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A Masterclass in Horror: Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds"

"The Birds" is a polished compendium of Hitchcock’s frequent preoccupations and a masterful illustration of his formal virtuosity.
Jeremy Carr
Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) is showing October 31 – November 29, 2019 on MUBI in France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
To begin with a plainly intended pun, Alfred Hitchcock was soaring high when he set out to make The Birds in 1962. Coming off the phenomenal success of Psycho, a groundbreaking film executed two years earlier, the legendary British filmmaker, by this point a mainstay in American popular culture, had somehow managed to one-up himself at seemingly every turn: “What will you do for an encore?”, Lew Wasserman supposedly asked Hitch after the triumph of his iconic 1960 horror classic, which garnered him his fifth and final Academy Award nomination for best director. To answer that question, for his first Universal Pictures release since 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock moved away from the low-key, black and white ambiance and shocking terror of Psycho and opted for a Technicolor rendering of sweeping, enigmatic, effects-driven fright. While he claimed no particular partiality for the author, The Birds would nevertheless be the third movie Hitchcock derived from a Daphne du Maurier text, following Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940), his first American film. In this case, adapting du Maurier’s 1952 story of the same name, originally published in the short story collection “The Apple Tree,” was Evan Hunter, who had previously sold a short story for the director’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series and had written for “Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.” Although du Maurier apparently disliked the resulting script and film, which, among other changes to the source, relocated the drama from a Cornwall farm to seaside town of Bodega Bay, California, The Birds became a polished compendium of Hitchcock’s frequent preoccupations and a masterful illustration of his pronounced formal virtuosity. It was and remains a comprehensive testament to his distinctly practiced technique, developed and perfected over the course of more than four decades and only sporadically realized in his subsequent endeavors.
Since its release, many have, indeed, considered The Birds the last great Hitchcock film, or at least the last of his more conventionally “Hitchcockian” features. Unlike his prior work, however, one element that distinguishes The Birds from the start is the absence of a traditional score, most notably one by Bernard Herrmann, whose work for the director had become synonymous with The Master of Suspense and is credited here as a “sound consultant.” Instead, Hitchcock employs extensive sound effects, evocative, unnerving aural punctuations primarily created on a Mixtur-Trautonium, an electrical instrument developed by Oskar Sala and used to generate a cacophony of birds squawking, flapping, and fluttering. Under the opening credits, which feature birds in black silhouette against a simple white backdrop, this relentless clatter carries over to The Birds’ initial San Francisco setting, where the sights and sounds of these feathered foils are pervasive yet not quite wholly abnormal. The noise then extends, reasonably so, to a pet shop, where Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a cool as ice socialite, encounters suave criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who seeks a pair of lovebirds for his sister’s birthday. Melanie pretends to work at the store, and although Mitch sees through the facade, recognizing the young woman from court, he plays along anyway, establishing the flirtatious antagonism that drives the early portion of film, which focuses more on her screwball romantic scheming and their engaging chemistry and suppresses the preliminary threat, even as Mitch wryly comments on the “poor little innocent creatures, caged up,” knowingly teasing the impending menace.
Born Nathalie Hedren and labeled a “fascinating new personality” for promotional purposes, Hedren was a model and actress in commercials, one of which caught Hitchcock’s eye and is amusingly alluded to in the opening seconds of The Birds, when a young boy whistles at a passing Melanie and she stylishly turns just as she did in the advertisement. That’s not to say Hedren was the first choice, however; that was recently crowned Princess Grace Kelly, just as Cary Grant was initially preferred over Taylor (preferred to the point where the characters of Melanie and Mitch were dubbed “Grace” and “Cary” during a period of the film’s production). In any event, akin to Hitchcock’s casting of Vera Miles, Shirley MacLaine, and Kelly previously, newcomer Hedren bears the weight of The Birds’ fundamental affinity, doing so glowingly and yet with mild detachment. Melanie is poised and brash, and even if neither Hitchcock nor Hunter were particularly keen on the character they created, a familiar resonance rang through. According to Hedren herself, Hitchcock made the comparison to Tallulah Banknead’s role in his 1944 Lifeboat, a similar character who starts out “as a jaded sophisticate and [becomes] more natural and humane in the course of her physical ordeal.” No doubt, Hedren certainly looked the part at least, appearing as the embodiment of a quintessential “Hitchcock blonde” (in 2008, Mattel designed a commemorative Barbie doll based on Melanie, complete with matching Edith Head dress suit… and three crows). Frequently seen checking her hair and lipstick, she is impeccable and alluring, and as assured as the film itself—all the better to contrast with her later image: bloodied and bandaged, delirious, her clothes in tatters.
In general, The Birds is an utterly pristine picture, with bold colors and meticulous production design, with sets that are at once scenically illustrative and narratively functional. It gives the impression of a methodically planned production in every regard, from the implementation of Melanie’s conscientious physical movements, primers for the careful maneuvering necessitated later in the picture, to Hitchcock’s secure pacing of the story, which, again reflecting the demeanor of his leading lady, conveys leisurely confidence; see Melanie’s uninvited entrance into the Brenner house, a stealthy sequence followed by more than a touch of smug self-satisfaction. This perfectly mannered conduct will, of course, catch up with such security, just as it does for The Birds’ sheltered setting. Melanie is well-suited to Mitch’s perceived arrogance, though, and thinks nothing of following him to Bodega Bay, two lovebirds in tow.
It’s in this serene, rustic settlement, tucked away from the outside world, where Melanie also meets schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a one-time lover of Mitch’s who still pines for the dashing lawyer. Moving past the opening tinge of jealousy, the two become friends and Annie acknowledges just how sleepy this sleepy little town is, remarking on the excess of “spare time in Bodega Bay” (spare time being something Melanie can apparently relate to). All the same, Melanie says she despises their little hamlet, evincing a derision that only accentuates her outsider status, which, like much else Hitchcock establishes early in the film, will later play a part in the speculation of what exactly sparks the avian onslaught. Melanie and Annie also bond over their understanding of Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), a domineering mother figure (per Hitchcock custom) whose leery first reaction to Melanie, in skeptical close-up, is only solidified by her questioning of Mitch’s involvement with “a girl like that.” Granting some of this uncertainty is brought on by Melanie’s dubious personal history and rebellious stories fed by gossip columns, the maternal doubt also stems from the recent passing of Mitch’s father and Lydia’s distraught struggle to regain some of that paternal reassurance and apply it to her son, another narrative element indicated promptly by Hitchcock and latter applied in dramatic fashion.
For a film that could be read as a cautionary tale against complacency, a thematic refrain Hitchcock encouraged, and as a study of rectifying past trauma (Melanie’s mother abandoned her family when she was just a child), The Birds brings forth a mutually corresponding jolt to the present, all but forcing its central characters to move on and to let go, to get back on track and forge hitherto hindered relationships. The thoughtful, interpersonal parallels and emotional touchstones are just part of the film’s extended, thoroughly absorbing preamble, and they do more than a little to set The Birds apart from later “When Nature Attacks” features, especially those made during the schlocky, glorious heyday of the 1970s; see Frogs (1972), The Food of the Gods (1976), and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), among the best. There is also plenty of humor, again per Hitchcock’s typical tonal high wire act, including a shot of the two lovebirds slanting in their cage as Melanie winds her way up the highway and offhand banter between two locals squabbling over the name of Mitch’s younger sister: is it Lois or Alice? (it’s actually Cathy, played by Veronica Cartwright). These additions or digressions, however one wants to view them, form a large part of Hitchcock’s measured direction, lulling the viewer into an uneasy state of tranquility. The Birds’ slow burn tension steadily builds with the anticipation of how and when the eponymous birds will, indeed, attack, and Hitchcock’s intrepid, unruffled stride leads to more than 25 minutes going by before the first hint of potential violence, when a gull swoops down and assails Melanie, and nearly an hour before the first full-fledged assault. In between, there are carefully allotted suggestions: ominous signs of birds migrating, perching on power lines, or crashing into a closed door (on the night of a full moon no less), and a mostly static conversation between Lydia and a farmer about chickens behaving strangely and refusing to eat their feed, a natural exposition held while the stars of the film, and by association their romance—to this point the crux of the film—mill about in the background, drinks in hand, signaling a subtle shift in The Birds’ focus and intimating what will soon become the more prominent concern.
For a vast majority of its early duration, then, Hitchcock provides just enough curiosity to keep the anxiety firmly in mind and freshly expounded, without losing sight of the characters and their individual dilemmas. But then The Birds accelerates, first at Cathy’s birthday party, where the swift and random intensity of the birds’ destructive approach is irrevocably amplified. Perhaps learning his lesson from 1936’s Sabotage, where a young boy is among the victims of an explosion, Hitchcock avoids killing off the children, but he doesn’t shy away from influencing the distress generated by their frightened faces. In this, and with regards to all aspects of The Birds’ exacting dispersion of horror, Hitchcock is conspicuously adroit when it comes to playing the right notes, building, for example, from Lydia’s observation of broken cups hanging in a kitchen, to her silent scanning a bedroom in a state of thorough devastation, to the final payoff of a deceased neighbor, collapsed on the floor, his eyes pecked out, all in a riveting sequence reaching its gruesome crescendo via three perfectly-timed cuts closer to the corpse.
At $3.3 million, The Birds afforded Hitchcock his biggest budget yet, and alongside stalwart cinematographer Robert Burks and editor George Tomasini, he makes sure the money spent is apparent on screen. Aside from the film’s vivid coloring, especially the vibrant red blood that appears with surprising regularity, it is an astonishing assembly of cinematic deception, from elaborate, convincing matte painting to some 370 trick shots, many courtesy of the special effects expert and animator/technician Ub Iwerks, from Walt Disney Studios (The Birds was nominated for an Oscar for its effects, losing to Cleopatra). More fundamentally, the film is a showcase of Hitchcock’s well-honed capacity for editorial management, constructed, in large part, from vigilant cutting, registering a credible spatial orientation between studio sets and locations, a seamless blending of real and fake birds, a juxtaposition of high and low and canted angles, each portending probable danger (and even when it doesn’t come, the formal manipulation works to the same effect), and repeated eyeline matches and point-of-view shots to enhance the subjective identification of any given character. If nothing else, Melanie and her gaze, lingered upon throughout, serve as a captivating conduit for the film’s comprehensive trepidation. A prototypical orchestration of such technique comes when Melanie waits for Annie outside her school, having a cigarette on a bench as the children sing an anxiously never-ending song inside. Unbeknownst to Melanie, but perceptively, judiciously served up to the viewer, a continual accumulation of sparrows gather on some background monkey bars. The compositional configuration and the slow and steady constancy is capped off by Melanie’s vantage as she follows a solitary bird for the scene’s spectacular reveal. The Birds is further exemplary for its abundance of fastidiously accomplished Hitchcock set-pieces: a service station’s fiery destruction, part of which is charted by Hedren’s almost still-frame reaction shots, concluding with a looming overhead optical as birds soar in from above to witness the pandemonium they hath wrought; Melanie trapped in a phone booth, stricken in a Psycho-esque bombardment of varying angles; the boarding up of the Brenner house, creating an illusory safe space that feels all the worse for its confined pressure and is, sure enough, raided in a deft arrangement of shrewd sound design and escalating visual ferocity.
Released in March of 1963, The Birds was met with mixed reviews, the most negative of which tended to focus on the ostensible meaning of the picture (if there was one), as well as Hitchcock’s perceived pessimism concerning human nature, the lack of clear explanation for the attack in the first place, and the unsettled (and unsettling) conclusion, as the birds remain firmly embedded in the town, waiting, their fury only briefly abated. Just as his thrillers often focus on the plight of an unwary everyman, so too does The Birds, Hitchcock’s “monster movie,” bank on the innocent relatability of everyday alarm, suddenly and without warning unleashed on this unsuspecting and confounded provincial hub. In more recent years, much of the controversy connected with the film has centered on Hitchcock’s brutal treatment of Hedren, in the service of the movie itself (which was bad enough) and in more personal outrages (which was even worse). Hedren would work again with the director, though, on Marnie, his 1964 follow-up, and would also appear in the maligned 1994 Showtime movie The Birds II: Land’s End, where, incidentally, she does not reappear as Melanie but as a new character altogether. As for the birds’ wellbeing—the living ones—although Taylor claims some were fed a mixture of wheat and whiskey to keep them docile (hardly an ideal diet), Cartwright said an aviary was built on set to tend to any injured animals.
About the supposed cause of the bird attack, inspiration came from a real-life incident taking place in the summer of 1961, when thousands of seagulls flew into houses along the Monterey Bay coastline, having been poisoned by a nerve-damaging toxin found in the anchovies and squid recently consumed. But the unexplained phenomenon here proves one of The Birds’ more effective qualities. Sure, there’s debate about it, particularly in a protracted restaurant exchange Hitchcock provided as a breather and a bit of comic relief, where a local ornithological connoisseur (of course there happens to be one) knows there is definitively a difference between crows and blackbirds and argues for a scientific rationale, while also putting some of the blame on mankind: “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind rather who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.” On the other hand, an inebriated Bible-spouting local proclaims simply and with drunken gusto, “It’s the end of the world!” and another hysterical woman twists her fears and turns to accuse Melanie, the outsider, saying she is somehow evil and thus brought on the plague. At the time of its release, some may have looked for allusions to nuclear alarm or communist subversion (Russians do get part of the blame in du Maurier’s story), while today, some may ascribe the epidemic to climate change. Perhaps it’s a matter of incensed animal revenge, what with Melanie’s fur coat and the fish markets and seafood restaurants seen around town. Either way, and no matter the actual cause for the doomed “bird war,” the fear sets, and Hitchcock, keen deployer of the arbitrary MacGuffin that he was, eschews any rhyme or reason because the lack of certainty works just as well—maybe even more so. There is no explanation needed; there is simply the pattern of birds striking, disappearing, and massing again. Likewise, although critics and scholars have looked at the film in Freudian terms, feminist terms, and a whole host of other foundations for interpretation, both sexual and social, maybe Hitchcock himself put it best when he once told Ingrid Bergman of her requested motivation in another film: “It’s only a movie.” Fair enough, but The Birds is an immensely entertaining one in any case, made by a filmmaker who knew better than most the power and possibility of cinema’s horrific tension.


Alfred HitchcockTippi HedrenDaphne du MaurierNow Showing
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