AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 119 min
THE HITCHCOCK CAMEO: Leaving Davidson’s Pet Shop in San Francisco with two white terriers [Hitchcock’s own Sealyham terriers Geoffrey and Stanley] on leashes as Melanie Daniels enters
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Young socialite Melanie Daniels meets lawyer Mitch Brenner in a San Francisco bird shop. He wants to purchase a pair of lovebirds for his sister’s eleventh birthday, but the shop has none. He recognises her from a previous encounter, but she does not remember him, so he plays a prank by pretending to mistake her for a salesperson. She retaliates by buying a pair of lovebirds and driving to his address in Bodega Bay to secretly deposit them. As she leaves, she is attacked in her boat and injured by a seagull….
Hitchcock’s apocalyptic horror movie, the inspiration for loads of successive films where animals would turn against mankind, but never really bettered [unless you count Jaws], seems, despite its fame, to disappoint many viewers with its often slow pace, at least in the first half where an inordinate amount of time seems to be spent on its budding love story and character relationships, and special effects which sometimes don’t seem very special any more, even though the latter is hardly the fault of the filmmakers considering how hard the bird attacks would have been to realise in 1963, utilising every trick possible when today you can do it all on the computer. I personally think that CGI is overused these days and often looks quite poor, but The Birds would benefit from modern-style effects [that’s not to say it should be remade though]. Nonetheless, the picture still has a hell of a lot to recommend it and in terms of unity between script, cinematography and direction is one of Hitchcock’s most interesting pictures, very carefully constructed in terms of structure and themes.
After Psycho Hitchcock considered Village Of Stars [a pilot has a bomb designed to detonate below a certain level], Trap For A Solitary Man [a man’s wife disappear then reappears but denies she’s the same woman], an unnamed thriller set in Disneyland [which Walt put a stop to], psycho thriller Frenzy, and Marnie, about a female kleptomaniac, the latter intended to be Grace Kelly’s return to the screen, before being inspired by Daphne Du Maurier’s short story The Birds, which screenwriter Evan Hunter threw out nearly all of, and a real life incident of birds coming down a chimney and being found dead all over the streets. Hitchcock considered Sean Connery and Farley Granger as the male lead, and Audrey Hepburn as the heroine, but decided lesser known stars would work better. He became infatuated with Tippi Hedren, a model he picked out for the lead role, and took six days to shoot the scene where she’s ravaged by birds who were attached to her clothes by long nylon threads, causing her severe trauma and production to be shut down for a week. More amusingly, Hitchcock sent Suzanne Pleshette to the prop department to make her ear look all bloody and hanging off, but when it came to shooting the scene, had her character facing the other way so the viewer never sees the ear. The intended downbeat ending, where we see hundreds of birds on the Golden Gate Bridge, went un-shot due to Universal’s objections, while the main love scene between Mitch and Melanie was cut. Aided by a barrage of publicity, The Birds was another hit for Hitchcock, though the critical response was mixed. Audiences leaving the film’s UK premiere at the Odeon, Leicester Square, London were greeted by the sound of screeching and flapping birds from loudspeakers hidden in the trees to scare them further.
The Birds opens in extremely ominous fashion with the titles unfolding against a white background where black birds fly and flap periodically across the screen. There is no music, just bird sounds. After this we get the film’s very gradual build-up which irks many. The first meeting in the bird shop of Melanie and Mitch, she playing a trick on him and he pretending to go along with it, is actually genuinely amusing and nicely played in light comedic fashion by the two stars, though thereafter the film really seems to drag its heels as it takes an eternity for Melanie to make her way to his house in Bodega Bay. Even Psycho had some urgency to much of its build up. Melanie is eventually attacked by a bird in her boat [really poor back projection here too], but we still mainly get chat for quite a while afterwards, and it shows a strange inconsistency in Evan Hunter’s screenplay, which is sometimes really smart, and is sometimes on the level of a poor soap opera in some of its dialogue scenes. It is interesting how the film main characters are largely female, with Mitch largely defined by his relationships to them, whether it be his mother, sister [rather too young to be his sister, but never mind], ex-girlfriend, and girlfriend to be. The mother, this being a Hitchcock film, is formidable, but the script gives her a lengthy scene half way through where she opens up to Melanie, leaving her as the most rounded character in the film.
Of course the most fun that can be had in terms of the characters is seeing a haughty woman who’s led a privileged, carefree life plummet down to earth with a thud and learning some responsibilities. It’s appropriate that Melanie is the first person to be attacked by the birds, but the first major set piece takes place at a children’s birthday party. What makes this film still quite scary, despite the unevenness of the effects, is how people are not automatically safe inside, and how these birds seem to take a special delight in attacking children. The sequence of a classroom of kids being attacked as they are being escorted out [surely they would have been a little bit more safe inside, but never mind] is still astonishingly nasty, though the real brilliance of the scene is in its careful build-up, as Melanie sits on a bench and the film keeps cutting to the increasing number of birds behind her on the climbing frame. Soon after, there’s a mass attack on the whole town, and Hitchcock shows a spreading fire with a great aerial shot of the town into which one bird, then more and more, fly into the frame. Then you have the final attack on the house where you only see one actual bird but hear their sounds, a scene which probably influenced much of Night Of The Living Dead. Though not to as great a degree, many of the set pieces in The Birds have shown up in other films, but rarely as well, because they lacked the filmmaking mastery of Hitchcock which in The Birds more than makes up for certain characters doing silly things. Hedren actually asked Hitchcock why Melanie would go into a bedroom on her own after hearing the sound of a bird, and he replied: “Because I told you to”.
The Birds doesn’t so much as end as just stop, leaving things hanging in the air [though somewhat resolving the human story], but then again the screenplay doesn’t so much follow a conventional structure of beginning, middle and end as proceed in a dreamlike fashion where devices and motifs repeat themselves over and over again. If you work them out in chronological order, bird attacks tend to be proceeded by characters talking of loneliness or being abandoned. Scenes tend to end on a shot of somebody staring into space. Themes, even lines, from Psycho make their way into the film, from a conversation about a mother’s love [not, of course, a good thing in Hitchcock’s world] to Melanie clawing at somebody in hysterics paralleling an earlier remark from Norman Bates. Hitchcock actually kept adding bits and pieces to the screenplay, and the constant comments of “I see” and “you see” must have been his doing. Like many Hitchcock films, the act of seeing is a central theme, here pushed to its obvious limits when we see a dead man with gouged out eyes. This gruesome sight, in what really is a pretty bloody film for its time, is shown in three quick, almost subliminal, cuts which take us closer and closer to the ghastly sight. Once again, Hitchcock achieves great impact with his supremacy of skill. There’s still some humour too, most notably in a lengthy diner scene punctuated by the ramblings of a drunk and an ornithologist who thinks she knows all there is to know about birds, or the dumb cop who thinks it all began because the children were bothering the birds.
The Birds was a hugely complex film in terms of its special effects with a total of 370 effects shots. The combination of models, animation and projected real birds doesn’t always work too well these days but remains an amazing achievement for its time nonetheless. Some scenes still look pretty good, such as a startling bit [inspired by the true live event which along with Du Maurier’s story led to this film] when small birds come down a chimney. Others don’t succeed so well, despite the employment of Disney’s special effects genius Ub Iwerks, who had developed something called the ‘sodium vapour process’ which resulted in more precise matte shots than normal. Of course the final attack scene on Melanie looks horribly realistic because it was partially real as well as having a disturbingly erotic edge in the way it filmed, as if Melanie is actually being sexually assaulted by the birds. They used mainly types of birds that that would not be considered by most people to be dangerous for this film, and the ‘real’ ones used were fed a combination of wheat and whisky as it was the only thing that would keep them in one place.
Now Du Maurier’s short story actually gave an explanation for why the birds attack [well, kind of – it links the attacks to the rising and falling of the tides] but the film wisely refuses to do so, though it does drop subtle hints. It hints at the connection between the rise and fall of the tides which was in Du Maurier’s story. It hints that maybe the birds are getting back at mankind for caging and eating them. It hints that Melanie is some kind of catalyst for the attacks, though why she would be isn’t gone into at all. And most intriguingly, it hints that the birds are the externalisation of the character’s feelings of unhappiness, loneliness and frustration, providing suggestions of a more intellectual, symbolic interpretation. Perhaps Hitchcock realised how badly the big explanation scene at the end of Psycho came out, but Hitchcock was certainly aiming high for this film, even if he didn’t entirely pull everything off. Despite Hunter’s comments to the contrary, I don’t think The Birds was just about trying to scare people, it was also about trying to make a something artistic and ambiguous, much like Vertigo.
Part of the reason why the film is still immensely effective is down to the soundtrack of bird squawkings which were actually created by an early electronic musical instrument called the mixtrautonium. No actual score is used and it certainly isn’t needed, though Bernard Herrmann is credited as ‘sound consultant’. Rod Taylor, who tragically died recently, is a likeable everyman hero and the perennially underrated Tippi Hedren exudes deliberately false glamour and sophistication. Of course Hitchcock has her wear the same outfit [after the opening scene] throughout which remains undamaged until right at the end. Jessica Tandy is given some of the choicest moments acting-wise as Mitch’s mother. The Birds has its flaws, some of which are unavoidable, but its sheer strangeness is remarkable, Hitchcock really experimenting with both form and content and virtually attempting a full-on allegory. Of course it still remains, despite its longuers, a kick-ass, large scale fantasy chiller, but the strongest impression it leaves is of human beings trapped in cages of their own making, desperately clawing out of them to make a connection with somebody else.