Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: The Birds


Tippi Hedrin and Rod Taylor in The Birds.

Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in The Birds.

We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

7. The Birds, 1963

It is a shame, but the behind-the scenes drama of the making of The Birds, specifically Hitchcock’s unforgivable abuse of Tippi Hedrin, has, in some circles, become the dominant narrative of this spellbinding, if often mysterious movie.

From the earliest Hitchcock movies, birds are a notable visual motif in his narratives. In Blackmail (1929), Hitch’s first talkie, chirping birds above the heroine’s bed become more shrill as her sense of isolation and danger increases. In Sabotage (1936) a bird shop serves as a cover for a nest of spies. In The Lady Vanishes (1938) birds escape their cages into a railroad boxcar. To Catch a Thief (1955) gives us the unforgettable image of Cary Grant sitting between Hitchcock, in one of his famous cameos, and a lady with two green birds fighting in a cage. In Vertigo (1958), Kim Novak as Madeleine, wears a gold bird pin on her suit. And Psycho famously features stuffed birds as a dark and looming presence. The Janel Leigh character is named Crane. Norman Bates tells her she eats like a bird.

Crime novelist Evan Hunter (author of The Blackboard Jungle) adapted Daphne du Maurier short story The Birds, which Hitchcock had under option. The story is a meditation of man against the implacable forces of nature. The Tippi Hedren character does not exist in Du Maurier’s story. And the Mitch Daniel’s character, played by Rod Taylor, bears little resemblance to du Maurier’s hero, a British veteran on a pension struggling to support his family with farm work. In fact, du Maurier’s story feels like a Victorian Gothic. Evans, with Hitch’s constant input, turns the dark, noirish tale into a widescreen technicolor nightmare about a cool, beautiful woman who seems to unleash the forces of nature as an ornithological apocalypse.

The Birds takes place in Bodega Bay, a charming village on Northern California’s coast. There, playgirl Melanie Daniels (Hedren in her screen debut) pursues Mitch Daniels in order to play a prank on him, a gift of two love birds for his little sister. But Melanie’s true mission is to seduce Mitch, to punish his superior male nature with her sexuality. Melanie arrives in Bodega Bay, and with her comes a vast army of sharp-nosed birds, dive bombers who attack singly, and then in uncountable swarms.

Watching the narrative unfold, the viewer waits for an explanation. Why are the birds attacking? Are they being directed by some outside malevolent force? Is this science fiction or horror? But Hitchcock refuses to give us neat explanations, or to provide the framework for a genre in which the audience can comfortably settle. Today, Hollywood would use so-called global warming as the reason. But Hitch was far too sophisticated for such facile story-telling. His birds are unleashed by nature. They represent the eternal tension that exists between man and woman, between the domesticated female, and the female who defies the architecture of home and hearth.

These two poles are represented by Melanie Daniels, the notorious, shallow heiress, and Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) an overbearing, jealous mother, who protects her only son like, well, like a ferocious mother bird. Even her hair, like Melanie’s, is styled like an elegant a bird’s nest.

The suspense builds through a series of bird attacks that for Hitch, recalled the German bombings of London during WWII. The attacks grow more ferocious, more impersonal, as the birds gather for what seems to be the final destruction of Bodega Bay, and by implication, the entire world. Running parallel with the combat scenes, as in any good war movie, is the love story between Mitch and Melanie, complicated by Mitch’s grasping mother, and school teacher Annie Hathaway (Suzanne Pleshette), who fell in love with Mitch, followed him to Bodega Bay, and just stayed, defeated by Mitch’s domineering mother. Annie is now a village schoolmarm, living a life of diminished expectations.

It is astonishing to go back and read the original reviews of The Birds to discover that Tippi Hedren’s performance was treated unkindly, as was the film, which was, much to Hitch’s chagrin, a box office dud. In fact, Hedren’s performance is nothing less than astonishing. And it is in a long, dialogue-heavy scene with Pleshette, beautifully written, where Hedren’s performance, subtle and underplayed, truly shines. In Pleshette’s plain cottage, the two woman, in love with the same man, probe one another with delicate questions and declarations that, ultimately, bring them to a touching if tentative friendship. Both actresses are highly attuned to the nuances of this scene. That Hedren, a newcomer to films from a modeling career, has never been recognized for the perfection of her performance in this one scene is something of a critical crime.

Movie endings traditionally give us closure. The story ends and hopefully resolves itself. This can be tricky. The Birds ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. And resolution can be found in its very non-resolution. Evan Hunter wrote a rip-roaring ending, much like a final combat scene. But Hitch resisted. He understood that a traditional ending would be false. The very premise of The Birds is a mysterious, unnamed force. Though Mitch’s mother blames Melanie, “Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil — evil!”

Hitch understood that a true apocalypse resists all natural and supernatural explanations. Thus, the stunning ending, as the wounded members of the family squeeze into Mitch’s tiny car, and cruise down the road, surrounded by millions of cruelly indifferent birds. The image lingers in our memory, open-ended and wonderfully mysterious. Hitchcock even wanted to drop the traditional THE END on the screen. At the time Universal deemed this too radical. But now the current MCA Universal release has honored Hitch’s wish and THE END is not there.

A fitting end for a great movie.

birds for blog  copy

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  1. TheNonna
    Posted March 26, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I LOVE this movie – I have always loved this movie. Even though Notorious and Rear Window are my favorite suspense Hitchcocks, this was a true Hitchcock horror movie to me and it was the first Hitchcock I saw – and made me love HIM and want to see them all (okay, honestly, I do love almost everyone one of them). I love the fact that she’s bold (and rather sleazy) enough to follow some man she doesn’t know up the coast. I am mesmerized by the fact that the birds seem to be drawn either to Tippi or the lovebirds and I can’t really figure out which. I am terrified by the scenes where they have to walk through the playground to get the kids away from school. I will never forget the scene where the man has no eyeballs!!! I adore the ending – why are they there? – no one ever knows and we are left to wonder if they will follow her & the lovebirds wherever they go.
    I just recorded this on my DVR from TCM this past week and it’s slated for late night viewing tonight – I am amused that I came across this post today.

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  2. Michael Kennedy
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I watched “To catch a thief” again last night. I watch it every few months just for the scenery. Hitch certainly didn’t like eggs. One is thrown against the window in one scene and Jessie puts her cigarette out in another.

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  3. Bill Brandt
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    It has been 50 years since I have seen this movie (which  by the time, had to have been in a theater).

    As I recall the ending – as you said – was just as mysterious as the buildup. Much better from an artistic point of view.

    If you drive there today, you would be surprised at the influence that movie had on the region. You will still see B & W photos of the filming in several of the buildings.  Some of the filming was done in the town of Bodega – about 3-5 miles in from the coast – with the rest around Bodega Bay.

    There is a famous scene at a waterfront restaurant, as I recall – the Tides Restaurant – and that is still there.

    On Hedren – that is the one movie I always think of her in – her iconic role. Looking at imdb she has done a lot of work – up to this year – but does anyone think of her in anything but this role? 

    Yes, if we had gotten the whole global warming explanation in the movie would people still be talking about it 50 years from now?

    I think not.

    Now on to amazon to see if they have a BluRay version. Robert – if you set up an account there at least I can give you some commission for all of your excellent reviews driving me to amazon 😉

    Just finished watching North By Northwest last night in Blu Ray – just as brilliant today as it was in 1959.

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  4. sennacherib
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Robert,  I can’t agree with you on this one. I always felt it was just cheep entertainment. You have no idea how long I’ve waited to use that one!

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  5. iwander
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Doctor Strangelove !

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  6. Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Hmm. Never had the impression the birds were following Melanie. It’s been years since I last saw it but I remember some sort of reference — a radio report between attacks or at the end? — that said the problem happened worldwide. When I first saw it as a teen I liked that no explanation for the attacks was given: it was a malevolence and the attacks came in waves, like the tides. Marvelous scare, totally different type than the first slasher flick, “Psycho.”
    BTW, I ran across Evan Hunter’s Ed McBain web site on which he has his book, “Me and Hitch,” ( chronicling his work with the film.

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