Review: “The Birds” (1963)

The idea that some large part of the natural world could turn on humankind is more frightening than the coup d’état itself. (M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” is a prime example.) When the man telling the tale, however, happens to be Alfred Hitchcock, this is not the case. Hitchcock intuits, in that masterful way he has, that the terror lives not in the takeover but in the moments of quiet before that shift of power happens. Fear thrives on the silence, feeds on it, and so does Hitchcock. He uses the calm to make us dread the storm.

To understand exactly how Hitchcock, the master of suspense, plays his audience like piano keys, look beyond the storyline — a half-hearted, ill-conceived romance played well by Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor — to the way the director uses the camera. Too often the camera is a silent observer, meant only to record this conversation and that embrace, this right hook or that teardrop. Hitchcock imagines other uses for the camera; he allows it to act as a soothsayer, something capable of foreshadowing gingerly but unmistakably the host of bad happenings down the road out of our sightline. Imagine a scene where a nervous woman walks into a house expecting to find an old friend. She needs to talk to him. How could that be suspenseful? Take that camera and zero sharply in on her face right before she steps into the long hallway (movie law: nothing good awaits at the end of a long hallway). That shot mimics a sharp, sudden intake a breath, the preparation for a terrible, inevitable shock. Thus, without so much as a peep, Hitchcock has wrested control of our deepest-buried fears, and even in the final moments of “The Birds” he does not give them back. Especially not then.

“The Birds” isn’t about the characters, really, so much as it is what happens to them when they are thrown together for the purposes of the plot. These people, possessed of mysterious pasts, give the story the human element necessary for Hitchcock to manipulate his audience. The film centers on Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a socialite with a scandalous past who meets a lawyer, Mitch (Rod Taylor), in a San Francisco pet shop. He’s looking for a pair of lovebirds for his sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), and Melanie pretends to be an employee. But he reveals that he knows her from an encounter years before. His smug grin intrigues her enough to prompt Melanie to buy the birds, track down Mitch’s address and drive out to Bodega Bay to surprise him. By way of schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Melanie discovers Mitch is a womanizer, yet she stays for dinner with him and his family. His mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), a widow, has met enough women not to trust this one will stay. A leery matriarch turns out to be the least of everyone’s problems when the birds — every kind — begin launching eerily calculated attacks on the townspeople. No one can explain this change in behavior, though an ornithologist (Ethel Griffies) offers some ominous thoughts: “I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance!”

Griffies puts to words the roundly unnerving  theme of the film, a work of suspense that flirts at times with the horror genre. Certainly the nature vs. man concept isn’t revolutionary, but Hitchcock brings such a level of sophistication in “The Birds” that the idea seems new. He shifts the focus from the attacks — which are frightening, particularly the one near the Bodega Bay diner that leads to massive explosions and chaos — to the people’s anticipation. The most famous shots, the ones of birds slowly and almost silently gathering on monkey bars while Melanie, oblivious, nervously smokes a cigarette, raise the tension to near unbearable levels. These are quick cuts, but they are lethally effective. Everything converges during Mitch, Lydia, Cathy and Melanie’s self-imposed quarantine in the house. Holed up in the board-covered house, they are powerless to stop what’s about to happen. All they can do is wait. The waiting is what kills you.

Grade: A-

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15 Responses

  1. Someone I know said he laughed through “The Birds”, because he thought the effects were bad, but I actually myself thought movie was pretty effective and scary. I agree with you, it’s the anticipation that’s suspenseful.

    I thought use of animals in Lars von Triers “Antichrist ” was a little similar, which you can either laugh at or be shocked by. If you remember, there is also a “bird scene” in indiana jones 3 ( ;

    A must-see by Hitchcock, very entertaining.

    Just wondering, do you know if any birds attacks have ever happened for real ?

  2. Was never very scared by the birds, but I gotta say it is creepy as hell when they’re all lined up on the telephone wires and jungle gyms. No idea how Hitchcock got that to happen, but it is wildly impressive. Good write-up though, I need to watch this one again, it’s been a long long time.

  3. This movie was terrifying to me as a kid. It think where Hitchcock succeeded here and M. Nightmare failed was that he never tried to make an explanation for the phenomenon. It just was, and therefore these normal people had to deal with it.

    Like you stated, the part where the birds land on the playground and only suddenly is she aware of the danger she’s in………….AH goosebumps………..I love this one.

    What is it about blonde bombshells that made Hitchcock want to put them through hell?

    • Must be the same thing the Coens have for subjecting Frances McDormand to wild, twisted stories…

  4. The Birds is my favourite horror film of all time. I have a ridiculous bird phobia and, living by the sea, I think it could really happen

  5. I’m not sure if I think “The Birds” is all that great. It’s a lot of fun, but the concept never quite frightened me like I think it was intended to.

    In any case, it’s one I plan to revisit.

    • @ moviesandsongs365 — Some of the effects are bad, but I think the effects are beside the point. The point is the suspense, and if you spend too much time laughing at the terrible, all-wrong perspective backgrounds at sea or during trips in cars, you miss the suspense.

      @ Aiden — I never understood why everyone raved about that shot. Now I do.

      @ James Blake — I had the opposite reaction — wasn’t ever particularly scared of birds, then the movie made me start looking at them a little funny in the parking lot in the mall. I think that’s the biggest strength of the film; it makes you wonder “what if.”

  6. my favorite shot in the movie is when the guy at the gas station has just accidentally lit the gas trail on fire, and we see it start to burn. then we cut to tippi with a shocked look on her face. then it’s back to the fire, then back to tippi, back to the fire, back to tippi.

    i always thought that sequence was cool.

    i never found the movie to be scary, even when i was young, but i have always thought it was entertaining.

  7. I never felt The Birds was one of Hitchcock’s best films but I’ll always have fond memories of it as it was the first of his work that I saw.

    This is a lovely line, Meredith: “He uses the calm to make us dread the storm.” – couldn’t agree more.

  8. Reminds me of a day when I was in the house alone and a flock of birds flew into the side of the house over and over. Creepy.

  9. Not, I’m afraid, my favourite Hitch movie by a long way. The set-up is too long – there’s suspense, and there’s s-u-s-p-e-n-s-e, and this is the latter – and the effects were dated the day the movie was released.

  10. Like “Jaws” a decade later, this film transcends it’s genre. The first hour feels like one of those old, screwball comedy-romance flicks-untill ,slowly, Hitch pulls you into an inexplicable tale of terror.

  11. I completely agree M Carter, you miss the suspense when laughing, but sometimes it can be difficult to avoid looking at the bad effects.

    In a similar way, you can watch a performance by an actor and be reminded about their other performances, or rack your brain about what other films they starred in. This can take your mind off the story.

    Am I forgetting some other ther distracting elements when watching a film?, bloggers?

  12. Great review. Now all you have to do is see BIRDEMIC and your man vs bird cinematic education will be complete.

  13. […] Meredith, who scored The Lammy for Best Blog, has posted a review of a Hitchcock Classic. […]

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