The Birds is generally regarded as an Alfred Hitchcock classic despite the uninspired casting of Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in the lead roles. Hedren, a fashion model whom Hitchcock hired after seeing her in a TV commercial, is particularly awkward and unconvincing as bratty socialite Melanie Daniels. It’s not a performance that’s grown in stature over the years, like Kim Novak in Vertigo, or attained the iconic permanence of Grace Kelly in Rear Window. What has become the stuff of legend, however, is Hitchcock’s perverse mistreatment of Hedren on the set of The Birds, famously recounted in Donald Spoto’s 1983 biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. The five-day ordeal of filming the climactic scene in which her character is trapped in a roomful of attacking birds — hundreds of live crows and gulls were hurled at her face by off-camera stagehands — resulted in Hedren being hospitalized and the production closed down for a week. "An established actress," says Spoto, "would never have submitted to this extreme abuse."
It is the birds themselves, of course, who are the stars of the show (the watchful protection of the ASPCA didn’t extend to Hitchcock’s cruelty toward Hedren). The movie isn’t character-driven, and in fact it’s barely plot-driven. With nearly 400 special effects shots, The Birds is the granddaddy of A-list horror shockers like Jaws and Alien. Hitchcock’s film is designed to accentuate the increasing ornithological mayhem. It’s not that the human actors are superfluous to the story — although no other top-drawer Hitchcock film so thoroughly overrides its cast — but they are at best subliminal pawns in a narrative comprised of murky and veiled motivations. From a technical standpoint, Hitchcock is working at the pinnacle of his formidable skills in The Birds, and it arguably represents his purest cinematic achievement. Indeed, the movie is a textbook of brilliantly edited set pieces and ingenious uses of color, sound, and landscape.
Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter borrowed only the title and basic conceit of Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story, "The Birds." Du Maurier’s tale, conventional and utterly humorless, is a Cold War parable that uses the unexplained bird attacks as an apocalyptic metaphor for nature thrown out of balance by technology and warfare. It’s told from the perspective of Nat Hocken, a disabled war veteran and farmhand living in a cottage with his family in the British Isles. As the bird assaults escalate, Nat holes up with his wife and two children behind boarded-up doors and windows. For a while they follow BBC radio reports of similar chaos all across the country. There are rumors that the Russians have poisoned the birds to make them vicious and suicidal. RAF squadrons are dispatched to combat the birds, but the aircraft engines become clogged with winged carcasses. Planes crash at sea and along the coast near Nat’s cottage. His wife wonders if America will send reinforcements. The story ends with the radio dead and Nat out of cigarettes as he again hears the birds clamoring outside:
Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.
Comparing the short story and the film, it’s clear that the central metaphor functions quite differently in each case. By shifting the context and jettisoning du Maurier’s banal antiwar message, Hitchcock was able to attach the same apocalyptic imagery to his own radical thematic concerns: sexual repression and existential alienation. In the film’s desolate vision, we’re cut off from any semblance of integration or wholeness with the natural world and with one another. We’ve lost our capacity for giving and accepting love. Personal desires and yearnings have been twisted beyond recognition by our damaged psyches and broken families. Instead of Nat Hocken and his vague "wartime disability," Hitchcock and Hunter give us a rogues’ gallery of Freudian dysfunction: Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a San Francisco lawyer and mama’s boy incapable of committing to an intimate relationship; Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), Mitch’s neurotic mother, depressed since the death of her husband four years ago and desperately jealous of any woman who shows an interest in her son; Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a spinsterish school teacher still bitter and obsessed long after Mitch has spurned her affections; and, finally, the frigid and vain Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who begins a flirtation with Mitch that seems destined for the same failure that beset Annie Hayworth’s scuttled relationship.
It’s important to realize that these characters are static personalities. Nothing about their behavior suggests that they are capable of change or growth or insight of any kind. Their lives are condemned to a robotic repetition of neurotic impulses. (Adding to the unsettling atmosphere, Tippi Hedren’s clipped amateurish line readings and flat acting style are a remarkable simulation of psychotic dissociation.) Every interaction between the major players shows them emotionally stunted, and the screenplay refuses to advance or facilitate their maturation. During an ostensive romantic interlude with Mitch and Melanie sharing martinis on a cliff overlooking Bodega Bay, Mitch playfully says, "You need a mother’s care, my child." Melanie reacts to the joke with pained grief, explaining to Mitch that she hasn’t seen her mother since childhood. Moments later, they rejoin an outdoor birthday party for Cathy Brenner, Mitch’s eleven-year-old sister (the same age at which Melanie was deserted by her mother). Suddenly a flock of crazed gulls dive-bombs the children playing in the backyard. This pattern of murderous interruption and failed intimacy is repeated throughout the film. Donald Spoto, in his analysis of The Birds, remarks that "each incident with birds immediately follows a scene describing a character’s fear of being alone or abandoned."
Much attention has been given to the groundbreaking electronic soundscape (conceived by Remi Gassmann, Oskar Sala, Bernard Herrmann and an early synthesizer-like instrument called the Trautonium) that accompanies the film in lieu of a music score. But The Birds is also notable for numerous scenes that are keyed to simple ambient noises, like the spitfire whoosh of Melanie’s sports car as she zips along the California coast to Bodega Bay, and the putt-putt outboard that propels her rented boat to the Brenner house. Later, Mitch’s mother will make her fateful visit to the Fawcett farm in a rough-running pickup truck. The film’s famous final shot, too, is of Melanie’s sports car, now driven by Mitch, with Melanie as catatonic passenger. These sequences all invariably include at least one image of the vehicle in question dwarfed by a pitiless and immense landscape, the rasping motor little more than a death rattle echoing in the void.
Even minus a manipulative music score, The Birds manages to incorporate songs that add an ironic and disquieting commentary to the film. During Melanie’s dinner visit with the Brenner household, she sits at the piano and plays Debussy’s soothing "Arabesque No. 1" while Cathy talks about one of Mitch’s court cases, a client who "shot his wife in the head six times." (Mitch gleefully adds the details: the husband was watching a ball game on TV and his wife changed the channel.) The scene is filled with macabre Hitchcock touches like the dour portrait of the deceased Brenner patriarch that hangs prominently on the wall above the piano, as if glaring at Melanie while she plays. The entire sequence seems to mock the cultured domesticity of Debussy’s music. In another scene — one of the film’s greatest — Melanie nervously watches crows massing on a playground jungle gym. We hear the children inside the Bodega Bay grade school singing chorus after chorus of an innocuous folk song with the refrain, "ristle-tee rostle-tee, hey donnie-dostle-tee." Between the repetitions of the sprightly song and the ominous portent in the school yard, Hitchcock powerfully evokes the primal chills of a Grimms’ fairy tale. And as Melanie anxiously smokes her cigarette and eyes the crows, we feel the sickening transformation of a child’s fantasy into the grisly madness of a punishing adult world.
– Bob Wake