The first time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, I was in high school. To this day, I cannot gaze upon a congregation of birds without feeling suspicious and uneasy. Apparently, Hitchcock had this effect on other people as well. The story for the movie is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novelette of the same name. Hitchcock was the perfect person to translate this story into film. After all, he is known as “the master of suspense.” He knew what techniques to implement to create the ominous mood, and he understood that it’s not always necessary to provide an explanation for why things happen. Sometimes what makes a story terrifying is that there is no way to explain the why. The randomness of horrific events scares us because it makes us feel helpless and powerless to prevent it.
Hitchcock’s film stars Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette. Hedren plays a young, beautiful socialite named Melanie Daniels, who enjoys playing pranks on people. Melanie meets her match (in more ways than one) when she is out-pranked by Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a bird shop. Mitch is an attorney who recognizes Melanie from an infamous court case, in which she was the defendant. While looking for a pair of lovebirds for his kid sister’s birthday, he pretends not to know who Melanie is until he leaves the store. Infuriated, Melanie decides to buy a pair of lovebirds and follow him to his weekend home in Bodega Bay.
Bodega bay is a small, quiet coastal town. Everything seems to go according to Melanie’s plan, until a seagull attacks her. At first, no one thinks anything of the incident. The attraction between Mitch and Melanie is palpable, and she decides to extend her stay. While Melanie quickly wins the affections of Mitch’s kid sister, Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright), Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) and the rest of Bodega eye Melanie’s presence with some suspicion.
The burgeoning romance between Mitch and Melanie is put on hold due to the bird attacks, which increase and get worse with every day. The scene where a swarm of black birds chase and attack school children as they try to run to safety is one of the most well known moments from the movie. Unfortunately, no one can provide an explanation for the birds’ strange behavior. As the number and intensity of the attacks increase, Bodega’s residents are immersed in chaos. Some people even go so far as to blame Melanie’s arrival for the catastrophe. The idea of birds intentionally pecking humans to death is apparently too much for the rest of the world to comprehend. Even when Melanie begs her father, who owns a newspaper, to call attention to and investigate the situation, she is met with unabated nonchalance. The people of Bodega are on their own to survive the onslaught of these angry birds.
The idea of birds attacking people is scary enough, but, being the master of suspense, Hitchcock knew what techniques to use to intensify the horror of this story. There is no music in this film. For example, when Melanie sits outside the school to have a cigarette, it is alarmingly quiet as the black birds slowly start approaching her from behind. The silence is unsettling. Normally, the film score will give some indication that something is about to happen. The music crescendos or it gets quieter. Without the music, the audience, as well as the characters in the movie, never know when the metaphorical shoe is going to drop. Hitchcock also used special affects to amplify the population of the birds swarming the small town.
The Birds was Tippi Hendren’s film debut. Before filming began, Hitchcock assured her that she would be protected from any unintentional bird attacks. Unfortunately, Hitchcock was wrong, and Hedren endured some minor injuries. It is also known that there was tension between Hitchcock and Rod Taylor. Taylor made a comment that one of the scenes in the film was weak, which took away from the momentum of the story. He’s absolutely right, but Hitchcock didn’t appreciate Taylor’s critique. The scene was kept in the movie, and, while it doesn’t ruin the movie, it doesn’t add to the story either. Despite the fact that there were some issues on set, Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, and Jessica Tandy, give convincing performances. Neither Tandy nor Pleshette have major parts in the movie, but they both have a magnetic presence. Pleshette plays Mitch’s ex-girlfriend and the town’s schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth. Annie is probably one of the most likable characters in the movie. Despite her feelings for Mitch, she shows kindness towards Melanie and she risks her life to protect Mitch’s sister. No matter how much chaos they endure, Hedren is beautiful and graceful. Her blond hair and elegance is reminiscent of Grace Kelly, which is partly what influenced Hitchcock’s decision to cast her in the movie.
Many film students have studied Hitchock’s movies. Though he could be difficult to work with, his brilliance behind the camera made him a powerful force in Hollywood. Many of his films, such as Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, and North By Northwest, are masterpieces. He was extremely detailed in his preparation. Even before filming began, Hitchcock had everything planned to the minute detail. No one is ever the same after watching a Hitchcock movie. His knowledge and understanding of the human psyche pushes his viewers to the edge of their comfort zone. The Birds isn’t just a horror film; it is a survey of human nature at its best and its worst.