Before Steven Spielberg instilled our fear of the ocean and created the first Summer Blockbuster in Jaws, Alfred Hitchcok attempted to do something similar but instead of sharks, the attack on humanity came from the skies for his feature adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds.
Not for the first time would Hitch go to Du Maurier’s bibliography for inspiration having done so some twenty years earlier in arguably his first success in Hollywood, Rebecca. That film would go on to receive Best Picture Academy Award, but notably had Producer David O. Selznick’s fingerprints all over the production’s end result. By 1963 however, Hitch had firmly established himself as a prominent actor in the Golden Hills with a style remarkably his own and riding on the crest of the success of Psycho.
The Birds, a short story, would be given a face lift from the small Cornish town from which it was initially set, being transported to north of San Francisco and the idyllic Bodega Bay (a place and region that Hitch fell in love with).
Looking back at this film at the time of writing to celebrate its 60th Anniversary, there are obvious flaws that come to light when contrasted with Jaws. Namely, depth of character, which has often been criticised towards the screenwriter, Evan Hunter, but to do so would be to neglect the Hitchcock style and direct precision choices made by the auteur. The Birds is the epitome of style over substance.
We initially follow Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the depiction of Hitchcock Blonde captured on screen, the perfect mould for him to carve out his vision of the “statuesque blonde with a cool, sophisticated manner”. The scene is set in San Francisco as we witness her enter a pet store and encounter the brash, machismo Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and a cool-yet-flirtatious dialogue sparks between them. Enough to encourage Daniels to buy lovebirds and drive off to his hometown of Bodega Bay to give his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright – yes, that Veronica Cartright) as a birthday present. As you do. All this foolish foreplay is a facade and symbolic of the complacency that is created in humanity. It serves as the true horror lurking in the clouds and the menace that hangs in the air – The Birds. After all, as Hitch put it, The Birds are the stars. Hitch was the king of suspense, and this is what he plays with, delicately enticing the fear to come to the audience in strong steady beats, starting with the one swooping gull attack Melanie Daniels head, then the attack on the farm, which leads Mitch’s mother, Lydia (the magnificent Jessica Tandy to play the overbearing matriarch) to discover the bloodied remains of a local farmer. This scene is also the only real gory sequence shot, the rest, by design, leads the audience to fill in the gaps.
The film would be iconised by two particular sequences, the school attack as birds descend on the children trying to escape. And the moment that Melanie gets trapped inside the attic with the feathered frenzy in an isolated environment. That’s not to forget the carnage that escalates outside the town eatery, when a further attack ensues, following a weighty dialogue sequence where local townsfolk try to unpack the cause of the bird attacks. The real moment of despair would be in the picture’s final sequence as a traumatised Daniels has been reduced to her core, escorted away in her car with Mitch and his family surrounded by a sea of birds, never knowing when the next strike will come, if it all. This ambiguous ending, one that is echoed from the source novel, left a lot of moviegoers bewildered, but for me, it’s the killer stroke deliberately left hanging in the air that hits strong and true.
By flipping the perspective of caged birds to caged humans, hiding in fear of predators, seeking protecting behind fimble walls, and also leading to an unknown conclusion and embracing the exterior, the audience are also thrust into the wilderness with a faint sign of hope to lead the way.
- Saul Muerte
1 Counts, K. B. (1980). The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Cinemafantastique, 10, 15-35.