How many of you have ever looked up to see a large concentration of crows perched somewhere nearby and the first two words to come to your mind are Alfred Hitchcock? The director’s fourth and final adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier work, as much as any Hitchcock film other than Psycho, has left a vivid and indelible impression on the collective memory of film lovers.
The Birds was also probably Hitchcock’s most technically demanding film. Destroying a small seaside village using many thousands of birds is no small order. It required a few real birds, some incredibly patient bird wranglers and probably more “process shots” (special effects) than in any other of his films.
It also required a measure of genuine physical courage on the part of actress Tippi Hedren, in her first film role as San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels. The final attack in the upstairs bedroom, so reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho, took nearly a week to shoot, with Ms. Hedren fending off real seagulls and crows. When it was over, the actress spent a week in the hospital for exhaustion. Watch and you’ll notice that, in most of the medium and long shots after the attack scene, you never see Melanie’s face. This is because a double had to be used while she was in the hospital. Add that to getting sprayed with glass when a fake gull shattered supposedly shatter-proof glass during the phone booth sequence, and it’s a wonder the poor woman ever acted again.
Almost making amends for the unnecessary final scene in Psycho, The Birds offers no explanation for the attacks on Bodega Bay. There no big speeches about nature striking back at man and no scientist offering up a reasonable sounding rationale for what is happening. The voice of science, in the person of the town’s resident orinthologist, Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies), insists the attacks are quite impossible. This lack of any explanation gives the film its apocalyptic aura of nature simply run amok.
In fact, the film’s least rational rationalization, that of the hysterical mother in the diner who believes that Melanie herself somehow brought this plague on the city, is the one best supported by the film. Indeed, when Melanie impulsively brings the two love birds that Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) wanted as a gift for his little sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), she has literally “brought the birds” to Bodega Bay. And when Mitch observes, based on Melanie’s well-publicized run-ins with the law, that she “runs with a wild crowd,” he’s basically saying that trouble seems to follow her wherever she goes. She is, in a manner of speaking, an agent of chaos.
This also is far from the first time that Hitchcock has employed birds as harbingers of doom. In Psycho, when Janet Leigh eats the sandwich provided to her by Anthony Perkins, a stuffed bird of prey hovers over her head, as if to strike, presaging her eventual fate.
Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor are particularly well-cast, carrying off the comedic scenes of their meeting in San Francisco, reminiscent of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day screwball comedy, and then bringing the gravitas required when trouble descends on Bodega Bay. Jessica Tandy, as Mitch’s clinging mother, Lydia, is excellent as a woman who has already lost her husband and is afraid of losing anyone else. 12-year-old Veronica Cartwright already had the gifts that served her well throughout her career. Her large eyes and wide, expressive mouth are particularly adept at expressing terror and hysteria, something which has been utilized effectively by directors from Hitchcock to Ridley Scott.
Also, Suzanne Pleshette has a small but poignant role as Annie Hayworth, Mitch’s ex-girlfriend and the town’s school teacher. She’s a study in self-sacrifice, existing only for others. She gave up a life in San Francisco to be near Mitch and sacrifices a lot more for Cathy by the time the movie is over.
The Birds marked the next to last official collaboration between Hitchcock and his favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, even though the film has no music score. Herrmann was acting a “sound consultant” for the electronic instruments used to generate the sounds of the birds during their attacks. And this film, as much as any Hitchcock movie, uses sound to maximum effect. Even though I am a believer in preserving the original monaural soundtracks for older films, the prelude to the final attack on the Brenner house just screams for a 5.1 remix, with the tension built up to excruciating levels solely through the sounds of the birds massing outside.
The Birds was a favorite in my house when I was little, long before I was only enough to watch it, partially because of my family’s fondness for Bodega Bay as a vacation spot, but mostly because it was a genuinely good and scary movie.