61 – The Birds:
Remember how y’all might find it odd that it was my mother who recommended the raunchy sex comedy Heartbreakers to me? Well one year before that, I was recommended a famous horror film about birds attacking humans. Same source. But in all seriousness, I can look back on the year I turned thirteen as a very fond time. That was when my love of films and filmmaking really took off. It was then that I was first introduced to many of the classics – Alien, Jaws, Psycho, Halloween and of course The Birds. I first became aware of this one from reading a Sabrina the Teenage Witch novelisation of all things; Sabrina gets sent back in time to 1940s Hollywood and ends up with a job on an Alfred Hitchcock set. It’s the set of Spellbound, not The Birds, but the idea of a horror film about birds sounded very intriguing. I had it hyped up for me for ages and didn’t get to see it until it happened to be on TV (this being the days before video-on-demand and good quality pirating). Ten years removed from that viewing and it’s still one of my favourite horror films. Interestingly enough, despite being terrified of dogs and spiders, this one has not made me fear birds in the slightest.
We open in the gay old town of San Francisco sometime in the 1960s. A sexy blonde called Melanie Daniels is walking down the street, taking the time to smile at a pervy little boy who wolf whistles to her. That’s apparently an in-joke to how Melanie’s actress Tippi Hedren got discovered; Alfred Hitchcock saw her in a Diet Coke commercial, which consisted of the above action. When he saw it, he had her put under contract immediately. If you think that sounds like a pretty sweet deal, wait until you see what actually happens in this movie.
I didn’t touch on it in the Rope review, but it should be noted that Alfred Hitchcock always had a thing about blondes. They usually featured at his protagonists, and many of them embodied the common tropes about blonde characters in fiction. Melanie Daniels represents the high-fashion, lady of fun and frivolity type of blonde. Tippi Hedren at once has the charisma on full display – instantly believable as a proto Paris Hilton. That charisma might falter if she heard what her director once famously said about his preference for blondes.
After taking the time to note a rather large swarm of seagulls in the air, Melanie goes into a bird shop. She wants to buy a pet, who becomes insignificant to the story as soon as a suave looking man walks in – played by Rod Taylor. The man mistakes her for an employee and asks if she has any love birds in stock – as a present for his sister. Melanie apparently is a bit of a troll and decides to play along. This bites her in the behind when she ends up setting a canary loose around the shop. And the man reveals that he knows who she is already.
Despite exchanging a series of barbs, it’s clear that there’s quite a bit of sexual tension in the air. The chemistry between Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor is on full display, and it’s part of the reason that we care about the characters in this horror movie. It’s all the more impressive with the fact that there were no rehearsals before filming – so the two of them didn’t meet until they shot their scenes. But of course they hit it off right away. It seems Melanie feels the same, as she takes note of his licence plate – and uses her connections to find out who he is.
The man’s name is Mitch Brenner, and Melanie decides to buy the love birds for him anyway. But she can’t quite pull off the gag of leaving them in his apartment – as his neighbour tells her he’s gone away for the weekend. Melanie shows that she’s really got a complexity problem – because she decides to drive the whole two hours up to Bodega Bay. And when she gets there, she even drives all the way to the school teacher’s house to make sure she gets the name of Mitch’s little sister right. Turns out it’s Cathy. The school teacher is…
Years before she would terrorise children as Yubaba, Suzanne Pleshette was one of the ladies of Hollywood. She wanted the role of Melanie really bad and tried her best to get it. Hitch still liked her, and so wrote the part of Annie for her. In contrast to Taylor and Hedren, she’s…fine. She’s a bit too dramatic in her first scene here, giving the impression that Melanie just drove into a scene from Dallas or Guiding Light. Melanie then shows how dedicated she is to her gags – as she rents a boat to paddle across the bay to get to Mitch’s house. And once she deposits the birds, she waits for the reaction.
Her attempts at a graceful exit don’t amount to much – as a seagull swoops down and attacks her. But at least it gives Mitch a chance to be the dashing hero who patches her up afterwards. Melanie lies and says she was going to be in town for the weekend anyway – pretending she and Annie Hayworth are old friends. She also gets a chance to meet the mother Lydia, played by Jessica Tandy. The same soap opera dramatic reaction to Melanie happens again, but Jessica Tandy pulls it off with a little more subtlety than Suzanne Pleshette. Nonetheless, Melanie gets invited to dinner against her will. She also covers her tracks by asking Annie if she can stay the night – taking time to notice the odd collection of birds in the sky.
The odd behaviour of the birds continues at dinner, where Lydia remarks that their chickens won’t eat any of the feed – and that others in the area have reported similar problems. Lydia also seems to have a problem with Melanie staying for dinner – telling Mitch that she’s always reading about her in the gossip columns. Mitch then busts Melanie for her little lie, and they have a little spat. But Mitch takes special time to notice the odd amount of birds on the telephone poles.
Back at Annie’s, the two women talk boys. It turns out that Annie’s soap opera behaviour when Melanie arrived is down to her being an ex-girlfriend of Mitch’s. The reason it didn’t work out is mostly down to Lydia. The weird thing is that Lydia liked her, and they’re good friends now. She appears to be a bit afraid of her son abandoning her for a girlfriend. This discussion is interrupted when a bird flies right into the front door. That’s especially odd, because there’s a full moon.
What I mean by that, is that it’s odd that a bird could lose its way on such a bright evening. Things come to a head the next day at Cathy’s birthday party – with a heart-to-heart about Melanie’s mommy issues being interrupted by a bird attack! The birds outright swoop down on the children and attack. No one’s hurt but it’s a rather shocking turn of events. Things escalate later that evening when the birds swarm down the chimney and attack inside!
So the real plot has officially started. Much like a trick he pulled in Psycho, Hitchcock suckered us in with one story and decided to change tack about halfway through. It might sound like a bait and switch, but it’s masterfully done. The first half of the film plays out like a romantic comedy, with the odd behaviour of the birds kept in the background. Then it escalates, completely eclipsing the drama between Melanie, Mitch and Lydia. On one level, it’s a kind of dramatic cosmic irony – that these characters’ personal lives are rendered pointless in the grand scheme of things. Birds have declared war on mankind, meaning that it really doesn’t matter whether or not the cute guy’s mother likes you. This is really underlined by the bird attack interrupting a melodramatic argument about whether Melanie should stay the night or not.
On another level, it’s what brings the horror home. If you don’t get what I’m saying, imagine the cast of your favourite TV sitcom. Now imagine that they suddenly and inexplicably fall victim to a situation like this. I guarantee you that you’d be ten times more invested in their safety than if you’d been watching a straight horror film from the start.
The reason for this is that you’ve had time to get to know these characters – as you’ve gotten to know Melanie, Mitch, Lydia and Cathy – and thus the horror actually had an effect. Horror is far scarier when it’s happening to named and developed characters that the audience cares about. Hitch had the right idea; the entire point of the movie is that this horror happens to a group of normal, everyday people. And it’s ahead of a lot of modern slasher or monster movies. These characters aren’t just pretty twenty-somethings getting punished for being too rebellious or too promiscuous; they’re made to feel like the average moviegoer’s neighbour (well to a 1960s audience anyway). A lot of horror films try to use this same trope – putting in a stock drama plot for the first twenty minutes in an attempt to make the characters feel relatable. But if you don’t care about the characters, then there’s nothing scary about seeing horrible things happening to them.
Things don’t get much better the next morning, as Lydia takes a trip over to her friend’s farm – and finds the man dead in his room. His eyes pecked out by birds actually. On the bright side, this does give Lydia and Melanie a chance to bond. She pretty much confirms what Annie had already said: that she’s afraid of being left alone. But for the time being, she’s more afraid of the birds. So Melanie offers to pick Cathy up from school and bring her home. Unfortunately, as Melanie waits in the playground outside, she eventually notices…
This is probably the most effective scene in the film. The birds do absolutely nothing but fly onto the jungle gym and telephone poles. But it’s an incredibly tense scene when you’re watching it for the first time. Hitchcock himself once said that the key to keeping the audience in suspense is to show people eating at a table that has a bomb underneath it. The audience knows there’s a bomb – but the characters don’t. Melanie sits casually in the playground as it steadily fills up with birds. And the tension doesn’t come from what the birds do; it comes from what the audience is afraid they might do. By giving the audience just a little – showing the birds coming into the playground – it’s allowing their mind to fill in the blanks. The fact that they don’t attack when Melanie sees them and runs inside just amps up the tension even further. Remember how Halloween didn’t have Michael Myers actually kill a protagonist until nearly an hour in?
The whole sequence also features the only bit of music in the film. The Birds is a movie that has no score, so you could say that everything you see and hear actually happens within its established universe. There’s no music until this part, where the school children are singing “Risselty Rosselty” inside. Nursery rhymes are a lot like dolls in the sense of them being very easy to use for horror. The irony is obvious – since they’re symbols of childish innocence – but here it ties in with the ‘bomb under the table’ analogy. The children are singing away, with no idea that their bomb is right outside ready to go off at any moment. Fun fact: “Risselty Rosselty” was suggested by the screenwriter’s kids, but it was actually too short to fill the whole scene. He wrote more verses to add onto it, and got royalties every year as a result.
When Melanie shows Annie the congregation outside, the teacher clearly remembers the scene at the party – and they get all the children to flee for home. And now the birds attack. I have to say that this is probably the part where the special effects are the weakest. I applaud the filmmakers for really doing their best to have birds convincingly attacking the children. There is some good use of prop birds, and real ones for the shots of the children getting physically attacked. But the blue screen effects of the birds in the distance unfortunately don’t hold up too well. One of Cathy’s friends falls, resulting in her and Melanie locking themselves in a nearby car for safety.
Melanie ends up in the restaurant later where the locals don’t quite believe her story. She gets into a bit of an argument with an ornithologist called Mrs Bundy. The old woman is very sceptical at the idea of crows attacking the children unprovoked. This is another subtle scene that’s still done brilliantly. It goes back to the notion of everyday life being suddenly rendered pointless because of the bird attacks. Everyone in the restaurant is going about their business, and they slowly get disrupted by Melanie’s story. But there’s one line from Mrs Bundy that can never stop me from laughing out loud. She discusses the possibility that birds have declared war on mankind – “how could we possibly HOPE to fight them?” – and I should probably show you a picture of her.
Mrs Bundy is a pompous old English lady. Even if she’s being sarcastic, the image of her trying to fight birds is hysterical. I want to see a spin-off with Mrs Bundy – leading the resistance against the birds. With her infinite knowledge of the species, she might be able to help wipe them out.
Speaking of the birds, they fly into town, and chaos does indeed ensue. Things become very frantic when a gas pump gets burst and a few cars go up in flames. Melanie rather stupidly wanders outside and gets trapped in a phone booth until Mitch can rescue her. Once back inside the café, she has to make do with a bit of dialogue that really should have been left on the cutting room floor. A mother of two who had been panicking as Melanie told her story now accuses her of being responsible – declaring “I think you’re evil” in a way that would make the cast of Sunset Beach cringe.
The birds retreat for the time being, so Mitch and Melanie go over to Annie’s to pick up Cathy. They find Annie lying dead on the lawn, but Cathy is safe inside. Cut to Mitch and Melanie boarding up all the windows at his house as if there’s a zombie apocalypse on the way. The birds do come and try to get through the blockades. And because this is before Second Wave Feminism, Mitch is the one who has to fend them off. After some very effective banging and pecking, the birds appear to retreat. But Melanie decides to go upstairs and check.
Tippi Hedren agrees with that viewpoint. She even asked Hitchcock why Melanie would even consider going upstairs alone without any kind of protection. The good director responded with “your salary” and that was that. Of course Melanie finds a room that the birds have broken into and she gets attacked. Unfortunately, Tippi Hedren wasn’t really acting for this part. She was told that the attack would be filmed with mechanical birds, but arrived on set to discover they’d be using real ones after all. And she had to endure several days of birds being thrown at her, some of which were tied to her costume. She eventually collapsed in a hysterical heap, and a doctor ordered her to have a week’s rest. Hitchcock tried his very hardest to prevent that, but Hedren was given her rest. The shot of Mitch carrying Melanie down from the attic uses a body double as a result.
Mitch hears some news on the radio – where the bird attacks are contained to the California area. Most of the other locals have managed to escape, so Mitch feels they should do the same. He has to walk outside, past crowds of seagulls, ravens, crows etc. to get the car ready. And then the rest of them have to walk back through to get inside the car. Cathy also brings along the love birds since “they haven’t harmed anyone”. Lydia and Melanie share a tender moment in the backseat, implying that at least the trauma has made them bond somewhat. That’s about all the resolution we’re going to get, as the film ends with the car trying to drive down the hill. A planned ending would have then shown the Golden Gate Bridge covered with birds.
So what can we say about The Birds to really sum up how effective it is as a film? It had shades of the same effect that Jaws would later inflict on the general public. People weren’t quite afraid to leave their houses, but one critic described it as “enough to make you want to kick the next pigeon you see”. It has nonetheless gone down in history as a classic – and many of the emerging horror films in the 60s and 70s felt its influence. Most notable is Night of the Living Dead – using the claustrophobic feeling of the house whenever the monsters attack – and Halloween – having everyday life suddenly disrupted by big-scale horror. As with most great horror movies of that era (and plenty of awful ones too), a remake was proposed. It’s been in Development Hell for nearly ten years, so we’ll see how that goes. Tippi Hedren looked ready to become a hot new star in Hollywood. Unfortunately, she still had five more Hitchcock films to do, and number two became the end of her tether. Her next project Marnie saw Hitch veer into behaviour that today would fall comfortably under the umbrella of ‘sexual harassment’. When she rebuffed him, he responded by keeping her under contract but refusing to use her – only releasing her when demand for her had died down. So while she can’t exactly look back on this film and smile, we can at least recognise a good performance from her and think wistfully about the career she might have had. We can also thank the lords that there wasn’t a sequel called ‘The Bees’.
It’s the end of the world, but not the end of the grading process.
*Story? This is one of the few movies that pulls off the ‘you thought you were watching one story but it’s actually a different one’, and ‘horror interrupts everyday life’ plots very well. We never find out why the birds are attacking, and we never need to. A
*Characters? Melanie, Mitch, Cathy, Lydia and Andy all feel like real people and they’re all worth rooting for. B+
*Performances? Tippi Hedren shows off some impressive charisma in her first big role, sharing some dynamic chemistry with Rod Taylor. Everyone else is a bit of a mixed bag. Perfectly passable but not enough to ruin the movie. Besides that “you’re evil!” woman of course. B-
*Visuals? Great set designs, good cinematography even on the location scenes, and some great use of lighting especially during the final scenes in the house. The costume designs were subtle but still looked great. A
*Special Effects? This is another mixed bag. At the time of filming, the effects were cutting edge. Or at least respectable. A lot of them actually do hold up in places, just barely. So while they’re not exactly good, they’re not B-movie bad. C+
*Anything Else? This is one of those movies that best epitomises Hitchcock’s nickname as “the master of suspense” – the school yard scene especially. Speaking of which, the sound in the movie was used perfectly. It was daring to go without a score, but they pulled it off flawlessly. A
Time to return to the world of Disney (who amusingly supplied the SFX for this) with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.