Written by Evan Hunter, based on the novella by Daphne du Maurier
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A Universal Picture
Starring: Tippi Hedren (Melanie Daniels); Rod Taylor (Mitch Brenner); Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth); Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner); Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner); Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Bundy); Charles MacGraw (Sebastian Sholes); Doreen Lang (The Hysterical Mother); Ruth McDevitt (Mrs. McGruder)
In 1960, Sir Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho, the film that would give him immortality (that is, it would have given him immortality if he had not already made North By Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, Shadow Of A Doubt and a few other films before those that had already secured his name forever in the history books). But Psycho was different; it scared its audience like none of his other films had before and the movie-going public was literally changed by their trek to see Janet Leigh bite the tiles while her life’s blood swirled down the drain. It would have been an act of madness to assume that an audience would have been satisfied with a traditional Hitchcock “wrong man” scenario after 1960 (say what you will about Hitchcock’s 1972 “wrong man” film Frenzy, but never suggest that it’s traditional) and his next picture proved how aware he was of this. Psycho’s follow-up had to be bigger, better, and totally unlike anything (including Psycho) that Hitchcock had ever given his audience before. The question of “better” may be debatable, but with The Birds, Hitchcock scored high on all other fronts.
Based on an atypical short story by Daphne Du Maurier (whose pen had provided Hitchcock with source material for the films Rebecca and Jamaica Inn), The Birds unnerves its audience immediately by filling its ears with the horrible sounds of birds cackling and crying during its opening credits (even Psycho featured gripping and frightening music). And here lies the first difference between The Birds and all of Hitchcock’s other films: the absence of a score. Hitchcock was known for using music to perfection in his films (and The Birds was made while Hitchcock was still on good terms with his favorite composer of the previous decade, Bernard Hermann), but there’s something unnerving about a film that shuns music altogether. Even the scariest scores in the most horrific films have some degree of comfort to them; we at least know that when the shock chord ends, we can breathe a bit easier. But in The Birds all we’re given is the sounds of shrieking gulls and (in one memorable sequence) the haunting sound of school children singing “Risseldy Rosseldy” while death stalks them all on a nearby jungle-gym. In fact, the lack of a romantic theme for the film’s lovers Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) seems to signify that trouble is brewing for them as it has brewed for no other romantic couple in no other Hitchcock film. Bergman and Grant got their romantic music in Notorious as did Grant and Saint in North By Northwest and, despite all their trials, they made it out of their predicaments alive, in love and relatively unscathed. For the post-Psycho world, Hedren and Taylor would have a lot more to contend with.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case during the film’s first forty-odd minutes. When we first see Melanie Daniels, the spoiled and trouble playgirl, she doesn’t mind playing a harmless mind game with Mitch Daniels, the supposedly innocent shopper of lovebirds. But when Mitch reveals that it is she who has been the butt of his prank, she becomes determined to one-up him and we seem to be in the middle of a battle of the sexes straight out of a Day/Hudson comedy (or even some of the wittier scenes from Hitchcock’s own Mr. & Mrs. Smith). And Melanie is nothing if not determined; discovering that Mitch will not be home to discover her spite-gift of caged lovebirds, she drives sixty miles up the coast to Bodega Bay, goes through a lot of trouble to discover the name of his kid sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, making her first but not last appearance in a scary film), and even hires a boat to sneak the caged birds into his house without him seeing her. But just at the moment when Melanie strikes a coquettish look at the grinning Mitch, a gull swoops down on her and reminds us that what we are watching is anything but a Day/Hudson rom-com. In Hitchcock, one let’s one’s guard down at one’s own peril.
In fact, one of the great things about The Birds is that as Mitch and Melanie keep attempting to play their roles in an old-fashioned screwball comedy, the birds continue to remind them that they are in a completely different film. If anything, the crisis of the bird attacks breaks down all the hurdles that Mitch and Melanie would be expected to leap over in order for their relationship to actually pass the playful stage. And they are also initially hampered by the dithering protectiveness of Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his ex-girlfriend Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), who would both probably provide Mitch with enough guilt to chalk up his meeting with Melanie as another failed attempt to reach the next stage of his life. But then a swarm of gulls attacks a children’s party. And later that day, sparrows swoop down the chimney just when Lydia is trying to get Melanie to leave both her home and her son. It is this attack that prompts Melanie to stay an extra night. By the next morning, she and Mitch are no longer playing cute rom-com games; their fear of this insane crisis has broken down all the barriers between them. Shaken by her own encounter with the aftermath of a bird attack (the scene with the ravaged corpse at the Faucet Farm), Lydia is forced to have the very conversation with Melanie that she should’ve had with Annie years before. It’s quite clear from Jessica Tandy’s marvelous performance that Lydia would rather step into an aviary covered in seed than admit her deepest fear to a woman she barely knows and views as a possible threat, but her defenses are down and Melanie is all she has.
Likewise, Melanie reveals a depth that couldn’t be guessed at from her first appearance in the film (when she smiles after being wolf-whistled at by a boy scout); she shows real concern over Cathy (a little girl she barely knows) and is absolutely horrified at the death of Annie, a woman who began her relationship with Melanie as a possible rival for Mitch’s affections. (Mitch, unlike Annie, has moved on and comes off as slightly callous in the fact that he doesn’t seem to question Annie’s decision to move to Bodega Bay. Again, it is the bird attacks which reawakens Mitch’s care for her as, in the first and only moment of interaction the two characters have in the film, he is forced to carry her corpse over her own threshold.) Unlike the hysterical mother who accuses Melanie of being a witch (something we more or less expected Lydia to do) or the elderly ornithologist who scoffs at the idea of a bird war and then falls into speechlessness when she witnesses an attack, Melanie and the Brenners all pull together despite their differences and hang-ups in the face of something bigger than them: a natural disaster that takes the form of an all-out assault.
To give that wretched hysterical woman at the diner her due, the film is framed in a way that makes Melanie the center of the birds’ attacks: she is the first and last person in the film to suffer an attack (only the attacks on Dan Faucet, Annie Hayworth and Sebastian Sholes’ fishing boats, none of which we actually witness, take place independent of Melanie’s presence). Even during attacks against a large group of people, Melanie tends to be our focus character (with the sole exception of the penultimate attack on the Brenner house, which focuses mostly on Mitch and his efforts to keep the house secure). During the attack on the school, Annie is immediately forgotten by the camera, leaving Melanie the sole protector of the children. The centerpiece of the film is the attack on the Tides restaurant and, despite the death and devastation that results; it is Melanie who is the central character. She becomes trapped in a glass phone booth and is forced to witness (on all four sides) the destruction around her. Through her eyes we see cars burning, horse-drawn wagons out of control and people staggering by with clawed faces. She recoils as a car nearly runs her booth down and we recoil as several birds try to smash their way into the booth. Mitch, who ran outside to help a wounded gas station attendant at the start of the attack, is strangely absent until he finally rescues Melanie from the booth. And while the attack that kills Annie happens off-screen, the attack in the attic should’ve killed Melanie is shown to us in explicit detail.
This sequence, consisting of tight cuts (although the shots last longer as Melanie’s strength ebbs), is reminiscent of Marion Crane’s murder in Psycho. Like that earlier sequence, the attic attack is more than just an attempted murder, it is violation of Melanie’s body (although Marion’s violation was far more personal – she was naked and beyond anyone’s help when she was attacked). And while Marion’s murder was a study in misdirection – we never see the knife stab her and a body-double was used for some shots – Melanie’s attack is a study in reality-based horror. It is no one but Tippi Hedren standing with her back to the attic door and those are real birds being thrown at her. Much has been written about Hitchcock’s responsibility for Hedren’s welfare and his possible sadism for forcing a naïve young actress, who obviously was unaware of the way actresses are usually treated, to go through a week of turmoil that left her exhausted, injured and emotionally broken. Or one could assume that, in 1961, there simply was no other way to film the scene and have the result be believable to an audience (witness modern-day audiences reaction to the school attack earlier in the film when animated birds dive-bomb the children). Whatever the reasons, Hedren’s real-life torment comes through, punctuated by her gasps and the occasional flash frame caused by the flashlight she uses to defend herself. By the time Mitch rescues her, Melanie has been reduced to near catatonia. It is worth noting that much of Mitch’s behavior during the film’s first act, when it was still a romantic comedy, was to show Melanie up. His smug actions in the pet shop, his grilling her about her Roman adventures and his condescending remark about needing “a mother’s love” have all been an effort to wipe that smirk off her face. When Melanie awakens after the attic attack (and instinctively pummels Mitch, thinking she is still in the midst of the attack) the smirk is well and truly gone, but Mitch has long forgotten his condescending games and looks as if he would do anything to see her smile again. Instead, her earlier comment to Annie about Lydia’s distrust of Mitch’s girlfriends, “Somebody should tell her that she’d be getting a daughter,” comes true as Lydia starts caring for the injured Melanie as if the grown woman was her own child. And Melanie is in no condition to protest; in the car before their final escape, she gently squeezes Lydia’s wrist and she is again the eleven year-old girl whose mother abandoned her. To her credit, Lydia tenderly embraces her and their relationship, which would’ve remained fraught with distrust and recriminations under normal circumstances, is cemented. And all because two young lovers from a romantic comedy took a wrong turn and ended up in a horror film, one that apparently never ends, judging by the ambiguity of the ending. Melanie and the Brenners escape from the farmhouse and presumably make it out of town, but what happens after that? Will Melanie recover? What made the birds attack in the first place? If they make it to San Francisco, will the Golden Gate Bridge be covered in birds (an idea that Hitchcock nixed)? These were questions that audiences in 1962 were not used to asking and is one of the reasons why audiences fifty years later continue to take another look at what many critics consider to be the Master of Suspense’s last great film.