Based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier, The Birds introduces Tippi Hedren as another of Hitchcock’s blond leading ladies. She plays Melanie Daniels, a rich, confident young woman who starts the film in a pet shop buying a bird and ends it never wanting to see a bird again, after a traumatizing series of events.
The bird shop is where she meets Mitch Brenner, who comes in under the pretence of looking for a pair of love birds for his sister’s birthday. But it is Melanie he is really interested in. And he makes quite the impression on her. After he leaves, she calls in a favour and finds out his address from his car licence plate. She buys the love birds for his sister Cathy and heads north of San Francisco to the small fishing town of Bodega Bay. She leaves the birds inside the family home as a surprise and makes her way back across the bay in a small rented boat. As she finishes her return journey, she is suddenly swooped upon and attacked by a seagull.
There follows a series of bird attacks in the town; at Cathy’s party, at a farm, outside a school, and several people are killed. The Master of Suspense sure knows how to raise the tension and there are a number of thrilling moments in this movie, including the scene where Melanie sits on a bench outside the school. Birds gather on the playground behind her without her knowledge, growing in number every time. She spots one flying, follows its flight, and watches it come to rest with the others, suddenly seeing how many there are of them. A very clever idea to show the audience something our protagonist cannot see and then slowly reveal it to them while we watch their reaction. Another great scene finds our leading lady trapped in a phone box, with birds swooping and crashing all around her. There is carnage and mayhem out on the street and a sense of isolation and terror inside the claustrophobic phone box.
The attacks by the birds are still quite nasty to watch today, which means audiences back when it was released must have been horrified! Hitchcock’s rapid editing techniques evoke shock and terror, accelerating cutting so that the shots move at a fast pace, leaving viewer’s little time to reflect on what they see, just experiencing the raw emotion of the scenes.
Sound is used to great effect in The Birds. The lack of a musical score makes way for composer Bernard Herrmann to create a soundtrack made up of elements such as electronic bird cries and wing-flaps. A lot of the film is eerily silent, raising the tension as we wait for the next attack, trying to listen for even the faintest sound, which could indicate an imminent attack.
A number of Hitchcock’s recurring themes appear in this film. The most obvious one of course is birds, also used in Psycho, Vertigo, and Sabotage. There is also the MacGuffin, the domineering mother, the blond woman, and the Hitchcock cameo (he appears at the beginning, walking two dogs past the pet shop).
Hitchcock described the message of The Birds as “too much complacency in the world: that people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all”. Its everyday scenario scared audiences then and is still effective today. The interactions between the characters, the moments of tension and terror, the ominous atmosphere and the threat of something ordinary suddenly becoming something sinister, all add up to make this a classic film.