The Birds–one of the most terrifying thrillers directed by Alfred Hitchcock–marks the 60th anniversary of the film’s 1963 release.
The master of suspense is at it again. Over 20 years after winning an Oscar for Rebecca, Hitchcock turns to Daphne du Maurier once again. One element to appreciate is how Hitchcock uses comedy to build up to the eventual suspense. But even though there is no shortage of sheer terror on display in the thriller, it feels rather tame by today’s standards. Much like the shark in Jaws, you know the birds are coming but it’s a question of when. When they start appearing on scene, the question soon becomes how fast can people get out of harm’s way. For that matter then, is any place even safe at all? The one question that the film never answers is why are the birds attacking? Is it because of Melanie arriving in Bodega Bay? After all, they do not attack the small town prior to her arrival.
Screenwriter Evan Hunter keeps the basic concept of the original short story but creates new characters and expands on the bird attacks. After starting off with screwball comedy elements at the pet shop, Hunter moves the story’s setting to Bodega Bay where Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is looking for Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch is there to visit his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and younger sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). But almost as soon as Melanie arrives, birds start attacking and never let up. While gifting Cathy with a pair of lovebirds, Melanie isn’t honest with Lydia, saying she’s friends with Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette).
Melanie stays in town just long enough to attend Cathy’s birthday party. But with birds attacking Bodega Bay, Mitch prefers she wait before driving back. To nobody’s surprise, Lydia discovers her neighbor has been killed by birds. Because of this, Melanie heads out to pick up Cathy. At this point in the film, we get one of the most iconic moments in cinema history: crows on a jungle gym. Much to her displeasure, crows attack the children after they evacuate the school due to a “fire drill.” Melanie finds safety at a nearby diner and while Mitch finds him there, the birds do their business and all chaos breaks loose–including a gasoline fire with a beautiful overhead shot. Unfortunately, Annie’s luck wasn’t much better as she paid for protecting the children with her life.
The Birds comes to a pre-climax when Melanie and the Brenners board up the house. Some birds initially breach the barricades but Mitch makes a quick fix. But at the very moment when we think the birds are gone, Melanie heads up to the attic and gets attacked. It’s movie law at this point–the moment that someone heads upstairs is the moment that they are going to regret that decision. Every single time! In any event, they carefully make an escape as birds surround the house and watch them drive away. The film’s 4K UHD release features a number of bonus features, including storyboards for the original ending. The original ending did not get shot during production.
With the film’s release in 1963, Hitchcock forever changed the monster movie genre. He could have done whatever he wanted after Psycho. In this film, he takes such a common animal that people interact with daily and makes them among the most monstrous creatures to ever grace the screen. Of the birds that Hitchcock has on display, they aren’t even among the worst ones. The screen has always featured terrifying monsters on the screen. One can certainly argue that this film might not exist without the sci-fi monster films of the 1950s. One trope that doesn’t seem to be on display here is when the angry villagers attack them. The film just ends with Melanie and the Brenners leaving Bodega Bay. It’s an open ending without a formal one.
The only way this film could work is utilizing special effects. Without Ub Iwerks creating the sodium vapor process (yellow screen), the effects in numerous scenes would have been impossible. If you make this film today, the birds would probably be CGI. There are around 370 effects shot in the film utilizing quite a few studios and outside VFX sources including MGM, Fox, Universal, and Linwood Dunn. For a film released in 1963, the technology is rather impressive for its era.
Much like Rear Window almost a decade earlier, Hitchcock does away with a traditional score. The film more or less utilizes sound effects and digetic music when it is otherwise silent. In any event, Sala and Remi Gassmann provide electronic sounds on the soundtrack. Hitchcock keeps veteran composer Bernard Hermann on board as a sound consultant. There are sequences here where the film becomes a silent film except for birds flapping or making calls. Take the attic scene–it’s basically a rehash of Psycho‘s shower scene except with birds and less music. Who knew that birds would make for a particularly terrifying soundtrack?
After watching The Birds, audiences will never look at birds in the same way ever again, which is perhaps Hitchcock’s original intent.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
SCREENWRITER: Evan Hunter
CAST: Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, and introducing Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw, with Ruth McDevitt, Lonny Chapman, Joe Mantell, Doodles Weaver, Malcolm Atterbury, John McGovern, Karl Swenson, Richard Deacon, Elizabeth Wilson, William Quinn, and Doreen Lang
Universal released The Birds in theaters on March 28, 1963. Grade: 4.5/5
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