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How does one top a critical and box office success like Psycho (1960)? That was the challenge facing Alfred Hitchcock in the wake of his most unconventional picture to date. And it took him three years - the longest break between pictures in his entire career - to come up with an even more challenging project, one that featured an unknown lead actress, sound effects instead of a conventional music score, and thousands of birds (a mixture of real and animated ones). Executives at Universal Pictures, the studio backing the project, were justifiably nervous.
Based on a novella by Daphne Du Maurier first published in Good Housekeeping in 1952, The Birds required the biggest budget yet for one of Hitchcock's films - $3.3 million. It was the third time the director had adapted the work of Du Maurier for the screen (he had previously filmed Jamaica Inn in 1939 and Rebecca in 1940), despite the fact that he professed to have no special affection for her writing. His choice of material though might have been motivated by several other factors. He had recently read a newspaper account of a seabird attack in the coastal town of Capatolla, California and fear of a nuclear war with Cuba and Russia was pervasive throughout the country (the Cuban Missile Crisis, in fact, occurred during the final months of shooting on The Birds). While the finished film certainly offers a doomsday vision of the world - Federico Fellini proclaimed it "an apocalyptic poem" - The Birds is more complex and abstract than it appears on the surface and incorporates biographical details from Hitchcock's life into a fictional framework - his boyhood love of bird-watching, the London air raids of WWII (imagine Nazi war planes as dive-bombing sea gulls) and an obsession with icy blonde heroines.
The storyline of The Birds unfolds over a five day period, opening with a flirtation between socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a San Francisco pet shop and culminating with their escape from a besieged home in Bodega Bay after a series of terrifying bird attacks. Certainly the idea of nature run amok is central to the narrative but so are other themes, particularly Melanie's own search for a mother figure (having been abandoned by her own years before) and a general fear of loneliness and entrapment. Over the years film scholars and critics have come to read other meanings into the movie; some see it as a metaphorical Western with the birds replacing Indians as the demonized 'other.' And some see the film as an allegory about sexual repression. Even today, The Birds continues to fascinate with its ambiguous ending in which the bird attacks are never explained.
In early drafts of the screenplay by Evan Hunter - a first time collaborator with Hitchcock whose novel The Blackboard Jungle became a hit movie in 1955 - there was a concerted effort to provide an explanation for the bird attacks even though they remained a mystery in the original Du Maurier novella. Yet none of the script changes - Melanie's suggestion of a species war against humans or political parallels to the world outside (the use of radio broadcasts from President Kennedy) - pleased Hitchcock and he continued to fuss over the screenplay (with creative input from actor Hume Cronyn - whose wife Jessica Tandy was cast in the film - and fiction writer V. F. Pritchett) after Hunter left to work on his next script, Marnie. Eventually, Hitchcock opted to remain ambiguous, eliminating a final bird attack on Mitch's departing car in favor of an announcer stating on the car radio, "It appears that the bird attacks come in waves with long intervals between. The reason for this does not seem clear yet." Hunter, however, was unhappy with the final film, stating in Patrick McGilligan's biography, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (Regan Books), "Hitch allowed his actors outrageous liberties with what I had written...he juggled scenes and cut scenes and even added one scene." [The latter is a reference to a private conversation between Mitch and Melanie at the children's birthday party].
Just as crucial as the screenplay was the film's casting. With his preferred female lead, Grace Kelly, unavailable for work, Hitchcock considered many actresses for the part of Melanie - Pamela Tiffin, Yvette Mimieux, Carol Lynley, and Sandra Dee - before hiring Tippi Hedren, a model he'd seen in a commercial for Pet Milk on the Today show. Ms. Hedren had no prior acting experience when she won the role and Hitchcock gave her little direction in that regard besides suggesting she might draw inspiration from the Tallulah Bankhead character in his earlier Lifeboat (1944), "starting out as a jaded sophisticate and becoming more natural and humane in the course of her physical ordeal." But in terms of Hedren's personal appearance, the director took an almost obsessive interest, personally dictating every detail of her makeup, wardrobe, jewelry and hairstyle.
Much more nerve-wracking for the first-time actress, however, was working with live birds. For the first bird attack on Melanie, a sea gull was trained to land on Hedren's head, while a dummy was used for the close-ups. While the other actors were also subjected to bites and scratches (ground meat or anchovies smeared on their hands attracted the birds), Hedren clearly suffered more than any other cast member, particularly during her horrific attic encounter at the end. In order for the terror to be real, Hitchcock insisted that real birds be used and had propmen hurl trained gulls at Hedren. According to McGilligan's biography, "This extraordinary scene, which occupies roughly one minute of screen time, took an entire week to shoot..."By Thursday," Hedren remembered, "I was noticeably nervous. By Friday they had me down on the floor with the birds tied loosely to me with elastic bands which were attached through the peck-hole in my dress. Well, one of the birds clawed my eye and that did it. I just sat and cried." Hedren survived the ordeal, however, and even got a compliment from Cary Grant, visiting the set that day, who told her, "You're one brave lady."
And now a few words about the real star of the film - the special effects of Ub Iwerks, who won a special Oscar® in 1959 for his advancements in optical printing and was best known for his innovative animation work for Walt Disney in the early 1920s. Iwerks was charged with the daunting task of incorporating animated and live birds in the same shot for numerous sequences in the film; the most famous being the attack on the schoolchildren and one, shot from a birds'-eye view of the harbor, as thousands of gulls descend on the town, attracted by a freak gasoline fire. As a result, the film won an Oscar® nomination (the only one) for Best Special Effects but lost to Cleopatra. Just as deserving for Oscar® consideration was the startling soundtrack which combined natural bird sounds with electronic effects. According to McGilligan's biography, Hitchcock "wanted the birdcalls and noises performed on an advanced instrument he first encountered on Berlin radio in the late 1920s - the electroacoustic Trautonium, invented by one Dr. Fredrich Trautonium and developed further by Oskar Sala. Sala and Remi Gassman, a Trautonium composer, lived in Germany, and they agreed to collaborate with [Bernard] Herrmann on a unique sound track..."
Despite a shrewd ad campaign topped by the amusing tag line - "The Birds is Coming," Hitchcock's follow-up picture to Psycho received generally harsh reviews from American critics with many criticizing Hedren's stylized, mannequin-like performance; The New Yorker called the film a "sorry failure," Time accused it of "silly plot boiling," and Newsweek wrote that the central premise was "inexpertly handled." Still, the film was successful enough with audiences to make it one of the top twenty films of 1963. Of course, The Birds is now seen as one of Hitchcock's most personal and challenging films. On a purely technical level alone, the film is often astonishing. The ending is particularly memorable, "weaving the actors together seamlessly with a horde of live, dummy, and optical-illusion birds, against a background which is one of Albert Whitlock's finest matte paintings. Thirty-two different exposures were required for the film's final image..."the most difficult single shot I've ever done," said Hitchcock." (from Patrick McGilligan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.
Producer/Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Evan Hunter, Daphne Du Maurier (story)
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Film Editing: George Tomasini
Art Direction: George Milo
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Rod Taylor (Mitch Brenner), Tippi Hedren (Melanie Daniels), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Bundy).
C-120m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Jeff Stafford