Title: The Birds
Year of Release: 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Length: 119 mins
Starring: Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright
Few films can legitimately lay claim to being bona fide classics, though most of The Birds’ accolades came after the fact. In 2016 it was deemed to be culturally, historically or aesthetically significant enough to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress. By then it had also won the Horror Hall of Fame award (1991) and been voted the seventh-scariest movie of all time by a poll carried out on the British public by Channel 5 (2006). The film has been tremendously influential, having been referenced by filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and John Carpenter, among others and on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes it has a 95% rating, the critics consensus stating; “Proving once again that build-up is the key to suspense, Hitchcock successfully turned birds into some of the most terrifying villains in horror history.”
All this praise is remarkable considering that the movie was panned by several notable critics on its release. Writing for the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann called it, “the worst thriller of his [Hitchcock’s] that I can remember,” while Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the famous director, “Was once widely quoted as saying he hated actors. After his 1960 ‘Psycho’ and now ‘The Birds,’ it must be fairly obvious that he has extended his abhorrence to the whole human race.”
On the surface the plot is simple enough, but the real beauty is hidden in the complicated interplay between the primary characters. The movie opens in a San Francisco pet shop, where carefree socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) encounters Mitch (Taylor) who is looking to buy some lovebirds for his sister’s birthday. For some bizarre reason she pretends to work there, and Mitch plays along, though he recognizes her from a previous court appearance. When the jig is up, Melanie asks how he knows her name, to which he replies, “A little birdie told me.” Brilliant.
At around 29-minutes, after being attacked by a legitimate angry bird, Melanie holds a cotton ball against her wound. The way her hand and forearm are positioned makes the appearance of a bird, with a ring on her finger forming the eye. Tippi Hedren later confirmed this, and said that Hitchcock had instructed her to insert subtle hints about the upcoming bird attack throughout the film.When Mitch leaves, Melanie buys the lovebirds and follows him all the way to Bodega Bay where he’s visiting his parents, only to give him the birds and tell him that she loathes him, none of which is remotely weird, apparently, even in the sixties.
Things get spicy when Melanie meets Mitch’s previous love interest, a schoolteacher called Annie (Pleshette) and his overbearing mother (Cartwright) who doesn’t think anyone is good enough for her son. Shades of Psycho there. Amidst all this simmering tension, it’s almost a relief when some birds go rogue and start dive bombing people to death. We never really find out why, though Hitchcock later said in an interview that the birds rise up against the humans as punishment for taking nature for granted. The only context we are given in the film is a radio report heard near the end which indicates the Bodega Bay attack is not an isolated incident and the problem is so bad that the military might be forced to intervene.
What many modern viewers may not pick up on are the hidden implications in the plot and nods to popular culture. The Birds was made shortly after Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered all the sparrows in the country to be killed as part of the ‘four pests’ campaign during the Great Leap Forward because they ‘ate too much grain.’ Starting in 1958, hundreds of millions of birds were killed causing an unmitigated environmental disaster known as the Great Famine (1959-61) which ultimately led to the deaths of an estimated 45-million people. Too late Mao realized that he sparrows didn’t just eat grain, they were also nature’s pest control, and without them locusts and other insects were allowed to run riot decimating crops and disrupting the area’s fragile ecosystem. With this fresh in the news at the time, the insinuation was that though calling in the military to kill the birds might solve the immediate problem (angry birds) it would spark a similar chain of events in America which could lead to the downfall of Western civilisation. It is assumed that the movie does not finish with the usual THE END graphic, because Hitchcock wanted to give the impression of continuing, unending terror.
The Birds was loosely based on the story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier which appeared in her 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Coincidentally enough, on August 18th 1961, as Hitchcock was developing the movie, there was a mass bird attack on the seaside town of Capitola, which was substituted for Bodega Bay in the movie. It was an early purveyor of the much-overlooked genre known as ‘eco horror’ which usually feature animals or nature striking back and taking their revenge on humans. Other examples include Jaws (1975), Cujo (1983), Lake Placid (1999), Black Water (2007) and even Doomwatch (1972). Hedren was 33 years old at the time of filming (and ironically had a five-year old daughter called Melanie, as in Melanie Griffith. It’s unclear whether Hitchcock deliberately gave her character the same name) but was listed as being 28 in the press release because 33 was considered too old for a starlet to be making her big screen debut. Over the years numerous salacious rumours have come to light regarding Hitchcock’s treatment of her, the situation itself providing the storyline for a HBO movie called The Girl (2012) in which Hedren was played by Sienna Miller.
When audiences left the U.K. premiere at the Odeon, Leicester Square, London, they were greeted by the sound of screeching and flapping birds from loudspeakers hidden in the trees to scare them further.