A masterfully fun horror classic filled with style and suspense
A quirky ornithologist states a commonly held philosophy: “Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss. They bring beauty into the world”. She forgets however, that she's in a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who had a talent for making commonplace things (like showers or a cup of tea) terrifying. In this cinematic gem titled "The Birds", he fashioned an entire film around our everyday fine feathered friends who become horrifyingly hostile, turning on mankind. A technical landmark in its day, its special effects can still send chills down the spine while creating a fun, sleek, and thrilling horror film. Unlike possibly all other Hitchcock films, “The Birds” has no complicated story, no dastardly plot to uncover, and no crystal clear romance to be resolved. Instead, many elements are left somewhat vague. But in the hands of Hitchcock none of that matters, and this film remains exciting entertainment. It is constructed so thoughtfully and precisely, it can be seen as a prime example of crackerjack filmmaking, and why Hitchcock became known as the "master of suspense".
Though “The Birds” is based on a short story by British novelist Daphne du Maurier (whose other works “Jamaica Inn” and “Rebecca” Hitchcock previously adapted), the film version kept only her story's title and idea of birds attacking humans. The film opens with spoiled playgirl “Melanie Daniels” walking to a San Francisco pet shop. Just before entering, she notices a massive flock of birds hovering in the distance - an ominous sign of what’s to come. Inside the store, the dapper and somewhat cocky “Mitch Brenner” mistakes her for a salesclerk, and asks her for help purchasing a pair of love birds as a surprise birthday gift for his eleven-year-old sister. "Melanie" plays salesclerk, and as she and “Mitch” banter flirtatiously, it becomes clear that their talk about love birds is more about the two of them. Since the store has no love birds, practical joker “Melanie” secretly orders them and drives to his weekend home in Bodega Bay to personally deliver them. Shortly after she arrives, the birds in Bodega Bay begin acting strangely, and what started off as a light comedy, slowly turns into a horrific nightmare.
In Bodega Bay, "Melanie" meets "Annie" (the town's schoolteacher and ex-flame of "Mitch"), "Lydia" ("Mitch's" cold and distant mother), and "Cathy" ("Mitch's" much younger sister). Through all these characters (and the birds), many themes hover overhead, including abandonment, the shattering of ego, sex, desire, jealousy, loss of control, and mothering (including that of mother nature herself). No reason is provided for the bird’s assault upon humanity other than when the ornithologist defends the birds as mentioned earlier, and adds, “It’s mankind rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet”. The undefined elements only make this film more intriguing, provoking the viewer to form their own conclusions and as such, one can watch "The Birds" over and over again. Regarding the bird attacks, Hitchcock later said in interviews that they are indeed retaliating against the human race for being caged and hunted.
Hitchcock was already world-famous for his films, his voice, looks, and profile, having long established himself as one of cinema’s top directors and the greatest at mustering suspense. A fan of the macabre, he loved to scare audiences and then relieve their fear and tension, and created a legendary career doing so. "The Birds" was the last in a string of his enormously commercial and critical successes, "Vertigo", "North by Northwest", and three years prior to "The Birds" (Hitchcock's longest break between films up to that point), "Psycho". With audience expectations being high, he designed "The Birds" so no one could predict what was going to happen at any moment. He mastered the art of manipulating an audience’s emotions to such a degree he could accurately foretell how they would react to specific angles, edits, colors, sounds, and the length of a shot down to its number of frames. With his mastery to full effect, “The Birds” became one of the most successful films of the year. I've previously written about Hitchcock in several other posts where you can read more about his life and career: "Rebecca"; "Strangers on a Train"; and "Notorious". Simply click on each film title.
One aspect of Hitchcock's devilish skill was to supply the audience with information to which a character wasn’t privy, heightening the tension. Perhaps the most famous example is when “Melanie” goes to the school to get “Cathy”, fearing another bird attack. When she arrives, “Annie” tells her to wait two minutes. So “Melanie” goes outside to smoke a cigarette, sits with her back to the playground, and unbeknownst to her, birds begin congregating on the playground's jungle gym. Hitchcock brilliantly cuts between her and the birds, until she notices one bird fly overhead and follows it to the jungle gym, which is now overflowing with birds. It is heart-stopping suspense at its very best.
According to Hitchcock, 28,000 birds were used (out of which 3,200 were trained, 30 were considered special, and 4 were so consistently reliable they became leads). In addition to real birds, mechanical birds, animation, puppets, fake bird heads on hammers, cardboard birds, and even stuffed birds were used, interspersed among real ones. Birds from pet shops were also utilized, but the majority were wild, gathered and trained by Ray Berwick. To ensure none of the live birds were harmed, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was heavily involved, and a makeshift avian hospital was built on the set for any injured or hurt birds. Nets were placed above many of the sets so the birds would not fly around the studio.
This film’s cutting-edge technical effects created a fearsome world more real than any movie audience had seen before. Many of the scenes when birds dive at people were done by superimposing several takes (one with actors, and one or more with birds). In scenes such as when the children are being chased by birds, a few mechanical and trained birds were used in one or two shots, but the bulk were added later, so the children had to pretend birds were present during filming. The same goes for other scenes, such as in the “Brenner’s” living room. That nail biting sequence was accomplished by having the actors react to a drummer while filming, adjusting their degree of stress to the loudness and intensity of his drumming. Once these scenes were shot and edited, they were sent to two sets of special effects teams. Walt Disney Studio animator and visual effects guru Ub Iwerks was given Disney’s okay to become the special photographic advisor, and earned the film’s only Academy Award nomination (and his only Oscar nomination) for Best Special Effects.
Another chilling aspect of “The Birds” is its use of sound. Instead of music, Hitchcock decided to use the sounds of birds throughout the film. Loudly flapping wings and sharp bird calls establish an eerie atmosphere from the opening credits until the closing, constantly adding tension and fear. Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann composed and recorded the sound effects, and Bernard Herrmann was the film’s sound consultant. Hermann scored seven Hitchcock’s films, and you can read a bit more about him in my post of a non-Hitchcock classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still”.
Though not first billed, the actor most associated with “The Birds” is the beautiful Tippi Hedren who stars as “Melanie Daniels”. Her name appears fourth (as “and introducing…”) since “The Birds" was considered her first film. Hitchcock loved casting classy, icy blondes with a smoldering sexuality in his films, and Hedren fits the bill to a T. We first see her walking in her stunningly tailored clothes with perfectly coiffed hair on her way to the pet store, and can immediately tell this is one no-nonsense, self-confident woman. And when a boy whistles at her and she smiles, it shows she is also sexual. Hedren breathes life into this complex, sarcastic party girl, equally adept at lying or being completely charming as needed. She shows a multitude of restrained emotions under a frosty shell, most deliciously in her scene with “Mitch” in the pet store, ordering a boat at Bodega Bay’s General Store, and getting directions to “Mitch’s” house from “Annie”. "The Birds" made Hendren a world-famous star and icon of style and sophistication.
Born in Minnesota, moving to California as a child, Tippi Hedren relocated to New York City when she was twenty and joined the prestigious Eileen Ford Agency (later known as the Ford Modeling Agency). Her first film role came almost immediately – an uncredited role in the 1950 film “The Petty Girl”, as "Ice Box Petty Girl”. With no intention of acting, she turned down other films and concentrated on modeling, becoming quite successful, gracing the covers of magazines such as Life, Glamour, and McCall’s, and appearing in TV commercials. Ten years into her flourishing modeling career, Hitchcock saw her in a diet drink commercial and called to meet with her. He was looking to replace his former favorite leading lady, Grace Kelly, who had retired from acting in 1956 to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Though Hedren had no acting experience, Hitchcock put her through a rigorous series of screen-tests, and happy with her, put her under his wing (so to speak). Along with his wife Alma, he was her acting coach, taught her about wine and food to enhance her well-bred quality, and even enlisted costume designer Edith Head to design her clothes for her personal wardrobe (as well as for the film). Hedren signed a seven year contract with him, and “The Birds” was her first credited film role (and is considered her film debut). In addition to acting, Hitchcock taught her everything about filmmaking. Things went well early in the shoot until the filming of one key scene in which Hedren had previously been told they would use mechanical birds, only to find real birds when she arrived on the set. I’ll talk about that in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below so I don’t spoil anything for first time viewers. As filming progressed, Hitchcock became more possessive and domineering of Hedren, eventually not letting anyone talk, touch, or get near her in-between takes. Despite any turmoil, Hedren is perfect in the role, and won a Golden Globe Award as New Star of the Year.
Her next film was in the title role of Hitchcock’s 1964 psychological thriller “Marnie”. A darker and more dramatic film, Hedren and Hitchcock vigorously worked on her acting. During the shoot he became obsessed with her, eventually making overt propositions and sexual demands. It got to a point where she told him she wanted out of her contract, to which he said he’d ruin her career, and according to her, he did. After “Marnie” (which faced an all-around lukewarm reception), he kept her under contract for two more years, paying her while preventing her from working. A 2012 film, “The Girl”, based on Donald Spoto's 2009 book “Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies”, was made about their relationship. Hedren stated that "The Girl" accurately depicted a condensed version of what went on, though Hitchcock was not all bad. She explained it in an interview with the Toronto Star: “Hitchcock had a charm about him. He was very funny at times. He was incredibly brilliant in his field. I learned so much from that man about motion pictures and how you make a motion picture... It wasn’t a constant barrage of harassment. If it had been constantly the way we have had to do it in this film, I would have been long gone”.
Hedren’s next film came two years later in a small part as Marlon Brando’s husband in the Charlie Chaplin directed film “A Countess from Hong Kong”, also starring Sophia Loren. Even with that cast and director, the film didn’t fare well and became Hedren’s last major film. In 1989 she went to Africa to make two consecutive movies, “Satan’s Harvest” and “Mister Kingstreet's War”. With a preexisting love for animals, she fell in love with lions, and she and her husband Noel Marshall, came up with an idea for a film about big cats. That film came to be “Roar”, written and directed by Marshall, staring Hedren, Marshall, and their children (from previous marriages). The life-changing production took eleven years (five of actual filming). Hedren and Marshall bought land in Santa Clarita, built a house, sets, a mini movie studio, and housing for their collection of well over 100 animals acquired from zoos, circuses, and preserves (including lions, tigers, panthers, cougars, jaguars, leopards, and two elephants). As the production and their collection of hungry animals grew, they sold their assets (including six homes) to pay expenses. The film was plagued with difficulties, including a flood which destroyed the sets and killed several lions. Seventy to one hundred crew and cast were injured, including Hedren who fractured a leg from an incident with an elephant and was seriously bitten in the neck by a lion. Shortly after the film finished, she and Marshall divorced. Hopes were that the success of the film would pay back the costs of making it, but it was a box-office failure (“Roar” has since become a cult film). In 1985, Hedren wrote a behind-the-scenes account of the film titled, “The Cats of Shambala”.
Because of "Roar", Hedren became an animal activist and in 1983 established the Shambala Preserve sanctuary on the grounds to house the animals after filming was completed. It has become a sanctuary for exotic felines who have suffered mistreatment, neglect, or injury, educates the public about the harm in buying, selling, breeding, or training big cats, and advocates for legislation to protect them. The Preserve is open to the public and I was there several years ago. In addition to seeing many lions and other big cats, it is a very informative place which I recommend supporting. Hedren still lives on the premises, and even installed a replica jungle gym from "The Birds", complete with fake birds on it for photo-ops! She continued to act, largely on television, amassing just over eighty film and TV credits, including "I ♥ Huckabees", "Pacific Heights", “Citizen Ruth", and a cameo appearance in a disastrous made-for-cable sequel to "The Birds" titled, "The Birds II: Land's End”. She was married and divorced three times, including her first marriage to actor Peter Griffith (with whom she had her only child, actress Melanie Griffith). As of the writing of this entry, Tippi Hedren is 91 years old. I’ve had the thrill of briefly meeting her, and she was very funny.
Starring in “The Birds” is Rod Taylor as “Mitch Brenner”, the virile and confident criminal lawyer who likes to be in control, and seems to relish playing cat-and-mouse games with “Melanie”. Even with “Mitch’s” ego, Taylor consistently injects a kindness, keeping the character likable. The only male in the main cast, Taylor brings masculine strength to the story, only to have it challenged by the oncoming birds. Taylor was not without his own issues on the set, primarily in the form of one of the main ravens named Archie. In a 2000 documentary titled, “All About the Birds”, Taylor elaborated: “There's a still of me looking terrified with a bandage on or something, and I'm looking at this bird [Archie]. That's real terror. I hated that bird! ...every morning... we were on the set together, [Archie] would come over and go ‘Ungg!’ and bite me. And I hated him, and he hated me. Even when we came back to the studio... I'd walk in and say, ‘Is Archie working today?’ And they'd say, ‘I don't think so, Rod. I think we're working with seagulls’. And out of the rafters would come Archie”. As opposed to Archie, Taylor and Hedren became lasting friends during filming.
Australian born Rod Taylor set out to become a commercial artist, but upon seeing Sir Laurence Olivier in a touring production of “Richard III”, he decided to pursue acting. He began his career in Australia on radio and in theater while working odd jobs to support himself. His first feature film appearance was in 1954’s “King of the Coral Sea”, quickly followed by "Long John Silver” (an American film shot in Australia). Taylor made his way to Hollywood and began working steadily on television while getting small parts in classic films such as “The Virgin Queen” and “Giant”, and supporting roles in films such as “Raintree County”, “The Catered Affair”, and “Separate Tables”. His big break came in 1960 with the lead in the film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic “The Time Machine”, which (along with “The Birds”, and 1965's "Young Cassidy") remains his most memorable role. He returned to television in the 1970s, working there primarily until the end of his career. Of his close to 100 film and TV credits, other notable films include "The V.I.P.s", "The Glass Bottom Boat", “Hotel", "36 Hours”, and Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds” in 2009, which was Taylor’s final film. He also starred in the TV series "Bearcats!", "The Oregon Trail", "Masquerade" and "Outlaws", and had a recurring role on the ever popular 1980's primetime soap opera "Falcon Crest”. Taylor also voiced the character of “Pongo” in the 1961 Walt Disney animated classic “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”. He was married and divorced three times. Rod Taylor died in 2015 at the age of 84.
Jessica Tandy plays “Lydia Brenner”, “Mitch’s” brittle, overbearing mother. We first see her as she meets “Melanie”, and Tandy fabulously displays suspicion and dislike under her polite greeting. Tandy delivers a stellar performance of nuanced emotion as a woman filled with inner conflict, afraid of being abandoned, and suffering the recent loss of her husband. As with everyone else, the arrival of the birds strips away "Lydia's" facade, and Tandy excels at showing her falling apart. Tandy was a major theater star at the time, and had yet to become a film star (which happened about twenty years later).
British-born Jessica Tandy began her distinguished acting career in theater, working professionally in London at the age of 18. Her film debut came playing a maid in the 1932 British film, "The Indiscretions of Eve”. While continually appearing onstage, she acted on radio and television, working between England and America in the 1930s and 40’s (1944’s "The Seventh Cross” was her first Hollywood film). While appearing in films, her stage career flourished. Perhaps the greatest role in Tandy’s career came on Broadway in 1947, when she originated the role of “Blanche DuBois” in Tennessee Williams' masterpiece "A Streetcar Named Desire”. Known to be one of theater's great performances, for it she won her first Tony Award. When the film version was made, producers didn’t want a non-movie star carrying the film, so Vivien Leigh replaced her, while Tandy's then unknown three co-stars (Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden) all reprised their roles in the film (two of whom, along with Leigh, won Oscars). A devastating blow for Tandy, no doubt. Along with her thriving theater career, she worked almost exclusively on television through the 1970s, with only a handful of film appearances – one of which was “The Birds”. In the 1980s, her film career began to pick up, culminating in her outstanding starring role in 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy” for which she earned a Best Actress Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award, among many others – at the ripe old age of eighty. She earned a second Oscar nomination two years later with her supporting role in “Fried Green Tomatoes”. Tandy appeared in over 100 stage productions and over sixty films and TV shows, and her other notable films include "The Valley of Decision", "Cocoon", "Used People", "The World According to Garp", and her final film, 1994’s "Nobody's Fool”. In addition to her Oscar, she won two Emmy Awards, three Tony Awards, an additional Lifetime Achievement Tony Award (shared with her husband Hume Cronyn), was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, and received the Kennedy Center Life Achievement Honor in 1986. She was married twice, first to actor Jack Hawkins, and then most famously to actor Hume Cronyn to whom she was married just shy of fifty one years, until her death. She and Cronyn often appeared together on stage, in films, and on radio, and were one of theater’s preeminent duos. Jessica Tandy died in 1994 at the age of 85.
A brief mention of the two actresses playing the remaining main characters, as both went on to flourishing careers: Veronica Cartwright as “Cathy Brenner”, “Mitch’s” little sister; and Suzanne Pleshette as “Annie Hayworth”, “Mitch’s” ex, turned schoolteacher.
British born Veronica Cartwright moved to the US as a small child and began working in films and television in 1958. “The Birds” was her third film, and came after playing another important supporting role in the 1961 classic, “The Children’s Hour”. Still working today, she has accrued just over 150 film and TV credits, and is perhaps best known for her roles in "Alien", "The Witches of Eastwick", "Invasion of the Body Snatches", "Kinsey", and "In the Bedroom”. Cartwright has been nominated for three Emmy Awards (for guest roles on two episodes of "The X Files" and one on “ER"). As of the writing of this post, she’s been married three times and is 72 years old. She is the older sister of actress Angela Cartwright (from “The Sound of Music” and the 1960s classic TV series, “Lost in Space”).
Suzanne Pleshette started in theater and then began appearing on television in 1957. Her film debut came in the 1958 Jerry Lewis film, “The Geisha Boy”. She earned her first Emmy Award nomination for a 1961 episode of “Dr. Kildare”, but her big break came in 1972, starring as Bob Newhart’s wife in the classic 1970s TV sitcom, "The Bob Newhart Show”, for which she earned two additional Emmy Award nominations and became a household name. She earned a fourth Emmy nomination for playing the title role in the 1990 TV movie, “Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean”. While Pleshette appeared almost exclusively on television, she did make a handful of films, including Walt Disney's "The Shaggy D.A.", "Oh, God! Book II", "Support Your Local Gunfighter", "Nevada Smith", and lent her trademark deep voice to "Yubaba / Zeniba" in the 2001 English dudded version of Hayao Miyazaki's classic animated masterpiece "Spirited Away”. Her last role was a recurring part on TV’s “Will and Grace”. She was married only a few months to actor Troy Donahue (ending in divorce), and was married and widowed twice more including her marriage to actor Tom Poston. Suzanne Pleshette died in 2008 at the age of 70.
I'll also point out Richard Deacon who appears as "Mitch's" neighbor, seen very briefly in the hallway of their apartment building in San Francisco. A prolific TV and film actor, Deacon appeared in another film on this blog, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", where you can read more about him.
As mentioned above, costume designer Edith Head designed the film’s costumes, including “Melanie’s” now iconic pale green wool sheath dress and matching jacket. I’ve previously written about the legendary Head, particularly in my post on the film “A Place in the Sun”, with other brief mentions in “The Heiress”, “Double Indemnity”, “Hud”, “Roman Holiday”, and “Sunset Boulevard”. As you can see from that small sampling, she designed many of cinema’s most memorable costumes.
This week’s classic is a smartly made thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and one I never tire of watching. Enjoy “The Birds” – and don’t forget to look for Hitchcock’s two second cameo!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As he did in many of his films, Alfred Hitchcock makes a quick cameo appearance in “The Birds”. In case you missed it, he can be seen at the very beginning of the film, walking two dogs on a leash while leaving the pet shop as “Melanie” enters. The two dogs were Hitchcock’s own Sealyham Terriers.
For the climactic scene when “Melanie” is attacked by birds in an upstairs bedroom, Hedren was assured from the start that no real birds would be used, only mechanical ones. When she arrived on the set that morning, she found out Hitchcock never had any intention of using mechanical birds in that scene – only real ones. The set was enclosed in a cage, and trainers wearing protective elbow-length leather gauntlets threw boxes of gulls and ravens at her for five days. When Hedren is on the floor, elastic bands were put on her, to which they attached a bird’s leg through a hole in her costume to prevent them from flying away too soon. At one point a bird jumped from her arm to her face and cut her bottom eyelid. She got up, said "that's enough”, and cried. Exhausted, she suffered a breakdown, was put under a doctor's care, and production shut down for a week to allow her to recover.