REWATCHING: The Birds (1963)

James Wallace Harris

It’s funny, but we rely on our memories for everything, but studying the functionality of our memory system shows they’re completely unreliable. When I started this rewatching project I intended to explore how I was a different person from the first time I saw a movie and who I am now when I just rewatched a film. I figured by comparing my current experience to my memories I could unearth the differences between myself then and now.

Rewatching The Birds has caused a lot of confusion. I only have vague memories of seeing the movie the first time, and I am not even sure when that first time was. Before I started writing this essay I assumed it was in the 1960s, and it may well have been. I thought that because my memory of seeing The Birds the first time are memories of talking about the horrifying bits with my friends at school. All of us were excited by the bird attacks, and none of us talked about the actors or the story.

The Birds came out in 1963. I was in the sixth grade during the first half of the year, and the seventh grade for the second half. However, I also thought I saw it on TV first, but The Birds didn’t have it’s U.S. television premiere until 1968. By then I was in high school and working five nights a week at a grocery store, so I don’t believe it was then. During 1962-1963 we lived on base at Homestead Air Force Base, and I often went to the base theater, even by myself. It was just fifteen cents for kids. I even remember seeing adult films like Town Without Pity (1961), The War Lover (1962), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The first two I saw by myself and actually liked them (sex and B-17s), but the third I saw with my mom and sister and was bored (politics). So it’s possible I saw The Birds there. I do know in the 6th and 7th grades it became common to stand around with buddies on the playground and discuss the movies and TV shows we had seen the night or weekend before.

One reason why my memory of The Birds is iffy is because up until very recently I never really liked Alfred Hitchcock films. I liked his TV show back in the 1950s, but the tension and intrigued he developed in his films didn’t appeal to the younger me. My friends and I were thought the bird attacks and their creepy gatherings were uber-cool, but that’s my only lasting impression. When I rewatched The Birds the other night, all the attack scenes felt very familiar, and all the scenes of characters relating to each other didn’t.

This time I was amazed by how gorgeous the cinematography looked. I also spent a lot of time amused by Melanie (Tippi Hedren) having to wear the same light green suit for most of the flick (she didn’t bring a change of clothes when she went to Bodega Bay and ended up staying the weekend, a weekend from hell). This time around I was caught up in the interplay between Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Melanie, between Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), between Melanie and Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and between Melanie and Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Melanie had a weird personality, almost off putting, but as she adjusted to each person she met becoming a better person for it. All that personality meshing was something that was invisible to me as a kid.

When I talked to my old buddy Connell about this movie today, he said he spent a lot of time as a kid studying people trying to figure them out. He was mystified by other people’s behaviors and struggled to understand the world by understanding why people did what they did. I don’t remember doing that at all. I was very self centered and mainly concerned with what amused me, and what I wanted. I was closer in age to Veronica Cartwright when I saw the film and probably would have reacted to the bird attacks pretty much like her character did in the movie. She was mostly frightened but did stay focused on her new pet lovebirds. I was mostly frightened of the world around me but ignored unpleasantness by staying focused on pleasures and desires.

In 2021 The Birds was an impressive film. A few weeks ago I watched Vertigo and I’m changing my mind about Hitchcock. I plan to rewatch Rear Window soon. This time around I didn’t find the birds particularly interesting, instead I admired the sets, costumes, cinematography, but most of all the characters. All aspects I ignored as a kid.

The main problem I had with the film this time was with the birds themselves, they had no motive or justification for doing what they did. Hitchcock said later that the birds represented nature turning against us, but even that seems too vague. In Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, “The Birds,” her isolated English village eventually learns the birds were attacking everywhere. I wished Hitchcock had featured that in his version of the story. It would have satisfied my science fictional sense of things.

I now feel like I’m a whole person, although if I live to be ninety, I might disavow that when watching The Birds again. I believe the first time I saw The Birds I was a very incomplete person, even though I smuggly felt like a little knowitall.

When do we become a whole person? I’ve always assumed I was unformed and only vaguely a person before age four and five, which is when my memories start filling in. But I also felt I ran on instinct rather than awareness until about age twelve or thirteen when I started thinking about things. I was probably eleven when I first say The Birds.

I saw a lot of movies from age five to twelve, mostly those made in the 1930s and 1940s, with some 1950s B-features. During the 1950s and 1960s, old movies ran on television during the afternoon after school, on the weekends, and at night after primetime. Becky, my younger sister, and I loved to stay up and watch all-night movies during summer vacations. I think my mom let us because we’d sleep till noon and stay out of her hair, and then play outside until it got dark. Like I said, I started going to the movies on my own when I was ten and in the fifth and sixth grade. The base theater played several a week, it was cheap, and only a bike ride away. I’ve seen thousands of film, and I wonder now just how much they shaped my personality, and my evolving personality judged them.

I know all those old 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s movies imprinted on me, especially the ones most suited for kids, like the Tarzan movies, westerns, and science fiction. But I also loved old 1930s black and white flicks from MGM and Warner Brothers. Maybe those movies from simpler times worked well with my simple mind. Many of my friends my age tell me they can’t watch old movies. Hell, I know a lot of people who think old movies means those from the 1980s and 1990s. I love films all the way back to the 1890s.

Even though I admired The Birds this time, it wasn’t really aimed at who I am at this stage of life. Nor did I particularly enjoy it. I enjoyed watching myself watch it, which is why I’m writing about the experience. Most movies and television shows seemed aimed at a young audience. There’s a fair amount of content suitable for middle-aged folks, but I don’t find much storytelling for young geezers like myself in their last third of life. I can pretend to be a kid again, or remember adult issues from middle life while enjoying movies aimed at those audiences, but they’re starting to get harder to watch, even tedious.

It’s much harder to find shows that I love. Three that come to mind are Black Sails, Belgravia, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Strangely, all deal with history. Links are to my reviews. I find it odd now that I never wrote about my enchantment with Mrs. Maisel. I’m not sure if there are any overlapping aspects to these show that reveal why they appeal to my late sixties mind. A few months ago I wrote about three film comedies that grabbed my attention (Genevieve, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Bachelor in Paradise). Beside trying to understand who I was when I was younger by the films I watch, I realize I’m also trying to figure out who I am now by what I like to watch.

Cognitively I can analyze what I must have been like as a kid. I was poorly educated. I was sensitive to the suffering of others but I was burdened by prejudices. I feel I spent most of my K-12 and college years deprogramming my original upbringing. At eleven, I hadn’t started watching the news or reading newspapers, so my worldview was based on fiction I saw on television, at the movies, or read in books. Most of that fiction was not very sophisticated. I believe The Birds was a sophisticated horror film that was over my head in 1963.

The Birds is now considered a cinematic masterpiece, and I might have agreed with that during my middle years if I had seen it again then, but now it’s mostly an artistic curiosity, appealing for what it teaches me about time and my changing personality. My favorite character was Annie, who had to watch Mitch, the guy she loved, fall for Melanie. My feelings for her were so much stronger than my feelings for a story about creepy birds.

JWH

p.s. Sorry to be pounding out so many posts so quickly, but I’ve been laid up with a bad leg and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write when I felt like sitting at a computer again.

2 thoughts on “REWATCHING: The Birds (1963)”

  1. I saw The Birds for the first time back when it was first released in 1963 with my mother at the Midway Theater in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. Having been born in November 1957 I must have been around six this is one of my first memories of being a kid. It wasn’t until I turned 15 back in 1973 that I first developed an interest in classic films when I purchased my first book on film it was The MGM Stock Company: Stardust to Golddust….The Greatest Actors and Actresses on the MGM Lot by James Robert Parish the book featured all the stars that were under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and their filmography. After reading all about these stars I started watching films on television in the 1970’s. Having grown up in New York City the television stations were the three networks and some local channels so I was able to watch movies late into the night but I paid the price the next day if it was a school day since I would stay up until 4 AM and getting up at 8 AM to get ready for school. Sometimes I would set my alarm wake up and watch the movie. This was before VCR’s and before VHS. I’m still watching many of the films that I watched years ago. Since my mother loved to read I too began to read everything I could lay my hands especially if it was Science Fiction having watched the original version of The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) scared me that I couldn’t fall asleep for a week after. Almost all the Science Fiction books you have listed I have read then if there is a film version I wanted to compare the book to the movie. As I’ve gotten older I still read Science Fiction but I like reading Non-Fiction books like Biographies, History, Transportation, Science, and Medicine. I just finished two books on medical history: Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine and a biography on Dr Jonas Salk. Some of my friends think I’m a little weird for liking black-and-white films from the 1930’s and 1940’s but when I introduce them to a film like Stella Dallas (1937) or The Grapes Of Wrath (1941) they change their minds pretty fast. When I was living in San Francisco two of my favorite events were the Silent Film Festival and the Film Noir Festival I remember every show was always sold out.

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