The Birds, for many reasons, is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most infamous film. Most people’s first thought, aside from, “Can you believe how far we’ve come with special effects?” is tied to Hitchcock’s horrible treatment of lead actress Tippi Hedren during filming. It’s no secret that the director became obsessed with the up-and-coming star, even sexually assaulting her and later sabotaging her career. In an interview with Vogue in 2016, Hedren opened up about the traumatic relationship, saying that Hitchcock’s last words to her were, “I’ll ruin your career.” He also lied and said they’d use mechanical birds for the intense bedroom bird-attack scene, though at the last minute, Hedren was informed otherwise.
As detailed in Tippi: A Memoir, the conditions for the scene, which took five days to film, got increasingly worse:
“I was pelted with still more live, screaming, frantic birds, while the birds that were tied to me began pecking me as they’d been trained to do. I was too focused on my own survival to notice, but I was told later that it was even more horrifying and heartbreaking for the crew to watch than the previous four days had been, and there wasn’t a thing anyone but Hitchcock could do to put a stop to it.”
It’s important to acknowledge all of this before diving into this iconic horror film and clawing back all of its layers. Firstly, is it really a straight “horror” film? On paper, yes. The bare bones of the story are that it’s about a small sea town in North Carolina that gets overrun by vicious, deadly birds. Scary stuff indeed! But surprisingly, the titular terrors don’t fully show up and wreak bloody havoc until about halfway into the film. It almost feels like it’s grappling with telling two separate stories, one of which gets slightly abandoned once the birds swoop in.
The Birds might be known for the onslaught of winged creatures, but at its core, it’s about humans and the complicated relationships that entangle our lives — the way we say things we don’t mean and cross paths with people who impact us in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Tippi Hedren embodies this masterfully from start to finish in her mighty impressive feature film debut as lead Melanie Daniels, a wealthy socialite who crosses paths with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer she meets in a San Francisco bird store.
Like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho, Melanie is a strong character with a firm grip on her life and her sense of self, making her trajectory all the more devastating. Hedren plays the part of “put-together” perfectly. She’s graceful and elegant, but there is very clearly an edge to her. She carries herself like someone with strongly held convictions. The film is actually at its most interesting when the birds aren’t on-screen, but when Melanie is smartly navigating a vague conversation, very carefully choosing her words so as not to reveal too much of herself.
As mentioned, it feels like The Birds has two narratives competing for attention. The opening scene, essentially the “meet-cute” between Mitch and Melanie, lays the groundwork for what feels like a romance of some kind. Taylor and Hedren engage in a dialogue dance in the pet store as their equally enigmatic and closed off characters balance being both intrigued by and skeptical of the other. Each line is deliberate and reveals so much about the characters thanks to a finely tuned script by Evan Hunter from the short story by Daphne Du Maurier.
The opening of The Birds is so organic and charming, that it feels like it’s poised to be a romantic thriller or an endearing comedy. Hedren is eerily good at saying a lot without saying much at all and Taylor is a fun sparring partner from the start. Mitch is a bit of an enigma in that he comes across as both a charming match for Melanie and keeps her on her toes, but we also learn that he has a checkered past. When Melanie decides to pursue Mitch and track him down to his usual weekend getaway, she meets Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a teacher of Mitch’s sister, whom Melanie learns was once romantically involved with Mitch. Any mention of Mitch and his territorial and disagreeable mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) elicits concern and an exhausted eye roll. That, plus the repeated references to the women in Mitch’s mysterious life in San Francisco as well as him questioning Melanie about her rebellious past, felt like they were positioning us for bigger payoffs. But once the birds become a formidable foe, we don’t return to these discussions around their troubled upbringing.
About halfway though the film is when the more straightforward horror kicks into gear. The practical effects, though immediately date the project, make it that much scarier. There was no CGI or motion-captured birds to take the audience out of the otherwise very real world, something that modern movies rely on far too much. (Just because we have the technological capabilities, doesn’t mean we need to use them!) Hitchcock isn’t afraid to spend time on the mundane aspects of life because that’s where some of the best suspense can emerge. Leave it to Hitchcock to make paddling a boat, starting an engine, and driving on long windy roads both so exciting and terrifying. He also isn’t afraid to have panicked, fleeing school children get assaulted by endless birds.
The discourse at the diner with various members of the community sporting differing strong opinions on “the birds” really opens the door to interpretation. There are a lot of ways to interpret the true “terrors” in this film. Love? Death? Violence? Mother Nature? Political unrest? Loss of control? Maybe, it’s just quite literally a movie about…birds? Ah, theories! Following Psycho in your filmography is a very daunting task. Despite some missed payoffs for rich storylines introduced early on, The Birds more than earns its legendary status, with its beautiful direction, sharp performances, and an inventive and metaphorical premise.