Last night I was one of the very happy many who saw Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, The Birds on a big screen thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Fathom Events and Universal Studios whose Centennial the release is commemorating – one of several special screenings of Universal classics happening this year.
The Birds has always been the most frightening of Hitchcock’s films to me. The premise of nature going “bad” and that fact it cannot be controlled is eery, at best. It’s an evil the scope of which is unfathomable.
“The five continents of the world contain more than a hundred billion birds.” – Mrs. Bundy
YIKES! While Norman Bates can be caged, padlocked and/or put in a padded room to never mess with showering women again, it is impossible to cage every bird in the world. This one is sent by God – a psychological thriller (to me) that goes beyond happenstance, a casual encounter with a stranger or the disturbed mind of a killer. This is nature whose sole distinction for who survives is not law or cunning or intelligence, it’s survival of the fittest. No barrier is too strong, no plan can be executed to keep out the birds.
The Birds is a 1963 suspense/horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, loosely based on the 1952 story by Daphne du Maurier of the same title. The story takes place in Bodega Bay, California, which is suddenly and for unexplained reasons, terrorized by a series of widespread and violent bird attacks. The film is the first feature for Tippi Hedren, a former model, and also stars Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright.
As the film opens, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) meet in a pet shop in San Francisco. Mitch is there to purchase lovebirds for his younger sister (Veronica Cartwright). After some flirtatious exchange, an intrigued Melanie decides to bring the lovebirds to Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends weekends with his mother and sister. The fashionable Melanie, a clear outsider on the small island, delivers the lovebirds…and doom. Or so many believe as the sinister birds seem to arrive with her. Adding to the drama on Bodega Bay (somewhat) is a possible romantic triangle when schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), comes into the picture as Mitch’s former love interest who still holds a flame for him. All drama and distrust, however, are eventually trumped by the unrelenting attack of the birds.
Watching this film on the big screen was a thrill and quite a different experience from all the other times I’ve watched it.
The film was introduced by Turner Classic Movies host, Robert Osborne and included an interview with Tippi Hedren taped at the TCM Film Fest. Also included were archival interviews with Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette on the making of The Birds. The special introductions are a real treat for us TCM fans but also for those who happen on into these screenings with no knowledge of these films – adds to the mystique of the classics, I think.
The film itself seemed a little dated as far as the special effects go. Hitchcock’s stylistic camera proved troublesome to some degree to some in the audience who laughed during scenes not intended to be funny. This happened in a few instances. Still, for most of the film not a peep could be heard. Everyone in the theater was riveted.
Several things about watching this classic on the big screen for the first time caught me off-guard. The first being that the distinctive Hitchcock style seemed a bit campy at times, as I mention above. The Birds is filled with The Hitchcock Signature shots we’ve all come to expect and look forward to but some, like the edited freeze-frame reaction shots of Melanie’s face as she watches the gas station go up in flames caused laughter, which surprised me somewhat. Also some of the actual bird attacks looked campy. I suppose it’s always been the case but the big screen emphasized the super-imposed images as too unnatural for today’s audiences, it seemed to me. My favorite scenes still worked, however.
The scene – Melanie is waiting outside the schoolhouse, casually smoking a cigarette. We hear nothing but the children singing that creepy song, “”Risseldy, Rosseldy,” an old folk song. Over and over and over again. I’ve never been able to make out the lyrics but found them online here if anyone is interested. I refuse, however, to learn the song or even remember its title so I will not be reading this ever again. It is disturbing beyond belief.
So, anyway, Melanie is sitting there and we see shots of the jungle gym in the school yard. We see birds gather on it, hear the children singing, and increasingly closer shots of Melanie’s face – masterful edits to heighten the suspense and it gets mighty uncomfortable to look at. Time elapses, the song continues, the birds continue to gather. But she doesn’t know what we know. Suddenly she notices a crow flying in and follows it to where it’s headed – behind her – the jungle gym, which we now see is completely covered with birds. CHILLING! A low gasp is heard from the audience. Rather than one scene of shock, Hitchcock strings us along. Allowing us to know about the congregating birds while Melanie’s clueless. Anxiety builds until we can’t take it any more. All of that was simply multiplied on the big screen, heightened. The sounds of that song – over and over and over again. The brilliant manipulation of the Hitchcock camera. What more can be said. Excruciating scene.
The other thing that was amplified for me at this screening was the silence! Hitchcock uses it so effectively and I’d never quite noticed it to this degree before. Silences that seem to last forever. So effective. The best illustration of this is the climactic scene in the house where Mitch encloses himself, his family and Melanie to prepare for the next bird attack. There are long sequences with no dialogue and an occasional bird chirp constantly reminding us of the threatening doom. Occasional Hitchcock skewed shots, emphasizing the unsettling feeling of fear and dread are prevalent. Three gorgeous shots of the three adults in the scene walking into frame, shot from below, looking up as the bird sounds approach are particularly impressive. But really the entire sequence is beautifully executed. It’s maddening waiting for the inevitable. More so in a darkened theater – just the kind of place a swarm of angry birds would penetrate to attack! Yes, it crossed my mind.
Then – that final scene, which Hitchcock said was the most difficult shot in the entire film. It was made up of 32 pieces of film due to the limited number of birds allowed on set at any one time so they had to put together enough film to cover the entire scene with birds as the actors walk out of the house and the car is seen driving away from that horrific place. It’s gorgeous AND terrifying. The film leaves the viewer with such a sense of dread – when will these birds strike again? At any moment…we know it will happen again because they’ve taken over the world – or so it seems to me. Supposedly this film didn’t have an ending during the shoot but this is perfect. Nature prevails and WE ARE DOOMED!
One of the ladies in our group last night with whom I was discussing the film after it was over mentioned she thought the final message of the film was that love conquers all. She felt the sign was the fact that Cathy’s love birds were never affected by whatever affected the other birds plus the connection made between Melanie and Lydia in the end. This had never occurred to me. My take is the doom-filled one I describe above. But it’s an interesting interpretation and may say something about my psychology. Or is it simply that Hitchcock films have my number?
Promotion, review and reception:
For a man who was (supposedly) extremely private about his personal affairs, Alfred Hitchcock was a complete ham when it came to promoting his films. He knew the power of promotion, there’s no doubt about that, just as he knew that the power of his own name and image could never be beat by any of the films, no matter how promising a premise. To publicize The Birds, Hitchcock, his wife Alma and Tippi Hedren went to New York to begin an advance promotional tour. They took part in a one-hour segment of The Today Show devoted to The Birds. Hitchcock also addressed an overflow crowd of top Washington journalists at a luncheon meeting of the National Press Club, which is worth a watch…
Here is the “special” trailer for The Birds featuring Alfred Hitchcock:
The Birds was also selected to inaugurate the 1963 Cannes Film Festival with a gala showing.
“THE BIRDS IS COMING!” was the key phrase of all advertising.
Well, the movie was a rave. Critics couldn’t get enough and audiences flocked to it, Hitchcock’s most expensive film to date — it made its money back easily probably enticed by Hitchcock’s consistent claim that his depiction upon the human race “could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made.” The Birds became one of 1963’s top grossers and yet another feather in the cap of the Master of Suspense.
“It is merely an exercise in imagination, done necessarily with complete realism. We had no extensive bird data to go on, except the basic idea provided by du Maurier in her story. I like to think our birds are merely getting back at the human race for centuries of being hunted and shot…This horror story offers a unique challenge to delight me. It will give audiences the entertaining taste of fear and knot in the stomach they expect from me.”
Here is the New York Times review from 1963 by Bosley Crowther. The film premiered March 28, 1963 in New York City.
It’s worth noting The Birds received one Academy Award nomination for Best Effects, Special Visual Effects for the work of
Ub Iwerks. It’s not CGI – thank goodness from my perspective. It’s all effective and highly enjoyable. We had a blast. Much appreciation to TCM, Fathom and Universal for screening this for us to enjoy, watch it as it was intended to be watched. Keep ’em coming!