Many years ago, back in the 80’s I believe, I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard. It was early in the morning on a gorgeous summer day, and as my friend was still crashed from the previous evening’s debauchery, I decided to walk down to the beach and catch some rays. I strolled past a particularly marshy stretch when, out of nowhere, a seagull buzzed by my head. Then another. And another. And soon there were about ten of the nasty flying rats swooping down at me, screeching and dive-bombing toward my long-haired dome (this was back when I actually had hair!). I ducked and dodged, yelling and snapping my beach towel at the airborne devils, and ran as fast as I could away from the area, scared to death one of these buzzards was going to peck my eyeballs out! It was like something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 masterpiece of terror THE BIRDS!
THE BIRDS was Hitchcock’s follow-up to 1960’s PSYCHO, his first true entry into the horror genre. While that film deals with an easily explained (though very complicated) deranged man, THE BIRDS gives no clarification as to why the critters rebel against mankind. They have no motive, they just do, making their actions all the more terrifying. Birds have always been an omen of portending doom in Hitchcock films, from 1929’s BLACKMAIL all the way to the taxidermy of Norman Bates, but here The Master of Suspense takes it to the next level – birds as agents of chaos.
The film starts normally enough, as lawyer Mitch Brenner and newspaper heiress Melanie Daniels “meet cute” in a San Francisco pet store (where Hitch has his cameo as a man walking his dogs). Melanie, intrigued by the handsome Mitch, decides to follow him to Bodega Bay, an idyllic coastal town where he lives with his widowed mother and younger sister. The blonde practical joker purchases a pair of love birds, and sneaks into Mitch’s house, leaving them behind as a present for his sister Cathy. While observing his reaction from her motor boat, Melanie gets bashed in the head by an errant gull. It’s no mere accident, just the first sign of things to come.
The birds begin their attacks in earnest at Cathy’s outdoor birthday party, flocks and flocks of them reigning down on the innocent children. Hitchcock ratchets things up from there, as the audience never knows when the creatures will strike next. They fly down the chimney at the Brenner’s home, terrorizing them. Later, Mrs. Brenner discovers her neighbor’s dead body, his eyes horribly pecked out. The scene at the schoolhouse is one of the most iconic in both the Hitchcock and horror canons: as Melanie sits outside the school, the birds begin to gather, first one, then another, perching on the monkey bars and swing set, as the children sing an innocent song in class. Melanie and teacher Annie Heyworth, Mitch’s ex-lover, line up the kids, telling them we’re having a fire drill, marching them out slowly. The birds then attack, and the children make a mad dash for safety, the birds pecking and clawing at them with frenzied abandon, the children screaming as their flesh is rended from their arms and faces.
Melanie and Cathy make it to the safety of the local restaurant, where we get some relief from the tension as some minor characters (an ornithology expert, a fisherman, and a souse) expound on what the hell is going on. Bodega Bay is now under siege, and Mitch boards up the family homestead to keep Melanie and his family safe. Outside, we hear the shrieks and caws of the birds, hundreds of them, as they try to break through the wood. After everyone else falls asleep, Melanie hears something upstairs (Hitchcock’s famous staircase motif is revisited). Opening the door to a bedroom, she recoils in horror as the birds have broken through the ceiling. Trapped now, Melanie is viciously attacked by the demonic birds, as they mercilessly bite and rip at her. Mitch awakens to pull her out of this assault, but it’s too late – the woman is now in total shock from her frightening ordeal.
There is no musical soundtrack in THE BIRDS. Instead, an electronic early synthesizer is used to create the sounds of the avian monsters, to chilling effect (though composer Bernard Herrman is credited as ‘sound consultant’). Sound plays an important role in conveying the sense of dread and fear, with technicians Remi Glassman, William Russell, Oskar Sala, and Waldon Watson all contributing. The special effects hold up surprisingly well for a film made over fifty years ago, thanks in large part to the contributions of Disney animator Ub Iwerks and matte artist Albert Whitlock . DP Robert Surtees , working on his 11th of 12 movies with Hitchcock, delivers his usual fine job. The eerie blending of both sound and visual effects combine to raise the terror quotient to heights never matched before, and rarely since, despite all the technological advances.
The cast is well-chosen, with stalwart Rod Taylor as Mitch and former model Tippi Hedren making her film debut as Melanie (Miss Hedren named her child after her character in THE BIRDS, actress Melanie Griffith). Jessica Tandy is outstanding as Mitch’s domineering yet sympathetic mother, Veronica Cartwright (later of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and ALIEN) is little sister Cathy, and Suzanne Pleshette, always a welcome presence, plays Annie. Familiar Faces in support include Malcom Atterbury, Richard Deacon, Ethel Griffies (as the bird expert – she even looks like one!), Charles MacGraw (the fisherman), Ruth McDevitt, Dal McKennon, William Quinn, Karl Swenson (the drunken doomsayer), and Doodles Weaver. Look for little Suzanne Cupito, later known as Morgan Brittany, as one of the frightened children.
Hicthcock directed from a script by Evan Hunter, better known by his pen name Ed McBain (of the ’87th Precinct’ novels), adapting his screenplay from a story by Daphne DuMaurier, whose novel REBECCA inspired Hitch’s first American film. THE BIRDS is a true classic of the horror genre, dealing as it does with the unexpected, the unknown, the unexplainable. After you finish watching it, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing it couldn’t possibly happen. Or could it? Don’t forget what happened to me on Martha’s Vineyard all those years ago. As Scotty said in Howard Hawks’ THE THING , “Watch the skies! Everywhere! Keep looking!”. And have a frightfully Happy Halloween!