that's the distinction. And I think it does say something about those who pick "The Birds" as their favorite Hitchcock movie.

But, as I say, I'll be darned if I know what it is.

I do know, however, that animals and suspense movies are an effective combination.

The shark in "Jaws," after all, was named to the list of the movies' greatest villains by the American Film Institute. "Snakes on a Plane" provided considerable chills for moviegoers as did the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park."

But those creatures were always menacing in those movies. The only time they were not threatening was when they appeared to be confined.

The birds in "The Birds," though, were docile at the beginning of the movie — and at the end, even when they seemed to have congregated in one spot.

The official story I heard was that "The Birds" was inspired by a novel, and I don't doubt that, but I am inclined to think the reason why Hitchcock was drawn to a story about birds gone wild is because, for the most part, birds are seen as nonthreatening creatures. The same cannot be said of sharks or snakes or even dinosaurs (although dinosaurs disappeared long before man came along).

Nonthreatening creatures that suddenly become threatening seem to be more frightening. Maybe that's because we are taught from an early age that dogs and cats — and birds — are friendly creatures whereas sharks and snakes and bears are hostile. We don't expect dogs or cats — or birds — to be hostile; when they are, we don't know how to react.

I suppose that is particularly true of birds.

As I was writing this, a flock of birds flew past my window. Under ordinary circumstances, I probably wouldn't think twice about that.

But I've been writing about Hitchcock's "The Birds."