The Birds – 1963 – dir. Alfred Hitchcock

The peerless Alfred Hitchcock once again commands the screen of the Brattle Theater with his coruscatingly brilliant ode to mayhem and chaos in The Birds (1963).

Just as audiences were afraid to take a shower for weeks after watching Anthony Perkins make hamburger out of Janet Leigh in 1960’s Psycho three years before, people, after seeing The Birds, bit their nails and quickened their step every time they saw so much as a city pigeon.

A delicious scarefest concocted by Hitchcock and his gifted team: Evan Hunter (screenplay),
Lawrence Hampton (special effects), cinematographers Robert Burks and Ub Iwerks, and bird-trainer Ray Berwick, The Birds is one of the grand master’s most ambitious undertakings. The final version consists of close to 1400 individual shots, almost twice the number of any other
Hitchcock film.

Bird imagery has always figured large in Hitchcock’s work. Throughout his career, he utilized them as a symbol of flight and surprise, an omen of dread.  For Hitchcock buffs, try to find our fine, feathered friends in Sabotage, Young and Innocent, Blackmail.

In The Birds, he has tried for the most part to make them the main characters and but for the considerable talents of his players (Tippi Hedren as a rich, bored socialite; Rod Taylor as her love interest; Jessica Tandy as Taylor’s mother; Veronica Cartwright as his sister and the great
Suzanne Pleshette as his ex), seagulls, sparrows and crows almost steal the show.

Very little is taken from Daphne DuMaurier’s short story upon which the film is based. Her tale
pondered the idea of birds attacking people. The richly fertile mind of Hitchcock saw it as a chance to express his own Apocalyptic vision of the world. The Birds is Biblical in its scope and in its attempts, and though its action is contained in and around the  small seaside town of Bodega Bay (making the horror even more real), the director’s message is clear. This is no mere tale of avians gone off their rockers.  The Birds, for Hitchock, represents his philosophical view that Life is unpredictable, that we can be going along complacently living our trivial, shallow, changeless
lives when Something — it can be anything — but Something Awful happens. We can neither understand nor combat it. It is simply the chaos, the terror, the evil that comes to call on all of us from time to time, and woe be to anyone who cannot withstand it.

Beginning as what appears to be a romance as light as a gin fizz in summer (the exchange between Hedren and Taylor in a pet shop is smartly, wittily choreographed), the movie slowly but surely descends into madness and fright after a dillentante-ish Hedren, captured by her attraction to the handsome Taylor, decides to win him over by buying his sister a pair of pretty lovebirds for her birthday.  At first, a single gull attack on Hedren as she pilots a boat toward Taylor’s shore seems random, if upsetting.  But soon, birds of every color and kind wake the sleepy town out of its
complacency and with alarming speed and fierceness bring a holocaust of destruction to it and its residents.

Of special note are the magnificent “birds”. Three different kinds are here: mechanical birds, animation (painted) birds and of course real live birds. The combination is nothing short of stunning and applause is due Ray Berwick who managed a flock of some 2000 and made
moviegoers to this very day watch their back whenever they see more than two or three of the winged things gathering on a telephone poll.

You will notice, too, with fascination, as you come to realize that the score is non-musical. There is no music in the film, no soundtrack save for the electronic effects (created by the genius, of Bernard Hermann who scored many of Hitchock’s pictures) meant to replicate birds but which consists not only of live bird sounds but also of cats (seemingly in heat!). Orchestrated by Hermann, it is a cacophany of these and other wild animal sounds, care engines, screeching wheels that create a menace and fear far beyond what using only birds would have created.

And poor Tippi Hedren!  This was her very first screen appearance and other less naive actors might well have said, “no” to what Hitchcock proposed, esp. in the final startling scene. In that scene, which took an entire week to film, crew members actually threw live gulls at Hedren’s head, body and feet, repeatedly. Hitchock wanted the effect to be real and the result is amazing, esp. in light of the actress’ sheer courage in taking “one for the Gipper”.  She has, in interviews, said
that week was one of the worst of her Life, that she thought it would never end and that she was like to kill Hitchcock every time she looked at him after that. She felt a betrayal of her trust (he had originally told her he would use mechanical birds only). She now does not regret the risks she took, the danger, the exhaustion (she slept for days after the shoot was over) and feels her “sacrifice” contributed to the overall quality of the story.

Along with her for the crazy avian ride is Rod Taylor. Taylor was a chesty-haired, sexy action man in ’60s movies, an Australian matinee idol, cocky and confident, and he, here, is cast against type as we see his character struggle and almost fall beneath the terror that is besieging him and his loved ones.

The great Jessica Tandy, as his mother, holds her own and the scene in which she discovers the body of a dead neighbor in his farmhouse shows what a master of acting she was as she flees (mouth agape but unable to scream) in her truck. Hitchcock makes this scene totally soundless. No music ups the ante. Not one sound comes out of Tandy’s mouth. Deliciously terrifying!

Legendary British actress, Ethel Griffies (who continued to perform well into her nineties) is as brilliant as the film is in her brief turn as a diner patron and local bird enthusiast. Watch closely as she struggles to light her cigarette, the actress deliberately failing to strike the match, to cause
tension and distress. She draws us then not to her smoking but to her words which decry all the nonsense of residents who believe birds attack people for no reason. And watch closely again the expression on her face after the blinding devastation of an attack on the diner and an adjoining gas station. The explosion renders her thunderstruck.

Hedren’s rival for Taylor’s attention is the beautiful Suzanne Pleshette who never in her career gave a bad performance and who here commands her scenes with brass and brio.  The scene where Taylor finds her outside her house following an attack brims with tenderness. Pleshette was aces at playing these tough-as-nails, heart of gold underneath females, and t.v. aficionados will recognize her as Bob Newhart’s wise-cracking wife in “The Bob Newhart Show”.

The film uses Technicolor to its full advantage. Lots of bright reds bleed all over the screen and
act in contrast to Hedren’s cool, calm green suit (the outfit she wears for most of the film). Look for red in practically every scene, signalling an emotional tone of anti-calm. Its brightness tells us Bodega Bay will not stay a sleepy beach town for long.

It is never clear (maybe not even to Hitchcock) why the birds attack. Some clues seem to shine a light on Hedren, who herself has a bird-like look here. Does she have anything to do with the attacks? Has she brought the birds here?  Is her presence as a stranger (her rich bitch complacency) the conduit that summons the birds?  A customer in the diner scene hysterically accuses her of causing the airborne lunacy.

It really doesn’t matter. Because Hitchcock does not mean and never in his films means to offer easy answers. After all, Life itself often makes no sense whatsoever. In this, one of his darkest, most disturbing movies, bad things happen, bad things go away. When will they come again?  We
never know. So beware of The Birds!!!!!

Leo Racicot Written by: