I spent a large portion of my youth growing up in Northern California, and we were always reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when we saw a flock of them fly by. I’ve been to a number of the locations in San Francisco and Bodega Bay where this classic movie was made, but I have never actually seen it all the way through until recently. Still, it was one of those films we felt we all had seen as we are aware of its story and are constantly reminded of its existence when we see birds in the sky or in a park feeding on leftover crumbs.
It took a 50th anniversary screening of “The Birds” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to finally give me a reason to actually see it. Seeing the movie at the world famous theater made it all the more entertaining as this Hitchcock classic probably hasn’t looked this good in years. But I was especially impressed with the movie’s sound design which proved to be of an assault on our eardrums. It made you wonder if the birds were going to kill the humans by pecking them to death, or if their insane chirping and screeching would be the end of us instead.
Tippi Hedren is absolutely sublime as Melanie Daniels, a socialite who strikes up a conversation with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who “mistakes” her for a salesperson at a bird shop. When it turns out Mitch was just teasing Melanie as he knew all along she wasn’t an employee but instead someone he remembered from a court case, she gets all pissed and looks to one up him. So she drives out to Bodega Bay, a small coastal town in Northern California where Mitch spends the weekends with his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his sister Cathy (a very young Veronica Cartwright). And that’s when the birds start to attack…
Bodega Bay is really a perfect location for a horror movie; a small seaside town which looks so peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. But it’s this isolation which dooms the humans in “The Birds” as many of them can’t see outside their little town for any possible escape. Many people come to these small towns to get away from big city life, but if it’s bad in Bodega Bay when these birds attack, imagine how bad it must be in San Francisco with them all perched over the Golden Gate Bridge, just waiting to launch another bloodthirsty assault.
The first bird attack actually doesn’t happen until about a half hour or so, and I don’t imagine any filmmaker, even Hitchcock, getting away with this today except Steven Spielberg. Studio executives would probably be saying, “Can you introduce the bird attacks any sooner?” But this is okay because Hitchcock is clearly having fun with Melanie and Mitch as they play cat and mouse games with each other. The scene where Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s home so she can secretly give him a present is very suspenseful as I kept expecting Mitch to pop up in the doorway at any second. His reaction to what Melanie has gotten away with is priceless.
When a seagull attacks Melanie while she is on a boat, it completely catches us off guard as we have become so wrapped up in the chemistry between her and Mitch. Indeed, it’s the human characters I wondered more about than the birds themselves. Each person Melanie comes into contact with appears to have some sort of hidden agenda you are itching to figure out before the movie ends. With the birds, it’s not hard to figure out what their agenda is.
Hitchcock made “The Birds” a few years after “Psycho,” and it shows him still having a thing for overbearing mothers. Tandy is wonderful in portraying her deep-seated suspicions about Melanie without words, and I kept thinking she had some evil plan going on behind those eyes of hers. Like Mrs. Bates, she’s a little too overprotective of who her son goes out with.
Then there’s the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (the alluring Suzanne Pleshette) who was once in a relationship with Mitch, and she keeps eyeing Melanie ever so seductively when talking about him. Annie tells Melanie she and Mitch remain the best of friends as she smokes a cigarette (which, like it or not, still looks glamorous onscreen), but what does Annie really mean? Pleshette makes Annie a very enigmatic character, and it’s like she’s daring you to look deeper into those beautiful eyes of hers.
Granted, the special effects in “The Birds” these days look a bit campy and haven’t aged well. Then again, they still look better than anything in “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” Hitchcock shoots the bird attacks in the same way he shot the shower scene in “Psycho;” with a lot of quick cuts which gives you the illusion you’re seeing more than what’s onscreen. This is especially the case when Melanie ventures upstairs to the room which the birds have broken into. The editing is all over the place, and it makes the attack seem all the more painfully brutal as a result.
I loved how Hitchcock just strings the audience along throughout and manages to stay one step ahead of them. M. Night Shyamalan has been desperately trying to do this with many of his movies, but Hitchcock remains the master when it comes to generating suspense. He’s careful not to give too much away, and he always keeps you wondering what will happen next. At the movie’s end, many questions are left unanswered and the fates of certain characters remain up in the air, but this makes the experience all the more terrifying even after the lights come up in the theatre. Hitchcock is not interested in giving the audience an easy way out, and “The Birds” stays with you long after it has ended.
One image which will forever stay with me is the scene at the school where Melanie waits outside as the children sing “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” and she doesn’t notice the dozens of birds which are perched on the jungle gym behind her. You want to yell at her and say “look behind you,” and when it is revealed just how many birds are there, you feel her sheer terror as she sees for herself the danger everyone is in. Keep in mind, this movie was made long before CGI effects were even a tiny thought in somebody’s head, and this makes Hitchcock’s work with the birds all the more impressive.
Actually, looking back at the scene makes me wonder what would be more horrifying. Could it be that those birds are ready to fly up and attack the children at any given moment, or that someone is going to have clean up all the bird shit that you know will be covering the jungle gym after they fly away? With so many birds, that piece of equipment is never going to get fully cleaned. Once the kids find out what happened, you will be lucky to get any of them playing on it again!
I loved the movie’s last half where Melanie and Mitch are hiding in his family’s home which has been completely boarded up to keep the birds from getting inside. It’s at this point the film becomes a master class in sound design as the birds’ screeching (much of it created with an electroacoustic Trautonium) becomes far more unnerving than seeing them attack humans. We don’t see many birds, but we hear them and see all sorts of holes being poked in the doors as they fight their way inside. It’s one of the many brilliantly staged scenes Hitchcock has ever put together as he sticks us right inside the house with the characters to where we feel their isolation and terror over what will happen if the birds find a way inside.
I also loved how cool Hedren is as Melanie Daniels. She gives this icy blonde a seductive confidence which makes you want to follow her to ends of the earth, and it’s easy to see how this type of character came to inform many of Paul Verhoeven’s movies (“Basic Instinct” in particular). It’s a tragedy Hitchcock ruined Hedren’s career out of his unhealthy obsession with her, and his treatment of her casts a dark shadow over the legacy of “The Birds.” Needless to say, Hedren still walks through life with her head held high which says a lot about her.
It’s also a kick to see Veronica Cartwright here as it helps to certify her status as one of the great scream queens in horror movies. These days we know her best from her terrifying turns as Lambert in “Alien” and in Philip Kaufman’s remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but this was the first horror movie which she appeared in, and she was only 12 years old at the time (she turned 13 during its making). After all these years, Cartwright remains a fascinating actress to watch.
Perhaps “The Birds” would have had a stronger effect on me had I watched it on its 25th anniversary instead. But the fact it holds up so well after half a century says a lot about Hitchcock’s brilliance behind the camera, a brilliance many filmmakers still pray to have in their own careers. Still, more than thirty years after his death, there is still no topping Hitchcock as the master of suspense. To those who wish to try, all I can say is good luck. You’re gonna need it.
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