Genius auteur director Alfred Hitchcock is best known for his suspense-filled horror and psychological films. Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho – these works of cinema are steeped in madness, murder, and enough tension to make the Golden Gate Bridge look like a rickety ropewalk.
When picking a favourite horror from the Hitchcock canon, his 1963 effort The Birds is often left out in the cold. A strange little story that nevertheless boils over into an unstoppable tidal wave of panic and suspense, Hitchcock was quoted as saying; “The Birds could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made.”
A rich, attractive young playgirl and socialite from San Francisco, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) follows potential boyfriend Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to his home town of Bodega Bay. There she meets his mother, his younger sister, and his ex-lover Annie (Susan Pleshette). However, while the sexual tension between Melanie and Mitch starts to simmer, something very strange begins to happen. The birds of Bodega Bay begin to attack humans, in small groups at first, then in their hundreds, and then in their thousands, swooping down on people in the streets and battering at windows until even houses are no longer safe. With no explanation, no warning, and nowhere to run, Melanie, Mitch and their friends have little hope of escaping the birds.
The Birds holds a unique place in the hearts of horror fans. It’s not about psychotic serial killers, elaborate murder plots, or how to while away the time with a broken leg. It’s simply about what could happen if our friendly neighbourhood birds were to suddenly decide that the odd handful of seed just doesn’t cut it anymore. Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, The Birds is infused with a restrained yet frightening atmosphere that gradually builds without ever quite reaching a crescendo.
Performances are wonderfully subdued, and therefore very realistic. Even during the most horrific bird attacks, main character Melanie doesn’t break the tension by screaming for help; her small gasps and cries are all but drowned out by the endless deafening fluttering of the birds as they corner her in an attic.
Hitchcock’s classic ‘build, release and repeat’ method of creating suspense is made use of to perfection in conjunction with Hedren’s performance. In one of the most famous scenes in cinema, Melanie sits outside the Bodega Bay School listening to a slowly rising round song being sung by the children, while the birds gather menacingly in twos and threes behind her unknowing back. When she realises what is happening, the birds do not attack straight away, but watch her in eerie silence as she goes into the school to try to get the children to safety.
There is then a tumultuous scene, in which she and the children run through the streets under avian attack, but even this doesn’t release the tension entirely; due to the unexplained and unpredictable nature of the birds, in this horror film, anything could happen, at any time, for any reason.
Sound is also a huge factor in the creation of the film’s atmosphere; due to the relative difficulty of depicting large amounts of birds attacking a town (some of the effects are admittedly very outdated) the endless cacophony of squawks and screams, and the thunderous fluttering of wings during bird attacks help to keep the tension levels running high once an attack begins. The sound builds and builds, again without ever reaching a crescendo; in the end it dimply dies away, leaving unease and expectation in its wake.
When you first hear of the concept of The Birds – tweeting feathery sweethearts turning on us with inexplicable murderous intent – it sounds almost laughable. However, the more you allow your mind to take the idea and run with it, the more horrific it becomes (scientists estimate that there are about 100 billion birds alive in the world today). Once you have seen Hitchcock’s take on this disquieting notion, you will never look at a chirruping sparrow in quite the same way again…
Best scene: The attack at the school
Best performance: Tippi Hedren
Best line: “Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? Who are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!”