Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: The Birds (1963)
My earliest memory of watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie is seeing The Birds at a young age, probably too young. I don’t remember much of that experience except that the movie frightened me. And the only thing I could remember about the plot was a woman driving and getting attacked by a bird. The Birds has a special place for me because of that memory and for what a strange movie it is. And the story behind the film, especially Hitchcock discovering Tippi Hedren and becoming obsessed with her, fascinates me. Hitchcock wanted to create a movie star that he could control. While Hitchcock always had a thing for actresses like Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, with Tippi Hedren he wanted to be her Svengali. Hitchcock discovered her in a diet soda commercial, put her through an extensive audition process, and offered her the lead role in The Birds.
Spoiled socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is in a pet store looking for some birds. There she meets handsome lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and after some flirting decides to drive up to his hometown and gift his younger sister Cathy (future Alien star Veronica Cartwright) with lovebirds. Melanie meets Mitch’s mysterious ex-girlfriend Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) and runs afoul of Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Oh, and then some birds start attacking.
The trend nowadays is for characters to be more aware of genre tropes. Sometimes that means cracking jokes, winking at the audience, or breaking the fourth wall. And I can appreciate that because it is hard to watch characters make dumb decisions. But, there is something to be said about characters who don’t know what movie they’re in. In The Birds, Melanie thinks she’s in some sort of romantic drama or comedy, where she pursues a man and wins over his sister and mother. The first half of the movie is presented as such, with only minor hints of the birds attacking. The attacks are random and Hitchcock wisely doesn’t offer any easy explanation. Hitchcock did something similar with Psycho, but The Birds does an even more extreme genre shift.
But when the birds start attacking, oh boy. There are several sequences of the flying beasts wreaking their havoc and they are all scary. One of my favorite sequences is when Melanie is waiting outside the schoolroom in the town, and birds slowly land on a jungle gym a few at a time while she’s smoking. It’s an eerie, nervy scene, exploiting paranoia and the potential for terror. Also, a highlight is one where the family tries to keep the birds out of the home and of course Melanie in the phone booth. This is Hitchcock’s monster movie and his scares are fantastic.
Tippi Hedren is a good actor and her performance here is refined yet visceral. Hitchcock put the poor woman through the ringer during the making, but it comes through in the performance. Hitchcock told her that he would use fake birds during the filming of her climactic scene, but he used real birds. He would have crew members throw the birds at her, and also would tie birds to her. The animal would peck and claw at her. Filming of the scene lasted a week until a doctor ordered her to rest and forced Hitchcock to give her time off. This would be the beginning of the fractured relationship between Tippi Hedren and the director.
The rest of the cast is pretty good here as well. I would have given either Jessica Tandy or Suzanne Pleshette Oscar nominations for their performances. I think they both bring a lot of emotional honesty and sentiment to their performances. Because the film relies on switching genres, it requires the romantic half of the film to soar. Rod Taylor is decent as well, but he’s kind of a bland hero. I don’t think many A-list actors would do a role that takes a backseat to three women, who each have far more interesting characters.
The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s most famous films. I think its concept is so bizarre that it really feels unforgettable. The imagery is so striking, and the nervous paranoia is really palpable. As we’ll see next time, this film led to an even harsher shoot between Hitchcock and Hedren in 1964’s Marnie. The tension that brewed during the making of The Birds came to head during the filming of that psycho-sex thriller…