This tense and terrifying thriller was crafted by the master of the suspense genre, Alfred Hitchcock.
Beautiful blonde Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meets Lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco shop selling pet birds and, obsessed with the handsome stranger, follows him to his family place in the small coastal town of Bodega Bay, California.
There, for no apparent reason, flocks of birds turn on the human species.
Birds of all varieties – sparrows, crows, gulls etc – launch a coordinated attack on Bodega Bay, ambushing the local school, killing schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), dive-bombing the local diner, and laying merciless siege to Mitch’s farmhouse.
The movie was based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, and following her lead, Hitchcock offers no explanation for this avian revolution, thus making the film even more mysterious.
The performances by the players are a bit upstaged by the effects, and Tippi Hedren’s acting is manikin-like. But the suspense, after the first half-hour, never lets up.
Like Hitchcock’s other horror classic, Psycho (1960), The Birds preys on our primal fears and never misses an opportunity to surprise us.
The film’s underlying emotion – enhanced by the clever use of electronic sounds in place of background music – is menace, and in this respect, Hitchcock certainly delivers the goods.
Even when nothing happens you feel it is about to, and your heart is in your mouth.
Though much of the back-projection is obvious, and the special-effects quite transparent, the overall atmosphere created through the low-key direction gives the film its reputation as one of the most purely cinematic of the entire Hitchcock oeuvre.
The great fire sequence (which began as a result of a leaking gasoline tank, and featured a remarkably long shot of Bodega Bay) is the film’s most memorable set-piece.
Hitchcock infamously nearly led Tippi Hedren to a nervous breakdown, his increasingly sadistic work ethic too intense for her to handle.
Hedren had been told that mechanical birds would be used for the climactic scene where her character, Melanie, is trapped in a room and attacked by crows and gulls until she collapses. But when she arrived on set one Monday morning she was informed that real birds would be used, as the mechanical ones didn’t look realistic enough.
The actress had to stand against a wall while two men wearing protective gloves threw live birds at her. After each take, her clothes would be torn slightly and stage blood applied. Then it would start again. It went on like this for a week.
While filming the shots of Melanie collapsed on the floor, Hitchcock became concerned that the birds were flying away too quickly – and ordered that the birds be tied to Hedren with nylon thread by one leg so they couldn’t fly away!
A catastrophe was narrowly averted on Friday when one bird, frantic at not being able to escape, went for Hedren’s left eye, leaving a nasty gash on the lower lid. At that point, the actress collapsed and was unable to return to work for ten days.
The cast also includes Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw and Ruth McDevitt. The bird trainer in charge of all the anti-social behaviour was Ray Berwick.
A TV film sequel was directed by Rick Rosenthal in 1994. There is no good reason for The Birds II: Land’s End to exist and after watching it you will only wish it didn’t. The cast must certainly do so.
Deputy Al Malone