Let’s Talk About ‘The Birds’ (1963)

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It’s one of my top five Hitchcock films. Rear Window is always going to be my favorite (and here’s Ramona’s excellent Canon post for that film), Psycho is always going to be in the top three (and here’s Duke’s also excellent Canon post for THAT film), and Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds usually fill out the rest. While some people consider The Birds the last truly great film Hitchock made, it’s not usually in the top five of a critical ranking of his films. Sometimes not even in the top ten. So why do I value it so highly?

It comes down to horror, and my love for that particular genre. That’s one of the reasons Psycho is so high for me as well. The Birds is Hitchcock giving us a straight up horror film, designed specifically to scare the audience as much as possible. And unlike Psycho, which excels with misdirection, shadows, music, and sharp editing that leaves you thinking you’ve seen more than you have, The Birds just attacks you as the birds attack the cast. It’s all right there, in broad daylight. There’s a man with his eyes pecked out. A man on fire. A flock of crows attacking children. There’s a boldness to the horror that I love Hitchcock for. He doesn’t even give us the salve of a reason for the attacks – something we could fix or avoid or tell ourselves “it couldn’t happen in the real world” (though it has). No, it simply happens. And there’s no way of knowing if it could or would happen again. (Or even if it’s over – Hitchock famously left off the traditional “The End” part of the film.)

So, yes, I admit that The Birds flies higher in my estimation of the man’s work than other, perhaps more deserving films, but I won’t apologize for it. The Birds is awesome, and horrifying, and entertaining. Let’s talk about it a little more, shall we?

What The Birds Means to Us

I have a love/hate relationship with The Birds. When it comes to getting your heart rate up, Hitchcock was, of course, a genius. As a horror movie, The Birds hits all of the right beats. One of the things that stands out to me is the incredible juxtaposition of stillness and chaos. For every moment of crazed avian action, there is a moment of quiet unease. Conversations are hushed. The spaces between characters speaking are filled with a silence that’s so oppressive it triggers my claustrophobia. Then everything goes to hell — hundreds of wings flapping, birds screeching, people screaming, the camera jumping back and forth. And back to quiet stillness. No matter how many times it happens, or how many times I’ve seen the movie, it still gets me. However, as much as the thrills thrill me, the portrayal of women as nearly universally hysterical and useless in a crisis causes me to roll my eyes so hard I’m afraid eventually I’ll be looking at the back of my head. I’ll give Hitchcock this — the many well-acted scenes of a wide-eyed woman gasping and shrieking in terror do help ramp up the fear factor. But it has always annoyed me that by the end, even Melanie — who began the film as a confident, vivacious young woman — was reduced to a nearly catatonic lump by a flock of seagulls. Maybe there’s some greater symbolism to be found there, or maybe it was just reflective of the times and Hitchcock’s own issues. It still bugs me. Despite that, it’s my favorite of his films and a classic worth rewatching. And every time I see a flock of birds flying overhead or settling on a powerline, I spend just a moment thinking about what I’d do if they suddenly decided to declare war.

–R.J. Mathews

Since it casts such a large shadow over horror, Psycho always gets referenced as Hitchcock’s greatest achievement to cinema. He was the master of suspense and created the building blocks for the modern day slasher. That’s true and that’s great and all, but that’s not all he did. He also created the animal attack genre. The Naked Jungle was a killer ant movie that came out six years earlier but I don’t think that had any impact on the genre. The Birds walked so that Jaws could run. Spielberg used this film as an example both in what to do and what not to do. He recognized that the threat was always more effective when the audience can’t tell if it’s fake and the importance of character building. He also tightened the plot to make the build up a bit less arduous. He used the bones of this to create his masterpiece. And while the effects are definitely starting to show their age, it’s remarkable how long they’ve managed to old on. This is far from one of my favorites, but I love the fact that he made it in the first place. He took what would have been at that time a ridiculous premise and treated it with the same earnestness and gravitas as he would any drama. He proved any premise could be told believably and that’s a much stronger contribution to cinema than Psycho could ever give.

–Sailor Monsoon

From Meet-Cute to Monster Movie

Screenwriter Evan Hunter (Blackboard Jungle and innumerable 87th Precinct novels as Ed McBain) in his book Me & Hitch! describes coming up with the idea of The Birds starting off as a “screwball comedy that gradually turns into stark terror.” It’s a great concept, and the film – despite that ominous opening credit sequence and a brief shot of seagulls in the San Francisco sky – plays out in the romantic comedy style. For a while, anyway. Socialite Melanie Daniels (freshly minted actress Tippy Hedron) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (The Time Machine’s Rod Taylor) meet cute in a pet shop. The chemistry between the two is undeniable, and there’s a witty back and forth between the characters that reminds you of classic film couples like… well, like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Embarrassed by the self-satisfied lawyer, Melanie drives up to Mitch’s family home in Bodega Bay to leave a pair of love birds as gifts for the man’s younger sister. It’s the sort of “trick” that only makes sense in a romantic comedy, but we buy in. And then, 25 or so minutes into the film, a gull strikes Melanie on the head, and the romance gains a shadow that will only get darker as events proceed.

If we’re honest with each other, the characters aren’t the most important part of The Birds. Oh, we like them, I think. There’s juuuust enough to the script and to the acting to make us care about what happens to the wild socialite trying to grow up and the man under the thumb of his overbearing mother. The sweet younger sister and the pining school teacher. I feel like there’s less depth to them than in other Hitchcock films, though. Even Marion in Psycho gets a little more characterization, and she’s killed less than halfway through the film!

Really, we’re here for the title creatures anyway. As lovely as dinner with the Brenners is, it’s the sparrows down the chimney we remember, not that Melanie plays Debussy on the piano. It’s the empty, staring eye sockets of the neighbor, the crows on the playground, and the gulls gathering in the skies above town. When the film pivots from romance to horror, it does so with an increasing tempo and urgency that leaves no time for the niceties of human relationships. Mother Nature declares war, and there are no lovers or friends, only survivors and victims.

Hatching The Birds

In 1961 Alfred Hitchcock was enjoying the unprecedented success of Psycho as well as the popularity of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on television. He could do anything he wanted, and what he wanted was to make Marnie, based on the novel by Winston Graham. It was to be Grace Kelly’s return to acting, and for Hitchcock Kelly would always be “the Girl” – the muse that had worked with him on three previous films (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief). Sadly for Hitchcock (and for Marnie, eventually), Kelly wasn’t available – and in fact would never return to acting. So the dejected filmmaker started looking for what came next.

And what would come next would involve the filmmaker returning to an author he had already adapted twice. Daphne du Maurier’s work had provided the basis for both Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, now Hitchcock would take du Maurier’s short story about bird attacks on a remote Cornish village and turn it into a feature film. He had briefly toyed with the idea of having it turned into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, uncertain if there was enough to the story for it to be fleshed out to feature length.

As an aside, Patrick McGilligan in his biography of Hitchock, Alfred Hitchcock a Life in Darkness and Light, mentions that the filmmaker had also considered adapting The Mind Thing, by Fredric Brown. That novel features an alien presence that possesses living creatures and culminates on an attack against a cabin by various animals under the control of the alien. It certainly seems like Hitchcock had a very specific sort of film in mind, one in which mankind would be on the receiving end of nature’s fury.

While many writers were considered – including Ray Bradbury, who was sadly too busy working on scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents – before Hitchcock finally chose Evan Hunter, at least partly on the strength of his novel The Blackboard Jungle, which had been turned into an Oscar nominated film. While Hunter would eventually sour on their relationship (rewrites, additions, and the removal of entire scenes after the script was accepted were part of that souring), the initial process was quite productive for both men.

With the story shaping up. Hitchcock turned his attention to his cast. And for him that often meant the lead actress. With Grace Kelly out of the picture, he decided to try and mold his perfect actress almost from scratch, casting Tippy Hedren on the basis of a single scene in a commercial (a scene recreated at the beginning of The Birds when a passing character whistles at her). Hedren underwent an intensive training in being an actress, Hitchcock style, in the period before and during the making of The Birds. While Hitchcock’s fascination with Hedren would become a darkening obsession that culminated during the making of Marnie, Hedren seems to have mostly enjoyed the process of making The Birds (final bird attack sequence excepted).

The Flutter of Wings – Sight and Sound in The Birds

I have a tendency in my Canon writeups to get into the weeds with the details. Here’s when it came out, there’s how it was made, here’s why it was important. I think it’s because I generally love the films I’m writing about and either I’ve already written a review that I don’t want to repeat (here’s the one for The Birds) or I’m intimidated about getting across what is so great about them. Facts don’t require a lot of effort, and I DO love the details of filmmaking as well. I like reading about master animator Ub Iwerks, and how his special sodium vapor process was key to removing the “halo” effect that traditional blue screen had at the time. Or that Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings were so realistic that Hitchcock would trick staff into thinking they were photographs. I’ll try to keep these dry elements to a minimum this time.

In addition to Iwerks, Hitchock hired Bob Hoag, Lindwood Dunn and Bill Abbot for major scenes, including the phone booth outside the diner, the attic bird attack, and the crows at the school. Live birds – some raised from eggs specifically for the film – were used wherever possible, with cutouts and stuffed birds filling out some scenes. (Watch the scene at the school and see just how many birds are actually moving.)

Rounding out the special effects crew was incredibly talented matte artist Albert Whitlock, whose paintings extend and enhance the town of Bodega Bay. Sometimes his work would be composited with the effects work of the others, such as the amazing overhead shot of the town, cars on fire, as the gulls begin to mass for an attack.

All told there are over 350 effects shots in the film, with the final shot itself consisting of over 30 separate elements.

After the incredible Bernard Hermann score on Psycho, arguably as important to its success as any element of acting, editing or directing, Hitchcock went in the opposite direction for the soundtrack to The Birds. Though Hermann is credited as a “sound consultant” on the film, the majority of the audio is “natural,” with bird noises being filtered through a proto-synthesizer called the Mixtur-Trautonium. The resulting vaguely electronic amplification of bird noises is disturbing and effective, especially in the last minutes of the film.

Favorite Scenes in The Birds

Every time I talk to someone about a favorite film there’s always a part of the conversation that goes like this: “Do you remember the scene when…?” and “I loved it when they did…!” This is that part of the conversation, or at least my side of it. I’d love to hear your side in the comments below!

I think for most people the horror of The Birds really begins with Lydia finding the farmer with his eyes pecked out. It’s a great scene, and those three shock cuts to closeup are perfectly timed to heighten the horror. For me, though, it starts with that one little sparrow on the hearth after dinner at the Brenners. I don’t even know why, exactly. I think maybe because it IS a tiny bird, acting as something like a scout for the main mass that comes down the chimney like they were dumped down it (which I think they probably were). It’s a shocking scene as a whole, but it’s the split second when Melanie sees the first bird that gets me. It’s like he’s a harbinger of doom. “I have a message for you. And you’re not going to like it.”

The absolute best bird related scene for me is at the schoolhouse. Not the actual bird attack – as much as I give leeway to older special effects, it’s the kids on the treadmill that lessen the menace for me in that scene. No, it’s the classic sequence in which Melanie waits on a bench in front of the playground. Hitchcock knows that giving the audience information the characters are not privy to is a genius way of cranking the tension, and he uses it to fantastic effect here. We watch as more and more crows (although they always look like ravens to me) land on the jungle gym behind her. Finally Melanie notices a lone crow flying  and watches, watches, watches… until it lands in a schoolyard full of birds. Oh yeah. That’s the stuff.

I guess it’s always the moments before the attacks that get me, because that scene just after the car explosion when the camera shows us the town from above? As seagull after seagull swoops into the scene and we know yet another attack is about to commence? That’s another of my favorite scenes.

And as far as human scenes go, I’ve got to give it to the one in the restaurant as the various characters discuss possible reasons for the birds attacking. (Or deny that it’s even possible.) Lights, fish, wrath of God or even particular characters are mentioned. While a lot has been written about themes in The Birds, about what the birds represent, what they MEAN, I think this scene is Hitchcock and Hunter having fun with us. Go ahead, they seem to be saying, make up whatever you want. There is no reason. We just want to scare the shit out of you.

And that ending, man. I know Hunter prefers his more action packed escape from town that was in the script, but I was HAUNTED by that last shot of the car heading into the distance as the sound of birds on the soundtrack started to rise yet again. I thought about that for a long time after I first saw the film. How terrifying that was for a filmmaker to just end it, with no resolution. Not even a guarantee our protagonists were safe.


Alfred Hitchcock seems to have considered The Birds to be about complacency, about how we take things for granted. All the characters in the film have their own particular, somewhat hardened, view of the world. They go about their days and their interactions with the world and each other as if their perspective is the right one, the ONLY one. Then the birds come, and that’s all upended. The world doesn’t give a shit about your perspective or your prejudices or your carefully cultivated life. It can upend that all in a moment. The survivors at the end of The Birds all look like survivors of natural disasters. How did this happen? How did it all go so wrong, so fast?

You can draw a straight line from The Birds to Stephen Speilberg’s Jaws, probably the most influential animal attack movie of all time. Like The Birds there’s no rhyme or reason to the shark’s attacks in Jaws. It just is. It just happens. And the survivors will never be the same.

Other inheritors of The Birds are those animal attack movies also influenced by Jaws. Grizzly, Piranha, Day of the Animals, Kingdom of the Spiders and so many more. I think of Kingdom of the Spiders a lot when I’m looking for a movie to compare to The Birds, actually, though Kingdom does the classic animal attack film thing of giving a reason for the tarantulas to be attack (it’s pesticides). That influence doesn’t stop there, though – you can see echoes of the birds in films like Tremors (which includes a “what are these things” scene that HAS to be a homage to the scene in the restaurant in The Birds), Arachnophobia, The Happening and Crawl.

The Birds came at a time that horror cinema was changing. It was getting more up front and in your face, more graphic in what it would depict. Only five years later Night of the Living Dead would finalize that shift in audience expectations. The Birds was just a little early, and we were lucky to get such a straightforward monster movie from a master of his craft at the height of his abilities. The Birds is one of the last great movies from Alfred Hitchock, and as a horror fan I’m always happy that it was as terrifying as he could make it.

So, what about you? What are your favorite scenes in The Birds? Where does it fall in your ranking of Hitchcock’s films? Got a piece of trivia or insight? Share it in the comments below!


Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.