THE BIRDS (1963): “Birds just don’t go around attacking people without no reason.”

THE BIRDS – 1963 – Universal Pictures – ★★★★

Color – 119 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tippie Hedren (Melanie Daniels), Rod Taylor (Mitchell “Mitch” Brenner), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Bundy).

Screenplay by Evan Hunter, from the story by Daphne du Maurier

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Sound Consultant:  Bernard Herrmann

After the massive success of PsychoHitchcock took some much deserved time off.  He eventually decided that his next movie would be about birds attacking the residents of a small town.  This would prove to be one of the most technically challenging films Hitchcock had ever made.

The plot is rather simple on the surface, and can be described briefly.  In a San Francisco pet shop a wealthy socialite named Melanie Daniels meets Mitch Brenner, a very handsome lawyer.  She is rather taken with him, and after their chance encounter  drives from San Francisco to Bodega Bay, to leave a birthday gift of two love birds for Mitch’s sister.  She ends up spending the weekend with Mitch, his possessive mother, and young sister Cathy.  She also meets Cathy’s school teacher Annie, who used to date Mitch and still has feelings for him.   In the midst of this, common birds (seagulls, finches, crows) begin attacking the people of the town en masse, for no apparent reason.  Ultimately, Melanie and the Brenners are fighting for their lives.

What most people remember about The Birds are the attack sequences, but equally important are the quiet conversational scenes that act as a buffer between the moments of action.  This is one of the most carefully structured and choreographed films that Hitchcock ever made.  Let’s take a closer look at that structure.

A Hitchcock meet cute:   The opening scenes, which take place in a pet shop, are very cleverly constructed.  We meet Melanie Daniels, who is in the store to pick up a bird that she has ordered.   In walks Mitch Brenner, who mistakes Melanie for an employee and asks her questions about birds.  Specifically, he wants to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister as a birthday gift.   Melanie decides to play along, to comic effect.  Ultimately, we learn that Mitch, an attorney, knew who Melanie was all along and was playing her, and the audience.

At this early point in the film, we hardly pay attention to the titular animals, although they fill the scene.  For here they are, all in cages,  pretty and innocuous.  That will soon change.  Hitchcock had this to say about the scene:

At the beginning of the film we show Rod Taylor in the bird shop.  He catches the canary that has escaped from its cage, and after putting it back, he says to Tippi Hedren, “I’m putting you back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.”  I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterization as a wealthy, shallow playgirl.

Melanie is first angry with Mitch for fooling her, but she is attracted to him as well, so she buys two lovebirds, and drives up the coast to Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends his weekends with his mother Lydia and sister Cathy.  Shortly after arriving, she meets Annie Hayworth, Cathy’s teacher and Mitch’s former lover.  This is the first of many scenes in the movie to feature only women characters, in extended dialogue.  These scenes don’t pass the Bechdel test, because most of the conversation centers on Mitch, but it is worth nothing that in this movie a majority of the dialogue is spoken by women, and all of the major characters, with one exception, are women.

The dialogue scenes in this movie have some of the most precise shot compositions in any Hitchcock film.  Perhaps because of the frenetic energy of the bird attack scenes, he wanted to counterbalance that with shots of impeccable precision.

Melanie crosses the bay in a boat to deliver the love birds in secret, but she is spotted by Mitch as she is recrossing the bay.  He races in his car to meet her, and at this point Melanie is hit in the head by a swooping gull.

The first hint of menace has been introduced.  But of course this is just one bird, one isolated strike.  After this attack, Melanie is invited to dinner at the Brenner home.   Again, the shot composition in sublime.  Every aspect of the scene, from the lighting, set decoration, costumes, and blocking of the actors is perfect.  The second hint of trouble brewing is dropped here, as Lydia talks about her chickens not eating their food.

While watching the dialogue scenes, you can freeze-frame the movie at any point, and the shot composition will be as precise as a painting.

Melanie leaves the Brenner house and returns to Susan’s, where she is staying the night in the spare room.  Here begins a fascinating scene.  Melanie and Susan have a long conversation, talking about Mitch, and more specifically, about his mother Lydia.  Hitch would normally shoot a scene like this in a two shot;  here, he keeps them across the room, diametrically opposed visually as they are emotionally.  He cuts back and forth, from one to the other, not allowing them to share the frame until Mitch calls on the phone.  When Melanie speaks to him, we get this wonderful image.

Once again, a single image that tells the entire story.  Even though they share the screen, they couldn’t be farther apart.  And then they hear a loud noise at the door.  It is a bird, that hit the door and fell dead on the porch.  Finally, the two women are brought together in unison.

We have now had our third hint of menace from the birds.  And also a foreshadowing;  it is the terror of the bird attacks that will unite these two women.

The next day is Cathy’s birthday.  Mitch and Melanie have a quiet scene together, drawing them closer.  This is followed by the first concerted attack of the birds on the children at the party.  Nobody is seriously injured, but certainly everyone is shaken up.  Later that evening, a swarm of finches flies down the chimney and swarms the Brenner living room.

Hitchcock the improviser:   Here we will hear from Hitchcock, about how he changed the next scene in the movie on the day of shooting.

After the initial attack on the room, when the sparrows came down through the chimney, the sheriff came to the house to talk it over with Mitch…I studied the scene and found that the treatment was too old-fashioned, so I changed the whole thing.  The scene begins with the whole group of characters, the sheriff, Mitch, the mother, and Melanie, in the background, and the whole scene that follows is a transfer from the objective viewpoint to a subjective viewpoint.

Melanie looks at the mother and the camera now photographs Jessica Tandy going around the room, in different positions, to pick up the broken teacups, to straighten the picture…

The reverse cuts of Melanie, as she looks at the mother going back and forth, subtly indicate what she’s thinking.  Her eyes and gestures indicate an increasing concern over the mother’s strange behavior and for the mother herself.

The vision of the reality belongs to the girl, even when she crosses the room to say to Mitch, “I think I’d better stay the night.”  To go up to Mitch she has to walk across the room, but even as she’s walking, I keep a big close-up on her because her concern and her interest demand that we retain the same size of image on the screen.  If I were to cut and drop back to a looser figure, her concern would be diminished as well.  The size of the image is very important to the emotion, particularly when you’re using that image to have the audience identify with it.

The next morning, Lydia goes to a neighboring farm and discovers the man who lives there is dead, his eyes pecked out by birds.  (I will do a deconstruction of this scene as a separate piece).  When she returns home, she and Melanie have a scene together, which bonds them emotionally.  Lydia asks Melanie to go the school and see that Cathy gets home safely.

Here begins perhaps the most iconic scene in the film.  As Melanie sits on a bench outside the school, listening the children sing a song, crows begin to gather on the jungle gym behind her.  First one, then three, and so on.   Melanie does not notice the crows until there are there are dozens, filling almost every available space.

The children run down the street and are violently attacked.  When the birds cease their attack the children are sent home.  Melanie ends up in the  town diner, along with Mitch and several other people.  Again, we get a long scene of conversation to catch our breath between attacks.  This is a masterfully constructed scene.  Every character fills a role.  Hitchcock said “That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs.  The character of the drunk is straight out of an O’Casey play, and the elderly lady ornithologist is pretty interesting.”

Next comes another attack.  Each attack is larger and more violent than the previous one.  This one finds Melanie trapped in a phone booth, with birds striking all sides.  This is a reversal of the beginning of the film, when Melanie was surrounded by birds in cages.  As Hitchcock says:

…Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage.  This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery, and it’s also the beginning of her ordeal by fire, so to speak.  It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds.  Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside.

This attack sequence features an incredible “bird’s eye view” shot, which shows the entire village, a raging fire, then shows gulls as they begin to fill the frame.

Here is how Hitch described this scene:

I did that high shot for three reasons.  The first was beginning to show the gulls’ descent on the town.  The second was to show the exact topography of Bodega Bay, with the town, the sea, the coast, and the gas station on fire, in one single image.  The third reason is that I didn’t want to waste a lot of footage on showing the elaborate operation of the firemen extinguishing the fire.  You can do a lot of things very quickly by getting away from something.

After the attack subsides, a frantic mother in the restaurant accuses Melanie of bringing the wrath of the birds on the town.   The woman’s point is founded on post hoc ergo propter hoc logic.  The events didn’t start until Melanie arrived, therefore they must be tied to her somehow.  It is an interesting scene, which ends with the woman screaming the word “EVIL” at Melanie, and Melanie slapping her in response.

Next is the unfortunate death of Annie Hayworth, the teacher.  Hitchcock describes why he felt the need to have Annie die:  “I felt that in light of what the birds were doing to the town, she was doomed.  Besides, she sacrificed herself to protect the sister of the man she loves.  It’s her final gesture.”

Finally comes the last violent attack, as the Brenners are holed up with Melanie in their home.  They successfully keep the birds out. At the end of this attack, the power has gone out, and Hitchcock shows his German expressionist background as he shoots each of the three adults separately, with shots looking up at them, the ceiling visible behind them. 

Then, he brings them all together in a wide shot.

Later, as everyone is sleeping, Melanie creeps quietly upstairs.  She enters a room, only to find the birds have gotten in through the roof.   She is attacked violently.   Hitchcock shot this sequence in montage, in a deliberate evocation of the shower scene in Psycho.   This scene was shot over five days, with live birds, and left Tippi so emotionally drained that she had to take a week off from shooting to recuperate.  Watching the scene, one can understand why.

The movie ends ambiguously, with the Brenners and Melanie driving away, as seemingly thousands of birds sit quietly around them in an uneasy truce.

Performance:  As is typical of most Hitchcock films, the performances in this film are strong from top to bottom.  Hitchcock told Truffaut that he had some problems with Rod Taylor initially, but I think his performance is outstanding.  Equally good are Tippi Hedren, who was in her debut role on film.  Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright all give great performances as well.

Special effects:   When The Birds was released in 1963, it had more special effect shots than any movie in history.  Hitchcock knew that he would only be able to use live birds in select scenes.  He also has mechanical birds, cardboard cutout birds, and animated birds.  He also has several matte paintings employed in the films.  The technical aspects took months to achieve, beyond the practical photography.   The single shot of the birds descending on Bodega Bay has several distinct elements.  The fire and the people moving around it, were shot practically at Univeral Studios.  The remainder of that shot is a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  The birds were then added to the image in a process called rotoscope.  Hitchcock describes it:

Two old ladies spent three months copying each bird onto a plain background and then copying the silhouette.  When you double print you must have a silhouette first.  They used the travelling matte system.  It took them three months to do fifteen feet, ten seconds.  This footage was then printed into the scene.  You saw the birds going down over the town. 

Ub Iwerks and Hitch:  Alfred Hitchcock borrowed the skills of Ub Iwerks from Walt Disney studios for the trick shots of The Birds.   Iwerks was the pioneering animator who had invented a process for combining live action and animation called the sodium vapor process.  Indeed, many of the bird-in-flight sequences in the movie were filmed using this process.

Hitchcock and sound:  Alfred Hitchcock chose to have no musical score for this film.  He felt that the absence of music would make the film more frightening, and he also had the idea of using the noises of the birds themselves as a type of score.  He did bring Bernard Herrmann in as a “sound consultant”, which shows how much Hitchcock valued his opinion, even in a film without music.   Hitchcock’s notes on the sounds of this movie are incredibly precise.  He has detailed notes on every single scene.  To provide one example, here is how Hitchcock describes the sounds he wants for the scene where the finches come down the chimney:

The overall sounds in this sequence should have a shrill anger as though the birds in their own particular way were invading the room and almost screaming at the occupants.  The quality of this sound should assail the ears of the audience to perhaps an almost unbearable degree.  It should not necessarily have volume, but the quality of the shrill notes should be something like the effect of the screech that you get if you scrape two pieces of metal together…Naturally accompanying this but in a much lesser degree, we have the sound of the little wings beating.  Perhaps there should be some sprinkling of thuds where birds hit the walls.

Trautonium:  Hitchcock did not want to just use practical bird noises, he wanted to manipulate and amplify them.  For this purpose, he went to Berlin and employed the skills of Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman on a device called the trautonium, a precursor to modern day synthesizers.   Sala was one of the original inventors of the trautonium, and he played the first one in 1930.  He continued to refine and alter it throughout his life.   So recorded sounds, in this case bird screeches, could be altered by the trautonium, which consists of resistor wires stretched over metal plates.  Sala was, in essence, playing the bird sounds.  Here is a clip of Oskar Sala playing this unique and fascinating instrument in the early 1990’s.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, a favorite author of Hitchcock.  This was the third du Maurier work to be adapted for Hitchcock (after Jamaica Inn and Rebecca).  The story is only about 40 pages long, and shares very little in common with the Hitchcock film beyond the premise of birds inexplicably attacking people.  The story’s protagonist is Nat Hocken, a farm laborer who lives in a cottage with his wife and kids.  The story is set in England.  The birds attack the family, who are holed up inside their cottage. One small plot point that did make it to the screen is the death of a neighboring farmer.  The story ends ambiguously, with another attack beginning:

Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.

Recurring players:  Tippi Hedren would star as the titular character in Hitchcock’s next movie Marnie.  Malcolm Atterbury (Deputy Al Malone) was the man in North by Northwest who pointed out to Cary Grant “that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.” Elizabeth Wilson (Helen Carter) had a small uncredited role in Notorious.  And Doreen Lang (hysterical mother in diner) had earlier appeared as one of the women who mistakenly identified Henry Fonda as the robber in The Wrong Manand as Cary Grant’s secretary Maggie in the opening minutes of North by Northwest.  

Academy Awards:  The Birds received one Oscar nomination, for Best Visual Effects, losing to Cleopatra.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early, at about the 2:16 mark.  As Tippi Hedren is approaching the entrance of the pet store, Alfred Hitchcock walks out leading  two dogs on a leash.  These Sealyham Terriers are Hitch’s own personal dogs,  Geoffrey and Stanley.

What Hitch said:   I’ve already included a lot of Hitchcock’s thoughts on this film, I will conclude with a couple of general thoughts he shared with Truffaut:  “…I think that if the story had involved vultures, or birds of prey, I might not have wanted it.  The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds…there’s a lot of detail in this movie; it’s absolutely essential because these little nuances enrich the over-all impact and strengthen the picture.”   In a 1963 interview with Cinema magazine, Hitchcock said “All you can say about The Birds is nature can be awful rough on you…The Birds expresses nature and what it can do, and the dangers of nature, because there is no doubt if the birds did decide, you know, with the millions that there are, to go for everybody’s eyes, then we’d have H.G. Wells’ Kingdom of the Blind on our hands.”

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu ray is the best version of this movie available to date.  The picture quality on this one is spotty at times;  it just isn’t as sharp looking as most of the other Hitchcock blu rays.  But overall, the picture is good, particularly on interior scenes.  There are numerous extra features, including a detailed 80 minute making-of documentary, a 14 minute featurette, excerpts from the Truffaut interviews, script pages and story boards of a deleted scene and alternate ending, Tippi Hedren’s screen test, two short newsreels, production photos and storyboards, original theatrical trailer, and two featurettes celebrating aspects of Universal Studios 100th anniversary.