Alfred Hitchcock's second scariest movie makes a spectacular transition to 4K UHD. The Birds scales new heights with a lush, bold, vibrant transfer that immerses us in this horrifying tale that depicts what might happen if our docile feathered friends suddenly and inexplicably run amok. The engrossing story punctuated by inventively filmed, often grisly ornithological attacks still makes us squirm, as well as think about the tenuous threads holding our ecosystem together. Sadly, this release does not feature upgraded audio, but it does include all the supplements from previous editions. The Birds is another iconic, essential Hitchcock title, and the sublime video upgrade catapults it to another level. Must Own.
With everything that's happened already in 2020, suddenly The Birds doesn't seem so far-fetched after all. Director Alfred Hitchcock's technically dazzling, often creepy, and occasionally frightening adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier short story about apocalyptic bird attacks on a sleepy California coastal community remains just as fascinating today as it surely was when it premiered almost six decades ago. In the past, it was easy to laugh off the disturbing scenario as just another movie gimmick, but somehow this year the film strikes a more visceral chord. I mean, really, if The Birds somehow turned out to be a prophecy, wouldn't 2020 be the ideal year for it to come true?
It's been a decade or so since I last saw The Birds, so I was excited to revisit it - especially in the splendor of 4K UHD - and discover whether it still flaunted the same fright quotient. Without question, it does. There's something inherently eerie - and plausible - about bands of disparate birds flocking together to either exact revenge on humans or viciously assault them for sport, and with his impeccable ability to build suspense and depict terror with a minimum of gore, Hitchcock milks the premise for all it's worth. The special effects, which of course can't compete with today's CGI but were highly regarded at the time of the movie's release, hold up well, even under the scrutiny of ultra high-def. Hitchcock, though, never lets them eclipse his patented artistry.
Just as he does in Psycho and so many other films, Hitch preys on universal fears like loss of control and entrapment, often fashioning claustrophobic sequences that make our stomachs churn. Instead of a shower, he encages Tippi Hedren - just like a bird - first in a glass phone booth, then a dark attic. He also employs tight close-ups, a subjective camera, and above all sound to ratchet up and sustain tension. We don't need to see the birds attacking, we only need to hear them - squealing, shrieking, clawing, and pecking - to experience the same horror the film's characters feel. Though Hitchcock usually eschews shots of bloody wounds and mangled corpses, he does supply one grisly image that will make even the most seasoned slasher veteran gasp. It only lasts a fraction of a second, but once seen, it's not easily forgotten.
Du Maurier's story, as adapted by Evan Hunter, seamlessly mixes horror and the supernatural with a sprinkling of Peyton Place intrigue. When Melanie Daniels (Hedren), a serial practical joker, society dame, and quintessential daddy's girl, drives up the California coast to the sleepy seaside village of Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a rugged lawyer with whom she locked horns in a San Francisco bird shop, her arrival coincides with unexplained, bizarre bird attacks that intensify with alarming speed over the course of her stay. Interpersonal drama intensifies, too. The crisis breaks the ice between Melanie and Mitch, who quickly develop a deep bond, much to the chagrin of Mitch's possessive mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his former flame Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who still holds a blazing torch for him.
What makes The Birds so compelling, unsettling, and a tad frustrating is that we don't ever discover what causes such a docile species to suddenly go berserk. There's no nuclear explosion, solar anomaly, or climate issue to incite such a drastic behavioral change. The mysterious phenomenon provokes an ever increasing sense of unease, because we don't know the time, place, or degree of ferocity of each attack. And the way the birds silently amass before taking flight allows Hitchcock to create almost unbearable tension. The scene in which Melanie calmly smokes a cigarette outside a school playground while one-by-one a flock of crows flies in and perches on the jungle gym behind her stands as one of Hitchcock's most brilliantly constructed and superbly executed sequences. Who doesn't feel a bit queasy when Melanie turns around and lays her eyes on the ominous gathering pictured below.
Taylor is perfectly cast as the cocky, strapping Mitch, who must not only protect his family from a barrage of bird attacks, but also try to bridge the gaping chasm between his mother and Melanie. Which task carries a heavier burden is open for debate, but Taylor's burly physique easily handles the weight. The always marvelous Tandy brings welcome complexity to the neurotic Lydia, while Pleshette insightfully portrays the cynical, broken-hearted Annie. A young Veronica Cartwright gets a rigorous emotional workout as Mitch's distraught 11-year-old sister Cathy, and the marvelous Ethel Griffies shines as a prim, dour ornithological expert who's forced to eat crow (pun intended) after arrogantly dismissing any notion birds would or could ever rise up against us.
Yet despite all the fine work by a cast of seasoned professionals, The Birds belongs to a rank amateur. Hedren, in her screen debut, carries the film with ease, displaying incredible poise and a good deal of range, despite the lack of any prior acting experience. Every time I see this Hitchcock classic, the performance of this 33-year-old former model impresses me more. Don't let her alabaster skin, coiffed blonde hair, million dollar smile, and elegant demeanor fool you. Sure, Hedren is sexy, but she's also sassy, spunky, warm, and vulnerable. She may not be as beautiful as Hitchcock's favorite blonde, Grace Kelly, but she often projects more humanity. It's not easy to believably weather a barrage of violent attacks without resembling a raging harpy, and it's even more difficult when you're rarely acting with real birds, but Hedren rises to the challenge while exerting admirable emotional restraint. Even when disheveled, bruised, and scarred, Hedren is lovely to look at, but it's her grit and guile that make her portrayal riveting.
Unique in the Hitchcock canon, The Birds satisfies on multiple levels. The Master of Suspense takes a gimmicky idea and lends it gravitas, all while scaring us silly. Of course, in 2020, all of us scare a lot easier than we used to, but even without the added stress and strain we all feel, this Hitchcock foray into fright delivers the goods. So if you're looking for a classic man-vs.-beast creature feature to take your mind off the pandemic, social unrest, the election, and everything else this horrific year has thrown at us, The Birds just might be your ticket. It won't cheer you up, but like almost all of Hitchcock's movies it will provide a much-needed jolt of exhilaration.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 4K UHD edition of The Birds arrives as part of The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection, which also includes Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. Almost identical to the 2012 Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection with regard to packaging, the discs are housed in a handsome digibook, which comes in a slipcase with raised lettering. Both 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray discs lie in slots in the "pages" devoted to each film. It's an attractive layout, but the discs fit a little too snugly in their slots, making their retrieval somewhat difficult. A leaflet containing the code to access the digital copies of all four movies is tucked inside the book's back cover. Sadly, no accompanying booklet is included with this collection. Video codec for all four films is 2160p/HEVC H.265 (HDR10) and default audio for The Birds is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I was both excited and a little trepidatious to see The Birds in 4K UHD. Excited because of the lush color and enhanced clarity; trepidatious because I worried the myriad process shots and antiquated special effects might look cheesy and amateurish under the ultra high definition microscope. Well, my excitement was warranted and my fears were unfounded. The 2160p/HEVC H.265 HDR10 transfer looks every bit as lustrous as I imagined and blends the always problematic visual effects into the film's fabric as seamlessly as possible. Without the benefit of CGI, The Birds can't compete with 21st century films, but it remains a technical marvel for its time, and this transfer nicely honors its innovation. Sure, we can still see the layering of images that allows the birds to peck at the fleeing schoolchildren and descend upon Bodega Bay after the car explosion, but it's less glaringly obvious than I thought it would be. And when you're caught up in the drama and horror of the absorbing story and not examining it with a hyper-critical eye, you really don't notice it much at all. Quite surprisingly, the flurry of sparrows that enter the Brenner home through the fireplace and the crows and gulls that attack Melanie in the attic look quite realistic and provoke the most visceral responses.
Minimal grain preserves the film-like feel without detracting from the picture's silky smooth appearance. The Birds, like many Hitchcock films, flaunts a somewhat soft look overall, but this transfer never compromises clarity. Beautifully saturated hues punctuate the image, with bold primaries and delicate pastels vying for attention. Hedren's vibrant red lipstick and nail polish grab attention, while the verdant green landscapes provide a sense of calm amid the horror. Veronica Cartwright's blue eyes sparkle, Hedren's blonde hair shines, and her silver Aston Martin looks especially sleek. Fading was a nagging issue The Birds was forced to grapple with over the years, and while a few shots still exude an anemic pallor, on the whole the movie brims with lushness and vibrancy.
Blacks are rich and inky, whites are bright, and shadow delineation is quite good. Costume textures, from the knit of Taylor's heavy white sweater to Hedren's luxurious fur, are gloriously sharp, and excellent contrast heightens depth. Spot-on flesh tones accurately reflect Taylor's ruddiness and Hedren's creamy complexion, and stunning close-ups showcase fine facial features well. The tight shots of Hedren are intentionally soft, but the slight gauzy look only accentuates her glamor. Transitions can be a bit rough, but that's a minor point, and the pristine print shows very few signs of wear.
By comparison, the Blu-ray looks noticeably drab and slightly washed out. The image appears flatter, a tad faded, and colors lack potency, verve, and nuance. Once you see The Birds in 4K UHD, you'll never want to revisit it in 1080p.
After enjoying the DTS:X track on the Psycho disc, I began to imagine just how great The Birds would sound in the same multi-channel, high-resolution format. Unfortunately, the track we get here is the same DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that graces the 2012 Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray disc. Though the existing mono track is probably one of the most nuanced, dimensional, bold, and immersive mono tracks I have ever heard, not upgrading The Birds to DTS:X to completely maximize all the clicking, clucking, flapping, squawking, pecking, swooping, fluttering, squealing, and chirping of all the various ornithological creatures is a missed opportunity. I don't usually condone manufacturing surround sound if there are no original elements to support it, but The Birds is that rare film that truly cries out for multi-channel audio.
That said, the 2.0 mono track really does rock. Aside from rendering all the bird-speak and frantic motion with exceptional clarity and fidelity, other sonic accents like the screeching wheels and rumbling engine of Melanie's Aston Martin, the sputtering of the outboard motor on the boat, shattering glass, the hammering of nails, the thunderous rumble of all the schoolchildren running away from the attacking birds, and the car explosion are marvelously crisp. Subtleties like lapping water and footsteps enhance the atmosphere, too. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend, there's no distortion, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude.
Maybe someday we'll get that DTS:X or Dolby Atmos audio, but until then, this exceptional mono track more than suffices.
All the supplements from the previous Blu-ray edition have been ported over to this release, and the good news is they all reside on the 4K UHD disc as well as the standard Blu-ray. For a complete review of the supplements, click here.
The Birds just got scarier. With a terrific 4K UHD HDR10 transfer featuring sumptuous color and exceptional clarity, Alfred Hitchcock's horror classic about an out-of-the-blue ornithological apocalypse packs more visceral thrills than ever before. The disc, one of four in the 4K UHD Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection, sadly lacks a multi-channel audio track, but all the supplements from previous releases have been ported over. Though its special effects may appear dated, The Birds remains a timeless study in ecological terror and a supreme example of Hitchcock's craftsmanship. Must Own.