Bodega Bay, California, is the epicenter of an avian revolution, where humans are attacked as an invasive species, in Alfred Hitchcock’s paranoid vision of nature gone berserk. Arguably the last of Hitchcock’s great films, The Birds is somewhat hampered by charisma-challenged leading actors Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, but redeemed by bird attacks so horrifying they forever alter the way one views seagulls at the beach. Hitchcock and his writers intentionally failed to provide a motivation for the attacks. Perhaps, the birds attack because the audience wants them to.
Hitchcock was expected to top himself after the sensation of Psycho, and finally settled on filming a doom-laden story by Daphne du Maurier. He had previously adapted two of her novels, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. But, Hitchcock was also inspired by various stories of bird attacks, including a news story of a fog-displaced migration wreaking havoc on the small town of Santa Rosa, CA, where he had filmed Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock adored the fact that the enemy consisted of innocent appearing sparrows and other harmless birds, and wanted the film to highlight “menace in the bright sunlight” (Taylor). And, he wanted the story to take unexpected turns, so the audience couldn't anticipate every development.
He collaborated on the script with Evan Hunter, a novelist whose Blackboard Jungle had been made into a successful film. Although their relationship did not end happily, Hunter said, “In truth, for a chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock, I would have agreed to do a screenplay based on the Bronx Telephone Book” (McGilligan). Although the original story concerned a farm family in Cornwall, England, the film was transposed to Bodega Bay, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. Central Bodega Bay was created by means of trick shots in the studio, but Hitchcock had his production team visit the community and document the exteriors and interiors in detail, and even photographed the inhabitants as a guide for costuming.
Hitchcock always prided himself on sticking to the script and storyboards when working, and often insisted the filming itself was anticlimactic to the planning of the film. In part, this was because he was always conscious of not wasting time on the set, so as not to exceed his budget. But, as he began The Birds, he felt some parts of his script weren’t working. His biographers describe him as particularly keyed up while shooting, and because of his anxiety about the film, there were several largely improvised scenes, like the attack on the children’s party. This also resulted in an uncharacteristic amount of extra film left on the cutting room floor.
Anne Bancroft was considered for the lead, but the director wanted to save on salary money to fund his special effects. Tippi Hedren (actress Melanie Griffith’s mother) was discovered in a tv commercial and would be the last actress/muse to inherit the director’s “icy blonde” mantle. At first, Hedren was under the impression he was interested in casting her in his popular tv series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She was under personal contract to him, but so were two other actresses he was considering for the lead in The Birds, Joanna Moore and Claire Griswold, who experienced the same hair and wardrobe tests, and the same lingering lunches with the director. He informed Hedren that she would be his lead actress during a dinner at Chasen’s Restaurant, where he gave her a little gold pin with flying birds on it. After the part was hers, he dictated her off-camera look as well as her hair and costume for the film. “That part I found surprising” she told biographer Donald Spoto. “He spent as much money on an outright gift of a personal wardrobe as he did on my year’s salary.” (Paglia). She spends the majority of the film in a pale green Edith Head suit, reminiscent of the sartorial taste of previous Hitchcock heroines. Her delicate beauty belied a feistiness which allowed her to withstand the strenuous and sometimes dangerous filming with real birds.
Australian actor Rod Taylor was a he-man of the day, oddly entangled here in his mother’s apron strings. He may have been a substitute for Cary Grant, but he was not Cary Grant.
The bird effects were hybrids of bird footage (like that filmed at the San Francisco garbage dump) sometimes superimposed several times, real trained birds and a few papier maché ones. The special effects shots are extraordinarily complex. For example, "downtown" Bodega Bay does not exist and was a painting, with a hole left for inserting footage of the gas station fire filmed on the Universal Studios parking lot. The work with live birds resulted in many injuries, since the birds did not enjoy being on the sound stage. The live gulls attacking Hedren in the climactic scene were used for one week, and yielded approximately one minute of footage. Hedren was injured when a gull gashed her lower eyelid, and she became distraught over the grueling process. Less charitable writers have suggested that an actress making her first film would not know that she was being submitted to unusually dangerous conditions. Some of the bird sequences have sustained their effectiveness more than others, as standards for special effects have changed. What has not aged is the psychological terror of which Hitchcock was the master.
There is no music, only Bernard Herrmann’s orchestration of electronically enhanced bird sounds, on an instrument called a Trautonium, creating a cacophony adding to the disquieting effect. On the set, a pounding drummer helped orchestrate the actors’ reaction to a threat yet to be added with special effects. Hitchcock wanted the film to conclude without a title card reading The End. The studio objected strenuously, saying the audience couldn’t possibly understand an ambiguous conclusion, especially lacking the planned final shot of the Golden Gate Bridge entirely blanketed in birds.
This film is one of the many for which, Hitchcock, who never won an Oscar, was lambasted by critics for his career long dedication to trivial genre films. François Truffaut was among the first to display an unlimited admiration for Hitchcock, a director as well known today as when he made his last film 35 years ago. In his review of The Birds, Truffaut bemoaned the praise heaped on films like Bridge on the River Kwai “scenes set inside offices alternating with discussions between old fogies and some action scenes usually filmed by another crew. Rubbish , traps for fools, Oscar machines….what an injustice there is in the generally bad reception. I am so disappointed that no critic admired the basic premise of the film ‘Birds attack people.’”
Note: Hitchcock leaves the pet shop as Tippi enters it near the beginning of the film, walking his own Highland terriers, Stanley and Geoffrey.
(Photo from The Birds (BFI monograph) by Camille Paglia. Other sources include: Hitchcock/Truffaut, The Complete Hitchcock by Paul Condon and Jim Sangster, The Films in my Life by Francois Truffaut, Films of Alfred Hitchcock by Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky, Hitch by John Russell Taylor, Alfred Hitchcock, a Life in Darkness and Light, by Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock at Work by Bill Krohn, Edith Head’s Hollywood by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, The Birds in the May, 1963 Films in Review.