Alfred Hitchcock Ruffles Moviegoers’ Feathers with “The Birds”

13 02 2011

“Something happened that was altogether new in my experience; I began to study the scenario as we went along, and I saw that there were weaknesses in it. This emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me. I began to improvise.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 feature film, “The Birds,” picks up on the story structure he tried out in his previous picture, “Psycho.” “The Birds begins as a light romantic comedy – in this case, about a young socialite pursuing a man – that veers into horror at about the one hour mark. “The Birds” does not reach the high standards set by “Psycho,” though.

The film begins in San Francisco, where Melanie Daniels

At the bird shop; nearby is a wicker birdhouse replica of the "Psycho" mansion

(played by newcomer Tippi Hedren) stops by a pet shop to buy a mynah bird for her aunt; she hints that she’s going to teach the bird to swear. While she waits for a clerk, she is approached by Mitchell Brenner (Rod Taylor) who seems to assume that she works in the store and asks about buying a pair of lovebirds for his kid sister. Daniels bluffs her way through, until Brenner reveals that he’s seen her in court, where she was on trial for a prank gone wrong.

Brenner leaves the store and Daniels decides to buy the lovebirds herself. She’s annoyed at how Brenner put her on the spot, but intrigued by him as well. She finds his apartment, but learns from a neighbor (Richard Deacon) that Brenner’s gone home to Bodega Bay for the weekend. Daniels drives north to Bodega Bay, then hires a skiff to cross the lake to Brenner’s home.

After slipping into the house undetected and dropping off the birds, Daniels hops into the boat and motors back to town. On the way across, a seagull swoops down and claws at her. Brenner, having driven around the lake to meet Daniels, helps her into a restaurant and patches up her wound. The locals are perplexed by the attack, but it’s only a hint of what’s to come.

Daniels befriends Brenner’s kid sister, who wants her to come to her birthday party, the next day; she also gets to know Annie Hayworth, Brenner’s ex-girlfriend and the local schoolteacher, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Hayworth explains that the biggest obstacle in winning Brenner’s affections will be his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy, wife of Hitchcock’s longtime friend, Hume Cronyn).

At the birthday party, a game of blindman’s bluff is ruined when a flock of crows descend upon the children, who barely manage to escape harm. The inexplicable violence escalates; Lydia finds a farmer friend dead in his bedroom, clearly killed by birds. Cathy returns to school, where another attack takes place, forcing the children to run into town as the birds tear at their hair and faces. In town, at the restaurant, people argue about what’s happening; an older woman who’s an amateur ornithologist insist it’s impossible, while a drunk (inspired to some degree by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, author of “Juno and the Paycock”) keeps saying “It’s the end of the world!”

Brenner, Daniels and the rest of the restaurant watch in horror as a man is attacked by birds at a gas station, leading to an explosion. (Hitchcock had learned the power of explosions in “North by Northwest.”) A woman at the restaurant screams at Daniels, blaming her arrival in town for the bird attacks. Brenner manages to get to Daniels’ car, and they head for the school, where they find Hayworth dead. Together, they rescue Cathy and head back to the Brenner’s house, where they board up the windows.

The birds won’t give up, though; they keep scratching at the boards into the night. While the others sleep, Daniels sits awake. A noise from upstairs draws her attention, and she wanders up to the attic, which is full of crows. They attack her, but the noise awakens Brenner, who rescues her from certain death. There’s a frightening montage as Daniels is attacked; this was one of the most harrowing part of shooting the movie, as Hedren spent days having life birds, as well as stuffed ones, tossed at her.

With Daniels in shock, Brenner guides her, along with his mother and sister, into the car. A radio report says that the bird attacks have decimated the town, and advises listeners to get away from Bodega Bay. The car drives off into the distance, through a landscape crowded by birds.

The sudden ending of “The Birds” is just one of its problems. (I kept wishing for a final interior shot of the passengers in the car, in which Melanie Daniels could have turned to look out the rear window to say “Why? Why did they do it?”) Instead, there was no attempt to explain the birds’ behavior. In the original screenplay by Evan Hunter, there was a scene in which Daniels and Brenner talk about it, spitballing possible explanations; while they are not particularly serious or plausible, their attempts to puzzle out the situation might have given the viewer something to consider, at least.

The story is also hampered by the inhuman quality of the menace itself. Norman Bates, for all his murderous ways, is at least human and, in a strange way, sympathetic. But there is no way to identify with an attacking flock of birds.

Melanie Daniels also suffers in comparison to Marion Crane; where Crane’s story in the first half of “Psycho” is full of desperation and remorse, Daniels’ actions paint her as flighty and spoiled. Her effort to track down Brenner is ultimately inconsequential. If she hadn’t decided on a whim to find him, she would have stayed out of Bodega Bay. While there’s nothing wrong with a story about an innocent bystander pulled into a drama, Daniels is not particularly appealing; she’s attractive but coolly superior.

The script, too, is clumsy, and full of expository dialogue. Although it takes its name and premise from a story by Daphne du Maurier, Hitchcock did what he wanted with it, and in this case, he and Hunter built the entire story and cast around the situation. This was Hitchcock’s third and final adaptation from du Maurier, after “Jamaica Inn” and “Rebecca,” although he claimed no particular love of her work.

There are also those who fault Tippi Hedren for not being a strong enough actor for the lead role in this film; I found her more or less on a par with Kim Novak or Eva Marie Saint. Hedren was very inexperienced going into this film. Hitchcock had wanted Grace Kelly for the role of Melanie Daniels; he always preferred actors with strong personalities to hold an audience’s interest in his often underwritten characters. Hitch noticed Hedren on a television commercial and eventually signed the young, untried actress to a seven-year exclusive contract, putting her through extensive screen tests opposite Martin Balsam, including restaging scenes from “Notorious” and “Rebecca.” (These appear on the DVD and are worth watching, especially for the contrast between Hedren, who is trying her best to follow directions, and the very relaxed and confident Balsam.)

Hedren was the latest in a line of actresses who would disappoint Hitchcock, going all the way back to Nova Pilbeam from “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and including Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Vera Miles. Hitch continually looked for actresses he could count on to appear in his pictures whenever he summoned them. With Pilbeam, Bergman and Kelly, other commitments got in the way. With Miles, Hitchcock took the extra step of signing her to an exclusive contract, only to be frustrated by her pregnancy, which kept her from taking the lead in “Vertigo.” (To be fair, Miles did not end up enjoying her work with Hitchcock.) Hedren would only work with Hitchcock again in his next film, “Marnie,” and her work on “The Birds,” with days spent under attack from birds, would haunt her.

There are other issues with “The Birds,” too: The fact that Hedren wears only a single outfit through most of the film over the course of several days (although that outfit, designed by Edith Head, is certainly iconic); the inexplicable English accents of some of the cast, along with some unnecessarily formal dialogue; the leisurely pace of the film’s first forty-five minutes; and the fact that, despite the great efforts of Hitchcock and his collaborators, the birds themselves occasionally look fake.

Still, “The Birds” has its moments, and those seem to be what audiences remember about the film: The initial attack at the birthday party, the massing crows on the school’s playground behind Melanie Daniels, the birds’ attack on Daniels while she’s stuck in a phone booth. These are moments of genuine dread and terror that cannot easily be forgotten.

The avian threat of “The Birds” was brought to life through a number of techniques, making this film Hitchcock’s most challenging on a technical level. Hitch worked with Ub Iwerks, the Disney animator who first brought Mickey Mouse to life, to employ a traveling matte system that enhanced the effects. The soundtrack, too, contributed to the illusion. There’s almost no music in the movie. Instead, Hitchcock brought in Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman to electronically create birds screeches which would fade into scenes when the attacks were imminent. Those screeches are noticeably louder than the dialogue in preceeding scenes, heightening the attacks’ impact.

Even the trailer for “The Birds” misses the mark, with Hitchcock lecturing about “our friends, the birds,” for several slightly didactic, creepy minutes before we see Hedren or much of the movie. Hitchcock must have realized that with so little star power behind “The Birds,” he would have to sell it other ways. Feebly echoing the publicity stunts of “Psycho,” “The Birds” tied in to cross-country pigeon races. Hitchcock also played up his discovery of Hedren, a tactic that did not work in the long run. Here it is:

Next, Tippi Hedren returns for the complex psychological thriller, “Marnie,” also starring Sean Connery.




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