The Birds (1963)

A build up of sexual and social tension between Melanie and Mitch, loaded with glances and teasing evasions.

The chaotic frenzy of flying monsters that is “The Birds”, was directed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. The film was roughly adapted from a Daphne Du Maurier’s novelette, also called “The Birds”, which was first published in her 1952 collection of short stories, “The Apple Tree”. Screenwriter and novelist, Evan Hunter, based his screenplay on this short story, making it Hitchcock’s third major movie based on the Du Maurier’s work, after “Jamaica Inn” in 1939 and “Rebecca” in 1940. Unlike the author’s story, where the birds were attacking people living in the English countryside, Hitchcock’s motion picture was set along the northern Californian coastline, 60 miles north of San Francisco in a small town called Bodega Bay.

Hitchcock’s first ever Universal Pictures feature in Technicolor came just after “Psycho” (1960),  another movie filled with ‘bird’ references.

This relatively modern Hitchcock thriller “is generally regarded as the last great Hitchcock movie” as it was shot during the height of his cinematic prowess in 1963. It followed hugely popular classics such as “Psycho”, “North By Northwest”, “Vertigo” and “Rear Window”, just to name a few. This suggested final masterpiece of Hitchcock’s has an apocalyptic narrative with a seemingly unexplained, flurry of ‘doomsday’ turbulent attacks coming from ordinary garden birds fighting against humanity.

The reason for the large flocks of these usually mundane birds being drawn towards Bodega Bay and what exactly turned them into demonic, human eating machines is thought to be unknown. Hitchcock has never spilt the beans on this question and it seems that nobody else has any ideas either. “I don’t know what’s out there, Mitch” cries Lydia (Jessica Tandy). “I don’t know why?” states a distressed Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren).”Why are they trying to kill people?” Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) flightendly questions. Mitch (Rod Taylor) replies baffled, “I wish I could say. But if I could answer that, I could also tell you why people are trying to kill people”. Nobody seems to have a clue.

Nonetheless, this frequent uncertainty seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the film being any less terrifying. The entire cast, including the collective audience watching on “is confused, ruffled, on the brink of flight. Here is a film that provides no answers and no escape”.

An example of Hitchcock’s superb film shooting/editing techniques.

Hitchcock’s viewers also had little idea about his extraordinary technical wizardry that was used in creating the visual concepts within this 1963 film. Just your ordinary common garden birds that you see out of your window everyday, somehow turning against humans and brutally attacking them. Though this could perhaps sound like a very corny plot, “Hitchcock makes it happen by employing his wealth of cinematic tricks and trades to create an atmosphere of suspense”. His use of alternative camera shots and innovative visual ideas to create tension and insecurity were technically ahead of the cinematic experience in that era of movie making. Consequently, Hitchcock created new terrifying techniques in the art of thriller story telling that live on, even to today.

The Birds
Hitchcock proves in The Birds that he is a master of control in framing and angles to achieve the emotional effects he wants.

The best example of this cutting edge cinematography is the “picture’s most iconic moment”; the scene where Melanie is sitting outside the Bodega Bay school enjoying her hundredth cigarette of the day. The weather is calm and sunny, Melanie dressed fine with perfectly placed hair and a beautiful complexion. As we see the crows gradually massing together on the schools climbing frame behind her, one by one, “the ominous black birds quickly stand out and develop a presence as the dominant power in the frame”. Although, Melanie is totally unaware of the gathering birds at this point, we notice from her facial expressions that she is becoming more and more agitated as she waits for the children to finish school. She smokes her cigarette more anxiously, yet “each time cutting back to a wider shot that reveals more birds have joined the perch”. Melanie is still unaware of the gathering going on behind her. Suddenly, she notices a crow flying above her. She follows the crows flight all the way through the air until it begins to land on the playground’s jungle gym. Now, there are two hundred crows, if not more, waiting to pounce at any moment. Meanwhile, inside the school house the children sing a very alarming, yet cheerful song to further develop the freaky atmosphere of the scene. “She combs her hair but once a year,” sing the oblivious children inside their classroom. “Nickety-nackety now, now, now!”.

Hitchcock uses this technique of gradually revealing what is happening behind Melanie to increase the tension and suspense. We, the viewer, knows what is happening, but immediately feel anxious for Melanie’s safety as she remains unaware of the terrifying horrors that are about to take place.

Another great example of his unique filming techniques is his ability to play with the use space within camera shots, or the lack of space, to really turn up the tension. From the outset, Hitchcock “starts off as a film with vast, open shots of San Francisco, lakefront towns and wide areas ends up a claustrophobic fight for life” to create a false sense of security for what is in store for the viewer. Again, in the opening scenes where we are introduced to Mitch and Melanie inside the pet shop; Hitchcock is ingenious in the way he subtly focuses on the birds in ornamental cages, squawking, screeching and cheeping. Ironically, when Mitch lectures Melanie on how it’s wrong to imprison birds in their cages, she counteracts, attempting to point out how the birds would create sexual chaos if allowed to be roam free. “Well certainly, it’s to protect the species,” Melanie explains to Mitch. Little does she know that it is in fact the human race who are in danger and need cages for their protection.

Hitchcock demonstrates this reversed imagery perfectly when Melanie traps herself  inside a phone booth, protecting herself from the kamikaze birds who are attacking her. Thus making this “a role-reversal with her attackers — the birds stuck in cages in the film’s opening pet shop scene is now switched with Melanie in the cage seeking refuge from them”.

Melanie’s decision to trap herself in a phone booth for protection against the attacking birds is a role-reversal with the birds in the pet shop cages. 

Not only did Hitchcock take advantage of his unique film techniques to manipulate the birds into horrifying flying monsters, he also was the first director who used trained birds. In fact he used hundreds of birds, including, gulls, ravens and crows to shoot some of the action scenes within the film. In shots where real birds were impossible to manage, Hitchcock was forced to use mechanical birds and animations. During the 1960’s these methods were cutting edge and had no failing effects on the films authenticity at the time. This did, however, cause some difficulties in shooting “because Hitchcock had some trained birds actually attacking Hedren, and despite safety precautions, there were injuries”. When Tippi Hedren was interviewed by Detroit News about the freak accident which occurred during the filming of the telephone booth scene, she revealed, “one of the birds crashed in with such force that it broke the glass and it shattered. They spent the afternoon with tweezers, picking shards of glass out of the left side of my face”. Hedren was advised by the production team that the glass of the telephone booth was special safety glass. Well, apparently they were wrong.

The nerve jangling suspense is also heightened by the non-existent sound score. The only soundtrack being electronically simulated bird cries and wing-flaps which creates a haunting ambience. The sounds of these ghastly birds massing is perhaps more frightening than any traditional soundtrack Hitchcock may have chosen for his horror motion picture.

Although Hitchcock received high acclaim from the watching public, as well as being nominated for an Academy Award at The Oscars for Best Special Effects, critics were baffled by trying to interpret the film in a literal sense and had trouble comparing The Birds to other horrifying thrillers of it’s kind. The main question being, why did these strange disastrous attacks occur?

According to a newspaper article that was released in 2011 by The Daily Mail, the mystery behind Hitchcock’s inspiration for The Birds was actually based on real-life events that happened along the coast of Monterey Bay, California in 1961 where “flocks of frenzied, dying birds flew into the windows of homes”. Scientists believe the cause of this bizarre incident was “that the birds has been poisoned by toxic plankton” which had been dumped into the sea “after studying the stomach contents of marine life from the time of the birds’ deaths in 1961”. The police officer on duty during that freak of nature explained, “by the time I had stopped the car they were raining down all around me. They were big birds and they were falling so fast and hard they could have knocked me senseless. I thought I had better stay in the car and that’s just what I did”. Sounds just like a scene from The Birds to me.

However, we cannot solely rely on scientific experimentations to explain The Birds narrative, because as we previously established, the characters in the film discuss at length the absurdity of the attacks, portraying no real, rational reason why the birds are attacking. Beyond the facts, or fiction, of what actually inspired Hitchcock to create such a motion picture, some film critics believe “that the birds are a manifestation of sex, some galvanic hormonal storm that whisks sleepy Bodega Bay into a great communal lather”. As did the distressed woman in the Tides Restaurant who linked the attacks to Melanie’s appearance in Bodega Bay, “I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil”.

Interestingly enough, this is perhaps not too far from the truth. If we explore the films characteristics closely, the narrative consists of three very needy females, Melanie Daniels, the mother – Lydia Brenner, and the teacher – Annie Hayworth; each flocking towards one singular male in search of affection and attention. Literally, these three women are the ‘birds’. Each of them fragile, creating tension and anxieties between each other. As Melanie gets more and more intimate with Mitch, the other two birds (Lydia and Annie) begin to break down in anguish through anger and jealousy, in fear of losing the man they both love, Mitch.

What’s fascinating is that the attacks from the birds are inexplicably linked to Melanie Daniel showing up in Bodega Bay because she has become a dangerous threat of stealing Mitch away. This concept is perhaps proven when the first occurrence of a bird attack happens, when Melanie in a motorboat approaches Mitch on the shore in Bodega Bay. Just a moment before Mitch and Melanie can embrace each for the first time, suddenly a seagull dives at Melanie’s head and causes her to bleed. This is the first sign that Melanie is not welcome in Bodega Bay. Coincidently, the bird attacks only get worse and worse the closer she gets to Mitch, emotionally and physically. Melanie’s natural impulse towards Mitch will be her ultimate downfall in the end. Hence, “when the pie is opened, the birds begin to sing. Except that in this case they don’t sing so much as scream”.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s intended moral of the story was… don’t ever underestimate the demonic powers of threatened women.