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Classic Movie Saturday: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”

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”I think we’re in real trouble. I don’t know how this started or why, but I know it’s here and we’d be crazy to ignore it… The bird war, the bird attack, plague – call it what you like. They’re amassing out there someplace and they’ll be back. You can count on it…

The Birds (1963) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is loosely based on a 1952 story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. Hitchcock had adapted two previous films from Du Maurier’s work: Jamaica Inn (1939) and 1940 Best Picture Academy Award-winner Rebecca.

It is the story of a series of sudden, unexplained violent bird attacks on the citizens of Bodega Bay, California over the course of a few days. It stars hunky Rod Taylor and blond Tippi Hedren in her first film, with supporting work from Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright. The screenplay is by Evan Hunter, who was told by Hitchcock to develop new characters and a more elaborate plot while keeping du Maurier’s title and concept.

Hunter began working on the screenplay in 1961. He and Hitchcock developed a plotline that suggests the townspeople are harboring a guilty secret, and the birds are a form of punishment. Hitchcock suggested that the film begin as if it is a screwball comedy then have it slowly evolve into stark terror. As you know, Hitchcock was the master of suspense; the title of the film and the publicity would have already informed the audience that birds attack people, but they do not know when. The initial humor followed by horror would turn the suspense into genuine shock.

The Birds begins with Melanie Daniels (Hedren), a young, rather naughty San Francisco socialite noted for playing pranks, who meets a lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Taylor), in a pet store. He wants to purchase a pair of lovebirds for his young sister’s birthday, but the shop has none. He had seen her in court once before when her recklessness resulted in the breaking of a plate glass window, but she does not know him. Attracted, he plays a prank by pretending to mistake her for the store clerk. She is infuriated when she discovers this; although she also likes to punk a fellow. Intrigued, she finds the address for his weekend place in Bodega Bay, purchases a pair of lovebirds, and drives to the town to deliver them.

Photo, Universal Pictures via YouTube

Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay only to have her immaculate hairdo knocked into her face by a seagull, which serves her right. Before long, birds are everywhere. They dive-bomb windows and peck at doors while the town drunk quotes the Bible from his bar stool, saying: “It’s the end of the world!”

Perhaps the most famous sequence in The Birds is the playground scene, in which Hitchcock builds suspense through innovative editing. Daniels sits in front of the jungle-gym and enjoys a fag. A single crow lands on the climbing frame. Hitchcock cuts between increasingly tighter shots of Daniels and shots of the climbing frame, each time adding more birds. Having set up this rhythm, he then confounds expectation by sitting on a close up of Daniels, during which the audience is going crazy waiting to see how many birds have amassed behind her. The reveal is magnificent and terrifying, and made even creepier by the bizarre nursery rhyme the school kids are chanting in the background.

I have no idea what draws the birds to the town and it seems that nobody else does either. The film provides no answers and no escape. Chaos reigns from head to tail.

Screen-shot via YouTube

Some film historians point out the hysterical woman who links the bird attacks to Daniels’ arrival in town, saying: “I think you’re the cause of all of this…”. Maybe the birds are a manifestation of sexual shame, or they might be an eruption of rage. The film’s beginning is an uncomfortable buildup of sexual and social tension, an ongoing game of glances and teasing evasions. The characters are so guarded, so gamey, so disconnected from their own emotions, that something’s gotta give.

The Birds is considered to the last great Hitchcock film, made when his reputation was at its apex. For me, it is his most confident movie. Every time I watch it, I find myself more impressed with its audacity and command. I love the way Hitchcock juxtapositions horror movie histrionics with arthouse cerebral coloring. I love the formal precision of the camerawork, the economy of the dialogue and the sharp sense of location.

The Birds is not about what Hitchcock puts in, but what he leaves out. Hitchcock was 63-years-old during filming and secure enough to do away with the grinding gears of any narrative logic. With his previous film Psycho (1960), he still felt the need to bring in a psychiatrist to explain Norman Bates to the audience. But, The Birds flies free. There is only the thread of a plot, and no brilliant Bernard Herrmann score to tether it (he is credited as “sound consultant”). The film’s soundtrack consisted of a mix of birdcalls and electronic noises from an early synthesizer called a Trautonium. There is hardly any music at all, and nothing to hold it apart from its existential dread.

After the huge success of Psycho, Hitchcock was given his biggest budget yet to make The Birds: $3.3 million.

Hitchcock reportedly worried about how to wrap things up. He ditched the screenplay’s final scene in favor of an open ending, providing the perfect closing image that leaves all its mysteries intact. The Birds is terrifying because Hitchcock wisely avoided providing any explanation for the avian attacks. The director purposely avoided concluding the film with a traditional “The End” title card, since he wanted to preserve it’s ambiguity, implying that the terror would continue.

To attract the trained birds, the actors had ground meat or anchovies smeared on their hands. The scene where the birds attack the schoolchildren was done using mostly puppet crows, along with a couple of real ones. The kids are running on a treadmill, with Bodega Bay footage added in the background later.

Hedren has spoken about the harrowing scene where she’s attacked in the attic. It took a week to shoot, though it only runs about a minute. Hitchcock insisted on having real trained gulls attack her. They were attached to her by elastic bands tied to a hole in her costume. On the last day of shooting, a bird clawed Hedren’s eye, and she broke down in tears; Hitchcock kept the cameras rolling.

Hitchcock had a longtime interest in birds and blonds. He had been a bird-watcher as a boy. He also took inspiration from a 1961 newspaper article about flocks of dead birds on the streets in the California town of Capitola.

Hitchcock wanted his favorite female lead Grace Kelly to play Daniels, but after her 1956 marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco she declined all acting offers. He also wanted Anne Bancroft for the role but couldn’t afford her.

Hitchcock took his customary cameo at the beginning of the film; he can be seen outside the pet shop walking two dogs, which were his real pets.

Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, and Veronica Cartwright during production of “The Birds”, photo from Universal Picture archives via YouTube

 

The Birds is considered a classic today, one of Hitchcock’s most challenging and personal films, yet it received mixed reviews when it opened in theatres.. Audiences still flocked to it; The Birds was one of the top grossing films of 1963.

In the final shot, the main characters are driving away from Bodega Bay with the two lovebirds in a cage as they’re watched by flocks of birds. It is one of the film’s typically tricky scenes, combining live birds, animated birds, and puppet birds, along with a moving car heading toward a detailed matte painting backdrop. Hitchcock wrote that it was “the most difficult single shot I’ve ever done”. It is a thing of apocalyptic beauty.

via youTube


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