The Birds is a 1963 American psychological horror-thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, loosely based on the 1952 story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. It focuses on a series of sudden, unexplained violent bird attacks on the people of Bodega Bay, California over the course of a few days.
The film stars Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren, in her screen debut, supported by 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 of unexplained bird attacks.
In 2016, The Birds was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a young socialite known for rather racy behavior and playing pranks, meets lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco bird shop. He wants to purchase a pair of lovebirds for his sister's eleventh 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 a salesperson. She is infuriated when she discovers this, even though she also likes to play practical jokes. Intrigued by his veiled advance, she finds his weekend address in Bodega Bay, purchases a pair of lovebirds, and makes the long drive to deliver them. While he goes into the barn she sneaks the birdcage inside the Brenner family home, with a note. He spots her on the water through a pair of binoculars during her retreat, and races across the bay to head her off. She is attacked near shore on the town side and injured by a seagull. He invites her to dinner, and she hesitantly agrees.
Melanie gets to know Mitch, his domineering mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). She also befriends local school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Mitch's ex-lover. When she spends the night at Annie's house they are startled by a loud thud; a gull has killed itself by flying into the front door. At Cathy's birthday party the next day, the guests are set upon by seagulls. The following evening, sparrows invade the Brenner home through the chimney. The next morning, Lydia, a widow who still sees to the family farmstead, pays a visit to a neighboring farmer to discuss the unusual behavior of her chickens. Finding his eyeless corpse, pecked lifeless by birds, she flees in terror. After being comforted by Melanie and Mitch she expresses concern for Cathy's safety at school. Melanie drives there and waits for class to end, unaware that a large flock of crows are massing in the nearby playground. Unnerved when she sees its jungle gym engulfed by them, she warns Annie, and they evacuate the children. The commotion stirs the crows into attacking, injuring several of the children.
Melanie meets Mitch at a local restaurant. Several patrons describe their own encounters with aggressive bird behavior. An amateur ornithologist dismisses the reports as fanciful and argues with Melanie over them. Shortly birds begin to attack people outside the restaurant, knocking a gas station attendant unconscious while he is filling a car with fuel, which spills out onto the street. A bystander amidst it attempts to light a cigar, igniting a pool of gas and becoming incinerated. The explosion attracts a mass of gulls, which begin to swarm menacingly as townsfolk attempt to tackle the fire. Melanie is forced to take refuge in a phone booth. Rescued by Mitch, she returns to the restaurant, where Melanie is accused of causing the attacks, which began with her arrival. The pair return to Annie's house and find that she has been killed by the crows while ushering Cathy to safety.
Melanie and the Brenners seek refuge inside the family home. It is attacked by waves of birds of all different species, which several times nearly break in through barricaded doors and windows. During a night-time lull between attacks, Melanie hears the sound of fluttering wings. Not wanting to disturb the others' sleep, she enters the kitchen and sees the lovebirds are still. Realizing the sounds are emanating from above, she cautiously climbs the staircase and enters Cathy's bedroom, where she finds the birds have broken through the roof. They violently attack her, trapping her in the room until Mitch comes to her rescue. She is badly injured and nearly catatonic; Mitch insists they must get her to the hospital and suggests they drive away to San Francisco. When he looks outside, it is dawn and a sea of birds ripple menacingly around the Brenner house as he prepares her car for their escape. The radio reports the spread of bird attacks to nearby communities, and suggests that "the military" may be required to intervene because civil authorities are unable to combat the unexplained attacks. In the final shot, the car carrying Melanie, the Brenners, and the lovebirds slowly makes its way through a landscape in which thousands of birds are ominously perching.
On August 18, 1961, residents in the town of Capitola, California, awoke to find sooty shearwaters slamming into their rooftops, and their streets covered with dead birds. News reports suggested domoic acid poisoning (amnesic shellfish poisoning) as the cause. According to the local Santa Cruz Sentinel, Alfred Hitchcock requested news copy in 1961 to use as "research material for his latest thriller". At the end of the same month, he hired Evan Hunter to adapt Daphne du Maurier's novella, "The Birds", first published in her 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Hunter had previously written "Vicious Circle" for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which he adapted for the television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also adapted Robert Turner's story "Appointment at Eleven" for the same television series. Hunter later suspected that he was hired because he had demonstrated he could write suspense (with the 87th Precinct novels, as Ed McBain) and because his novel The Blackboard Jungle had received critical acclaim. The relationship between Hunter and Hitchcock during the creation of The Birds was documented by the writer in his 1997 autobiography Me and Hitch, which contains a variety of correspondence between the writer, director and Hitchcock's assistant, Peggy Robertson.
Hunter began working on the screenplay in September 1961. He and Hitchcock developed the story, suggesting foundations such as the townspeople having a guilty secret to hide, and the birds an instrument of punishment. He suggested that the film begin using some elements borrowed from the screwball comedy genre then have it evolve into "stark terror". This appealed to Hitchcock, according to the writer, because it conformed to his love of suspense: the title and the publicity would have already informed the audience that birds attack, but they do not know when. The initial humor followed by horror would turn the suspense into shock.
Hitchcock solicited comments from several people regarding the first draft of Hunter's screenplay. Consolidating their criticisms, Hitchcock wrote to Hunter, suggesting that the script (particularly the first part) was too long, contained insufficient characterization in the two leads, and that some scenes lacked drama and audience interest. Hitchcock at later stages consulted with his friends Hume Cronyn (whose wife Jessica Tandy was playing Lydia) and V.S. Pritchett, who both offered lengthy reflections on the work.
Hitchcock decided to do without any conventional incidental score. Instead, he made use of sound effects and sparse source music in counterpoint to calculated silences. He wanted to use the electroacoustic Mixtur-Trautonium to create the birdcalls and noises. He had first encountered this predecessor to the synthesizer on Berlin radio in the late 1920s. It was invented by Friedrich Trautwein and further developed by Oskar Sala into the Trautonium, which would create some of the bird sounds for this film.
The director commissioned Sala and Remi Gassmann to design an electronic soundtrack. They are credited with "electronic sound production and composition", and Hitchcock's previous musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann is credited as "sound consultant".
Source music includes the first of Claude Debussy's Deux arabesques, which Tippi Hedren's character plays on piano, and "Risseldy Rosseldy", an Americanized version of the Scottishfolk song "Wee Cooper O'Fife", which is sung by the schoolchildren.
The special effects shots of the attacking birds were done at Walt Disney Studios by animator/technician Ub Iwerks, who used the sodium vapor process ("yellow screen") which he had helped to develop. The SV process films the subject against a screen lit with narrow-spectrum sodium vapor lights. Unlike most compositing processes, SVP actually shoots two separate elements of the footage simultaneously using a beam-splitter. One reel is regular film stock and the other a film stock with emulsion sensitive only to the sodium vapor wavelength. This results in very precise matte shots compared to blue screen special effects, necessary due to "fringing" of the image from the birds' rapid wing flapping.
Premiere and awards
The film premiered March 28, 1963 in New York City. The Museum of Modern Art hosted an invitation-only screening as part of a 50-film retrospective of Hitchcock's film work. The MOMA series had a booklet with a monograph on the director written by Peter Bogdanovich. The film was screened out of competition in May at a prestigious invitational showing at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival with Hitchcock and Hedren in attendance.
Ub Iwerks was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Special Effects. The winner that year was Cleopatra. Tippi Hedren received the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress in 1964, sharing it with Ursula Andress and Elke Sommer. She also received the Photoplay Award as Most Promising Newcomer. The film ranked No. 1 of the top 10 foreign films selected by the Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards. Hitchcock also received the Association's Director Award for the film.
It also won the Horror Hall of Fame Award in 1991.
Reception and interpretation
The Birds received critical acclaim. In recent years it has received a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 96% based on 52 critic reviews with an average rating of 8.2/10, with the consensus: "Proving once again that build-up is the key to suspense, Hitchcock successfully turned birds into some of the most terrifying villains in horror history." Film critic David Thomson refers to it as Hitchcock's "last unflawed film".
Humanities scholar Camille Paglia wrote a monograph about the film for the BFI Film Classics series. She interprets it as an ode to the many facets of female sexuality and, by extension, nature itself. She notes that women play pivotal roles in it. Mitch is defined by his relationships with his mother, sister, and ex-lover – a careful balance which is disrupted by his attraction to the beautiful Melanie.
The film was honored by the American Film Institute as the seventh greatest thriller and Bravo awarded it the 96th spot on their "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments" for the scene when the birds attack the town.
Sequel and remake
An unrelated sequel, The Birds II: Land's End, was released in 1994, with different actors. It was a direct-to-television film and received negative reviews. Its director, Rick Rosenthal, removed his name from it, opting to use the Hollywood pseudonym Alan Smithee. Hedren appeared in a supporting role, but not as her original character.
In October 2007, Variety reported that Naomi Watts would star in Universal's remake of the film, which would be directed by Casino Royale director Martin Campbell. The production would be a joint venture by Platinum Dunes and Mandalay Pictures. Hedren stated her opposition to the remake, saying, "Why would you do that? Why? I mean, can't we find new stories, new things to do?" However, since 2007, development has been stalled. On June 16, 2009, Brad Fuller of Dimension Films stated that no further developments had taken place, commenting, "We keep trying, but I don't know." Eventually, in December 2009, Martin Campbell was replaced as director by Dennis Iliadis.
Several shooting scenes from the film are reenacted in The Girl, a 2012 HBO/BBC film that gives a version of the relationship between Hitchcock and Hedren.
In August 2017, the BBC announced they will be making a television series out of 'The Birds' for broadcast in 2018. The series, from Harry Potter producer David Heyman, will bear a closer resemblance to the 1952 Daphne du Maurier novelette than the 1963 film, and rather than northern California, the birds will attack in Cornwall. The pilot for the series is being written by Conor McPherson who adapted the original source material into a stage play in 2009.
- Auiler, Dan (1999). Hitchcock's Secret Notebook. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-4588-X.
- Chandler, Charlotte (2005). It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock: A Personal Biography. Simon and Schuste. ISBN 0-7432-4508-3.
- Gottlieb, Sidney; Allen, Richard, eds. (2009). The Hitchcock annual anthology: selected essays from, Volumes 10-15. Wallflower Press. ISBN 978-1-905674-95-4.
- Hunter, Evan (1997a). Me and Hitch. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-19306-4.
- Hunter, Evan (1997b). "Me and Hitch". Sight & Sound. British Film Institute. 7 (6): 25–37.
- Mcgilligan, Patrick (2004). Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-098827-4.
- Paglia, Camille (1998). The Birds. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 0-85170-651-7.
- Pinch, Trevor; Trocco, Frank (2004). Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01617-3.
- Raubicheck, Walter; Srebnick, Walter (2011). Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds, And Marnie. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-07824-8.
- Thompson, David (2008). "Have You Seen…?" A Personal introduction to 1,000 Films. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-375-71134-3.
- Vagg, Stephen (2010). Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood. Bear Manor Media. ISBN 978-1-59393-511-5.
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: The Birds|
- ^Stafford, Jeff. "The Birds". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on October 27, 2011. Retrieved September 30, 2012.
- ^Box Office Information for The Birds. The Numbers. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
- ^McCarthy, Michael (February 5, 2009). "Final cut for Hollywood's favorite dog". The Independent. Retrieved December 26, 2011.
- ^Trabing, Wally (August 21, 1961). "Alfred Hitchcock Using Sentinel's Seabird Story". Santa Cruz Sentinel. p. 4.
- ^ abHunter 1997b, p. 26
- ^Chandler 2005, p. 269
- ^Hunter 1997b, p. 30
- ^Hunter 1997a
This short book was adapted by Sight & Sound in its June 1997 edition.
- ^Hunter 1997b, p. 27
- ^ abHunter 1997b, p. 29
- ^Mcgilligan, p. 616
- ^Raubicheck & Srebnick 2011, p. 92
- ^Gottlieb & Allen 2009, p. 23
- ^Auiler 1999, pp. 207–9
- ^Auiler 1999, pp. 209–217
- ^ abAuiler 1999, p. 516
- ^"The Birds". TCM. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- ^"Blue" Gene Tyranny. "All Music Guide". AllMusic. Retrieved August 29, 2010.
- ^Pinch & Trocco 2004, p. 54
- ^Nickety Nackety Now Now Now on YouTube sung by early country music singer Chubby Parker, recorded on Silvertone Records in 1927.
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- ^"Films that are screened Out of Competition are generally those that the Cannes selection committee really wants to recognize but don't quite fit the Competition criteria"
- ^"Festival de Cannes: The Birds". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved February 27, 2009.
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- ^"Eek! Now There's A Hall of Fame For Horror Films". Sun Sentinel. Retrieved October 5, 2014.
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Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds premiered on March 28, 1963. Ostensibly a gentle rom-com about a socialite, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), and a lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), it soon becomes an all-out horror when their courting is interrupted by violent, unexplained bird attacks. Its ambiguity and subtext have been hotly debated since its release, but one thing most agree on is that The Birds contains some of Hitchcock's most inspired imagery. To mark the film's 50th birthday, we examine some of its remarkable visual moments, and look at how the Master employed the tools at his disposal to evoke specific emotions, create certain effects and generally demonstrate his all-round genius...
Having already aimed a pointy beak at Melanie's head and mounted an all-out assault on Mitch's little sister Cathy’s (Veronica Cartwright) birthday party, the birds' third attack arrives unexpectedly and with eerie menace. Melanie and the Brenners are enjoying a spot of afternoon tea, while Cathy's pet lovebirds are making steadily more and more noise in the background. As the only non-violent birds in the film, are they trying to warn the Brenners of something? A curiously high-angled close-up of Melanie (foregrounding the spot on her head where she was attacked), paired with sudden silence, unsettles us, and a single finch appears on the hearth. And then: carnage. Thousands of finches, buntings and swallows pour out of the fireplace and attack the family. The switch from domestic banality to unbelievable terror is deftly controlled by Hitchcock, giving us a few uneasy seconds to realise something's up before unleashing the full horror.
Trivia titbit: Most of the birds in this scene were added in using a "yellow screen" process at Disney. An attempt to use live birds on set was abandoned when they were released from the chimney and proceeded to behave in an entirely non-threatening manner, standing around and wondering why everyone looked so cross.
Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) pops over to Dan Fawcett's farm to have a word with him about his rubbish bird feed. There's no answer, so she lets herself in. Guessing something's up when she spots broken crockery in the kitchen, Lydia creeps slowly towards Dan's bedroom in silence, where she finds all manner of bird-based devastation. Most unsettlingly, though, she discovers Dan's body, horrifically lacking in eyeballs to the tune of two. Hitchcock takes us uncomfortably close to the sightless corpse in three quick shots, each tighter than the last. If anything, it's the quiet that's most unnerving. This is the kind of scene that would have employed shrieking violins in Psycho, but here Hitch plays it all out in terrifying silence.
Trivia titbit: Dan's hollow eye sockets are actually a combination of makeup effects and miniature matte paintings, with the blackness and surrounding blood painted in by an artist.
This one's not easy to spot, but it's a very deliberate touch in which Hitchcock uses more than just quick cuts and screaming actresses to convey emotion. Watch carefully as Lydia's truck drives up to Dan Fawcett's farm: oblivious to the horror which awaits her, she pootles up the drive with all the speed of, well, an old lady off to natter about bird feed. Skip forward two and a half minutes, during which time both Lydia and the audience have had a trouser-troubling experience with Dan's empty eye sockets, and she races away from the farm in a near-identical shot to her approach - except that this time her truck kicks up huge clouds of dust, implying manic speed and panicked urgency. It's illogical in retrospect (why wasn't there any dust when she arrived?), but Hitchcock didn't deal in logic; he dealt in cinema.
Trivia titbit: To achieve the desired effect, Hitchcock shot the dusty exit shot first, then had the road dampened before shooting the arrival.
Perhaps the most famous sequence in The Birds is the 'jungle gym' scene, in which Hitchcock builds suspense through innovative editing. Waiting to meet Cathy from school, Melanie sits in front of the playground and enjoys a crafty fag. A single crow lands on the climbing frame. Hitchcock cuts between increasingly tighter shots of Melanie and shots of the climbing frame, each time adding more birds. Having set up this pacy rhythm, he then confounds expectation by sitting on a close up of Melanie for nearly 30 seconds, during which the audience is tearing their hair out 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.
Trivia titbit: Most of the birds in the final shot are dummies or cardboard cut-outs. Hitch figured that if a few of them were alive and moving, the audience would believe they were all the real deal.
Sticking two podgy fingers up to over six decades of accepted filmmaking traditions, Hitchcock shot and edited the scene in the Tides restaurant with wilful abandon. Visually pepping up what is essentially a lengthy exposition scene featuring a woman on the phone, Hitch shoots from a multitude of different angles and edits them together in unconventional fashion. With Melanie the focus of every shot, the shifting backgrounds draw attention to the occupants of the Tides as they listen in disbelief to her story. The device works to pull the Bodega Bay residents in towards Melanie, as it gradually becomes apparent that she's at the centre of the birdstorm.
Trivia titbit: Scriptwriter Evan Hunter, who would eventually virtually disown The Birds, felt that this was his best scene, modestly commenting: "Good writing, solid dramaturgy, and splendid acting when it was finally shot".
The attack on the Bodega Bay gas station is a sequence familiar to film students the world over. The actions of a single bird result in a stream of gasoline heading from a petrol pump towards an unwitting cigar smoker, whose discarded match proves that smoking really is very bad for your health. As the stream catches fire, Hitchcock cuts between near-static shots of Melanie watching, and the fire trail racing back towards the petrol pump. Each shot is fractionally shorter than the previous one, building up to the explosion not just with a clinical rise in tension but also in an experimental juxtaposition of movement (the flame) and stasis (Melanie's face). The sequence is topped off by a leisurely, insanely high-angle shot showing the birds observing the carnage with dispassionate menace, before they descend on the town to wreak further havoc.
Trivia titbit: Hitch calculated this short sequence with military precision: from the first shot of Melanie looking off screen (20 frames long), each successive shot is two frames shorter. The final shot of Melanie in the sequence is just eight frames long.
After a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to peck their way into the Brenners' house again, the birds apparently give up. Their screeching and squawking dies down, and all becomes calm. Hitchcock contrasts the frantic style of the preceding siege with three beautiful, low angle shots which each begins with an oppressive ceiling (the protagonists are frequently trapped in their own 'cages': a car, a phone booth, a house). Into each shot step the characters: Mitch from the right, Melanie from the left and Lydia from the centre. The camera tracks back from Lydia's close up to reveal all three, plus Cathy, in a carefully staged and lit tableau. The attack is over. OR IS IT? (Spoiler: it's not)
Trivia titbit: Knowing he'd be adding the bird sound effects later, Hitchcock had a musician play an increasingly frantic drum roll off camera to help his actors feel the mounting tension of the scene.
In an ingenious shot, Hitchcock achieves the apparently impossible by tracking his camera backwards through a closed door. Designed purely to get round a practical problem rather than to convey a specific emotion (although you could argue it adds to the surrealism of the story), it's nevertheless worth close inspection. Hitchcock had Rod Taylor reach towards camera, just out of shot, and mime opening a door. A light reveals the previously silhouetted actors, a sound effect of an opening door is added, et voilà! The tracking shot is maintained.
Trivia titbit***: "Aren't you gonna know there's no door there?" Veronica Cartwright asked her director. "But how would I be able to see you?" Hitchcock replied, simultaneously baffling and delighting his 13 year-old star. "That's the magic of movies."
A thing of apocalyptic beauty, The Birds' last shot is also a technical marvel for its time. Hitchcock said it was the most complex shot of the film and, indeed, his entire career: unsurprising when you consider that it called for 32 separate exposures. Although it looks like thousands of birds watching Melanie and the Brenners abandoning home and heading for the faint light of a more hopeful place, in fact it's the same small group of birds shot several times. Set against a doomy, gloomy matte painting by visual effects artist Albert Whitlock (who painted many of the film's most memorable landscapes), the ambiguous ending is one of cinema's greatest.
Trivia titbit: Other endings were mooted: Evan Hunter wrote one which had the car attacked by birds once more, while Hitchcock contemplated another which included a final shot of the Golden Gate Bridge covered in feathered bastards. We presume he abandoned that one because he didn't want to have to scrub millions of gallons of bird shit off the bridge.