The Movie Waffler Hitchcock in Reverse - <i>The Birds</i> (1963) | The Movie Waffler

Hitchcock in Reverse - The Birds (1963)

A small coastal community finds itself under siege when our feathered friends turn wildly aggressive.

Review by Eric Hillis

Starring: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright

San Francisco Socialite Melanie (Hedren) meets handsome young lawyer Mitch (Taylor) while visiting a bird store. He recognizes Melanie from one of her many court appearances and mocks her rebellious lifestyle, which she claims to have left behind, but Melanie is attracted to him nonetheless. As a prank, she purchases a pair of lovebirds and drives to the small coastal town of Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends weekends with his mother Lydia (Tandy) and young sister Cathy (Cartwright). Once there she is attacked by a gull while attempting to row away from Mitch, who persuades her to stick around for the weekend. Melanie books into a B&B run by Annie (Pleshette), a former lover of Mitch. As the weekend unfolds, the town is subjected to a series of increasingly violent bird attacks.
Following the phenomenal success of Psycho, audiences were crowing (pardon the pun) for Hitchcock to provide more gruesome thrills. The master was equally eager to supply such thrills and found the ideal material in a 1952 short story from the pen of Daphne Du Maurier. Hitch had previously adapted Du Maurier for his American debut, Rebecca, back in 1940. Many critics are of the opinion that the director's best period is book-ended by the Du Maurier films. (They're wrong of course. Hitch's best period began in London in the twenties and ended back in the same city in the seventies.)
While Psycho was generally slammed by critics at the time, audiences flocked (forgive me) to it. The Birds, however, would receive a luke-warm reaction from both, thanks in no small part to it's unrelentingly dark tone. Had the film been released later in the decade, following the King and Kennedy assassinations and America's increased involvement in Vietnam, I suspect audiences, and possibly critics, would have been much more receptive. In 1963, things were looking good for America and nobody wanted a killjoy like Hitch to ruin the mood of the nation. Some viewers were clearly paying attention though, as the film's influence can be seen in the work of the seventies' "movie-brats", particularly George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Steven Spielberg's Jaws and John Carpenter's The Fog.
The film is indeed grim, arguably the darkest film to come out of mainstream American cinema up to that point. Despite the apocalyptic tone of the premise, much of the film's melancholy comes from the characters rather than the situation. As soon as we meet Annie, we immediately get the sense that she's doomed. The product of a failed romance with Mitch, she represents everything the ruthless Melanie is fighting against. The town of Bodega Bay seems almost like a retirement home for weak-willed women, with Mitch's mother Lydia struggling to find any enthusiasm for life since the death of her husband. With this pervading fog of despondency, Melanie sees an opportunity to become the alpha-female of this particular flock.
While there's a battle between humans and birds, the film features another power-play; one fought between Melanie and Lydia. When Lydia breaks down after finding a corpse with its eyes pecked out, Hitch repeatedly cuts to Melanie as she observes this chance to assume command. Hedren's lips move just enough to suggest a wry smile of satisfaction. (Anyone who believes the myth that Hitch couldn't direct actors should view this scene and realize their folly.) With Lydia confined to bed, Melanie becomes the woman of the house, but her reign is short-lived. Early on, Mitch makes a jokey remark, "back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels". It turns out to be quite prophetic as Melanie later finds herself trapped in a phone booth, a metaphorical cage, as the birds violently attack the town. By the film's end, Melanie is delirious. As Lydia, now back on her rightful perch, leads her out of the house, we see the same almost-smirk on Tandy's face.
Hitch does some of his best work here, filling the film with moments that have gone down in film lore. The scene where birds gradually appear on the bars of a school playground behind Melanie is a masterclass on the power of editing. The film's main attack features a cut to an aerial shot which we at first assume to be a bird's POV. Hitch twists our preconceptions by then having the birds fly in from the corner of this shot. It's a technique John Carpenter would employ brilliantly with the character of Michael Myers in his masterpiece Halloween. Unusually for a Hitch movie, there's little in the way of humor on display but a shot of lovebirds leaning left and right as their car traverses a coast road is inspired.
Adding to the bleak tone is the inspired decision to forego a traditional musical score. Bernard Herrmann oversaw the use of a pre-synthesizer instrument known as a "Mixtur-Trautonium", which created the chilling bird sound effects. The aforementioned playground scene is accompanied by the sound of schoolkids singing a children's tune. Now, of course, the use of ironically cheerful music to accompany a dark scene has become one of cinema's worst cliches but in 1963 it seemed completely original. (The earliest example of this technique I can think of is the use of "I'm Forever Blowng Bubbles" in William Wellman's 1931 The Public Enemy).
The birds themselves are a combination of real birds and their animated cousins, the latter created by Disney technician Ub Iwerks. While some of the projection shots look crude today, at the time they were revolutionary. (Thanks to the brilliance of Hitch's technique, you'll forget within moments how simple the animation looks as you get wrapped up in the film's atmosphere). The Birds features some of the best use of matte paintings, with much of Bodega Bay enhanced convincingly by the legendary matte-artist Albert Whitlock.
The irony of The Birds is that despite the 1963 audiences' struggle to embrace it, it's now one of Hitchcock's most accessible films for modern viewers. It's a film that was well ahead of its time and, like most of Hitch's films, hasn't dated a moment over the last fifty years. The director produced several masterpieces throughout his career; this was his final one.

The Cameo
Hitch can be seen leaving the pet store in the film's opening scene. The two terriers accompanying him are Geoffrey and Stanley, the director's own pets.

The Blonde
Mother and grandmother to actresses Melanie Griffith and Dakota Johnson respectively, Tippi Hedren was a fashion model before her two collaborations with Hitchcock.