Anyone who has whistled past a flock of resting crows or gulls after seeing The Birds can testify to the film’s visceral and emotional power. If ever there were a Hitchcock film that seems to warrant his inflated reputation, it is The Birds. The film repeatedly provides cinematically brilliant, gut-wrenching, almost abstract entertainment. It also unfortunately arouses the same sour taste that most of Hitchcock’s later films inspire. It’s brilliant, all right, but it is also wafer-thin and repellent.
Unusually for Hitchcock, The Birds offers more than contrived suspense about individual characters imperiled by outlandish situations. Not that The Birds’ natural subject provides some kind of prescient warning of imminent ecological collapse. (The idea of Hitchcock as a green avant la lettre is laughable, although no doubt one of his idolators has made the argument.) Rather, the clearly human causes for the suspense and danger in most Hitchcock films are replaced in The Birds with a world out of control, in which something as benignly pleasant as birds suddenly devolves into unrestrained, chaotic fury. And since the cause of the birds’ malevolence is never determined, much less explained, there is no happy resolution of the type that so badly mars much of Hitchcock’s work. The Birds’ open ending, with the main characters driving off into a frightening uncertainty, may provide the single most haunting image in all of his films.
If only the rest had a similar resonance, for while The Birds provides a larger subject, the director’s familiar sadistic glee crowds out any serious thought about the ramifications in favor of nasty, momentary thrills. What does it say for an artist that he could make people feel more uncomfortable than anyone else? When he shows children being attacked by crows, or puts us in the heroine’s perspective as seagulls fly straight at the camera, or shows the corpse of a farmer whose eyes have been pecked out, or when he artfully makes of an other-worldly situation nothing more than a series of sensational jolts, what is he proving beyond his peerless ability to make us squirm? There is no attitude towards these events beyond their exploitation. Fear is not so much the subject of Hitchcock’s films as their only purpose.
It is the feeling that the contrived distress produced by Hitchcock’s films does not justify his unpleasant attitudes that makes me uneasy. The better the results are, the queasier they make me feel and I do not think that derives from the director’s subversive genius so much as from a nagging doubt that the ends justify his means. For ultimately The Birds is nothing but a series of vicious, scalpel sharp, technically stunning but intellectually bankrupt directorial flourishes, executed with an élan few could match, but also with a cavalier disregard for anything better than making our skin crawl. If the results are genius, it is a stunningly vacuous, mean-spirited genius.