THE BIRDS (1963)
Daphne du Maurier, known primarily for her acclaimed novel Rebecca, isn’t a name thrill fans would associate with top notch scare mongering. But amongst the writer’s work sits some superb short tales of terror. Having already worked with Maurier’s fiction before, adapting Rebecca for the big screen and winning the 1941 Best Picture Academy Award in the process, in 1962 Alfred Hitchcock turned once again to the writer for inspiration. He needed an idea for a follow up to his most ground breaking picture, Psycho (1960).
Hitchcock had become a victim of his own success. Thanks to Norman Bates the director the director found it difficult to revert to the more subtle chills of Strangers On A Train (1951) or Vertigo (1958). The thriller landscape had changed and more shocking scares were now expected. Spotting a nugget of an idea, Hitchcock rediscovered a novelette by Maurier entitled The Birds, a fifty page tale of a family held prisoner in their Cornish farmhouse by a marauding flock of birds. Having previously purchased the rights to the story for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents the director kept just two things for his movie adaptation; the title and its central concept of birds on the rampage.
By 1963 many movie fans were fully conversant with the director’s techniques and plot deceptions. He was coming to the end of a long career that began forty one years prior with No.13 (1922); after The Birds he released just five more films before his death in April 1980. But despite having a long list of past triumphs the director still had plenty of tricks in his bag, many of which he utilised in The Birds. And Hitchcock needed all his talents in this area; the slate he had to work on wouldn’t be as clean as in previous projects.
To start with Maurier’s 1952 short story was still widely available meaning any fan with an inquisitive mind could discover the gist of the movie by leafing through its pages. The original Birds story had been adapted twice for the radio and also filmed in 1954 as a half hour instalment of the television series Danger (1950). With Psycho, Hitchcock sought to purchase as many copies of Robert Bloch’s original novel as possible. Knowing that the plot points of Maurier’s novel would be jettisoned, he left the book shops alone this time around. But there was still nothing he could do about the movie’s central premise. The title alone did enough damage in building the viewer’s preconceptions. The audience went into the theatre expecting a fury of pecking from the get go. With this in mind, Hitchcock loosened his grip on his misdirection rulebook and settled for making as solidly scary a movie as he could.
Giveaway title and opening lines notwithstanding, ‘Have you ever seen so many gulls; what do you suppose it is?’, Hitchcock still utilises the introductory scenes as a tool to wrong foot the viewer. We may not be as fooled as we were by Janet Leigh’s bank heist but the pleasantries of the opening exchange between Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels and Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner are in marked contrast to the carnage that follows. Having masterminded some of the best on screen pairings to date, Hitchcock set about creating as spontaneous a couple as he could to draw our attention away from the forthcoming bird action. In the Cary Grant mould, Rod Taylor was a solid choice for the lawyer with a heart of gold Mitch Brenner. For the haughty Melanie Daniels the director wanted to add another trademark blonde to his library of platinum actresses. He found the perfect face in a television commercial for a diet drink and set about tracking down the part-time actress and model Tippi Hedren.
In typical Hitchcock fashion he offered Hedren the part by buying her a gold and diamond broach in the shape of three birds in flight; Hedren accepted. Taylor and Hedren had an instant rapport on set and it was a fondness that eventually made for a fantastic on camera relationship. Their easy banter in the pet shop is disarmingly charming, thoughts of circling gulls outside quickly fading. Daniels can even be forgiven for her impulsive flight of fancy, driving sixty miles up the coast to deliver two lovebirds to a man she has met only once in passing. The impractical nature of the story set-up brings a tone of romantic-comedy, reinforced by the sight of Melanie’s love birds comically swaying in their cage with the swerve of her sports car. Even the offhand trespassing at Mitch Brenner’s house as Melanie drops the lovebirds off seems wholly congenial. Audiences at the time must have wondered if they’d sat in the wrong theatre screen. And then a seagull swoops in for an ominous nibble.
Mitch Brenner’s body language mirrors the instant change in tone as he stands on the harbour waiting for Melanie’s dinghy to dock. From here on in Hitchcock intertwines Mitch and Melanie’s courtship with bird attacks of ever-increasing severity until their mutual affection has to take a permanent back seat. Despite the endearing interplay over the film’s opening hour between Melanie, Mitch and his family, it quickly becomes clear that they only exist as potential bird feed. Though not quite the switcheroo Hitchcock achieved in Psycho it’s still a well-constructed change of pace that builds perfectly to the horror of The Birds second half.
No one was frightened of stepping into the shower before Janet Leigh decided to stop off at the Bates Motel. A simple courtyard apartment setting was turned on its head by James Stewart in Rear Window (1954) and a cornfield never looked the same after North By Northwest (1959). But the director’s greatest achievement in turning the mundane in to the terrifying was the horror he wrung from the simple bird in 1963. A creature that had never before been viewed as a source of menace was turned completely on its head. Such creature-features as Jaws (1975), Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980), Jurassic Park (1993) and Anaconda (1996) all dealt with animals that were considered dangerous and predatory already. To make a flock of pigeons seem more scary than this gaggle of beasts combined is some feat and it was achieved in an era where patrons had been numbed by the likes of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1956), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and The Alligator People (1959).
Hitchcock knew exactly how to craft effective scares by this point in his career and each one in The Birds is more effective than the last. Beginning with foreboding instances of coincidence, the behaviour of the birds teeters for an anxious period of time; the Brenners have problems with their chickens and one fisherman describes a flock of gulls diving bombing his vessel. The pounding on Anne Hayworth’s front door during a key conversation with Melanie as a seagull flies straight into the house is intensely creepy, ‘But it isn’t dark Anne, it’s a full moon’. Hitchcock holds back the first real attack until he can unleash it for full effect, at a children’s party. This innocent affair turns nasty with frightening speed as the director gets away with the first of his taboo busting scenes of violence against children. All concerns as to how life-like the bird attacks will look on camera are swept away in one frantic melee; they are chillingly realistic.
Catching the viewer off guard and going against the established horror rules, the next attack follows almost immediately as Melanie, Mitch, Mitch’s sister Cathy and mother Lydia seek post party respite in the house. After these two frantic displays of fluttering the viewer wonders just how much damage a group of wild birds can do to a person. Hitchcock answers the question at precisely the right moment with a scene so alarming it’s almost as if its slipped into The Birds from a later era of filmmaking. Played to harrowed perfection by Jessica Tandy, Lydia receives the fright of her life when she checks on neighbouring farmer Dan Fawcett. Dan has been killed by the birds, a fact Lydia stumbles upon as she makes her way through his farmhouse, spying a tell-tale shattered tea cup on the way. Adopting Lydia’s point of view we peer into his bedroom, spotting a blood stained leg and a number of dead seagulls. Not wanting to continue into the room but unable to turn away we are then confronted with Dan’s body, the remains of his pecked out eyeballs splattered down his cheeks. Mirroring Lydia’s shocked triple-take Hitchcock jump-cuts in on Dan’s face focusing on the black pits where his eyes once were. The uptight Lydia is catatonic as she stumbles in undignified fashion from the farmhouse.
In contrast to the amiable Americana of the time, the cosy fashions, the quaintness of small-town life, and the tell-don’t-show nature of thriller films prior to 1963, Hitchcock ups the bar again in a matter of seconds, showing in full colour the potential graphic violence of his titular villain. It must have been hard for an audience of the time to equate such an ugly death with warm and agreeable performers like Hedren, Taylor and Tandy; it still is today, the uncomfortable coming together of the soft-focus gore free ‘Golden Age’ of pre-1960’s Hollywood with the graphic realism of the modern horror film in its infancy.
The bird action that follows is less graphic but no less frightening. One of the greatest scares ever crafted arrives with the notorious schoolhouse scene. It’s one of the best examples of why Hitchcock is regarded as one of the greatest ever filmmakers, the scene culminating with that shot of hundreds of crows perched on the bars of a children’s playground. Timed to perfection we see Melanie in the foreground casually lighting a cigarette as the crows slowly gather over her shoulder. There seem to be a fair few of them, but before we learn just how many Hitchcock holds the camera on Tippi Hedren’s face for a painfully long pause, the schoolyard nursery rhyme echoing. Then, as Melanie tracks a single crow we are shown the full extent of her predicament, more birds then even the audience could have imagined. Hitchcock delivers on the promise of the reveal with a ruthless attack on the school children; faces are pecked, limbs are scratched, children fall behind left to their feathery fate.
Full bird-on-man armageddon is finally unleashed with a full scale attack on the harbour town. After the grisly discovery of a dead Annie Hayworth, the Brenners retreat to their farmhouse. Picking up the plot of Maurier’s original story, we remain with Melanie, Mitch and his family as they try to weather the storm. The escalating bird attacks are reported on radio broadcast snippets but no explanation is given. Even though the windows and doors are boarded up, the birds final attack on the house is still incredibly tense, no more so when a gaggle of gulls begin pecking through the wooden front door. To bring the film full circle, Hitchcock presents a final scene that is the polar opposite of the light-hearted pet shop meet, a heart stopping view of Bodega Bay with birds as far as the eye can see. Melanie, a living allegory of the film itself, has gone from a strong, self-assured woman full of cocky humour, to a washed out shell in a near comatose state. Hitchcock deliberately left off the usual “The End” card that was standard for the time, insinuating that this was only the beginning of the bird mayhem.
Having grown up in the era of silent cinema, Hitchcock knew the benefits of a quiet scene over a thunderous one. As such the director chose not to have a soundtrack for The Birds, employing long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann as a sound consultant only. Frantic wing flapping and high-pitched squawks is all the soundtrack we get and there is no familiar refrain to hint at a forthcoming death by flock. Hitchcock and scriptwriter Evan Hunter also chose to use minimal dialogue at key points, letting the onscreen action convey the story. The combined result is a film that at times becomes a silent movie, albeit for the overwhelming noise of the birds. The aforementioned discovery of Dan Fawcett is one of the many scenes with no sound and is a brilliant argument for the case that less is more. There is no music to focus on, no cheap exclamations from Lydia to distract from the image, just the startling visual and its impact.
With no traditional soundtrack Hitchcock was under even more pressure to ensure the movie’s stars, the birds, were life-like and effective. Real animals were used wherever possible, interspersing them amongst models and stuffed birds in scenes that called for a large flock. The infamous shot of hundreds of crows on the schoolyard climbing frame used a small number of real birds dotted amongst fake ones. The eye is drawn to those that are flapping and bobbing where they sit, moving your attention away from those that are oddly motionless. Bird handler Ray Berwick did an excellent job in ensuring that the real birds that were used looked menacing enough when called to be without endangering the actors.
Despite this there were a few close scrapes during filming. Rod Taylor found that there was one particular raven named Archie that took an instant dislike to him. When reading through his call sheets for each days filming Taylor would always enquire “Is Archie working today?”. Unfortunately for the actor Archie was on hand at the end of the movie when Mitch slowly exits the Brenner farmhouse; look for Archie as he takes an impromptu gnaw at Taylor’s hand.
Of all the actors Hedren had to endure the biggest bird bashing. For the climatic confrontation in the farmhouse loft Hedren was informed that the crew would be using mechanical birds. But on the first day of shooting the scene Hedren was informed that the machine birds were not operational and they would have to use real ones. Thus the actress had to endure five long days of filming the scene with set-hands throwing live birds at her. Birds were also tied to her costume, free to peck at will. At one stage a seagull pecked the actress on the face, cutting her on the cheek very close to her eye. At this point Hedren broke down on the stage floor and declared “No more”. Actor Cary Grant who visited the set told Hedren that she was the bravest women he had ever met. The filming took its toll and Hedren collapsed with exhaustion the day after the scene was finished. The actress had to spend a week in hospital recovering and as a result a body double was used for the scene where Mitch carries Melanie down from the attic after the birds have ravaged her; note that during this moment in the final film the actress’s face is not shown.
Considering the movie is now fifty-five years old the bird effects have lost none of their power. Their frantic movement hides many of the rough edges and the attacks look incredibly realistic. An early form of “Blue Screen” filming was utilised, known as sodium screen or “Yellow Screen”; birds would be filmed flying around in a state of chaos, with the footage superimposed on top of the actors running for their lives in post-production. Hitchcock also hated shooting on location a lot of the time, so the matte-painting artist Albert Whitlock was drafted in to assist. The considerable talents of the painter can be seen throughout the movie, but you would be hard pushed to spot where. The tremendous aerial shot of the gulls circling over Bodega Harbour as the gas station explodes was three-quarters a painting by Whitlock combined with the central portions of movement that were filmed with a high camera on the Universal back-lot.
The final shot of the car pulling away from the Brenner farmhouse was a marvellous coming together of Whitlock paintings and the use of as many live birds as could be handled by the crew. All told the final shot contains thirty two separately shot sections combined to present the astonishing final reveal. Budget and logistical constraints prevented Hitchcock from shooting the scripted ending that followed the Brenners as their car drove through the devastated town of Bodega Bay. They were to pass all kinds of destruction including bodies and dead birds by the side of the road. The car had to make its way round the remains of the town with the birds following behind. The flock would then attack the car, pecking through the canvas roof as Mitch struggled to get the car up to speed. Just as the roof is about to give way completely Mitch would speed off down the open highway. This ending was story-boarded but the cost and extra time needed to film it was too much. Hitchcock also envisioned a final shot showing the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco covered in birds.
Away from the birds, the cast are all on great form. A young Veronica Cartwright handles well the difficult task of ensuring that her character does not become a childish annoyance. Likewise, in her first lead role Tippi Hedren does remarkably well. The role of Melanie was a thorny one, written as too haughty during the first half of the movie. Despite this Hedren draws the viewers sympathy even before her turn to damsel-in-distress at the mid-point of the film. Jessica Tandy and Rod Taylor rounded out the final quartet with two excellent turns. The intriguing character of Annie draws a captivating performance from Suzanne Pleshette. It’s revealed that Hayworth is a former girlfriend of Mitch, the relationship brought to a premature end by an interfering Lydia. It appears that Annie has a peculiar fondness for Mitch, borderline obsession even, giving up her job in San Francisco to move to Bodega Bay just to be close to him, despite the fact that their relationship had ended. This somewhat sinister subplot is never developed beyond a prickly conversation between Melanie and Annie.
In 1994 a low-key sequel was shot as a made for television movie entitled The Birds II: Lands End (1994) directed by Halloween II (1981) director Rick Rosenthal. The film follows a teacher and his wife who move to an island summerhouse after the death of their son. The inevitable bird attacks begin and the couple struggle to talk the local Mayor into believing what is happening in time to save the local residents. As one might expect this low budget sequel struggles to come close to the brilliance of the original. Tippi Hedren did feature but not in her original role of Melanie. A remake of The Birds was mooted for 2009, spending a few years on the development merry-go-round before quietly dying off, while in 2017 the BBC announced they would be shooting a short television serial based on the original
For many film fans The Birds remains the last great Hitchcock film. The British filmmaker never came close to rescaling the heights attained with his one-two horror combination of Psycho and The Birds. But the director had already given us so much he deserved to put his feet up. With the help of some great writers and film industry personnel he not only delivered some of the best thriller films from Hollywood’s first era of ascendancy, he also gave birth to a whole new era in scary cinema. Showing the industry that fright films need not centre on men in phony costumes, gothic period morality tales, or attacks by implausibly radiated creatures, he helped birth the modern horror movie. Opening the contemporary scary movie door and handing the baton to younger directors, Hitchcock paved the way for them to create even greater shocks and garner even louder screams.
See also The Birds II: Lands End (1994)