“It’s the end of the world.” | The Birds (1963)

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It seems unlikely that there is a film director more widely known than Alfred Hitchcock. Through numerous iconic feature films – primarily thrillers – he managed to carve a permanent niche inside the pop culture landscape. Even people who have never seen one of his films are generally familiar with their most famous images and set pieces. Several films in particular stand out in his long career: North by Northwest, Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds. It is the last of those films that we are focusing upon here. This supernaturally driven thriller, in which the natural world seems to rebel violently against humanity, was released to popular success in 1963. Audiences have never forgotten it since. Hitchcock may have died in 1980, but the best of his films – and that absolutely includes The Birds – seem to be immortal.

Hitchcock’s creative career started in 1919 with the publication of the short story “Gas”. He dabbled with short fiction for some years, and never quite left the literary world – once he was an established identity in Hollywood he started loaning his name to all manner of pulp mystery magazines and anthologies.

Hitchcock started directing and designing for silent films in London in the early 1920s. His first attempt at directing a film himself, Number 13 (1922), was cancelled in mid-production. From there he assisted director Graham Cutts for several years until breaking into directing himself a second time with The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1926).

In 1927 he directed The Lodger, an atmospheric silent thriller about a Jack the Ripper-type figure terrorising a city. The film was a commercial and critical success in both the United Kingdom and the USA, and effectively kick-started Hitchcock’s directorial career.

In 1933 – now working in talking pictures – Hitchcock started directing for Gaumont British. The change in production company seemed to inspire a new level of filmmaking talent, leading to such successful films as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). In 1939 he was poached by American producer David O. Selznick on a seven-year contract, and relocated to Hollywood. He never looked back.

Hitchcock’s famous combination of thrills and black humour sustained a lengthy and highly lucrative directorial career, and led to a growing number of popular films. His first American production, Rebecca (1940), was awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Later films included Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). In 1956 he directed a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much; the film was met with even more success than the first time around.

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By 1960 Alfred Hitchcock had developed his career beyond simply directing films, and into a commercially successful brand in its own right. He had enjoyed successive commercial hits in the cinema, most recently with his disturbing thriller Psycho. He was producing and hosting his own anthology television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His name was prominently attached to a range of short story anthologies and a digest magazine. Hitchcock did not write or edit for such publishing projects – even his introductions were ghost-written – but he did receive copies of each volume or issue in advance so that he could approve them for publication.

Following the huge success of Psycho Hitchcock was struggling to find a suitable project to act as a successor. He had considered directing an adaptation of Winston Graham’s novel Marnie but it did not seem the right fit with which to follow on from Psycho. It was while flicking through publisher proofs of one his branded short story anthologies that he stumbled upon Daphne de Maurier’s short story “The Birds”.

“The Birds” was first published in a 1952 issue of the magazine Good Housekeeping. It followed a peasant farmer and his wife surviving an inexplicable attack by a flock of birds on their farm in Cornwall, England. Hitchcock was not particularly engaged by the story itself, but was intrigued by the idea of birds turning murderous.

The Birds would ultimately be quite distinct among Alfred Hitchcock’s long list of feature films, as it was the only time he ever handled a film with fantasy elements. He had briefly considered adapting The War of the Worlds in the 1930s, but was dissuaded by its author H.G. Wells, who considered the novel too dated to be worth putting onto the cinema screen – an opinion that robbed film enthusiasts of a potential classic.

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Universal Pictures agreed to finance The Birds under their ongoing production contract with Hitchcock, agreeing to a production budget of $3.3 million dollars.

Before any work was started on developing a screenplay, Hitchcock met with the art director Robert Boyle. Boyle had previously worked as assistant art director on Saboteur in 1942 before graduating to the lead position for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Boyle was tasked with developing methods of shooting scenes combining birds and human actors – specifically in terms of birds attacking human actors.

Boyle said: ‘We knew it was going to be difficult to put real birds into the situations suggested by the story because of certain problems involving traveling mattes. While I think that a space opera like Star Wars is an extraordinary technical achievement, it had access to means that were not available to us in the early 1960s. Working around model ships is one thing, but in The Birds, we were faced with superimposing living, moving things around our characters.’[1]

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Hitchcock first approached Joseph Stefano to write the film’s screenplay, having enjoyed working with him on Psycho. Stefano, however, was not interested in the subject matter of the new project and turned the director down. Hitchcock’s second choice was Evan Hunter, better known by his novelist pseudonym Ed McBain.

Hunter said: ‘Hitch told me on the phone that he had called my agent and asked if I would want to do The Birds. I’d had some stuff done on his television show, so I vaguely knew him. But I wasn’t familiar with du Maurier’s story, so I said “Let me read it.” I read it and it sounded interesting and I accepted the job. But when I spoke with him he said “Forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.” He said, “That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.” In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.’[2]

One of the first changes made to de Maurier’s original story was the setting: Hitchcock was certain American audiences would not care for a thriller set on the Cornish coast. He relocated the film to Bodega Bay, a small town 60 miles north of San Francisco. ‘The Birds needed a present day atmosphere,’ he explained, ‘and in order to get the photography of the birds in the air, we needed an area with low land, not high mountains or a lot of trees. In a pictorial sense it was vital to have nothing on the ground but sand so that we had the entire sky to play with. Bodega Bay had all of that.’[3]

Evan Hunter started work on a screenplay for The Birds in September 1961. A few weeks earlier, a freak natural event saw several hundred sea birds get disorientated in fog and crash into buildings around Santa Cruz, California. Hitchcock had one of his staff contact the newspaper and get a copy of the article, to aid in research for the film.

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Hitchcock’s original hopes for casting The Birds was to reunited with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. With Kelly having retired from acting, however, he elected to cast less famous faces and allow the film’s marketing to trade on his own name and reputation instead. ‘There will be no stars in this picture,’ he told Evan Hunter. ‘I’m the star, the birds are the stars – and you’re the star.’[4]

On 13 October 1961 Hitchcock was eating breakfast and watching television when he saw a 60-second commercial for a diet drink. He was immediately captivated by the commercial’s actress, Tippi Hedren, and had his agents track her down and fly her to Los Angeles for a screen test.

Born in Lafayette, Minnesota, Tupsa ‘Tippi’ Hedren had worked as a model since the age of 12, and had little or not acting experience. At the time Hitchcock first met her Hedren had recently divorced her husband Peter Griffith, leaving her juggling her modelling work with caring for their four year-old daughter Melanie (a future movie star herself).

Four days after Hitchcock had seen the commercial he met with Hedren at his production office. By this stage he had already had Herman Citron sign her onto a contract to appear in unspecified future productions for Hitchcock. It was a seven-year contract with a starting weekly salary of $500 dollars.

In early November Hedren undertook a complex screen test at Los Angeles’ Revue Studios opposite actor Martin Balsam, performing scenes from Rebecca, Notorious and To Catch a Thief. Three weeks later she was officially cast as the lead in The Birds. To congratulate her on her casting, Hitchcock presented her with a gold brooch depicting three birds in flight.

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With the role of Melanie cast, Hitchcock set about finding the right male actor to cast as love interest Mitch Brenner. After considering a number of actors from television, including Chuck Connor, Ron Harper and James Garner, Hitchcock chose Australian actor Rod Taylor, whom he had seen in the television series Portrait of a Hero. In January 1962 he met with Taylor to discuss the role and offer it to him.

At this stage Taylor had been performing in Hollywood for more than six years, most notably in George Pal’s 1960 science fiction film The Time Machine. His contract with Hitchcock was for a four-film deal over six years. He was paid $50,000 for The Birds, significantly more than his female co-star.

Taylor did not get on well with his director. From their first meeting, after which Taylor described Hitchcock as ‘a strange man to talk to’, they failed to see eye-to-eye for the bulk of the Birds shoot. At one point Taylor bristled at hearing the film’s cast referred to by their director as ‘cattle’. At another he found himself ridiculed by Hitchcock in front of a visiting group of journalists. Despite his four-film deal Taylor did not appear in another Hitchcock film.[5]

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By the end of January 1962 Evan Hunter had completed his draft of the screenplay. Hitchcock was not entirely satisfied with it and had a copy mailed to a friend, the writer and actor Hume Cronyn, for feedback. At the time Cronyn was living in Rome acting in the protracted shoot for the 20th Century Fox epic Cleopatra. Cronyn made several changes to Hunter’s screenplay, notably re-developing the character of Lydia Brenner, the mother of Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner. Lydia was ultimately played by Cronyn’s wife Jessica Tandy – a possibility that Hitchcock had already mentioned to Cronyn when he sent him the screenplay.

During location scouting in Bodega Bay it became clear that the town itself was too small to support the range of scenes and settings that Hitchcock requires. The film ultimately shot in three towns – Bodega Bay, Bodega and Bodega Head – with locations brought together via editing and a series of matte paintings by artist Albert Whitlock.

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By far the most significant challenge facing Hitchcock and his crew was realising the birds themselves.

Early plans to focus on mechanical birds resulted in failure. Approximately $200,000 dollars was spent developing a variety of mechanised and prop animals, but test footage showed them to be unconvincing and often rather ridiculous. ‘They were very phony looking,’ recalled associate editor Bud Hoffman. ‘In one test, they put some young people on a treadmill to simulate the crow attack in the picture. Then they released these strange-looking creatures that looked like model airplanes with wings that moved up and down. There was also a glider type of bird which came down on wire that was just about as laughable.’[6]

The film was forced to rely on live birds, either trained and placed alongside the actors, or superimposed into already-shot footage via composites. The composite shots were supervised by animator Ub Iwerks at Walt Disney Studios, using a ‘sodium vapour’ process as an alternative to the normal blue screen method. The process used a prism to simultaneously transfer two disparate film images into a single picture, with the duplication and loss of picture quality that resulted from the blue screen method. It reduced the amount of ‘fringing’ in the image, where the line between one picture element and another met, but required much more rigorous precision in setting up each shot. In 1965 Iwerks, along with Wadsworth E. Pohl and Petro Vlahos, win an Academic Award for the technology’s application in Mary Poppins.

Special footage of seagulls was shot at the San Francisco city garbage dump, which was used for reference material by the special effects team and as cutaways in the film itself.

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The live birds were housed in forty large pens on the studio lot, where they consumed 100 pounds of birdseed and 200 pounds of seafood every day. Due to the use of live animals the film shoot was observed by a member of the American Humane Association. Despite numerous questionable practices, including tranquilising birds to keep them standing in frame and reportedly using wire to tie at least one bird’s beak shut, the AHA did not lodge any complaint.

One complaint that was received was from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, after animal trainer Ray Berwick exceeded the legal limit for the number of wild birds captured. He was fined $400 dollars, and the excess birds released.

The cast and crew understandably found the various birds to be fairly uncooperative performers. Several weeks into production, incidents of bird-inflicted injuries became widespread enough that the entire production team – actors and technicians alike – were vaccinated against tetanus as a precautionary measure.

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The film’s musical score was composed in collaboration by Hitchcock’s regular collaborator Bernard Herrmann, Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann. Sala and Gassmann were noted users of an experimental instrument known as the Studio Trautonium. Named after its creator Dr. Frederick Trautwein, it required the musician to draw a resistor wire over a metal plate to generate sounds. The use of such an unusual instrument helped to give The Birds a distinctive and relatively unique musical sound. Nowhere is that more apparent than during the film’s ominous and unsettling opening titles, in which Hermann’s aggressive soundscrape of bird-like noises are accompanied by silhouettes of frenzied gulls. The gulls appear for real in the film’s opening shot, circling in the sky above San Francisco as protagonist Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) enters a pet shop to buy – what else? – a bird.

Tippi Hedren makes for a slightly underwhelming lead. In her hands Melanie Daniels comes and goes, sometimes feeling like an expressive and charismatic character and sometimes feeling like a bored actress without a clue as to what she is doing. When she portrays a scene well she does it brilliantly, but when she fails it feels as if it is by a long margin. She certainly has a striking and beautiful look to her, and a solid gift for comedy, but the overwhelming effect is of a young actress in well over her head and struggling to keep her performance afloat.

Hitchcock clearly believed the opposite, telling one interviewer that Hedren’s facial expressions ‘were subtle and that was the thing that pleased me about the girl. You know she had never acted before. […] She had nothing to unlearn. Better than when you have a girl who is mugging all over the place and you say “Please don’t mug.” I need that face to register an expression, but I only want the one.’[7]

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In the pet shop Melanie meets the charming but sly lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who manipulates her into pretending to be a shop assistant and then criticises her for a long history of pranks and borderline-illegal escapades. It is a weird scene. The attempt to have Mitch and Melanie flirt and begin a romantic attraction feels only partly successful. Much more effective are the banks of caged birds in the background. Like the gulls spiralling outside, they feel like a small warning of the perils to come.

Hitchcock had a penchant for making cameos in his own films. He can be seen here walking past the pet shop with a pair of poodles – actually his own pets, named Stanley and Geoffrey.

Melanie attempts to deliver a pair of love birds to Mitch – the reason he had entered the pet shop in the first place. When she discovers he has left his apartment for the weekend, she follows him up the coast to Bodega Bay. It is a strangely under-motivated plot development, although it does go a long way to bed down Melanie’s personality. She is clearly very wealthy, and clearly does not have a day job, and does not think twice about getting in her car with a pair of birds and driving a few hours north to surprise a man she has only met once.

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Once in Bodega Bay Melanie quickly meets local school teacher Annie Heyworth (Suzanne Pleshette), by coincidence a former girlfriend of Mitch’s. This sort of random, highly unlikely coincidence is a hallmark of Hitchcock’s approach to story. He smartly understood that such plot contrivances only jar with an audience if they actually think about them. In this case he keeps the revelation brisk and Annie’s character sufficiently wry and entertaining that most viewers fail to question it.

After sneaking across the bay in a small boat to deliver the birds to Mitch’s family home, Melanie engages in a playful chase back to the main town: she in the boat and Mitch driving a car. At the exact moment the viewer is led to expect a bit of romantic banter between the two leads – Mitch has beat Melanie to the jetty, and watches her bring her boat in – Melanie is suddenly pecked at by a rogue seagull. In isolation such a moment would be arbitrary and not particularly frightening, but by juxtaposing it with a romantic moment it becomes even more alien and jarring. The viewer enters The Birds expecting the titular animals to attack. Hitchcock deliberately leaves his audience waiting, and then stretches Mitch and Melanie’s romance to a sufficient extent to blind-side them when the first attack arrives.

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Melanie’s wound is cleaned by Mitch at the local tavern, where she also meets his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Mitch invites Melanie to the Brenner home for dinner. Melanie is reluctant and Lydia is actively unimpressed, but she does go over and begins to form a better connection with all three members of the family – including Mitch’s young sister Cathy.

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Cathy was played by child actress Veronica Cartwright. By time she was hired by Alfred Hitchcock she had already featured in the acclaimed drama The Children’s Hour and The Twilight Zone. Cartwright would continue acting into adulthood and appear in such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Alien (1979), The Right Stuff (1983) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987).

The tension continues to grow. Dialogue reveals that the chickens Lydia raises behind her house have gone off their feed. Lydia blames the feed she received from her neighbour Dan Fawcett, but of course the viewer senses something more ominous is happening. Now that one bird has attacked, there is a growing sense of suspense over when a second bird will strike.

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We are forced to wait until Cathy’s birthday party a day later, and even then the film takes its time before allowing the birds to strike.

While the children play outside, Mitch walks Melanie up the hill to share a cocktail. It is a slightly strange moment, not only for the sight of two people drinking martinis during a children’s party but also for the way it is shot. Halfway through the scene the setting changes from a Californian location shoot to a studio reproduction of the same location. It feels strangely artificial.

‘It’s a stupid scene,’ said Evan Hunter, ‘and I don’t know who wrote it. Rod Taylor said to me, the day they were shooting it and I was on the set, he said “Evan, did you write this scene?” I read it and I said, “No,” and he said, “We’re shooting it this morning.” I said “Well, let me talk to Hitch about it.” I went to Hitch and said “This is a dumb scene, it’s going to slow down the movie enormously, slow down the point where the birds attack the children at the birthday party, and it serves no purpose and I don’t think it should be in the movie.” And he looked me dead in the eye and he said “Are you going to trust me or a two-bit actor?”’[8]

Without warning birds start swooping the party and attacking the children. Mitch, Melanie and Annie manage to get all of the children inside before anybody is badly injured, but it leaves everyone fearful and shaken. Then, just as suddenly, the bird attack abates.

The stop-start nature of the film’s bird attacks is one of the reasons it is so effective a thriller. A constant barrage of bird attacks would become overly familiar and tiresome. By ceasing each barrage as immediately as they begin, the tension ratchets up enormously. Even when there is not an ongoing attack, the audience knows that one could commence at any moment.

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The birds strike again that evening. While discussing the strange events, Melanie and the Brenners are assaulted by a storm of birds that pour from the fireplace and whirl around the room. Approximately 1,500 small birds – mostly sparrows and finches – were poured down a false chimney and into the set. The set was closed off with plastic sheeting to prevent the birds from flying up into the lighting rigs and catwalks above. For those few birds that did escape, birdseed was liberally scattered across the soundstage floor to tempt them down and recapture them.

Veronica Cartwright recalled: ‘I didn’t like those birds swooping down from the chimney. There were thousands of them. We were in a bubble and they would just swoop down and go to fly up and then realize there was nowhere to go. Then, they just dropped. That one was the most challenging because it was so confining.’[9] While recording the scene the cast were instructed to shuffle their feet whenever possible to avoid stepping on and killing any of the birds.

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In the aftermath of the attack Lydia picks up several sections of broken crockery from the floor and places them on a table. The camera lingers oddly on the moment.

This strange shot of Lydia and the broken crockery has a pay-off a few minutes later. Lydia drives over to speak to Dan Fawcett, the farmer who sold her the chicken feed. She knocks on his door and calls his name, but there is no answer. She steps inside his house, but it is silent and deserted. Then she glances over at a shelf of crockery and notices a broken cup hanging from a hook. There is an immediate connection for both her and the audience between this cup and her own broken dishes: the birds have already been here. She rushes into the next room and finds broken windows, dead birds, and the bloody corpse of Dan Fawcett. His eyes have been pecked out.

The revelation of Dan’s dead body, and pecked-out eyes, was shot using a series of rapid-cut edits. The moment was edited in this fashion not just for impact but also to enable Hitchcock to easily remove the close-up of Dan’s mutilated face if American censors objected to it.

Blood and prosthetic make-up was created for the film by Howard Smit. To create the illusion of Dan’s injuries, Smit spent 90 minute applying undertaker’s wax around the eye sockets of the stunt performer playing Dan Fawcett which he then darkened with make-up to create a sunken look before adding fake blood.

Lydia runs from the house in a panic, not even stopping to tell Fawcett’s farmhand outside what has happened. She gets into her truck and drives at high speed back to her own home. To emphasise the speed at which she drives a dust cloud blooms behind her car as it drives past in a long shot. Hitchcock shot this take first, and then had production crew spray water over the road before shooting Lydia’s drive in the other direction from the beginning of the scene.

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While Mitch returns to the Fawcett farm to speak with police, Melanie tends to the traumatised Lydia. It is an exceptional scene, as both women properly connect for the first time and Lydia explains her disapproving behaviour towards Mitch since her husband died. Not only does give the film some emotional depth, it also spaces out the time between one horrific scene and the next, so as not to overwhelm and desensitise the audience.

Lydia is terrified something bad will happen to Cathy, so Melanie agrees to go collect her from school. Since class is in session, she waits outside on a park bench. Behind her a mass of crows begin assembling in the playground behind her. It is a simple enough technique, with Hitchcock adding a few birds each time the camera angle cuts back to show the playground. What makes the scene so effective is that just as the audience has fully realised what is going on Hitchcock stops cutting back and forth, and instead sticks with an angle on Melanie for more than 30 seconds. For half a minute the audience is left wondering just how many birds are assembling without her seeing them. When she does notice them, Hitchcock holds off from having them attack for an interminable length of time.

Hitchcock once explained how suspense works in cinema by describing a bomb exploding underneath a café table. Should the bomb suddenly explode without the audience knowing it was there, it creates a shocking moment but not a suspenseful one. On the other hand, should the audience be shown the bomb ticking down beneath two diners, and then are forced to wait as the unsuspecting characters continue their meal with the bomb liable to kill them at any given moment, then enormous suspense will keep the audience on the edges of their seats. This scene in The Birds is Hitchcock’s explanation in practice, with a playground filled with more than a hundred ominous crows silently waiting as the bomb. When it does arrive, the ensuing chaos created by a class of fleeing children being pecked at and assaulted by the crows is even more dramatic as a result.

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There is a clever increase in scale as the film progresses. It begins with one seagull attacking, then a group of birds at a children’s party, then a swarm of small birds, then a large swarm. Before long the whole of Bodega Bay is under assault, in a prolonged and thrilling sequence where the bird attacks cause total chaos, several deaths and a gas station to explode. In all the chaos there is a superb moment where Melanie takes shelter inside a telephone booth. The image of Melanie trapped inside the booth, surrounded by birds, is a clever inversion of the film’s opening scene: back then it was the birds who were caged, with Melanie moving around outside.

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When Mitch and Melanie go to retrieve Cathy from Annie – who volunteered to care for her after the school attack – they find Annie’s mutilated corpse lying outside her front door. With birds still lurking on rooftops and in trees, Mitch and Melanie are forced to move calmly and remain quiet despite their overwhelmed emotions. It is a striking transition from the noisy chaos of the attack on the town.

Melanie and the Brenners hole up inside Lydia’s house, with Mitch and Melanie doing their best to nail up the windows with planks and ensure that no birds can get inside. That night the house comes under a prolonged assault, with larger birds fracturing planks and shattering windows, and almost breaking through the front door. To assist the actors in generating suspense, Hitchcock had a professional drummer come onto the set. Whenever a scene required the actors to react to the unseen birds swarming outside, the drummer would play a drum roll.

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In the early morning Melanie is woken by small sounds upstairs. Rather than wake Mitch, Lydia or Cathy, she silently creeps up to investigate the sounds herself. She finds the attic has been broken into, and the room full of birds. They swarm around her, and she is badly mauled.

The attic sequence is the most noted and simultaneously the most notorious scene of the entire film. Certainly it was a scene upon which Hitchcock devoted a great deal of time and attention, spending an entire week shooting a scene that would – once edited – last about 50 seconds of screen time. When Psycho was released, it was the iconic shower scene that made the film’s reputation, and Hitchcock was keen to equal or surpass it with The Birds. Melanie being assaulted by hundreds of birds was his intended Psycho-beater.

The sequence was originally written to feature Annie but Hitchcock had the scene rewritten by the uncredited writer V.S. Pritchett to feature Melanie instead. It made a certain sense: the audience would be arguably far more engaged if it was the protagonist in peril rather than a supporting character. In writing the scene, however, numerous odd behaviours on Melanie’s part were required to get her trapped inside the room. She needed to hear suspicious noises but not wake Mitch. She needed to open the door to a closed room despite any sensible person suspecting there would be birds inside. Once attacked she needed to stumble back in such a way as to close herself inside the room. While Hitchcock was a master of getting an audience to accept sometimes bizarre contrivances, in this case it feels as if he stretched credulity too far. The scene is visually impressive but narratively absurd.

Tippi Hedren had been reassured on multiple occasions that the attic sequence would feature mechanical props in lieu of live animals. ‘But everybody had lied to me,’ she recalled, ‘and on the Monday morning, as we were going to start the scene, the assistant director came in and looked at the floor and the walls and the ceiling, then blurted out: “The mechanical birds don’t work, so we have to use real ones,” and then he ran out. When I got to the set I found out there had never been any intention to use mechanical birds because a cage had been built around the door where I was supposed to come in, and there were boxes of ravens, gulls and pigeons that bird trainers wearing gauntlets up to their shoulders hurled at me, one after the other, for a week.’[10]

At first birds were tied to their trainers with thin cords and meat placed near the camera lens to tempt them to fly towards it. When that did not prove frightening enough trained birds were encouraged to land on Hedren and she would then bat them away. Once it became clear the birds were not landing on Hedren with another enthusiasm and were instead flying around the soundstage, air jets were used to force them back in her direction. By the middle of the week stagehands were resorted to simply throwing crows and gulls at Hedren, and by the end of the week Hitchcock had live birds attached to Hedren’s costume with elastic bands.

Hedren was injured during the shoot, with one bird cutting her face with its beak and another clawing her eye. Exhausted and traumatised, she was ordered off the set for a week by her doctor. This was directly against Hitchcock’s wishes; the director furiously complained that with her away from set he would have nothing to shoot. He ultimately shot the aftermath of the attack, with Mitch carrying Melanie downstairs, using a body double in Hedren’s place. Close-ups of her face were edited in during post-production.

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Once it is clear that they have to leave the house and escape down the coast, Mitch puts a comatose Melanie into the car with Lydia and Cathy, and drives away down the road. An enormous group of birds have surrounded the house, and silently watch the car depart. Evan Hunter’s screenplay included another ten minutes of action beyond that point, but Hitchcock elected to leave the film earlier, cutting out one final attack and a more ambivalent, ominous ending as Melanie and Mitch head for San Francisco and see the Golden Gate bridge covered in birds.

The film’s final shot was a complex affair, combining both live and puppet birds along with a matte painting, animation and a moving car. Ultimately the shot required 32 separate film exposures to create, and was widely cited by Hitchcock as the single-most difficult shot of his career. Hitchcock also declined to include a then-traditional “The End” caption, to emphasise the uncertain nature of the film’s ending.

Universal Pictures promoted the film using the slogan ‘The Birds is coming”, which the studio plastered extensively over magazines, newspapers, billboards, and radio and television advertisements. Universal’s Vice-president David A. Lipton boasted it was one of the ‘most all-encompassing advertising and promotional campaigns ever put behind a motion picture.’[11]

The strategy, paired with Hitchcock’s reputation, succeeded admirably. The Birds grossed more than US$11 million dollars upon release and emerged as one of the highest-grossing films of its year. It proved to be Hitchcock’s final masterpiece. While he would direct another five feature films, none of them would capture the popular or critical acclaim as his earlier, much more effective works.

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Easily the most disturbing element of The Birds’ production was the obsessive interest Alfred Hitchcock had in Tippi Hedren. From the beginning of production he had micro-managed almost every aspect of her performance and career, hand-picking her costume and make-up and directing her performance with an unusually precise amount of detail. When it came to Hedren’s on-screen credit it was Hitchcock who insisted her first name be displayed in quotation marks. By the end of the shoot he had progressed to criticising her choice of friends and social outings, attempting to order her what foods to eat and avoid, and having her handwriting analysed for a psychological analysis. Hitchcock even hired private detectives to follow Hedren around Los Angeles.

This obsessive attention to Hedren grew rapidly unwelcome. In one now-famous incident, he sent Hedren’s five-year old daughter Melanie Griffith a miniature doll of her mother in a replica costumes from The Birds. It was delivered in a miniature coffin.

Hitchcock’s wife Alma was openly aware of her husband’s behaviour but according to Hedren seemed unwilling to interfere. ‘Alma was an enigma to everyone,’ Hedren said. ‘Nobody could understand what their relationship was. At one point she came up to me and said, “Tippi, I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” I looked at her and said, “But you could stop it,” and she just kind of glazed over and walked away.’[12]

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Halfway through shooting Marnie any relationship between director and actor broke down, and they communicated through intermediaries for the rest of the production. The reason for the rift has never been made clear. Writer Donald Spoto, author of Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius, claimed Hitchcock made an entirely unwelcome sexual advance. Hitchcock himself claimed ‘she mentioned my weight.’ Hedren has never commented on the specifics in public.

‘It was very, very difficult for me,’ she later admitted. ‘I was a young woman, I wasn’t married. He wanted me to be beholden to him for making me a star. Yes, he was sexually obsessed with me. It was awful but what could I do?’[13]

For two years after the conclusion of the Marnie shoot Hitchcock kept Hedren on a $600 a week retainer, as allowed in her original contract with him. It prevented her from capitalising on the numerous offers flooding her agent since the success of The Birds and Marnie. He did loan her out to Charlie Chaplin for his final film, The Countess from Hong Kong (1967), but despite being promised a major supporting role opposite Marlon Brando the part turned out to be much smaller than suggested. In the end Hedren managed to break from her contract by actively refusing to appear in one of Universal’s television dramas.

‘I had to get out of there,’ said Hedren. ‘I was dealing with one of the most powerful men in motion pictures and it was difficult, embarrassing and insulting. He said, “If you leave, I’ll ruin your career.” And he did.’[14]

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Due to widespread brand awareness of the original film, The Birds has continued to be a target for Hollywood remakes and sequels. A made-for-television sequel was produced in 1994, titled The Birds II: Land’s End. It was not a success. Tippi Hedren co-starred in the sequel in an unrelated role to Melanie Daniels, while director Rick Rosenthal was so unhappy with the final production that he refused to be credited on-screen. Following DGA practice, the telemovie was broadcast with the director credit of Alan Smithee.

In 2007 producer/director Michael Bay announced he was developing a remake, and discussions commenced with actors Naomi Watts and George Clooney to replace Hedren and Taylor. As of 2016 the project has not escaped from development.

It has been half a century since The Birds was first released, and it remains an enormously effective and memorable thriller.

‘All you can say about The Birds,’ said Hitchcock, ‘is nature can be awful rough on you. If you play around with it. Look at what uranium has done. Man dug that out of the ground. The Birds expressed nature and what it can do, and the dangers of nature, because there is no doubt if the birds did decide, you know, with the millions that there are, to go for everybody’s eyes, then we’d have H.G. Wells’ Kingdom of the Blind on our hands.’[15]

 

[1] Kyle B. Counts, “The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds”, Cinemafantastique, Vol 10 No 2, Fall 1980.

[2] Charles L.P. Silet, “Writing for Hitchcock: an interview with Ed McBain”, Mystery Net. (http://www.mysterynet.com/hitchcock/mcbain/)

[3] Kyle B. Counts, “The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds”, Cinemafantastique, Vol 10 No 2, Fall 1980.

[4] Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1983.

[5] Stephen Vagg, Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood, BearManor Media, Duncan, 2010.

[6] Kyle B. Counts, “The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds”, Cinemafantastique, Vol 10 No 2, Fall 1980.

[7] Quoted in “Hitchcock on style: an interview with Alfred Hitchcock”, Cinema, Vol 5, No 1, August-September 1963.

[8] Charles L.P. Silet, “Writing for Hitchcock: an interview with Ed McBain”, Mystery Net. (http://www.mysterynet.com/hitchcock/mcbain/)

[9] Quoted in “Veronica Cartwright talks with the Café about Hitchcock, Alien and the Beaver”, Classic Film and TV Café, 24 February 2014.

[10] John Hiscock, “Tippi Hedren interview: Hitchcock put me in a mental prison”, The Telegraph, 24 December 2012.

[11] Quoted in “Nothing cheep about U’s campaign for The Birds”, Film Bulletin, Vol 31, No 5, 4 March 1963.

[12] John Hiscock, “Tippi Hedren interview: Hitchcock put me in a mental prison”, The Telegraph, 24 December 2012.

[13] Anita Chaudhuri, “The blonde queen of King Alfred”, The Guardian, 6 August 1999.

[14] John Hiscock, “Tippi Hedren interview: Hitchcock put me in a mental prison”, The Telegraph, 24 December 2012.

[15] Quoted in “Hitchcock on style: an interview with Alfred Hitchcock”, Cinema, Vol 5, No 1, August-September 1963.

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