Watching THE BIRDS

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.

PREMISE:

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!

Publicity stills:

20 thoughts

  1. Excellent piece on this film and event, Aurora. ‘The Birds’ is a Hitchcock film that divides fans, seemingly. I think it offered some of the director’s best work for being a unique blend of suspense and horror. As well, I think the film, in one scene in particular (the aftermath of Annie Hayworth’s death) struck an emotional chord that Alfred’s film rarely hit, IMO. Cathy Brenner’s shock and pain for the woman who saved her, at the cost of her own (and all off-screen), really registered. For all of Hitchcock’s brilliance, his work, for the most part, could be a little cold and distant. Here, a good bit of the melodrama was hot-blooded. Many thanks.

    1. Thanks so much! Glad you liked this. This is a unique film and as a Hitchcock fan I was a bit taken aback by some of the audience reaction last night. I agree with you this one is somewhat discounted. I, myself, fail to mention it among his best or my favorites but it’s really an effective horror movie, different from his other work. I am always moved when I watch it. As far as Annie’s death – something I should have mentioned in this write-up that I noticed for the first time last night – Hitch decided not to show Annie’s face after the bird attack or essentially to emphasize how she died. He’d already done that with the previous character whose eyes were plucked out. But as her dead body lay there her left foot was caught on the stairs in a very odd angle, which really got to me as emphasis of the ugliness of her death. So brilliant!

      Love you comments and thanks again!

      Aurora

  2. Ooooo, I was waiting for this post this morning, and you did not disappoint. What an excellent post, Aurora! I wish one of the screenings was closer to me 😦

    This movie is everything you say it is, and is still one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Hitchcock definitely has my number when it comes to creepy, but this one is his creepiest for me. You highlighted every single thing I love about this movie so well, it was almost like I was there with you.

    Aurora, the best thing about your posts is that they always, always, always give me a new perspective I hadn’t thought of about a movie, a director, or a star….making them all seem new again, and I love you for it 🙂

    SO happy you got to see this on the big screen, and write about it. Lucky girl…terrific writing as always!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! Makes my day you enjoy these rantings so much. I know it’s because we both love these classics. Can’t tell you how grateful I am you stop in and take the time to comment. I agree with what you wrote too – despite it all The Birds remains an effective film in its genre, not to mention all the fun stuff Hitchcock always includes – the dark humor, the signature shots. It’s what the movies are made for.

      Aurora

  3. It must have been an amazing and frightening experience! The birds is not my favorite Hitchcock, but I recognize its importance and seeing it in a big screen for sure must add a lot in the viewing. Thanks for sharing your experience!
    Kisses!

  4. Truthfully, I would be afraid to see this on the big screen – it bothers me enough on television! However, I was surprised to read that some of the scenes elicited laughter in unusual places. I wouldn’t have expected that.

    On a side note, I really like the last photo you’ve posted of Hitchcock and Hedren looking up at the camera. Hitchcock looks astonishingly young.

    1. Yeah – since I feel a rather strange sense of ownership to these classics the laughter was surprising as well as a bit insulting. But I have to agree that a few of the scenes seem absurd, though I hate to admit it.

      I love those publicity photos and the last one IS a favorite. Gorgeous shot.

      Aurora

  5. Aurora, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your experiences with viewing THE BIRDS (one of my favorite HItchcock pics) on the big screen. I’m not surprised that the larger image had a negative impact on the special effects. Loved all your terrific photos. Of course, I have to say what I always say about the birds–the movie is about the people, specifically the mother-son-girlfriend triangle. When that’s resolved (i.e., Mom accepts Melanie), the movie ends.

    1. Hi Rick!

      Every time I’ve watched this film I always consider at least the possibility that in “reality” the birds themselves are nothing but symbols of the inner turmoil of the characters. When they leave that place in the end it’s because they’ve made amends. But as I watch it I consider nothing but those visuals and this week in the theater, the audio, which was overwhelming, as I mentioned. Bottom line – it’s great on many levels.

      Aurora

  6. I love almost everything about The Birds apart from Rod Taylor. Seriously – why was he in this film playing Jessica Tandy’s twenty-something son when he looked about forty-five? Everything else about this movie is wonderful, even Tippi. It’s scary, it’s well-constructed. I love the prim, competent way TH navigates her way painstakingly to the house with those lovebirds, and the way Hitchcock lets that play out in its own time, not afraid it will flag. But Rod Taylor? Rod. Taylor? Sorry, get out of here Rod and go back to your time machine, you’re no more Jessica’s little boy than I am. 😉

    1. Ha! It does, indeed, take suspension of disbelief to get over the age thing with Rod Taylor in this. Jessica Tandy, I might add, is great in the film and looks gorgeous. AND, although I didn’t mention it in the post, it did strike me how wonderful it was to see how the film (Hitchcock) allows for the set-up early on to take its time. Painstakingly so – step by step as Tippi goes through the preparation and planning to get those love birds on Bodega Bay. All the while we hear only the “natural” sounds of it all. Thrilling! It’s one of the things I love about the classics – the leisure of allowing the story to take precedence.

      Love your comments – THANKS!

      Aurora

  7. We saw The Birds screening in Albuquerque. The Birds is my second favorite Hitchcock movie and that hasn’t changed with this recent big screen viewing. We had the same experience of people laughing at things not meant to be funny, like when the gasoline explodes from the cigarette spark and engulfs the man in flames. That surprised us–what is funny about that? Maybe some people are just too jaded now by violent video games! But for the most part, people were shocked and engrossed. I LOVE the ending shot with the birds crowing exultantly as the car cruises slowly off into the sunrise.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Shannon.

      You may be right the laughter may have something to do with people being jaded. Also because, I think, people are not asked to suspend disbelief in any art form these days. Everything has to be shown to them or done for them so that if something doesn’t look aesthetically perfect the n it’s not acceptable. Still, like where you were, I think most enjoyed the film overall.

      Aurora

  8. A couple things- I don’t think was intended to play the part in his twenties- He was a 35 year old playboy lawyer IMO. One other thing- It’s really too bad Hitch ruined Teppi’s career. Thanks for the great pics and the article. Dave

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