Review: The Birds at Montalban Rooftop Movies

A rooftop exposed to avian attack - what better place to enjoy a screening of The Birds?

Revival theatres are virtually a thing of the past, even in Hollywood, a town that immortalizes stars of yesteryear on the Walk of Fame. The Egyptian Theatre remains, but the Vagabond, the Esquire, and other venues that specialized in retrospective programming are gone; even the venerable New Beverly Cinema is on hiatus. What options remain for fans who want to experience their favorite classics on a big screen, surrounded by an appreciative audience?

Outdoor screenings are filling the void. Cinespia presents movies in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Street Food Cinema programs events in parks and recreation centers around town. The Rooftop Cinema Club screens films atop the Neuehouse building in Hollywood and the Level in downtown Los Angeles.

Also offering a series of Rooftop Movies is the Montalbán (named after actor Ricardo Montalbán) in Hollywood. Running Tuesdays through Saturdays, the programming offers an eclectic mix of genres, including some recent horror and fantasy titles (Get Out, Black Panther) but also reaching into decades past (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Hollywood Gothique attended a recent screening of Alfred Hitchock's classic The Birds (1963) on Tuesday, September 4, to determine whether it was possible to become immersed in the film's nightmarish depiction of nature gone awry, when surrounded by street lights and traffic noise.

The short answer is yes.

Montalban Rooftop Movies Review: Venue

Montalban Roofstop Movies ReviewLocated at 1615 Vine Street in Hollywood, the Montalbán is an old but well-maintained theatre. After taking advantage of the convenient parking lot next door, you must walk up several flights of stairs to the roof; there is no elevator service or wheelchair access. (Pro Tip: The bathrooms are on the ground floor, so go before ascending - unless you want to double your cardio workout with a second trip up and down the stairs).

With fences on all sides, the rooftop screening space resembles a tennis court but with a screen on a black wall at one end instead of a net in the middle. There is a slightly glitzy aura, thanks to the bright lights, signs, and billboards for nearby buildings, such as the Broadway Hollywood. There are booths for the box office, a bar, and an Umami burger stand. All of the staff are extremely helpful and friendly.

Seating is on folding canvas chairs; most are single-seat, but there are some premium "love seats" for two. The chairs are comfortable, though perhaps more suited to sitting back and relaxing through an enjoyable rom-com than enduring a nail-biting suspense pic. If an on-screen scare jolts you into an upright position, there are no hand rests, so the only thing to grab is the person next to you (hopefully someone you know).

Since this is Southern California, the weather is fine, but blankets are available at the box office in case the temperature drops.

Montalban Rooftop Movies Review: Food & Drinks
Montalban Rooftop Movies Review Popcorn
Great food & drinks

If you prefer the traditional movie-goers food-of-choice, you can purchase popcorn at the box office, along with your tickets. It's popped fresh on sight; it tastes great, and there are several flavor enhancers available for those who want to add a little something extra.

Those seeking more substantial fare will find their cravings satisfied at the Umami Burger stand. The menu is understandably limited to burgers, fries, and a few other side dishes, but the quality is excellent. We opted for the "Impossible Burger" (a new vegetarian patty with an amazing texture) and an order of thin fries (so crispy and tasty they needed neither ketchup nor mustard). We ate so much before the screening that we left almost no room for popcorn during the film, but somehow we managed.

The bar serves real mixed drinks, not those phony wine-cooler variations that too often pop up at locations like this (presumably for lack of a liquor license). The bartender served up a very nice Cosmopolitan, and even the house red wine was much better than expected. Our experience has been that outdoor bartenders do not stock the best vintages, and even if the wine is decent, serving it in a plastic cup often lends the flavor a plastic overtone. No such complaints here - the wine was fine on its own and went well with the burger. The bar also serves canned soft drinks to wash down your salty popcorn.

All amenities are available when the Montalbán opens its doors to the rooftop at 6:00pm, making it possible to enjoy a leisurely dinner before the film starts at sundown (8:15pm). Umami Burgers has last-call just before the screening. Popcorn is available for one hour after the film starts. The bar stays open until the final fade out.

Note: No outside food or beverage is allowed, but why would you bring any when these tasty options are available?

Montalban Rooftop Movies Review: Presentation

Montalban Rooftop Movies Review ScreenThe Montalbán screens its rooftop movies via digital projection, with BD-rom as its source. Headphones are provided at the box office, so that the audience can hear the soundtrack without being distracted by the surrounding sounds of Hollywood. They do a good job: an occasional low traffic rumble reached out eardrums; otherwise, we heard only the film. (This has the added advantage of preventing unwanted audience conversations, since viewers cannot hear each other.)

Heard through the headphones, the stereo mix for The Birds was a revelation. Hitchcock's film famously uses no music (except for a diegetic song by some school children); instead, the soundtrack relies on the cawing of birds, orchestrated almost like ambient music. These sound effects, achieved electronically, have an edgy, nerve-wracking quality, which was always apparent in the large-scale attack scenes. The headphones more clearly unveiled the subtle off-screen squawks that serve as foreboding portents of approaching danger, unsettling audience nerves even before anything happens.

Visually, the screening of The Birds exceeded our expectations. We did not see any of the compression artifacting, pixelation, or poor resolution apparent in other big-screen digital presentations we have witnessed. The image quality was not quite up to the standards of a newly struck 35mm print (the contrast was slightly low, the colors somewhat muted), but it far surpassed what was typical in the days of the revival houses, when worn-out, faded prints were the norm. The 55-year-old film looked fresh, and a few minutes into the run time, we felt totally absorbed into the screen.

Montalban Rooftop Movies Review: The Birds

Outside of the fact that the location left us (at least theoretically) vulnerable to avian attacks, The Birds seems a bit of an odd fit for a rooftop movie. Hitchcock's film is not an action-packed thriller sweeping viewers along from beginning to end. It is more of a slow-burn build-up, disguising itself as a romantic comedy for its first half while dropping hints to whet audience appetite for the horrors to come. The famous filmmaker could get away with this in 1963 because his reputation preceded him: viewers entered theatres anticipating suspense, so Hitchcock could tease those expectations, holding off on the major set pieces until late in the running time. Over five decades later, the approach still works, but it requires a certain amount of audience engagement: viewers have to pay attention, not just sit back and wait for the feathers to fly.

As much as we could tell while cocooned in our own little world by the headphones, the movie worked its magic on the rest of the assembled viewers. Midway, we began to grow slightly weary of the dramatic longueurs, but once the action finally took over the film was as gripping as ever. We particularly appreciated the famous gas station explosion and its aftermath, which offers a beautifully rendered portrait of panic and chaos that many subsequent filmmakers have aspired to achieve - and failed miserably (witness the formless in-store attack in Frank Darabont's The Mist). What Hitchcock knew was that it was not enough to pile action on top of action; there is more of a domino effect, with one incident leading to another, each one escalating to a fervid climax.

For all its achievements, The Birds is a rather cryptic and strange film, thematically. The dramatic arc of the lead character, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) seems designed to present her as a spoiled rich girl who deserves to be taken down a peg - and uses the titular birds as the means to achieve this. Are the birds exacting some divine retribution, as suggested in a God's Eye view looking down as the birds assemble like avenging angels before descending for their attack? In any case, the film repeatedly contrasts the attacks of the wild gulls and crows with the placid nature of the caged love birds (metaphoric stand-ins for Melanie and her would-be boyfriend played by Rod Taylor). By the end of the film, Melanie has been reduced to child-like helplessness, her headstrong independence crushed until she is as docile as one of the caged lovebirds. The film ends on an open question: have the birds achieved their purpose, or will they now do to the rest of humanity what they have done to Melanie?

Montalban Rooftop Movies Review: Conclusion
Montalban Rooftop Screenings Review poster
"Say hello to my little friend!"

Our baseline standard for judging this kind of event is: Would we have been better off watching a Blu-ray on our high-def television at Home? The answer is: no, the Montalbán screening was definitely better. Regardless of the film, the Hollywood ambiance, coupled with friendly service and great food, provides a perfect date night.

The Montalbán's series of Rooftop Movies continue through October 31. Halloween-themed programming is planned for next month, though titles have yet to be determined. You can check the schedule and purchase tickets at themontalban.com. Prices are $18 for a single seat, $50 for a love seat for two, including unlimited popcorn. Guests must be 18 and over.

Hollywood Gothique lists the Montalbán's horror, fantasy, and science fiction rooftop movies in our calendar page devoted to the venue.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.