Last night, Turner Classic Movies aired its last slate of Hitchcock movies for their 50 years of Hitchcock class. Sadly all good things must come to an end. But fortunately Hitchcock’s films are readily available and we can continue studying the Master of Suspense for years to come. In conjunction with the class, I’ve been writing about some of my favorite Hitchcock films. The last one I will cover for my spotlight is The Birds. Far more than just a creature feature, The Birds is a chiller you can’t afford to miss.
The plot of The Birds is pretty simple. Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren, making her film debut) pursues potential beau Mitch (Rod Taylor) to the remote Northern California town of Bodega Bay after they have a chance encounter in a pet shop. But once Daniels arrive, birds suddenly start attacking people.
That’s it. That’s the set-up. But Alfred Hitchcock takes what could have been a B-horror movie with birds as the monster of the moment and makes it an absolutely chilling thriller. Right from the start of The Birds, we know this is going to be something we haven’t seen before. The opening credits are downright scary. There’s no score. Instead it’s the credits for the film shown amid shots of swarming, screaming birds flying past the screen. It gets your attention right away. For me it’s the scariest title sequence in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.
What else makes the film scary? Well, the lack of exposition makes it pretty unsettling. There’s never any explanation given as to why the birds suddenly start attacking people. Some people may find that unsatisfying or lazy storytelling. But to me that just makes what’s going on more horrifying. Nature suddenly turning on us? That’s pretty frightening. It gives it almost the feeling of a Biblical plague. Instead of swarms of locusts we get flocks of birds. Along with the lack of exposition, there’s the fact that the birds attack at random. One of the scariest scenes in the movie is an attack on a school by some pretty nasty crow. The kids fleeing the schoolyard and being stalked by the crows is one powerful horror film moment. There’s also a scene where birds attack by flying in a house through a chimney. No place is safe.
The Birds also stands out to me because of how technically difficult it was to make the film. Back then they couldn’t bring up a million birds on a computer screen, so Hitchcock and his crew had to improvise. As Internet Movie Database notes about the attack on the school scene,
When the children are running down the street from the schoolhouse, extra footage was shot back on the Universal sound stages to make the scene more terrifying. A few of the children were brought back and put in front of a process screen on a treadmill. They would run in front of the screen on the treadmill with the Bodega Bay footage behind them while a combination of real and fake crows were attacking them. There were three rows of children and when the treadmill was brought up to speed it ran very fast. On a couple of occasions during the shoot, a number of the children in the front fell and caused the children in back to fall as well. It was a very difficult scene to shoot and took a number of days to get it right. The birds used were hand puppets, mechanical and a couple were trained live birds.–IMDB
Live birds, puppets, animatronics…imagine trying to get all those elements to work in one movie. There’s also a visually stunning birds eye view shot as the birds attack a local gas station while Melanie is trapped in a phone booth. And while I’m on the subject of technical difficulty, did you know The Birds has a Disney connection?
The use of standard blue screen techniques for doing matte shots of the birds proved to be unacceptable. The rapid movement of the birds, especially their wings, caused excessive blue fringing in the shots. It was determined that the sodium vapor process could be used to do the composites. The only studio in America that was equipped for this process was the Walt Disney studio. Ub Iwerks, who had become the world’s leading expert on the sodium vapor process, was assigned to this production.–IMDB
For those that don’t know, Ub Iwerks was one of the co-founders of Disney studios. Use that bit of trivia to impress your friends.
I love The Birds for a number of reasons, and they’re not all technical. Tippi Hedren gives a very strong film debut. Rod Taylor is solid as her love interest. There’s also a great supporting cast that includes Jessica Tandy. I also really appreciate the ending. *Spoiler alert!* Melanie, Mitch, and company leave Bodega Bay to get Melanie to a hospital. As they leave, there’s a wide shot of the countryside filled with birds. It suggests the terror isn’t over. The power of suggestion in that final shot is bone chilling.
One final note: The Birds was based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. She also wrote the novels that inspired Hitchcock’s Rebecca a Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier’s stories were perfect for Hitchcock.