This is truly one of the strangest of all Alfred Hitchcock’s movies – undeniably great but very odd. It’s such a weird premise, the idea of birds randomly and inexplicably attacking the human population, that it quickly becomes compelling and intriguing to watch. It’s great for precisely this reason: it’s not explained at the start and not resolved at the close, the main characters simply drive away very slowly through the thronged birds.
Right from the start, with its strange light blue Universal logo and bird flapping graphic titles, you know you’re in for something special. Robert Burks is back behind the camera, Edith Head sorting out ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s costumes as Melanie Daniels. As she first appears (black clothing) she is wolf (or bird?) whistled by a passer by, and casts her eyes skywards to the busy birds.
I like the feel of the relationship between Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and Melanie. He is a gad about town, smooth and well dressed and confident. She is a rich socialite – seemingly a bit airheaded but actually very tender and ready to love. Their dialogue is immediately flirty and clever as they spar playfully over bird related dialogue – all attractive stuff to watch and a light surround to a film with a raven black centre. Their flirtation and romance speeds along very nicely – Melanie zooming up to Bodega Bay to deliver two love birds for Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Hitchcock does a lovely little thing as Melanie’s sports car banks along the roads, the camera above and showing the two little lovebirds leaning from side to side. Neat and funny and irresistible.
Suzanne Pleshette is very good as the schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Immediately she meets Melanie and they talk of Mitch she conveys her past (and present) love for him very adeptly. A couple of looks away into the distance and you get the picture, really economical. Annie has dark hair, and Melanie is blonde – just so it’s established who’s who in the pecking order. When the two women sit and have a glass of vino and a ciggie late in the evening, Mitch rings and Hitchcock cuts to a lovely composition, Annie large in the foreground, Melanie in the background – but it’s Annie’s expression your attention is focused on.
This scene ends with the thump of a dead bird and Melanie’s foreboding line ‘but it isn’t dark, Annie, there’s a full moon’…
The first tiny attack could be accidental. An enticing romantic moment – Melanie having quietly dropped off the lovebirds for Cathy then Mitch speeding around the bay to meet her – is rudely interrupted by the swooping beast, and Melanie’s gloved finger is spotted with bright red blood. As Mitch cleans the cut, there is a very discreet camera move – it pulls out and does a subtle rotation to balance the shot around the pair of them, very neat.
There’s also a very telling closeup as Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) comes into the diner and sees Melanie for the first time. If it had stayed on a two shot with her son, then fine, but the cut to her full frame shows her expression and her shackles rising protectively. Mrs. Brenner is a Mrs. Bates figure with more skin on her bones – but just as protective of her ickle boy and those floozies who want to clip his wings.
The violence in the film is something to behold. After the first Melanie swoop, Cathy’s birthday party really sees things taking off, the kids pecked and terrorized by the creatures with really convincing effects. Later, the chaos that ensues when the Brenner’s house is invaded is great, the special affected birds swirling around as Mitch tries to get rid of them. There’s an admirable discipline in not having the women howling and screaming – it literally is just the sound of the birds. In the aftermath, Melanie observes Mother tidying as Mitch talks to the cop – it’s the start of some kind of bond between the two women and a really subtle character scene. Another great shock scene comes straight after the house attack as Mrs. B. discovers the farmer Mr. Dan Fawcett (uncredited actor here) with his eyes bloodily plucked out. Hitchcock pulls out a dramatic cut sequence, this time three increasingly close up images that reminded me of Truffaut’s ‘Tirez Sur La Pianiste’ and prefigures Scorsese’s image of the shooting range Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’*.
The scene is very creepy, Mrs. Brenner afterwards literally being unable to speak or communicate what she has just seen. It’s very unexpected as we’ve just experienced another attack, the warning signs already there as she notices a cracked tea cup hanging up (Hitchcock planting the idea of broken crockery in the previous scene). Again, it’s the silence of her discovery that is truly great – such discipline to stick to this. Tandy is great also in her portrayal of paralysed shock.
By this point, the film starts to ramp up the attacks and the violence in one great set piece after another. The school attack is great, Melanie sitting quietly and not noticing the winged masses behind her who then go for the kids full force. Nice use of sound again here, the kids’ repetitive song acting as a distant soundtrack as birds gather. Hitchcock points his camera at the birds until we hear the sound of the children running – then all hell breaks loose. It’s very convincing and distressing.
By the time of the diner/Bodega Bay town centre attack (fantastic under siege group of individuals cowering within the restaurant) and then the attack on Melanie in the upstairs room the appearance of birds is both sinister and extremely unnerving. The diner scene brings together a great array of townsfolk, including the ornithologist old girl Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Grifies) singing the birds’ praises and coming out with helpful lines such as the world having ‘…100 billion birds…flock together? If that happened, we wouldn’t have a chance’. ‘It’s the end of the world’ chimes in the cliched but entertaining Bible bashing booze artist propping up the bar/counter (played by Karl Swenson). This sequence also features a great quadruple cut to Melanie watching a guy’s dropped cigar flame burning its way to the gas station: an audacious jump cut sequence culminating in an almighty bang – wonderful, experimental stuff.
The effects here are wonderful too, the cigar man convincingly being burnt up and then a good old petrol explosion, cutting to a high shot over the town as the birds start their approach.
The build up to the climactic attack on Melanie in the upstairs room is just brilliant, the bird sounds increasing until all merry hell kicks off. The Melanie attack has famous rape undertones, and is all the more questionable for this (she does seem to be uttering orgasmic sounds as the attack progresses – she certainly is writhing about in a very strange way that evokes the grip of passion, occasionally muttering for Mitch to boot). The cutting here reminded me of the shower scene in 1960’s ‘Psycho’ – jagged editing to hammer home details and strengthen the feel of chaos and desperation, also present in the preceding scene where she is trapped in the phone booth. Melanie is left catatonic by the attack, and understandably so.
The overtones of expected violence run riot through the film – the gradual landing of the birds outside the kid packed school is tremendous. When Annie looks out and sees the creatures out there you know she’s going to have to get out of there but how to tackle such a throng of winged mayhem? She later buys it herself – this poor woman with her unrequited Mitch love. Mitch’s mom is also a classic Hitchcock mother/creation, her disapproval of Melanie the same ire that must have greeted Annie and many other female suitors. You have to hand it to Melanie for standing up to the old battleaxe so defiantly. Melanie is undeniably a tough lady, but also tender – the scene at the Brenner’s house where she and Mitch wander up the hill together sees her soft side, very emotionally stating she doesn’t know where her mother is – turned away from camera, her voice cracking. She relieves the sadness by stating that she better go and ‘join the other children‘. She feels like a kid next to the manly Mitch – it did occur to me how old each one of the Brenners is meant to be – the mum must be in her 50’s, Mitch in his 30’s – but the little sister can only be 12 or 13 – interesting age ranges to figure out how the family works. Mitch is the father substitute, the deceased Dad’s portrait looming over the piano in their house. Mitch calls his mother ‘darling’ and gives her little kisses of reassurance of his love.
‘The Birds’ has no music, but instead uses Bernard Herrmann as sound consultant in the bird sounds and songs that serve as a soundtrack. Again, this is a bold and clever move – the action/suspense scenes not giving you the usual soundtrack pointers about how to feel – the silence of expectation ramping up the terror as much as the subtle growing of bird sounds. Wonderful, subtle, clever and different use of sound – a preoccupation of the director since the start of his career in the silent 1920’s.
In my notes, I simply finished with the word ‘wow’. ‘The Birds’ is absolutely cracking stuff – clever and intriguing, scary and thought provoking. It’s an undeniable cinema classic and even though the ending could be seen as disappointing (they just drive off slowly through the massed creatures) I think it’s great – they don’t get to flamethrower the whole lot of them and beat them into feathered dust: the threat remains.
It’s a dark, dark film and worthy of its reputation. It is character based, the relationships developing logically as the story progresses. The figure of the mother slowly opens up to the rival to her son’s affections, Mitch slowly falling for Melanie also, Annie sympathetically portrayed. Join these good characterizations with this weird story and great action and it’s an incendiary combo. The director refuses to cop out with a pat ending but holds his nerve beyond the close of the picture. ‘The Birds’ is a nihilistic masterpiece, genuinely chilling and unpleasantly thought provoking. It’s absolutely superb.
‘Tippi’ Hedren went on the star in ‘Marnie’ (next week) and is the mother of the much more irritating Melanie Griffith.
Hitchcock comes out of the pet shop two minutes in, walking two little doggies.
*Truffaut, of course, published one of the most famous of interview books with Hitchcock. The link to Scorsese is Bernard Herrmann, whose last film ‘Taxi Driver’ was. Scorsese clearly a Hitchcockophile (check on YouTube for ‘The Key to Reserva’ plus umpteen other touches in his movies).
Rod Taylor – like him a lot especially from the great George Pal movie of ‘The Time Machine’ that I watched growing up. He’s still around too – popping up as Winston Churchill in Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’. He doesn’t have quite the hunky physique any more and his looks seem to have been drunk out of him, but he’s Rod Taylor for heaven’s sake!
This was the third and last Daphne Du Maurier story adapted – after ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘Rebecca’ all those years earlier.
The movie was presented in cinemas @ 1.85:1 although I have read it was shot open gate so is meant to work 4:3 for televisions at the time. I think this is correct – the ‘1000 Frames of Hitchcock’ project shows the 1.85:1 image and you see less top and bottom of frame than you do on the 4:3. – so it’s not pan and scanned. This is a relatively rare occurrence – Stanley Kubrick used it a lot (so on the DVD version of ‘The Shining’ for example you are seeing more than you would in the cinema. Interesting the recent Blu-ray versions go back to the theatrical 1.85:1 cropped version. Bizarre choice).