By Eric Shoag
Coming at a unique moment in cinema history, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1962) is like nothing else on film: a mesmerizing mixture of suburban sheen, suspense and terror that all but abandons any notion of plot completely, made by an artist who had at that point risen to the very top of his profession and yet had to overcome multiple disappointments and obstacles to complete the project.
Having begun his lengthy, legendary career in England during the Silent Era almost four decades earlier, Hitchcock was riding high by the 1960s, enjoying a string of successes and, more importantly, unprecedented control over his work. In addition to supervising and contributing to his television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the filmmaker closed out the 1950s with the masterful, moody Vertigo (1958) and the comic thriller North By Northwest (1959), following them with a small-budget movie that went on to become one of the most famous, analyzed and imitated in history: Psycho (1960). Playfully and radically thwarting expectations and bringing a new level of intensity and violence to the silver screen, Psycho anticipated (some would say invented) an entire genre: the slasher film. Never one to rest on his laurels, Hitchcock’s next movie would again push the storytelling envelope and presage yet another genre that would soon come to dominate the cinematic world: the disaster film.
Many point to The Birds as Hitchcock’s final masterpiece, and it certainly represents an apex of cinema as an exercise in manufactured emotion, a concept close to the director’s heart. A complex and difficult project, especially given Hitchcock’s faltering health at the time, The Birds spotlights his creativity and originality, perhaps coming closest of all his films to resembling a precise diagram of suspense. One can almost see it in mathematical terms, especially in the construction of sequences like the playground scene, one of the most striking and effective in all of cinema, not to mention Hitchcock’s own impressive oeuvre, where the suspense builds to an almost unbearable pitch before its inevitable release.
Establishing the basic elements of a romantic storyline, the film slowly but surely moves away from these familiar guideposts into the realm of the unknown. Unlike Psycho before it or any of the myriad natural disaster films that followed, The Birds is stubbornly insistent on not explaining anything, and is thus the most terrifying of Hitchcock’s works, as pure a slice of existential dread as anything coming out of the European cinema at the time. Psycho has a psychological element, a reason that can be found and understood, and every disaster or monster movie ever made has at least a perfunctory nod toward science, some form of logic for the audience to latch onto – but not The Birds. Instead, as the mysterious attacks build toward an apocalyptic conclusion, the birds, silently and ominously, begin to take over the film at the exclusion of everything else. Indomitable, inscrutable, incomprehensible: the ultimate horror.
Adding to the strangeness is Hitchcock’s revolutionary soundtrack, eschewing the usual orchestration in favor of electronic noises and, mostly, eerie silence. Oddly, one of the difficulties the director faced in the production – casting – also contributes to its effectiveness. Hitchcock had an instinct for the right performers and always had certain actors in mind. In his ideal world, The Birds would have starred Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, two of his favorite and most often used stars. But Kelly had left acting behind after marrying Prince Rainier III and Grant was unavailable, soon to retire himself. Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren became the serviceable stand-ins, a far cry from the star power Hitchcock desired, but somehow more appropriate in terms of becoming merely anonymous humans whose own story slowly dissolves in a landscape increasingly dominated by a horde of avian antagonists.
Only once more did Hitchcock have a team of A-list stars for a picture, when Paul Newman and Julie Andrews teamed up in Torn Curtain (1967), and for the remainder of his career (five more films, the last of which was released in 1976) he struggled to find the right combination of story and cast. Hollywood and movies were changing, and by the end of the sixties things already seemed miles away from where they were just a few years prior. Viewed today, The Birds appears to many as mere camp, the clothes and hairstyles seemingly from an ancient, square world and standing in stark contrast to some of the action. But that is taking into account only the shallowest of surfaces. The Birds stands as a harrowing experience, a summation of Hitchcock’s incredible body of work, a textbook example of efficiency in construction, and a signpost to the future, for any who care to read it.