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The Birds (1963)

October 30th, 2007 · 9 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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As gulls swarm over San Francisco, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) enters a pet shop. Inquiring about the mass of birds, she’s told, “There must be a storm at sea. That drives them inland, you know.” Daughter of a newspaper magnate, Melanie meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) when he enters the shop and teases her. Mitch is an attorney familiar with Melanie’s gossip column exploits, but she’s attracted to him anyway.

Melanie buys two lovebirds, but when she tries to deliver them to Mitch, she’s notified that he’s left town for the weekend. She makes the drive to Bodega Bay, sixty miles north of San Francisco, to find him. Schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) gives Melanie directions. She crosses the bay by motorboat and sneaks into Mitch’s house to leave the lovebirds as a present for his sister’s birthday. On her way back across the bay, a gull attacks her.

While Mitch’s distant mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is suspicious of Melanie, his kid sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) invites her to stay for her birthday. Melanie rents a room from Annie, who she discovers was once romantically involved with Mitch. In the night, a gull kills itself trying to crash through their door. At the party the next day, a whole flock of gulls descends on the children, clawing and pecking them.

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Lydia heads to a neighbor’s farm, looking for answers on why her chickens won’t eat, and finds the farmer with his eyes pecked out. Hysterical, she asks Melanie to pick Cathy up from school. An army of crows gathers outside the schoolhouse and when the children appear, attacks them. Melanie takes her story to town and makes believers out of the locals when the birds attack the town. Melanie, Mitch, Lydia and Cathy barricade themselves, hoping to survive the onslaught.

Production history
More than two years after the biggest commercial success of his career, director Alfred Hitchcock had settled on a follow-up to Psycho. He had come across a news item in August 1961 about thousands of seabirds swarming on the town of Capatolla, California. It reminded him of a 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier which Hitchcock had included in his anthology book My Favorites In Suspense.

Du Maurier’s story chronicled an apocalyptic attack by birds, as told from the point of view of a farm family in Cornwall. To adapt a script, Joseph Stefano was unavailable, and while Ray Bradbury loved the idea, he was too busy writing for Alfred Hitchcock Presents to start right away. Novelist Evan Hunter – who was also working for the series – was hired to write the script, relocating the action from rural England to Bodega Bay.

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Operating under the belief that the stars of the movie would be the birds and himself, Hitchcock set out to make a star out of his female lead. Pamela Tiffin, Yvette Mimieux and Sandra Dee were all considered, until Hitchcock chose a model turned actress whose deportment in a diet supplement TV ad had appealed to him. Her name was Tippi Hedren. Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy and a 12-year-old Veronica Cartwright rounded out the cast.

While thousands of trained crows, sparrows and gulls were employed, for the most complex sequences, Hitchcock opted to superimpose birds against the actors in post-production by using a sodium lighting technique pioneered by Walt Disney Studios. Legendary Disney animator Ub Iwerks oversaw the optical effects, while matte artist Albert Whitlock provided paintings for the establishing shots. The budget rose to $2.5 million, making it the most expensive film Hitchcock had mounted to date.

Released March 1963 on a surge of print, radio and TV publicity, The Birds was harshly received by critics in the U.S., where it was called everything from not scary, to silly, to a failure. Critics overseas were more liberal with praise, but in spite of respectable grosses – $5 million in the U.S. – the high budget and expectations tainted the film as a disappointment. Today, this may be the movie the casual filmgoer associates Hitchcock with most.

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With Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock had enjoyed a run not just of great movies, but masterpieces. The Birds is not a masterpiece, but it is a milestone, a brilliant technical achievement that succeeds both as a crowd pleasing thriller and an experimental mood piece.

While the script cleverly leaves the question of why the birds are attacking up to the imagination of the audience – I saw the birds as an ominous warning of World War III – it also drags for 50 minutes. The attack sequences are thrilling, and a scene at the town diner with various locals offering their version of the disaster has Hitchcock’s trademark black wit all over it. Otherwise, this isn’t much of a narrative.

Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor are better actors than critics might give them credit for, but Hitchcock is indeed the star of the movie. Instead of a traditional score, he opted for synthesized sound effects and in some cases, silence, to beautifully underline the terror. The reveal of the crows massed outside the schoolyard, the sonic assault on the house, and Hedren’s attack are masterfully executed. Poltergeist and Signs are just two modern blockbusters practically based on this horror classic.

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Jacob Hall at Independent Critics writes, “The appeal of Hitchcock is that he can take something simple and turn it into a terrifying thing. Showers, heights, broken legs, they all terrify me now. But the one that terrifies the most is the sight of a flock of birds.”

“This film is Jurassic Park, with birds instead of dinos. Both films work because they are well-crafted and downright scary, but neither has characters you really give a damn about,” writes Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema.

Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “The Birds is one of the best ‘creature features’ ever made, possibly only rivaled by Jaws for best ever, though the latter does owe a debt of style to this film.”

“Naturally, the egg plays a very prominent part in my lecture. Not a word about which came first, however. I don’t believe in dealing in controversial matters.” View the 1963 theatrical trailer, with Alfred Hitchcock telling us all about The Birds.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on short story · Beasts and monsters · End of the world · Road trip · Small town

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 30, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    I get what you’re doing now, Joe. You’re waiting to review the two “scariest” Hitchcock films for both Halloween “eve” and Halloween day (and saving the best for last too I see). Good form, my friend.

    I first saw The Birds on television one night with my family when I was a kid and it scared the crap out of me. While you are correct that it is no masterpiece, it is ceryainly very thrilling and the whole sequence where they lock themselves up in the house while the birds attack clearly influenced similar scenes in both Signs and Close Encounters. Also, you gotta love that rather bleak and ambiguous ending.

  • 2 Justine // Oct 31, 2007 at 9:39 am

    I need to rewatch the Birds, but having seen it three or four times already it’s a film that really improves on multiple viewings. I remember the first time I watched it was in Grade 6 at a friend’s birthday. A lot of the dialogue, nuance and thematic implications COMPLETELY went over my head but I still enjoyed it for the fright factor. A great film.

  • 3 Megan // Oct 31, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    This movie scared me to death. I think I was 7 or 8 the first time I saw it? The bit when the birds gather on the playground equipment – I tense up just thinking about it. What a great piece of filmmaking.

    I pray that the remake idea falls through. Please, moviegods, don’t let it happen.

  • 4 stennie // Oct 31, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Another judicious non-use of music. No score to this film at all, only the incidental music of the (very annoying) kids singing at school. What could be more terrifying than just the “flap-flap-flap-flap-flap” of the attacking birds? Well, it’s terrifying to me, but then I’m afraid of birds anyway.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 31, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Damian: Why is it that parents try to shield us from nudity on TV, yet it’s open season on monster movies? Poltergeist scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. That’s pretty cool that you got to see this one as a youngster, Damian. I wonder if The Birds was in fact the very first “characters barricading themselves against monsters” movie, or if any proceeds this one.

    Justine: I would like to hear more about your friend that instead of watching Sixteen Candles for the birthday, The Birds was the entertainment selected. That’s awesome!

    Megan: I think you should write an article called Remakes I Do Not Want To See. With Martin Campbell attached to replace Hitchcock as director, The Birds would probably be in my Top 5. #1 right now is Escape From New York. Unless you bring back Kurt Russell, this is wrong wrong wrong.

    Heidi: That annoying song is a Scottish folk tune called “Risseldy Rosseldy”. When the schoolyard sequence called for a longer song, Hitchcock apparently tasked Evan Hunter with writing additional lyrics, which the screenwriter ended up earning ASCAP royalties for the rest of his life. I thought that was pretty cool, but yeah, birds are evil.

  • 6 Damian // Oct 31, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Well, I wasn’t an “itty bitty” youngster. I was in Jr. High at the time. Actually, I believe I saw it not too long after Rear Window. My younger siblings, however… that’s a different story.

    Can’t wait for tonight’s review. :)

  • 7 Alice Bachini-Smith // Nov 1, 2007 at 7:42 am

    My mother managed to hand her Hitchcock-induced fear of birds to me when I was about six, I think, she told me about this film which started it, and that’s the kind of thing that sticks in your head when you’re little… I still haven’t actually seen it, because of being too scared!! Putting it on the Netflix list today though, you persuaded me.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Nov 1, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Alice: Maybe now that Halloween is over and all of the ghosts and goblins have gone back into the attic, it will take some of the shock off The Birds. Just some, though. I’m really enjoying mad housewife. Thanks for patronizing my site!

  • 9 Jay // Dec 13, 2007 at 1:50 am

    Great site.

    I’m looking or a picture of the lovebirds from the film. Has anyone seen that, I can’t find one anywhere ?


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