I have been a fan of the films of director Alfred Hitchcock for many years now. I consider him one of my favorite auteurs and count several of his movies, such as “North By Northwest” and “Vertigo,” among my favorite films. In addition to the aforementioned, I have seen the vast majority of the other movies that comprise his body of work. Although I have heard it discussed and have seen snippets of it on various television programs, one film I had never seen up until a few days ago is the subject of this week’s blog, the movie “The Birds.”
The film was written for the screen by Evan Hunter (Strangers When We Meet), known to fans of detective fiction by the pseudonym, Ed McBain. The movie was loosely based on a story of the same name written by author Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca). It was a story which was originally purchased for use on the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” The movie, which was made for an estimated budget of two and half million dollars, went on to gross a little under eleven and half million, and had its premiere in New York City on March 28, 1963. The film is widely regarded as Hitchcock’s final masterpiece, although some critics argue that “Marnie” (1964) deserves that distinction.
Actress Tippi Hedren, born Nathalie Kay Hedren in New Ulm, Minnesota, was a successful fashion model for eleven years before Hitchcock saw her in a television commercial on the “Today” show on NBC and cast her in “The Birds.” It was the first of a two film collaboration; “Marnie,” was the other movie she starred in for the director. As an aside, Hedren is the mother of actress Melanie Griffith (Working Girl).
If I had begun watching the movie without the knowledge that its thematic elements fall into the thriller and horror genres, the first part of the film would have led me to believe that I was viewing a comedy. Hedren’s character Melanie Daniels is a wealthy socialite, whose father owns a sizable newspaper. She has a chance run in with actor Rod Taylor’s (The Time Machine) character Mitch Brenner in a San Francisco pet store. He is looking to purchase a gift for his sister and she is there to pick up a Myna bird she ordered for her aunt. Brenner is a lawyer, a criminal defense attorney to be exact, a fact which Melanie finds out after pretending to be a pet shop employee and assisting Brenner in finding lovebirds. Not only is he a lawyer, but before Melanie even engaged in her charade, he knew who she was, having already seen her in court at another time. Included in the cast are: Suzanne Pleshette (The Bob Newhart Show) as Annie Hayworth. The part she plays is that of a small town schoolteacher, a woman who used to be in love with Mitch Brenner and harbors jealousy toward Melanie, even though she knows that is the wrong mindset to have; Jessica Tandy, (Driving Miss Daisy), as Lydia, Brenner’s mother, who is still very much grief stricken and emotionally crippled by the death of her husband, and is not entirely sure how she feels about a potential burgeoning relationship between Mitch and Melanie; and rounding out the cast Veronica Cartwright (The Witches of Eastwick) portrays Cathy, Brenner’s young sister, who possesses a sweet disposition.
Much to Melanie’s chagrin, Mitch doesn’t seem all that interested in her. Not one to be deterred, she finds out that on weekends Brenner leaves San Francisco and heads out to his home in a sleepy seaside town known as Bodega Bay. Melanie decides to surprise him by personally delivering the lovebirds to his house.
After arriving in town, she inquires of the locals, as to where Mitch lives. In keeping with the element of surprise, she opts to rent a motor boat to take across the bay to his home instead of driving. Walking right into the house, she leaves the lovebirds on a table, accompanied by a note. In a matter of seconds, her gift and note are discovered. Mitch makes his way out of the house, looking around to see where she has gone. He spots her on the bay and gets in his truck, so that he will be there to meet her when she arrives. Upon arriving, a gull swoops down and hits Melanie in the head, causing a gash which bleeds. Sadly, for the residents of Bodega Bay, the gull attack is the first of many that will take place over the course of the next several days by what appears to be a united feathered community of all the birds regardless of ornithological classification. A child’s birthday party being held outdoors, the schoolhouse, a farm; no one has any idea when or where these crazed birds will put forth another attack, both causing and leaving all sorts of chaos and destruction in their wake.
Trivia buffs take note: If you pay attention to the credits, you will note that famed composer Bernard Herrmann, a frequent collaborator of Hitchcock’s is listed as a sound consultant. The reason for this is that there is no musical score for the movie. Six identical green suits, designed by legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who was nominated for thirty-five Oscars and won eight of them, were provided to Actress Tippi Hedren during the filming because her character wears the same garment throughout the movie’s runtime. In addition, even though Hedren is the star of the film, it is actress Jessica Tandy who appears on the movie poster where a woman is pictured screaming while being attacked by birds. Unlike the film, which takes place in California, author Du Maurier’s original story takes place in Britain at an isolated cottage home and involves a man attempting to protect his children and wife from the attacking birds.
Why are the birds behaving in such a hostile manner? Will anyone survive their fierce attacks from the sky? Will the birds migrate to other areas of California and into other states in order to carry out the same pattern of destruction? Under normal circumstances, I would tell you to watch the movie and find out, but given its age and notoriety, I will let you, my readers, know in advance, that the movie has no ending in a traditional sense. It is left open ended. It is this blogger’s opinion, that Hitchcock wanted the viewer to fill in the blanks, so to speak, and determine the next course of action for the birds.
One characteristic of the film that stood out for me is that the majority of the special effects still hold up to this day. Another aspect of the film, which I found to be of importance, is that Hitchcock allows the viewer to become invested in caring about the characters. He draws the viewer into the beginning stages of Melanie’s and Mitch’s relationship before putting not only their lives, but the lives of those around them, in mortal danger. It made this blogger want to root them on to survival. If you’re a fan of the director and have not seen this film, it is a worthwhile expenditure of nearly two hours of time. If you enjoy Hedren’s performance in the movie, and have not seen “Marnie,” that is worth checking out as well. Just as she did in “The Birds,” she shines in “Marnie,” while co-staring alongside Sean Connery, the original James Bond, himself.