Retro Review: The Birds (1963)

I dug this one out of the vaults on request! Hope you enjoy it!

Alfred Hitchcock is a name that is synonymous with horror and thriller films, especially during the 50’s and early 60’s. During this time frame he would make Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and the subject of this review, The Birds. He’d made successful movies prior to this run but few directors can claim a better ten year span, and while Marnie in 1964 would be a success, The Birds is Hitchcock’s last great film.

The film is adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story of the same name. It would be the third time that Hitchcock would use her works as inspiration (Jamaica Inn in 1939 and Rebecca in 1940). He originally bought the rights to use as an episode of his widely successful Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show, but decided to do a feature length film instead. He broadened the story from a family in a secluded cottage terrorized by fluctuating bird attacks. In the story they discover the attacks to coincide with the tides and use this to escape. In the film no such correlation is made. It’s also a larger scale affair, with an entire seaside town under attack.

Over 3200 birds were used on set and the special effects were more practical than you might realize. Often scenes were shot with real birds attached to the actors in combination with sodium vapor process effects. Blue screen shots were deemed unacceptable because the flapping of wings caused blue fringing. Hitchcock sought out the only studio in the United States that used sodium vapor processing to blend foreground and background images, Walt Disney. By blending these shots with real birds and puppets he was able to create effects that were cutting edge at the time. Tippi Hedron was famously traumatized by her upstairs scene with a room full of birds. Gulls were attached to her with nylon string and the attacks on her person were quite real. She was cut on the face and production was shut down for a week while she recovered from a panic attack on set.

What I enjoy the most about The Birds is how stark it is. There’s no musical score (unheard of at the time), the vibrant colors are almost in direct contrast with the black ravens and white gulls, and the characters are terrorized by a “monster” that is all too real. It’s not hard to imagine yourself in this situation because the villain of this film are animals we see on a daily basis. As the tension builds throughout the film you are taken along on a very real journey. It sets it apart from a lot of horror films, but this is something that Hitchcock excels at….putting you into a situation with the protagonists. It’s a near magic skillset that few to this day have mastered.

Another thing that I enjoy about The Birds is the ending. As our survivors slowly wade through ravens and gulls as far as the eye can see, careful not to stir or anger them on the way to their car, you get the full scale of how bad this event has gotten. Every power line, fence rail and post, and every square inch of room space is covered in winged creatures. As they drive off into the distance there is no “The End”. Just a cut to the Universal logo. Hitchcock didn’t want you to leave the theater comfortable. No. He wanted you to wonder if they were going to make it, how far the event had spread. In one possible ending Mitch, Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy think they’ve made it only to find the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds. It shows you where Hitchcock’s mind was at, and it wasn’t anywhere near the happy endings that Hollywood loves so much.

All in all, The Birds is classic cinema that never gets old. It’s a masterwork by one of the greatest masters of the craft. Each scene is sculpted no differently than an artist chiseling away at a stone. It’s a must see, from the subtle hints of what is coming to the full on attack of Bodega Bay, The Birds is top notch terror.

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