Back in the summer of 1961, crazed seagulls suicidally flew into the sides of houses along the coastline of Monterey Bay. The cause was a mystery. About three years ago, scientists developed a working hypothesis for what happened: contaminated plankton poisoned the food chain, which eventually caused brain damage and seizures in seagulls.
For director Alfred Hitchcock, the 1961 incident convinced him to adapt Daphne du Maurier’s novelette, The Birds, into an eco-terror classic that still resonates today. While the era featured plenty of B-movie monster invasions, it was Hitch who defined the siege horror, clearing the path for movies like Night Of The Living Dead, Piranha, John Carpenter’s The Fog and even M. Night Shaylaman’s staggeringly awful The Happening.
But instead of ascribing a scientific explanation for his homicidal avian assault, Hitchcock opted for something a bit more Freudian. Rewatching the cold but undeniably virile Rod Taylor and bullet-bra’d Tippi Hedren fight off murderous gulls, jays, and crows, it becomes clear that Mother Nature is amplifying the Oedipal hysteria of Taylor’s clingy mum, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Anxious that her darling son will abandon her for a younger woman, Lydia’s rage unleashes a feathery fury upon those who might steal Taylor’s hunky heart. From the phallic first attack as soon as Hedren and Taylor romantically flirt to the final bedroom assault that leaves her sexually carnivorous blond bombshell bloodied and battered, The Birds is a thematic bookend to the twisted maternal psychosis of Psycho, released three years earlier. It also may speak to Hitchcock’s less-than-enlightened view of the women for whom he supposedly lusted. After all, the movie’s unsettling winged attacks accompany a tale of three needy women (or as the Brits call them, “birds”) flocking around a preening himbo.
That Hitchcock’s macabre classic continues to unnerve 50 years after its release is a testament to the Master of Suspense’s impeccable sense of storytelling, pacing and composition. The visual effects are still surprisingly effective, turning an ordinary critter into an inescapable threat. Watch for the movie’s reoccurring allusions to voyeurism and blindness — a farmer’s eyes are pecked out, eye glasses and windows are shattered, a glass telephone booth is attacked, children play blind man’s bluff — and listen for Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant music-less soundtrack of electronic wing-flaps, squawks, and bird cries. Together they prove that The Birds remains a thrilling, psychologically complicated study in sublimated sexual jealousy, violence, and loneliness.
TRIVIA For ‘the birds’:
• Hitchcock reportedly hated shooting on location because he couldn’t get the light exactly right and was often forced to re-dub the live sound recordings.
• Cameras were smeared with meat so that the birds would attack the lenses.
• A treadmill was used for the close up shots of people running. The actors complained how dangerous it was because if one person fell there was a domino effect on the rest.
• An alternate ending featured a shot of the town destroyed and the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds.
Taken from Jeff Meyers' story "Hitchcock's 1963 Classic 'The Birds' is Still Relevant Today."
The Birds screens in conjunction with Texas Public Radio's Cinema Tuesdays series at the Bijou.