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review added: 4/7/00



The Birds
Collector's Edition - 1963 (2000) - Universal

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD

The Birds: Collector's Edition Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/A-

Specs and Features

120 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:45:07, at the start of chapter 18), Amaray keep case packaging, documentary entitled All About The Birds, deleted scene, the original ending, story board sequence, Tippi Hedren's screen test, The Birds is Coming (Universal International Newsreel), National Press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel), production photographs and notes, cast and filmmaker bios, theatrical trailer, Universal web link, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English


The Birds was Alfred Hitchcock's follow-up to the critical and box office knockout he created in Psycho. After such a huge victory, he needed some time to come up with his next effort, one that would live up to the expectations brought on by its wildly successful predecessor. Though it is nearly impossible to equal the achievements of a ground-breaking film like Psycho, The Birds is by all means one of the best technical efforts of his career. For the most part, time has been kind to The Birds, and thirty-seven years later, it's still an effective dramatic thriller.

The movie is based on a short story of the same name by Daphne DuMaurier, whose novel Rebecca became Hitchcock's first American film. One of the great things about The Birds is the nice dramatic arc of the story. When we are first introduced to the characters, it's in a cutesy sort of way. Merry prankster Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is shopping for some birds in a downtown San Francisco pet shop, when she meets stuffy attorney Mitch Brenner (Rob Taylor). When he catches Melanie in the middle of one of her tricks, she uses her considerable meddlesome skills to track him down in Bodega Bay to surprise him with a gift of two lovebirds.

Once on the island, the story gradually and skillfully unfolds into the kind of suspense and terror that audiences have come to expect from Alfred Hitchcock. While secretly delivering the birds to Mitch's home, Melanie is attacked by a seagull. As the weekend presses on, the attacks on the town grow in frequency, and the number of birds swells to biblical proportions. The townspeople grow suspicious of Melanie, since the attacks coincide with her arrival in town. As the movie progresses toward its disastrous ending, tempers flare and tensions rise as everyone tries to understand why the birds have taken their anger out on their idyllic town.

One interesting side note - for all the seagulls, crows, black birds and finches on the set, there is not one drop of bird poop throughout the entire movie. Not one! Truth be told, it's better that way. I suppose it's hard to concentrate on saving your own neck when you're worrying about being a moving target for a bunch of angry birds with chips on their shoulders. By the way, do birds even have shoulders?

The amount of detail (bird poop aside) put into The Birds is astonishing. Hitchcock used master craftsman Albert Whitlock to create some amazing matte paintings, that are seamlessly blended into shots of Bodega Bay and sets on the back lot of Universal Studios. Instead of using blue-screen effect shots for some of the more difficult to film scenes, the filmmakers used a sophisticated, more realistic looking sulfur-screen effect. This process was pioneered early on by Disney and dispensed with the fuzzy-edged look the blue-screen technique created. At times, it really is hard to tell which sequences are effect shots and which are the real deal.

The Birds is one of two horror films (The Exorcist being the other) that made real headway with the use of noise and natural sounds to create a very specific mood on film. Hitchcock chose to forego the usual instrumental score and instead went with the use of emerging keyboard technology to create a soundtrack of bird calls, cries, and wing-flapping that really get under the viewer's skin. The effects track is very much tied into the movie in a way that musical scores sometimes aren't. The noises crescendo, dip and startle in the same manner a musical soundtrack would, without creating a piece separate from the movie itself for the audience to focus on.

The only part of the movie that doesn't really stand the test of time is some of the bird effect shots. The Birds was made, of course, long before the advent of CGI effects. Sure, they were good at the time, but sometimes it really does look like mechanical birds on wires, particularly in the birthday party scene. Sometimes the effects work, sometimes they don't. Even when they fail, they're still entertaining in a charming, goofy sort of way.

On DVD, The Birds looks very good. This is obviously a brand new transfer because it looks gorgeous. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is striking, particularly when you consider the age of the movie. The colors are intentionally muted to reflect the foggy atmosphere of the Bay area, yet the colors are all distinct from each other without a lot of noticeable bleed. Blacks are solid with a lot of detail. There is a little bit of edge enhancement, but nothing that will divert your attention. The mono soundtrack is also good, but the lack of a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is somewhat of a disappointment. Considering what an asset the movie's use of sound is, a new treatment would have served to increase that mood and provide even more effect. How frightening it would be to hear birds coming at you from all around! Nonetheless, the sound provided is clear and adequate.

There are a number of features included on this disc. The documentary, All About The Birds is one of the more thorough and entertaining I've seen on a DVD special edition. Virtually all aspects of the movie, from pre-production to release, are covered in a fair amount of detail. Universal included interviews with many of the cast and crew members with the documentary to provide even more insight into the production of the movie. On the other hand, the original ending and deleted scene are a bit of a let down. The actual footage of the deleted scene no longer exists, so the scene is played out using script excerpts and pictures from the set. The original ending was never actually filmed, because it would have been too expensive and time consuming. Universal included the scripted scene and storyboard artwork to give you an idea of what it would have looked like had it been filmed. There are also a couple of newsreels and the usual amusing Hitchcock theatrical trailer for the movie. Production photographs and notes, bios, and a Universal web link (yippy!) round out the disc.

Goofy mechanical birds aside, The Birds is still a very good film, and a milestone in technical filmmaking. Throw into that some informative, entertaining extras, a great looking picture and an affordable price, and you've got another great disc from Universal. This disc comes highly recommended.

Dan Kelly
dankelly@thedigitalbits.com


The Films of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD




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