I feel that The Birds was the last really great film—a film that shocked you right out of your socks—that Alfred Hitchcock made (though Frenzy was damn good). This is not a put-down; this film is good, too, just not up to the standards of those masterpieces of the 1950s. And it’s showing its age in some ways. Hitch’s insistence on filming just about everything on sets leads to lighting problems in the age of universal Technicolor. Look at some of the “exterior” scenes here. The light is coming from at least three different directions. The artificiality is painfully obvious. The real interiors are great, as usual, wonderfully designed. This was also near the end of the era of the static vehicle shot, where stock footage was rear-projected behind the car or bus set, having nothing to do with the momentum of a real car. Those shots look worse in color than they did in B&W.
But that’s all technical stuff. The main problem with this one is that it drags rather badly here and there. The camera lingers too long on Julie Andrews’s reaction shots. The worst is a blackboard “duel” between Paul Newman—not very convincing as a scientist and mathematician—and an elder East German scientist he’s trying to pump for information. It is all horseshit, obviously, and it seems to go on and on and on. It might have been much more effective seen in quicker montage, with the tension built by jump-cutting to the Stasi coming for him, and Julie waiting for him to join her. No dialogue, and only glimpses of the horseshit equations on the board. Also, the espionage tradecraft is painfully bad. These people make a lot of really dumb mistakes that even a novice shouldn’t make.
The best part is unquestionably the famous scene where Newman and a woman he has never met and who speaks no English have to kill a Stasi agent in a remote farmhouse. Only the dude just keeps refusing to die. It is an excruciating scene, showing just how tough and durable the human hide can be. Stick a knife in somebody, and it’s unlikely he will gasp and look vaguely constipated, and then keel over, as happens in most movies. It’s going to take some time, and he could very well take you with him. And the ending, a tense chase scene on a bus, of all things, is very good. But it was not their most shining moment for either of the stars.