Not the most obvious choice to start with when delving into the Hitchcock canon, he did better films undoubtedly, but The Birds is just a great example of pure story telling. We are not weighed down by lofty concerns, here actions have reactions, and the story moves seamlessly from one point to the next, pure entertainment.
Released in 1963, the film comes towards the end of Hitchcock’s career, all his greatest works are behind him now, and the new wave of the 60s is creeping up to wash away old Hollywood. Even his choice of stars could be described as inferior copies of 1950s matinee idols whose names he largely made. Instead of Carey Grant or James Stewart, we have Rod Taylor. And standing in for Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, we have Tippi Hedren, in her first role. This is not to besmirch their performances, but to show the shifting styles in acting that occurred at the time.
The film opens on the streets of San Francisco, where we are introduced to the main characters, who meet and flirt over a pair of love birds down the pet shop. This tenuous meeting then serves as the reason to swiftly move the action to the coastal town of Bodega Bay. So far, the film is treated in a traditional rom-com way; flighty women seeks strong man to take her in hand, overgrown man-child seeks responsibility and focus.
It’s here that a seagull swoops down and takes a chunk out of our leading lady. Blood trickles down her forehead. If you didn’t know already, then Hitchcock leaves you in no doubt that this is no rom-com. From here on in the director gradually ratchets up the pressure; peculiar sightings of crows in the sky, broody birds of varying species, kamikaze gulls, and all on a full moon too. Yet it is kept in the background of our lovers’ lives. This comes to a juddering halt as further attacks begin. A man is killed in horrific fashion, and then the waves of attacks begin against the townsfolk.
I should stop here to point out the excellent camera work by Robert Burks; there are wonderfully smooth tracking shots, literal birds eye views of the town, point of view juxtaposed with close ups, and all heightened with disorientating cuts. The attacks are filmed and edited in a frenzied way to give the sense of blind panic as the victim in swarmed and overwhelmed. On a number of occasions, I winced at what I was seeing, which is a testament to the film given its age.
Hitchcock provides some wonderfully scenes, where tension is built higher and higher before breaking, notably a scene outside the school. This is a film that gives you thrills along the way not just at the end. There’s also an echo of a shot from Psycho, made prior to this, of a house on a hill. Maybe the film was still in his mind? I digress.
Famously, Hitchcock used not only prop birds but real ones too. This adds a real randomness to the scenes they are in, giving sequences a real edge, as actors look nervous around the birds, a feeling that will never be recreated by special effects. There is no real musical score to write about, no familiar tune ala North by Northwest or Vertigo, here the effects are the sounds of daily life in a coastal fishing village; car engines, children singing, radio, books being shelved, and of course squawks. This rather lends itself to a sense of otherworldliness that pervades the film. The townsfolk cower helplessly before the motiveless assault. Characters themselves proffer nonsense theories for why the attacks are occurring, but Hitchcock offers no answers.
The film ends with our lead characters and the town licking their wounds, skulking away in defeat. No reason is found why the birds’ attacks started, nor ended, and the suspicion remains that they could start again anytime. A great film, unsettling and unnerving, and a prime example of how less is more. The Birds reigns supreme. Enjoy.
© Authur 2023