By David Nilsen
The Birds is perhaps the strangest film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, or at least the most unlikely. Though the film’s tension comes more from suspense than horror, placing the narrative in the British director’s wheelhouse, it’s still an odd choice for Hitch. While it’s not the only quasi-horror film he ever made (Psycho has to be counted there), it is the only film he ever made where the threat didn’t come from another human being. In this case, it came from birds. Near the end of his career, when he was entrenched as one of the greatest directors in the world, he decided to make a creature feature.
The Birds is based on a short story by popular suspense novelist Daphne du Maurier, who also penned the source novel for one of Hitchcock’s only film to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture, Rebecca (1940). This writer and director seem uniquely suited to each other, with both building dread across the course of a story, relying on suspense over action and often employing unexpected plot twists. It’s surprising Hitchcock didn’t adapt more of du Maurier’s stories.
The Birds tells the story of a small coastal town in California where the local avian residents stop acting like birds and start acting like murderous monsters. The story follows Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and a few hangers-on (Jessica Tandy is excellent as Mitch’s chilly mother) as they try to escape the aerial attack of feathered nightmares. While tame by today’s standards, the film is Hitchcock’s most graphic, with eyes pecked out and blood streaming from beak punctures. True to Hitch’s strengths, however, the films most harrowing sequences are those that anticipate violence rather than those that show it. Birds perch menacingly on rooftops, power lines, and playground equipment, and we know any minute they’ll attack in a frenzy, but for now, they just wait and watch. The potential of these dread-filled scenes is surely what drew Hitchcock to this project.
Tippi Hedren is perfect as one of the icy Hitchcock blonde, and, true to form, Hitchcock was horrible to her. The tales of Hitchcock’s abuse of Hedren that have emerged from this set are the stuff of legend, and resulted in the actress being hospitalized more emotional and psychological distress. She made one more movie with him (the excellent 1964 film Marnie) before cutting ties with the director who made her a star. Hedren has a biography coming out this year that is sure to share some interesting (and damning) details about the famed director’s treatment of her on the set of these two films, particularly The Birds. Hedren delivered an excellent performance, despite what was happening off camera.
The Birds is the perfect movie for an October evenings, and we’ll be watching it as part of the Third Floor Film Series on Thursday, October 20, at 7 p.m. As always, free popcorn, candy, coffee, and Jones Soda will be provided, and I will be leading a brief discussion after the film. You won’t want to miss this fun (and frightening) film on our 80″ big screen. I hope to see you there.