WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.
I spent a large portion of my youth growing up in Northern California, and we were always reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when we saw a flock of them fly by. I’ve been to a number of the locations in San Francisco and Bodega Bay where this classic movie was made, but I have actually never seen it all the way through until just recently. Still, it was one of those films we feel like we have all seen as we are aware of its story, and we are constantly reminded of its existence when we see a huge swarm of birds in the sky or in a park feeding on leftover crumbs. When that happens, you begin to wonder if you’re flesh might suddenly seem more appetizing than bread crumbs to them.
It finally took a 50th anniversary screening of “The Birds” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood to finally give me a reason to actually sit down and watch it. Seeing it at the world famous theater made it all the more entertaining to watch as this Hitchcock classic probably hasn’t looked this good in years. But I was especially impressed with the movie’s sound design which proved to be of an assault on our eardrums. It made you wonder if the birds were going to kill the humans by pecking at them to death, or if their insane chirping and screeching would do us instead.
Tippi Hedren is absolutely sublime as Melanie Daniels, a socialite who strikes up a conversation with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who “mistakes” her for a salesperson at a bird shop. When it turns out that Mitch was just teasing Melanie as he knew all along that she wasn’t an employee there but instead someone he remembered from a court case, she gets all pissed and looks to get one up on him. As a result, she drives out to Bodega Bay, a small coastal town in Northern California where Mitch spends his weekends with his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his sister Cathy (a very young Veronica Cartwright). And that’s when the birds start to attack…
Like I said, I’ve been to Bodega Bay many times and have been to The Tides Restaurant where “The Birds” was filmed. The restaurant looks far different now than when it did in the film, but they still have pictures of it there displayed at the front, reminding tourists that movie magic was once made here. It’s really one of the perfect locations for a horror movie; a small seaside town that looks so peaceful and so isolated from the rest of the world, but it’s that isolation that dooms the humans in “The Birds” as many of them can’t see outside of their little town for any possible escape. Many people come to these small towns to get away from big city life, but if it’s bad in Bodega Bay when these birds attack, imagine how bad it must be in San Francisco with them perched all over the Golden Gate Bridge and just waiting to launch another bloodthirsty assault.
The first bird attack doesn’t actually happen until about a half hour or so in the movie, and I don’t imagine any filmmaker (even Hitchcock) getting away with that today. Studio executives would probably be all like “can you introduce the bird attacks any sooner?” But that’s okay because Hitchcock is clearly having fun with Melanie and Mitch as they play these cat and mouse games with one another. The scene where Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s home so that she can secretly give him a present is very suspenseful as I kept expecting Mitch to pop up in the doorway at any second. His reaction to what Melanie has gotten away with is priceless.
When a seagull attacks Melanie while she is on a boat, it completely catches us off guard as we have become so wrapped up in the chemistry between her and Mitch. Indeed, it’s the human characters that I wondered about more than the birds themselves. Each person Melanie comes into contact with appears to have some sort of hidden agenda that you are itching to figure out before the movie ends.
Hitchcock made “The Birds” a few years after “Psycho,” and he still seems to have a thing for overbearing mothers. Tandy is wonderful in portraying her deep-seated suspicions about Melanie without words, and I kept thinking she had some evil plan going on behind those eyes of hers. Like Mrs. Bates, she’s a little too overprotective of who her son goes out with.
Then there’s the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (the alluring Suzanne Pleshette) who was once in a relationship with Mitch, and she keeps eyeing Melanie ever so seductively when talking about him. Annie tells Melanie that she and Mitch remain the best of friends as she smokes a cigarette (which, like it or not, still looks glamorous), but what does Melanie really mean? Pleshette is great in the role because she makes Annie a very enigmatic character, and it’s almost like she’s daring you to look deeper into those beautiful eyes of hers.
Granted, the special effects in “The Birds” these days tend to look a bit campy and haven’t exactly aged well. Then again, they still look a lot better than anything you will see in “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” Hitchcock ends up shooting some the bird attack sequences in the same way he shot the shower scene in “Psycho;” with a lot of quick cuts that give you the illusion that you’re seeing more than what’s actually onscreen. This is especially the case when Melanie ventures upstairs and into the room which the birds have broken into. The editing is all over the place, and it makes the attack seem all the more painfully brutal.
I loved how Hitchcock just strings the audience along throughout the whole movie and manages to stay one step ahead of them. M. Night Shyamalan has been desperately trying to do that with many of his movies which became nauseating after a while, but Hitchcock remains the master when it comes to generating suspense. He’s careful not to give too much away, and he always has you wondering what will happen next. At the movie’s end, many questions are left unanswered and the fates of certain characters remain up in the air, but that makes the experience all the more terrifying even after the lights go up in the theatre. Hitchcock is not interested in giving the audience an easy way out and “The Birds” stays with you long after it has ended as a result.
Among the images from “The Birds” that will forever stay with me include the scene at the school where Melanie waits outside as the children sing “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” and she doesn’t notice until it’s too late that an enormous swarm of crows have gathered on the jungle gym behind her. You want to yell at her and say “look behind you,” and when it is revealed just how many are waiting on that jungle gym, you feel her terror as she sees for herself the danger everyone is in. Keep in mind, this movie was made long before CGI effects were even a tiny thought in somebody’s head, and that makes Hitchcock’s work with the birds seem all the more impressive. While some of them may have been animated, the majority of the birds appear to be real and they must have been temperamental at times to work with.
Actually, looking back at the scene makes me wonder what would be more horrifying. Could it be that those birds are ready to fly up and attack the children at any given moment, or the fact that someone is going to have clean up all that bird shit that you know will be covering the jungle gym after they fly away? You know with that many birds, that thing is not going to come out of this the least bit clean. The school will be lucky if the kids ever play on that thing again!
I also loved the movie’s last half where Melanie and Mitch are hiding in his family’s home which has been completely boarded up to keep all those birds from getting inside. It’s at this point that the film becomes a master class of sound design as the birds’ screeching (much of it created with an electroacoustic Trautonium) becomes far more unnerving than seeing them attack humans. We don’t see many birds for most of the scene, we just hear them and see all sorts of holes being poked in the doors as they fight to make their way inside. It’s one of the many brilliantly staged scenes that Hitchcock has ever put together as he sticks us right inside of the house with the characters to where we feel their isolation and terror over what will happen if one of those flying beasts makes it inside.
I also loved how cool Hedren is as Melanie Daniels. She gives this icy blonde a seductive confidence that makes you want to follow her to ends of the earth, and it’s easy to see how this same type of character came to inform many of Paul Verhoeven’s movies years later (“Basic Instinct” especially). It’s a tragedy that Hitchcock ended up ruining Hedren’s career out of his unhealthy obsession with her, and his treatment of her casts a dark shadow over the legacy of “The Birds.” Needless to say, Hedren still walks through life with her head held high and that says a lot about her.
It’s also a kick to see Veronica Cartwright in this film as it helps to certify her status as one of the great scream queens in horror movies. These days we know her best from her terrifying turns as Lambert in “Alien” and in Philip Kaufman’s remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but this was the first of her scary movies which she did at the precocious age of 12 years old (she turned 13 during its making). After all these years, Cartwright remains a fascinating actress to watch.
Perhaps “The Birds” would have had a stronger effect on me had I watched many years before or maybe before its 25th anniversary instead. But the fact that it holds up so well after half a century says a lot about Hitchcock’s brilliance behind the camera, a brilliance that many filmmakers still look to take advantage of whenever they can. Still, over thirty years after his death, there is still no topping Hitchcock as the master of suspense. To those who wish to try, all I can say is good luck (you’re gonna need it).