Today marks the last day of July and as such also the last day of our “fun with animals” month! So far we have seen a great white, giant gorilla, evil worms, and recreated dinosaurs. This got me thinking, ‘how do I finish this month off, what animal is the scariest of all?’ This is my Sunday’s with…. The Birds.
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Run Time: 119 minutes
Starring: Rod Taylor
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
“It’s the end of the world.” – Patron
The Birds is set in the California town of Bodega Bay, but opens in a bird shop in San Francisco. Mitch Brenner (Taylor) is here to pick up a pair of love birds for his sister Cathy’s eleventh birthday. Also in the shop is Melanie Daniels (Hedren), a young socialite who has garnered a rather negative reputation for her “wild” exploits at the time. Brenner recognizes her immediately, but instead of confronting her for who she was, he decides to play a prank on her which doesn’t go over very well, despite her pension for prank playing herself. Infuriated by the prank, but now also intrigued, Melanie finds Mitch’s address and decides to buy and deliver the two love birds he was looking for. Mitch is not at home so she leaves the birds, and takes a stroll on the shore when Mitch spots her and goes to speak with her. It is here where Melanie is attacked by a seagull. Visibly shaken Mitch invites her over to the Brenner house for dinner. After meeting the family Melanie stays at Annie Hayworth’s house, a local school teacher who she has befriended and also Mitch’s ex-girlfriend. The women are startled when a loud noise at the front door turns out to be a gull that has flown head first into the door. The next day Cathy’s birthday party is invaded by a swarm of attacking seagulls. Forced into the family house, everyone must wonder why is this happening, and is it happening everywhere? As the birds seem to become more bold in their actions they are also becoming more violent, leading the town to wonder how will it stay safe? The Birds was based off the 1952 story by Daphne du Maurier of the same name.
The Birds is another shining example of how to perfectly use slow burning suspense to effectively create a horrific situation. Throughout his career Hitchcock was renowned for his ability to build suspense into a terrific pay off, and this film is a great example. The bird attacks start small and seem to be secluded incidents, however as they story progresses so does the extent and scale of the attacks. Hitchcock perfectly shapes the building horror around the human story at its center. That is another hallmark of Hitchcock’s work; we are always presented a story through the eyes of the main characters and it is through our peripheral vision that we get glimpses of the villain up until the point that it is in your face. Even though these are thriller and horror films, he never sacrificed the character development for the jump scare; through dialogue and mood we have a building of suspense that leads to a satisfying pay off when things finally get out of hand.
From a story aspect, I have always found The Birds to be rather brilliant. The horrific attacks and bird infestations are never explained. We do not get a reason as to why these animals are doing this and I personally love that. What a scary aspect that this could happen! The birds have no motivation like a human villain. You also cannot put yourself into the mindset of a bird or try to reason with it. The only thing you can really do would be to run or try to defend yourself. We have seen this technique used in many films, however probably none as effective as we do here. Not knowing is the true horror. The Birds, considered by many to be a thriller, but it has also has given us many memorable scenes of horror such as the attack on the town and the infamous phone booth scene. We also have the aftermath of the bird attack when we get a glimpse of what they have done to Lydia’s father. The end of the film is also a bleak outlook. The town is over run and even though the attacks have seemed to stop for the day, the survivors are forced to leave, with no explanation or reasoning as to how or why this has happened.
Aside from the written work of Daphne du Maurier, Hitchcock was also influenced by a real life occurrence when the people of Capitola, California woke up one morning to the sounds of birds hitting their roofs and to the sight of hundreds of dead birds filling their streets. This incident was accredited to shellfish poisoning, however Hitchcock collected the newspapers of the time covering the story to help him develop his vision. This was also not the first time that American audiences encountered the de Maurier story, as it was performed over Radio Theater in 1953. However the original representation was much closer to the original story and less like Hitchcock’s classic.
Hitchcock was known for foresight and ability to fully create his vision and this film was no different. For example when it came to the score Hitchcock utilized moments of silence and counteracted it with noise, putting an emphasis on the silence of the film. He came up with the bird sounds using a synthesizer-esque machine. The electronic soundtrack was created by Sala and Remi Gassmann. Hitchcock was also renowned for his camera tricks and use of effects, and the numerous attack sequences still hold up to today’s films. Ub Iwerks used a technique he helped develop known as a yellow screen to help capture the effects. It is a similar effect to the green screen, however it captures more of a grainy image than a clear one. This was done to help with the realistic movement of the birds wings. Iwerks efforts landed him an academy award nomination for visual effects.
Rod Taylor starred in The Birds, and was accompanied by Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette. All involved gave solid performances, however it was Hedren who was the standout. In her film debut she proved that she could be a leading lady. With beautiful looks and a solid performance it was no wonder that Hitchcock had a “fascination” with her! (That relationship is almost as interesting as any of their work together!) Hedren’s performance landed her a golden globe win for most promising female new comer. She would star in a total of four Hitchcock films, and her experiences with Hitchcock would go on to be the focal point of the 2012 film “The Girl”.
The films of Alfred Hitchcock are classics for a reason and The Birds is one of the very best. The story itself is still as thrilling today as it was when it debuted; it has even found itself ranked number seven on the AFI’s list of 100 most thrilling American films. Hitchcock was a treasure in the film world and The Birds is just another of his gems. If you haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend that you do.