The Birds (1963) by Alfred Hitchcock
Retro Review by Andrew Swafford
My first exposure to Alfred Hitchcock was through radio. I was very young--too young to have seen any of the director’s films--and sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car as a talk radio host described Hitchcock on what must have been an anniversary of his birth or death. The voice went through the obligatory motions of calling Hitch the “master of suspense” just as we call Elvis Presley the “king of rock and roll” or James Brown the “godfather of soul,” but it also described his filmmaking method in a way that has always stayed with me. According to the car radio, Hitchcock treated filmmaking like a musical art form, in which his job was to play the audience as if it were a pipe organ, pressing keys and and pushing buttons to manipulate their emotions to achieve a desired effect. This bit of quippy film criticism made Hitchcock one of the first directors who truly fascinated me, and I’ve found that description to be true of all of his films I’ve seen. And while it may not be his absolute masterpiece (I’d give that title to Psycho), I believe that Hitchcock manipulates his audience’s expectations to maximum effect in the sometimes-maligned The Birds, which demonstrates that the master of suspense was also the master of genre-hopping within a single film.
In the new documentary on Brian De Palma (we reviewed it here), the Hitchcock-obsessed director of Carrie and Blow Out dismisses The Birds as a lower-tier work, claiming that Hitchcock made his truly great films when he was in his 30s, 40s, and 50s. De Palma says something along the lines of “some people try to make a case for The Birds, but…” then makes a half-shrug, half-eye-rolling motion. Here, De Palma illustrates a common critical sentiment about The Birds, which is often dismissed as a cheap and shallow genre film that Hitchcock made in his sleep, more or less. Sure, it’s a genre exercise--but what genre? What makes The Birds truly great is the way it exponentially raises the stakes by way of shapeshifting, starting as one film and defying expectations to become a different one multiple times over. According to my reading of the film, The Birds actually starts as a romantic comedy, of all things, then switches gears into a full-on disaster movie before getting into classic Hitchcock territory as a home-invasion-horror flick and ending in post-apocalypse far before that genre was ever popularized.
My analysis of the film here may read a little like a plot synopsis--which is kind of inevitable for the kind of interpretation I’m laying out--and will obviously include some major spoilers. Surprise is what really makes this thing work, so if you haven’t seen this 50-plus-year-old film, go watch it before reading the rest of this.
Act I: “You really like me, huh?”
After the ominous opening titles that suggest the film will have a basic routine of standard scares doled out at a regular rhythm, it quickly becomes difficult for the audience to get their bearings as to what kind of film they’re watching. The first scene of The Birds is presents the combination of a mundane city street, a cataclysmic cloud of birds hovering overhead, and a near-meaningless conversation with a clerk in a pet shop before settling into what can only be described as a romantic comedy. We’re following Tippi Hedren’s character, who we later learn is a Zelda Fitzgerald-esque tabloid sensation who revels in her privilege and excess, much to the disdain of the general public; she is soon approached in the pet store by a criminal attorney (Rod Taylor), who plays a flirtatious game with Hedren by treating her as a shop employee, quizzing her about bird species he knows she is completely ignorant of. Hedren plays along and is made a fool of, but I never realized how funny this scene is until watching it with an audience at the Tennessee Theater here in Knoxville. Even when it is later revealed that Taylor wants to see Hedren in court for her ridiculous public behavior, there’s a chemistry between the two characters that feels reminiscent of kids on a schoolyard whose secret crushes can only find expression in merciless teasing.
In the first act, the movie becomes a silly, playful game for Hedren, who wants only to prank the hunky Taylor by stealthily leaving a set of lovebirds in his house (a plot beat that gets borrowed in a sense for Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express--which goes to show just how focused on childlike romance the first act of this movie is). The plan involves such trivialities as pretending to know how to drive a boat and trying to determine whether Taylor’s younger sister’s name is Alice or Lois--it’s Cathy. The two would-be lovers spend most of their screen time together flirtatiously smirking at each other from a distance, while play acting a rivalry that audience members see through as a total farce. The movie never leans into the comedy OR the romance quite as hard as contemporary movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Apartment do, but it’s a low-key will-they/won’t-they that can only be described as a romantic comedy.
TAYLOR: It seems to me you must have gone to a lot of trouble to find out who I was, and where I lived and...
HEDREN: It was no trouble at all...Besides, I was coming up here anyway, I already told you...
TAYLOR: You really like me, huh?
HEDREN: I loathe you. You have no manners. You’re arrogant and conceited, and I wrote you a letter about it, in fact, but I tore it up.
TAYLOR: What did it say?
HEDREN: None of your business.
Totes adorbs. But it is about 25 minutes into the film, just as we feel most comfortable and have gotten settled into all this adorable teasing and humdrum small town gossip, that Hitchcock jabs us--and Hedren--in the forehead with the first bird attack, a suggestion that we shouldn’t/can’t get too comfortable. She bleeds from her head with the kind of bright red blood that was only left to our imagination in the B&W stabby hysterics of Psycho, and it feels extremely out of place in the world that Hitchcock has placed us in thus far. That bright red blood, against the backdrop of a small-town rural American romance, almost feel Lynchian, and it feels of a piece with the seemingly innocent worlds of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Despite the attack, the movie goes on with its low-key rom-com rhythm for a good time still, as Hitchcock continues to string us along for the relationship with an invitation to dinner with Taylor’s family, some late-night girl talk between Taylor and a local schoolteacher (Susanne Pleshette), and a birthday party for Taylor’s younger sister. All the while, birds litter the mise-en-scène, from covering the telephone lines to drifting across the pond in huge numbers.
Act II: “Thus saith the Lord God...I will destroy your high places.”
It is at the 52 minute mark (!!!) that the movie finally abandons the romance plot entirely and swings into a second phase. Just like the way Psycho pulls the rug out from under its audience by (spoiler:) killing off the protagonist in the first half-hour, The Birds practically changes the channel. You’re not watching the same movie anymore once birds start mercilessly pecking into the heads of children at a young girl’s birthday party. The rom-com is over, and we are now watching a disaster movie, the modern equivalent of which would be San Andreas or The Day After Tomorrow. This one is done only as Hitchcock could, though, and the natural forces encroaching upon humanity are the seemingly innocent animals noted in the title, who are both laughable and actually terrifying when brought to life on screen, somehow.
Rather than the flirtatious smirks of the first act, this section of the film primarily concerns itself with masses of endangered people being attacked in broad daylight, freaking out, trying to figure out what to do to stop it, and seeking shelter from the avian hordes, but nowhere is safe. This is illustrated most clearly in the scene in which an impossible amount of birds funnel themselves into Taylor’s house through the chimney, with the family inside practically unable to move due to their overwhelming presence (concluding with a masterful fade into a birdless house once the police inspector arrives--props to Hitchcock for that one).
The disaster plot brings the romance of the first act to its natural conclusion, with Hedren and Taylor embracing each other passionately and often for sake of security. The raised stakes of impending doom also leads characters increasingly sentimental and introspective, as they (especially Taylor’s elderly mother) mull over memories, regrets, and mourned loved ones. Even though all of these character beats are the direct result of Hitchcock straight-up manipulating the machinations of the narrative, they still feel real, believable and human--which says something about the power of movies and our willingness to give ourselves over to these emotion-imbued artificial constructions (for more on this, see: Holy Motors by Leos Carax).
It’s important to point out how the stakes of the disaster are actually disastrous, rather than just fitting into the supernatural horror genre. Movies that fit into the disaster movie genre are built around action setpieces of mass carnage, which we get multiple times in this act of the film. The downright coolest one of these is undoubtedly the schoolhouse scene, when Hitchcock couples repetitive singing exercises performed by children to many cuts back and forth outside, cross-cutting between Hedren smoking to an exponential number of crows congregating on the playground equipment, culminating in a striking visual that is terror-inducing. The children’s race from the schoolhouse to the town is a delicious disaster setpiece, which looks super fake by today’s standards but still manages an extreme level of intensity just by how frenetic it is. Hitchcock creates this scene (and many others) without music, using a cacophony of flapping wings, bird caws, and children’s shrieks as the only orchestra he needs to elicit an audience reaction.
Aside from catastrophic large-scale violence, the other basic genre convention of the disaster movie is getting the huddled masses into one room to collectively argue about what’s happening and what’s to be done. Hitchcock gives us a glorious example of this in The Birds’s diner scene, which includes both (A) a scientific expert giving her expertise about how someone must surely be mistaken about all this bird nonsense, and (B) a pious Christian waxing poetic about the end of times (Ezekiel 6:3--"Thus saith the Lord God...I, even I, will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places.”), all culminating in the film’s grandest action setpiece, this one drenches in gasoline, fire, mass hysterics, and actual EXPLOSIONS. Explosions! Tell me this does not belong in a disaster movie.
(Quick side note to examine subtext:)
It’s interesting that the scientist in the diner scene ends up being proven arrogantly wrong about the bird attack, while the religious zealot predicts the soon-to-come apocalypse correctly. There may be a Princess Mononoke-esque subtext here about the fallacies of humanity needing to be wiped away by the forces of nature. As the scientist says, “Birds are not aggressive creatures...They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet.” It seems as though Tippi Hedren’s character is the epitome of human awfulness, with her high-class, fur-coat wearing status of power and privilege. One emotionally wrought mother points out of Hedren: “when you got here the whole thing started! Who are you!? What are you!? Where do you come from!? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Hedren silently smacks the woman’s face in defiance, which doesn’t exactly prove her wrong…
Many internet critics have recently been comparing The Birds to our new summer shark-blockbuster The Shallows on gender-based grounds, making the case the The Shallows as a more progressive version of the woman vs. nature narrative found here because the female lead stands in contrast to the punished Hedren, a poor, innocent victim of the bird attack. As Hedren says early in the film, “I’m neither poor nor innocent.” As much of a supporter as I am of feminist film criticism, I think it is more interesting to examine Hedren along the lines of class rather than gender, as much of the film seems concerned with pushing her sheltered, entitled sophisticate further and further outside of her comfort zone--starting with her arrival in the rural Bodega Bay and ending with her clothes being tattered and torn by the vengeful forces of nature. People who are upset that she becomes sidelined for Taylor to become the hero in Act III are missing the fact that she’s kind of the villain. This is a supernatural story about privilege being checked by the forces of nature--the first being made last, so to speak. As implied by the quoted prophecy from Ezekiel, the Lord God doesn’t just destroy the high places, but the people who see themselves as belonging to them.
Act III: “I think we’ll be safe here.”
All of the disaster setpieces of the second act take place in public and in broad daylight. It is when the sun goes down and the central family takes shelter in their house that Hitchcock pulls his next lever and shifts the genre conventions of the film again. At the 93-minute mark of this 119 minute feature, the windows of Taylor’s house are boarded up and we enter with them into a new film--this time, a home-invasion horror flick. It’s kid’s stuff for Hitchcock, who again ramps up the tension with ease and relish as the film’s characters cower in silence and fear inside.
This section of the film is all claustrophobic tension, and for much of it we watch Taylor’s younger sister crying and shuddering quietly to herself while Taylor’s elderly mother clutches the walls of a corner with shifty eyes. These scenes are quiet and still, with the camera lingering on faces with an absent musical score, as Hitchcock wants us to listen closely for any faint rustling or the flapping of wings. He also points out multiple times that there are still two caged lovebirds in the house, serving (as Hedren does) as potential enemies among us.
Once things get going, they get going fast. The birds swarm the house, attacking from all sides and coming into conflict with every family member. There is a LOT of torn skin and splayed blood in this climactic section, as opposed to the bludgeons and burning of the disaster section. We’re in Hitchcock’s wheelhouse now. Other genre conventions of the home-invasion horror found here include a slow zoom on a door that’s being quickly torn open from the other side (which calls back to The Phantom Carriage and forward to The Shining), as well as a flashlight-lit walk up a darkened staircase and the slow opening of a potentially dangerous door, which reveals a 1963 jump scare of a pack of surprise birds waiting to ambush the unarmed Tippi Hedren.
This section is clearly demarcated as existing within a separate cinematic tradition from the first two, despite how short it is. It isn’t quite as short, however, as…
Act III, or Coda: “It’s the end of the world!”
Around minute 110 (of 119), the film enters a short but wholly new phase: post-apocalypse. The genre was nowhere near popular yet (modern examples being Mad Max, I Am Legend, The Road, and The Walking Dead) but as soon as Taylor cracks open the door of his house and the camera gives us a reverse shot of nothing but thousands of birds covering a desolate wasteland that was once a happy harbor town, the vibe is unmistakable.
This section, which is more like a coda or epilogue than a full-fledged act, involves nursing wounds, preparing for future attacks, assessing damages, and planning a cautious escape on wheels. The car radio reports that Bodega Bay isn’t the only place affected, as the bird attacks are widespread--however, it seems that the Bay might be their epicenter, which confirms the aforementioned mother’s theory that this all has something to do with Hedren’s presence there, literally or metaphorically.
In the original script by Evan Hunter, the family is allowed to drive off into the sunset to freedom, but Hitchcock nixed the idea--his ending is much more grey and harrowing, suggesting further suffering as Taylor continues to protect Hedren and holds on to their symbolic lovebirds.
This all started with a charming romance in a pet shop. And that’s what I love about The Birds--the exponentially growing insanity of it. In this film, Hitchcock proves himself to be supremely adept at using formulaic conventions to his advantage in order to develop a story that continually subverts his audience’s expectations. It’s genre filmmaking at it’s best--but which one?