Classic Review – The Birds

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller The Birds, sophisticated socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), takes a drive out to Bodega Bay; an isolated, coastal community, in order to deliver a couple of lovebirds to lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a tit for tat prank. Her silly little venture quickly turns sinister, however, when she is attacked by a seagull whilst delivering the lovebirds. This becomes the first attack of many in which huge flocks of various species of birds descend upon the people of the town, and proceed to scratch and bite them to death. At first there is a lot of cynicism surrounding the behaviour of the birds amongst the townspeople as no one can fathom why the birds would suddenly act in this manner, and therefore many believe that the attacks others speak of are simply an exaggeration. It is not until countless birds invade the central part of town, and commence to tear down buildings that there is widespread acceptance of the fact that there is a serious epidemic. Melanie and Mitch band together during this troubling time, and take refuge in the home of Mitch’s mother, Lydia Brennan (Jessica Tandy) with Mitch’s younger sister Cathy Brenner (Veronica Cartwright), but will they survive the bird attacks as they completely take over the entire bay?

When I watched The Birds for the very first time, I must admit that I was quite disappointed by its narrative, and could not understand how it managed to reach higher levels of fame than some of Hitchcock’s earlier films, such as Strangers On A Train (1951). After other later viewings, however, the penny started to drop, and I began to recognise the brilliance of this film.

Hitchock’s signature visual style is as alive as ever in this film with the inclusion of carefully composed shots of particular details that significantly impact the mood of the film as a whole. One shot which is particularly memorable is a close up of a wheel slowly turning as a car eases forward between a mass of birds that have entered a state of calm after a recent attack. In one shot Hitchcock is able to place the viewer on tenterhooks; prior to this scene it has demonstrated that the bird attacks come in cycles, thus as the car disturbs the presently tranquil birds, the likelihood of an attack increases dramatically, and the audience is left in anticipation.

It is visual storytelling techniques such as this which are predominantly responsible for creating the dark and suspenseful tone of the entire film. Unlike Psycho (1960), which relies heavily on music to thrill the audience, The Birds contains no musical score whatsoever. Additionally, whilst Psycho contains many tense opening scenes that gradually build to a crescendo in the third act, The Birds opts for a lighter start with comical interactions between Melanie and Mitch. It is not until the very first bird attack upon Melanie that this mood starts to take a dark turn. This shift in tone was the idea of screenwriter Evan Hunter who Hitchcock brought in to adapt the original source material; a novella of the same name written by Daphne Du Maurier. Whilst Hitchock has been inspired by Du Maurier’s work before with his 1940 film Rebecca, the only similarity between his film and her short story is the concept of bird attacks. Apparently Transformers director Michael Bay is set to produce a remake of The Birds in which more of an emphasis will be placed on Du Maurier’s original storyline. I cannot understand why any filmmaker would see the need to touch any of Hitchcock’s classic films, but that is another matter all together.

The Transformers films are renowned for impressive special effects and excessive action sequences, therefore with Michael Bay at the helm of this remake it is logical to expect an overload of CGI at the expense of other elements in the film. Interestingly, Hitchcock approached the source material in a similar way in the sense that he chose to emphasise the birds over the human characters. In a behind the scenes documentary Rod Taylor admits that he was originally concerned that the performances would be lost to the special effects, but then he eventually realised that this was thepoint of the film. Evan Hunter also makes a comment in this documentary that the film is more of a mood piece than a traditional narrative, and I think this is what put me off the film initially. The birds in the film don’t only take over Bodega Bay, they also take over the entire story, to the point where the relationships between the characters (which have been so well developed up until the commencement of the third act) tend to be forgotten, and there is a lack of closure at the end of the film. Sometimes a vague conclusion can be very effective; I thoroughly enjoyed this choice in Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film In Bruges, but I was left feeling a little unsatisfied at the end of The Birds.

Evan Hunter explains in the documentary that Hitchcock often explored the theme of a lack of appreciation for life, and that in The Birds it is not until the lives of the characters are significantly disrupted that they realise what they took for granted. I have also read that apparently Hitch chose not to superimpose the words “The End” over the final shot (as most films from that time did) as he wanted to put across the impression of never ending terror. Considering this, plus the idea of placing mood before narrative, the story structure makes a lot more sense, and although I would have preferred a stronger ending, I can certainly appreciate what Hitchcock was aiming to achieve.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the effect of compositing two images together via use of a blue screen was becoming more and more popular, but due to fairly primitive technology, the effect was far from perfect. Light would often reflect off the blue screen and onto the subject, creating a blue halo around the actors when the screen was replaced with a background image. Nowadays computer programs can overcome these sorts of flaws, and films rely heavily on such software for all sorts of special effects, but one has to remember that Hitchcock pulled off The Birds without any of this technology. At the time of making The Birds Disney had perfected a new technique for compositing images in which the foreground was lit with one type of light, and the background with another, which allows for the same effect as a blue screen, whilst avoiding the dreaded blue halo. Hitchock employed this method for all of the bird attack scenes, and even though to the eye of the modern viewer it is quite obvious when some scenes have been shot in this manner (particularly the scene where Melanie takes a dinghy across a lake to reach the Brenner house), one cannot deny how well this effect was executed. Apparently the film includes a total of 370 effects shots, and the last shot is a composite of 32 separately filmed elements, which given when this film was made, is truly astounding.

Even though the characters are placed second to these effects towards the end of the film, all of the actors deliver excellent performances throughout the entire duration of The Birds. Tippi Hedren was a model prior to bringing Melanie Daniels to life, and was discovered by Hitchcock through a particular beauty advertisement that used to air on television in between morning news programs. She certainly had one of the greatest acting coaches in Hitchcock, which would have assisted her performance immensely, but even so, Hedren deserves full credit for her impressive feature film debut. Her chemistry with Rod Taylor is fantastic to watch, as are her strained interactions with the legendary Jessica Tandy. Tandy is hands down the stand out performer in the film; her experience on both the stage and screen is evident in her presence in every scene, and her ability to convey so much through just a look.

Whilst I personally prefer Psycho and Strangers On A Train to The Birds, I still find this film to be utterly breathtaking, and am blown away by the fact that Hitchcock achieved this feat with such limited technology. Although perhaps not as horrific as it would have been when it was first released in 1963 (as audiences have become more exposed to violence and bloodshed in horror films), The Birds remains a chilling film that will certainly make you flinch the next time you hear a crow caw.


One thought on “Classic Review – The Birds

  1. Great post! Wasn’t aware Michael Bay is to remake The Birds, so thanks for that news. I’m a massive fan of Du Maurier’s writing and can’t imagine how Bay’s style will work on this one. I’ll remain open minded though and look forward to seeing what he does with it.

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