It’s 1960, and director Alfred Hitchcock is riding high after his mega-hit, Psycho, terrifies audiences. He now has the unenviable task of following a hit with an even bigger one. He finds a short story, written by British novelist Daphne du Maurier. Working with screenwriter Evan Hunter, he develops a narrative that starts as a comedy, and descends into unimaginable horror.
When it comes to the iconography of Hitchcock’s films, The Birds looms largest in our imagination. Tippi Hedren, wide-eyed and frantic, fleeing a flock of malevolent crows – we can hear the cawing of the birds, and the screams of the children.
But when it comes to reviewing Hitchcock’s work, our favourites inevitably centre around the Big Five: Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. Both in terms of audience and critical response, this hasn’t changed much since the films themselves were made. But it can be argued that The Birds is just as complex and intriguing as the psychodrama of Vertigo, and with the same biting suspense as Rear Window. Indeed, it is the film that deserves to be thought of Hitchcock’s sixth – and final – masterpiece.
A horror story, where birds suddenly and viciously attack a coastal town, The Birds was du Maurier’s second collaboration with Hitchcock, as he had filmed her bestselling novel Rebecca in 1940.
Rebecca was filmed in black and white, and the gothic tones lent themselves readily to du Maurier’s plot-twisting narrative. But for this project, and with colour at his disposal, Hitchcock went bold and made several changes, adapting away from the source material. The changes weren’t to du Maurier’s taste (she much preferred Nicolas De Roeg’s faithful retelling of Don’t Look Now). But Hitchcock built on du Maurier’s story, creating a series of sequences that would leave an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape.
We join the story in San Francisco. Melanie Daniels, a wealthy socialite – smart, elegant and worldly – bumps into Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a pet store. Brenner is trying to buy a birthday present for his younger sister. The chemistry between Brenner and Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is immediate. Mitch is unable to secure a gift, and has to leave for home. Melanie – a committed practical joker – decides to buy a pair of lovebirds and deliver them to Mitch in person.
She finds out that he lives in Bodega Bay, and drives off, birdcage in the passenger seat. She arrives at Bodega, and enquires after Brenner at the local post office. Wanting to surprise him, she hires a boat and speeds across the bay to Mitch’s house. Finding the house unlocked, she leaves the birds in the Brenner sitting room with a note. Daniels starts rowing back to shore when Mitch spots her. Enjoying the game, he jumps into his car and drives around to meet her at the harbour. Melanie, feeling very pleased with herself at this point, smiles at how her prank has come together. With a fell swoop, a seagull dives straight for Daniels’ face, strikes her and pulls apart her immaculate hairdo.
Only slightly injured, Mitch helps Melanie off the boat and invites her home to meet his family. The Hitchcockian tension starts in the Brenner home, as Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is dubious about Daniels’ motives. She is altogether too fancy, too metropolitan for Bodega Bay. Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) – dazzled by Melanie’s glamour – takes an immediate liking to her, insisting she attends her birthday party, the following day.
The party allows Mitch and Melanie an opportunity to slip away from the children’s games in the garden. The initial teasing and flirting falls away, with Daniels revealing a troubled relationship with her mother. Mitch is about to comfort her, when a fleet of birds descend on the children. The adults desperately scoop up the children and hurry them indoors to safety. It is just the start of a series of deadly attacks on Bodega Bay. No warning, no reason. The Bay residents, in their isolation, are completely helpless.
The residents scramble for answers – some accuse Daniels – her sexuality unsteadying the life of the quiet town. Are the birds enacting a moral revenge? As even domestic birds rebel – the Brenner chickens refuse their usual feed – is there a virus infecting the birds, causing them to act uncharacteristically? Hitchcock never reveals the truth behind the attacks. They are both devastating and incomprehensible.
The film deals in menace – crows sitting on a playground climbing frame, as Daniels, unsuspecting, smokes a cigarette. A radio report hints at further attacks inland – the birds’ campaign is multiplying. But it becomes clear that this is menace without morality – everyone is a target. The ambiguity makes The Birds (released in 1963) feel like a modern film. Other villains in Hitchcock’s work are satisfyingly dealt with – Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest – but here there is no resolution.
Hitchcock filmed an alternate ending for The Birds – one where the narrative was resolved in a more conventional way. But he changed his mind and left the film as it was. It is this decision that gives The Birds its steely finish. No explanation is offered, not even an assurance that our protagonists will escape unharmed. As the film ends, not with a flourish, but in uneasy silence, The Birds feels contemporary in a way that Psycho, for example, does not. Hitchcock offers a psychiatric evaluation of Norman Bates’ behaviour, here the enemy simply flies away.
For a generation living with an enemy unseen (fake news, cyber crime), The Birds has much more to say to us, than perhaps its original audience. This story, that initially seems so outlandish, speaks to us on an elemental level. The force of Nature – hammering through windows, tearing skin and plucking eyes – is played out in horrifying detail. When Nature chooses to fight, we have little to respond with.
Everywhere in The Birds, there is a shift in power. Melanie Daniels, in her single-minded pursuit of Mitch Brenner, is a romantic hero in couture. Her daring, especially in the final scenes, goes against the judgement that Hedren gives us a weak and feeble lead. Shaken but defiant, Daniels is very much the hero we deserve. When confronted by the birds, Hedren’s performance is compounded with a real element of fear (not least because Hitchcock was not a stickler about Health and Safety). The birds, forming in huge numbers, are an unassailable enemy. The humans cower, while the birds decide the rules of the game.
There has been a renewed critical interest in The Birds – it has been perceived for a long time as one of Hitchcock’s lesser achievements. Unfairly maligned as melodramatic and absurd, we live in an age where the unimaginable forms part of the daily news bulletin. We can think larger than Hitchcock’s 1963 audience, because we have had no choice but to confront the idea of evil uncomfortably close to home. In the way it explores power and how it moulds our relationships – to each other, to Nature – The Birds offers a viewpoint on terror that goes beyond the supernatural or unexplained. Now in the 56th year since its release, there is a growing appreciation for what this film has to offer. The Birds not only remains a high point in Hitchcock’s career, but it has managed to evolve with its audience. Haunting and uncompromising, this film is Hitchcock’s vision at its clearest.