The Birds (1963)
“…And remember, the next scream you hear could be your own!”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette
Synopsis: A wealthy San Francisco socialite pursues a potential boyfriend to a small Northern California town that slowly takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people there in increasing numbers and with increasing viciousness.
The Birds was Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie in three years — since Psycho in 1960 — and was arguably the last of his classics. Two years after this would come Marnie, again starring Tippi Hedren, the first of the lesser movies that would define the declining years of his career. He was still at the top of his game when he made The Birds though, and, despite that three year hiatus, crafted a unique (for its time) horror movie which, while not the equal of Psycho, was still a work of immense power and creativity.
Tippi Hedren, another cool blonde in the style of Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, stars as Melanie Daniels, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate, who meets cute with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a pet shop in San Francisco. When Mitch mistakenly takes her for a sales assistant she does nothing to correct his assumption, but he eventually gets wise to her, much to her discomfort. Mitch was after a pair of love birds and, intrigued by his forthright manner, Melanie decides that she will deliver the birds to his home personally. Clearly, this girl has a major case of the hots for him. She learns from a contact on her father’s newspaper that Mitch lives on Bodega Bay at the weekends, and drives out there with the two birds (swaying amusingly as her car takes each bend of the rural road at speed). After sailing across the bay, Melanie places the bird cage in a prominent position in Mitch’s empty house, then sails a short distance away so that she can watch when he enters.
Of course, after spotting the birds, Mitch, who was in the barn when Melanie made her delivery, soon rushes out of the house with a pair of binoculars, and then drives around the bay to meet Melanie as she arrives at the other side. However, on the journey across, she is attacked by a seagull who scratches the side of her head. (This initial attack is almost imperceptibly foreshadowed by Hitchcock when a couple of the birds briefly swoop into shot as Melanie is watching Mitch enter his house). Back on land, Mitch takes her to a nearby cafe bar to tend to her wound, and it’s here that she meets his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), whose attitude towards Melanie is more than a little reserved. Almost against her will, Melanie accepts an invitation to dinner at the Brenner’s house, where she meets Mitch’s little sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright).
Slowly, Mitch and Melanie warm to one another, and she accepts an invitation to Cathy’s ‘surprise’ birthday party the following afternoon, and it’s at this gathering that the birds’ first attack on the humans takes place. Hitchcock takes care to heighten the shock of such an attack by having the majority of their victims be children — a stunt he will pull to much greater effect in the superb sequence in which a group of kids is chased from the school. By now a pattern is emerging, and Mitch and Melanie are starting to get just a tad worried. Their concern gravitates towards low-key terror later that night when the lounge of the Brenner house is swamped by hordes of starlings entering the room through the chimney place. However, these remain isolated incidents, and the town’s police officer believes the birds must have got lost and panicked. The following day, however, Lydia visits a neighbour only to find him lying in his shattered bedroom with his eyes pecked out.
The Birds, as far as I’m aware, was the first movie in which nature turned on man, and is the peak of a sub-genre that would descend such trashy depths as Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants by the mid-1970s. Surprisingly, it was written by Evan Hunter, who is probably better known by the pen name Ed McBain, under which he wrote countless 87th Precinct crime novels, and unlike the similarly-themed movies that would follow, Hunter took the time to create some depth to the characters. Of course, you’d expect no less from a prestige production directed by Hitchcock, but it’s still refreshing to see a movie like this in which the characters are real people and not merely sketches given just enough detail to make them distinguishable from one another before they’re eaten up or torn apart. Mitch and Melanie’s back stories, and the early simmering resentment of Lydia towards Melanie might not be anything out of the ordinary, but at least it makes them human and enables us to care about what happens to them. Hunter even takes account of the kind of people his lead characters are when giving them their lines. Consider, for example, the way criminal lawyer Mitch comes across as if he’s cross-examining Melanie after their first evening together.
Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense, and The Birds gives a clear indication as to why. Not only does he build the fear and tension in measured increments so that each successive incident grows in scale from almost insignificant to life-threatening, but he then piles on that tension for key set pieces, such as the famous scene in which Melanie sits outside the school while the crows gather silently on the climbing frame behind her. Hitchcock magnifies the fear simply by cutting away from the half-dozen birds sitting on the frame in order to study Melanie’s face for an unusually long time. We know those birds are gathering, but Melanie doesn’t — until, that is, she spies a solitary crow flying across the sky and turns around not to see those half-dozen birds joined by maybe a half-dozen more, or even two dozen, but to be faced with a climbing frame packed with the unnervingly silent birds. We knew about the birds, but by focusing so long on Melanie, Hitchcock had us forgetting that while we’re watching her they’re massing in numbers behind her, and the shock is therefore just as great for us as it is for her when we do finally see them. That is what made Hitchcock such a brilliant director — he seemed to have an inherent sense of the best way in which to wring every last drop of suspense from a scene.
The Birds isn’t without its faults — but, mostly, these are the result of the passing of time than in any failings on Hitchcock’s part. Some of the effects look a little amateurish by modern standards — although this does lend them a certain charm — and modern viewers might find the first half of the film, in which a lot of time is spent establishing the various characters, a little slow. For me, though, the only part of the movie that really grates — and always has — is the scene in which Melanie watches the spilled petrol ignite. Why Hitchcock felt it necessary to rapidly cut back and forth from her face to the action as the flames race towards the petrol pump, I will never know…
(Reviewed 27th November 2013)