I was thirteen years old in 1963 when I went to a movie theater to Alfred Hitchcock’s latest move, The Birds, and I can still remember the effect it had, the tension it engendered, the thrill of fright, and my jangled nerves when I left the theater and stepped out into the sunlight. Based on the novella of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, it is one Hitchcock’s best films. When I watched it again over fifty years later, I was surprised that it created exactly the same effect as when I saw it in a movie theater for the first time.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) stops into a pet store in downtown San Francisco on a Friday afternoon to pick up a minah bird as a gift, but it hasn’t arrived at the shop yet, so she writes down her name and address for delivery. As she stands at the counter, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), asks her if she can help him. He’s looking for a pair of lovebirds as a birthday present for his little sister. Pretending to be a clerk, she shows him around the store, making up stories about lovebirds, even though she hasn’t the slightest idea what they look like. When a bird accidentally escapes, he traps it under his hat and addresses her by her name. A lawyer, he had actually recognized her from the first, but wanted to show her what it was like to be the butt of a practical joke. Angered, she follows him to the street, gets the number of his license plate, and calls her father’s newspaper to get his address. She then purchases a pair of lovebirds and tries to deliver them to his apartment, but a neighbor informs her that he will be in Bodega Bay all weekend visiting his family. Undeterred, she decides to deliver them there and drives the sixty miles north the next morning, Saturday.
Finding out that the Brenner family home is directly across the bay, she decides to take rent a motorboat and make a surprise delivery by sneaking up on the house from the water, but she doesn’t know his sister’s name. A local store owner directs to her to home of the school teacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). When the two women meet, it is obvious that Annie is sizing her up as a rival for Mitch’s affections. The sister’s name is Cathy, so Melanie makes out a card, gets in her boat and sets out across the bay. Seeing Mitch go out to the barn, she sneaks inside, leaves the birds with a note and returns to her boat. She watches as Mitch goes back inside then comes outside, surprised and looking around for her. He spots her in the boat and as she goes back across the bay, he gets in his truck and drives around to meet her. As she nears the dock, a gull shoots out of the sky and scratches her head badly enough that she is bleeding. Mitch takes her into the Tides restaurant to clean and bandage the wound. His mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) meets Melanie rather coldly, but everyone is curious about the bird attack.
When Mitch smugly remarks that she drove all that way to see him, Melanie lies and says that she was actually coming up to see her old friend Annie. Mitch invites her to come to dinner that evening and she meets Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who begs her to attend her birthday party the next day. Melanie likes Cathy immediately, but Lydia seems to be almost jealous of her budding relationship with Mitch. As they sit down to eat, masses of sparrows fly down the chimney and fill the house. Mitch opens the windows and doors and tries to shoo them out. After they have fought them off, Melanie returns to Annie’s house to spend the night. As they discuss Annie’s former relationship with Mitch, a gull crashes against the door and dies.
On Sunday morning, she attends the birthday party, intending to drive back to San Francisco immediately afterward, but the party is attacked by a flock of gulls, diving and purposely trying to injure the children. As the family recovers from the attack, Melanie is persuaded to spend the night there. The next morning, Monday, Lydia goes to a nearby farm to investigate a problem she is having with her chickens, but discovers that the farmer is dead, his eyes picked out and his home destroyed by birds. In a panic, she returns home and the sheriff is called in. Mitch leaves with him to investigate further, but Lydia is so worried about Cathy at school that she sends Melanie to pick her up and bring her home.
At the school, Melanie waits for the children to finish their lesson. As they sing a children’s song, she waits outside, smoking a cigarette in front of the jungle gym, which slowly fills up with crows. Alarmed, she goes inside and she and Annie organize the children to leave in a mock fire drill. As the move down the road, the crows take flight and attack them as they run toward the village. Inside the Tides, she calls her father to alert him to the danger in Bodega Bay and everyone becomes concerned about the situation. A local fisherman reports that one of his boats was just recently attacked by gulls. An ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) tries to tell them that it is impossible for birds to work together in such a way, but if they did, there was no way humans could fight against the millions of birds in the world. A mother, with two young children, is panicked by their discussion and tries to flee, but the birds attack again, knocking over a man filling his car with gas. As the gas runs down the street, another man, lighting a cigar, ignites it and cars and the filling station all explode in fire as the birds corner Melanie in a telephone booth. Mitch gets her back into the restaurant and the mother accuses her of bringing on the bird attacks, crying out that none of it started until her arrival.
The attacks of the birds steadily escalate into an unforgettable conclusion to the movie.
When Hitchcock hired Evan Hunter to write the screenplay, he told him that the only thing there were keeping from du Maurier’s story was the title and the menace of the birds. With that freedom, Hunter moved the location from England to Northern California, an area that Hitchcock loved. The two of them then worked together to create an original story. The decision was made early on that they would make no attempt to explain the strange behavior of the birds, but Hitchcock suggested the scene where the townspeople discuss the situation.
The Birds follows Psycho in Hitchcock’s chronology of films and he had strongly considered not using a score for the previous film, but eventually worked with his musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann in making his shocking fright film. For The Birds, he called in Hermann as a consultant, but actually used electronic sounds (by Sala and Remi Gassmann) and silence to create the terror in the film. All of the sounds of the birds are semi-artificial. They are natural bird sounds that have been input a mellotron-like keyboard system and played directly into a sound recorder. This was highly experimental for the time and a stark departure from the heavily scored films of the day.
The story is developed in pure Hitchcock style. It begins very lightly, with a comedic feel to it, an almost like the screwball comedies of the 1940’s, with a flighty society woman and a straight-laced lawyer, but it gradually becomes serious as small incidents with birds escalate into the terrorizing attacks that build steadily in intensity until the very end.
With the exception of a few uncertain moments from the young Veronica Cartwright early in the movie, all of the performances are very natural and believable, even Tippi Hedren who was acting in her first movie. Rod Taylor’s character wasn’t written with any depth, so he stands out as a man who reacts to the situation around him, which makes him a typical Hitchcock hero. Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette both bring incredible nuance and detail to their characters and so does Tippi Hedren. The women are created with the deepest detail, not only in this film, but in most of Hitchcock’s movies.
The technical detail and difficulty makes this a very unusual film for the master of suspense. Although he normally used the “blue screen” effect so that he could shoot most of his films in a studio, under controlled lighting, almost all of the effects using birds, both real and mechanical, were “sodium yellow screen” effects used in the film’s print, created by Ub Iwerks of Walt Disney Studios. In addition, he used many matte paintings that were printed into the final cut. For instance, in the scene where Hedren takes the boat across the bay, the entire village of Bodega Bay in the background is a painting. The same technique was used in the famous shot of the burning village from high above, with birds in the foreground. Part of the screen is live action on a limited stage, part is filled in with matte painting, and then the birds were actually painted onto the negative. All of these effects were quite radical for the day and today could all be done effortlessly using computer generated CGI effects.
The DVD contains a wonderful documentary called “All About the Birds” in which many of the principals, including Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, and Veronica Cartwright are interviewed. Evan Hunter provides great insight into how he developed the script with Hitchcock, technical wizards explain the special effects, and the original ending is discussed in some depth, using pages from Hunter’s original script. Hedren also discusses the psychological effect of how Hitchcock shot the scene in the upstairs bedroom using real birds that terrorized her and exhausted her to the point where she could no longer perform. That incident was featured in the derivative film, The Girl, which portrayed Hitchcock as a lustful man who inflicted that terror on Hedren for her refusal to have an affair with him.
The film will always have a place among the most frightening films ever made. Watching it at home on DVD, even on a big screen television, will never duplicate the effect it had in a theater full of people, all grasping their popcorn, gasping, sitting on the edge of their seats and even screaming, at times, together.
Nevertheless, it packs a huge punch and I highly recommend it!