(Sir) Alfred Hitchcock Ernest Callenbach - Essay

Ernest Callenbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Birds] is disappointing. The film has been made, it seems to me, on two mistaken assumptions. One is that a frightening film can be made in naturalistic color, and the other is that an attack by birds carries the emotional impact of a really horrific situation….

No doubt Hitchcock's reasoning was that the pastoral loveliness of Bodega Bay, rendered in soft color, would make us feel more attachment to the scene when it is abruptly threatened by thousands of attacking gulls and crows: so beautiful a little town, to have such a thing happen in it! Yet the effect is precisely the reverse: it reduces the scene to postcard dimensions, so that we care less rather than more, because it is only picturesque. The ratty motel in Psycho, by contrast, was a setting apt for the most extreme horrors; in itself it was a ratty motel only, yet quickly…. the film slid into an area of real emotional impact. The Birds never does…. [The] film has too many obvious loopholes…. [Nagging] mundane questions arise, obviously, because the film is unable to tap in, as a skillful thriller does, on unconscious fears…. A flock of attacking birds may be surprising, since we all have a somewhat rosy picture of the gentleness of birds, but they remain just a lot of attacking birds; they are natural, external forces to be combatted somehow or other, or fled from; they do not share the potentially supernatural mysteries and terrors of those things which are human or inhuman. (p. 44)

Whereas Psycho is a sickening slide into ever more terrifying events, until the ridiculous psychiatry sets in at the end, The Birds uses up its excitement early, then tries to rise to what is only an anticlimax—the escape of the four individuals in the sports car. (p. 45)

Ernest Callenbach, "Film Reviews: 'The Birds'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1963 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XVI, No. 4, Summer, 1963, pp. 44-6.