I bet the average person in 1963 was pretty surprised when they saw The Birds for the first time. If you went into it not knowing anything about it, the whole film would be kind of off-putting. The story is almost unrecognizable from the Daphne DuMaurier novella that inspired it, especially in the beginning.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron) wants to buy some birds, for her aunt (I think it was her aunt…) and meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) looking to buy some birds for his eleven year old sister. He pretends to mistake her for a salesgirl, and starts asking all of these in depth questions about birds. She plays along, even though she hasn’t a clue what the actually answers are. It’s actually pretty humorous. Mitch gets her to let some birds out of their cage and we get a fleeting glimpse of harrowing events to come.
Mitch reveals that he knew all along that Melanie didn’t work at the pet shop; he was just doing that to get back at her for all the practical jokes she’s played on unsuspecting people over the years. Though Melanie can’t remember ever meeting him, Mitch is a lawyer and has apparently seen her in court on various occasions. Melanie decides to get back at him, and she tracks him down to bring him the lovebirds his sister wanted. Although that really seems like more of a creepy overdone favor rather than a practical joke.
She decided to sneak up on him, deliver the birds, and then sneak out of Bodega Bay (the little town where Mitch’s mother and sister live) without him ever knowing. She decides she needs to sneak up on him by boat (which didn’t seem that sneaky to me because there was literally no one else on the water) but he catches her as she’s riding away. All is fun and games until a seagull scratches her face.
This is dismissed as a freak incident and it’s back to the romantic comedy set-up. Melanie lies and says she wasn’t there to give the birds to Mitch specifically; she says she was visiting her old friend Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) who is the school teacher in Bodega Bay. This is a complete lie of course. Mitch doesn’t really care, because he can use this as a way to get her over to his mom’s house for dinner. Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is kind of overprotective of Mitch, I guess because she doesn’t want to be left alone (her husband died a couple of years ago and she did not take it well). Annie and Melanie have a conversation about Lydia and Mitch’s relationship that I didn’t really understand at all, but the main takeaway that I got was Annie and Mitch broke up because of Lydia. Beware Melanie!
Melanie and Cathy (Mitch’s sister) become great friends right away, but it takes awhile for Lydia to warm up to her. She eventually does though. At Cathy’s birthday party, more birds attack. From here, the birds attacks just increase in size and ferocity. Lydia goes to visit her friend and she sees his corpse with his eyes gouged out, and dead birds on the floor. Melanie goes down to check on Cathy at school, and there are tons of birds massing for attack on the playground. Now I know that birds attacking shouldn’t be funny, but here it is. It’s that sort of b-movie cheesy fun that happens here; I was really reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is one of my favorites.
Hitchcock creates tons of suspense in The Birds. If you know anything about it going in, you are always going to be wondering when birds are going to finally attack. Hitch uses a real slow build-up here, first starting out with birds being let out of their cage in the pet store and Lydia’s chickens not eating. Then Melanie gets scratched by a bird acting alone. Then more and more birds start attacking in greater numbers. Another thing Hitch does is he lets the birds just sit there and collect menacingly for awhile. They do this outside of the schoolhouse and also at the very creepy finale. Throughout this whole film, you will be wondering when exactly the birds will attack but you will always know it’s coming. And trust me, the attacks are a gigantic pay off in 1960s disaster scenarios.
There are a lot of classic horror movie moments in The Birds. That classic bit where the attractive blond female leaves the safety of the group, only to regret it later? Yup. That’s one of the best moments in the film here. Another is when they decide to consult some sort of expert on the situation and the expert doesn’t believe a word they’re saying. This part in The Birds is also really great. They are hiding in the diner and this old woman who happens to be an ornithologist is conviently listening in on their conversation about the birds attacks. Of course she contends that they could never happen…. little does she know that birds are going to attack in like two seconds!
The performances in this movie are very appropriate. I think Tippi Hedron did way better here than in Marnie, mostly because her character wasn’t as complex. Melanie’s kind of shallow, and Hedron was able to pull it off a lot better. There’s a sort of cheesiness that comes with the idea of birds attacking, and whether they did it intentionally or not, the cast reflected that wonderfully. They were just slightly over the top, but never to the point of ridicule. I especially liked Jessica Tandy as Lydia. She seemed to have more emotional depth than the rest of the cast, especially when she was talking about her husband dying. I actually genuinely felt sorry for her.
The Birds is a very entertaining movie. I especially recommend it if you have a soft spot for cheesy disaster films. It’s slightly cheesy, but not enough to ruin the movie. Hitchcock’s classic suspense more than makes up for anything the cheesiness could take away. With horror movie moments, attacking birds, Hitchcockian suspense, and just enough cheese, The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s better films.
“I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”
Long story short: 3/4 stars