The Birds arrived towards the end of one of the most fruitful periods of Alfred Hitchcock’s career, at a time when he was still riding the waves of Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. The movie, like Psycho is a horror film and to me is a clear influence on much that followed it. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meets the suave lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a pet shop in San Francisco. She becomes a little infatuated with him after a brief game of cat and mouse and decides to track him down. She finds him in the small hamlet of Bodega Bay and leaves a present of two love birds on his door step. Melanie and Mitch strike up a coy friendship much to the disliking of Mitch’s protective mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). While Melanie is in Bodega Bay birds begin to attack people, occasionally at first but soon they have the town under siege and there is no explanation as to why.
The Birds was probably the first Hitchcock film I ever saw but I remembered little of it besides the stand out set piece scenes. It is also one of Hitch’s most parodied films (this is brilliant) and I recently saw TV movie The Girl which was based on the relationship between the film’s Director and lead actress. Now I’ve seen it again I can see that the movie has a lot going for it but I preferred Hitchcock’s earlier, tenser thrillers.
I had a discussion with someone recently on a Charlie Chaplin forum about rear projection. The gentleman said that he had a problem with the overt use of rear projection in Hitchcock’s movies. I previously had no issue with this and argued that it was merely a means to an end in a time before computer generated effects. The Birds though features an awful lot of rear projection when it often seems as though there was no need. In one scene Hedren is on a sand dune looking over the bay. The reverse shot is then filmed against rear projection. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this decision. There are numerous examples of poorly judged rear projection during The Birds which took me out of the film.
At times rear projection and green screen were necessary though and a lot of the bird effects look good to this day. It is usually obvious when they are super imposed onto the screen but for fifty year old effects they stand up well. I also thought that the mechanical birds looked good and it was often difficult to tell the difference between real, mechanical and stuffed birds. The sheer number of birds and different types in each scene makes the less realistic ones blend in to the real animals. There was one scene shot from high up above the town which while obviously fake, looked really good too.
The plot ranks as one of my least favourite of Hitchcock’s but it has its moments. I enjoyed the speculative conversation in the diner and the set pieces added a lot to the movie. The relationships were unusual and Mitch Brenner is a less than typical mummy’s boy but there always seemed to be something odd going on between the mother and son. It is also hinted that the bird’s arrival is as a result of Melanie’s arrival in town although it could also be seen as a result of the mother’s jealousy and fear of being abandoned. Either way it’s nice to see a couple of strong lead females. Unfortunately I wasn’t overly impressed with any of the actors. All the way through I couldn’t help thinking I wished someone like James Stewart or Carey Grant was in the leading role opposite a Grace Kelly type. Rod Taylor isn’t bad but he doesn’t have much of a presence while Tippi Hedron rarely convinces and lacked the charm and danger of a typical Hitchcockian blonde. I enjoyed her early scenes though. I was impressed with Jessica Tandy who conveyed the emotions of a terrified mother well and still looked incredible aged fifty-four. The Brenner family’s matching piercing blue eyes added some creepiness to the bird’s terror.
Overall I thought that The Birds was a good horror movie and I think that the use of sound effects rather than a score worked well. The effects are impressive and it is more violent and gruesome than I remembered it being. The acting didn’t impress me though and I was never able to fully immerse myself in the film. The movie is sometimes described as Hitchcock’s final unflawed film but personally I think that honour is due to Psycho.
- Hitchccock's cameo comes in the opening scene, walking two dogs out of the pet shop.
- The final shot is composed of 32 separately filmed elements.
- Farley Granger, Carey Grant and James Stewart were all contacted for the lead male role but all three turned it down.
- Hitchcock disliked location filming so filmed a lot of the movie on set. This resulted in the large amount of rear projection.