The Birds is about all sort of birds. The ones we are acquainted with initially are actually a pair of humans. Lovebirds you might call them. Except they don’t know it quite yet, but the moment Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) meet in a pet shop, the sparks are already flying — the birds too.
In this way, the film opens with a love story as you might expect between a grounded lawyer and a cultured woman who nevertheless has somewhat of a reputation. She matter of factly plays “Deux Arabesques” by Claude Debussy on the piano (I had to look that up), but she’s also been involved in an unseemly ordeal at a Roman fountain. Her daddy’s a big shot newspaperman. She’s the kind of gal who elicits whistles from passersby and skeptical looks from protective mothers. The film has both types.
But if The Birds ended as a simple love story it would be a rather tepid affair altogether, not to mention faulty advertising. But Alfred Hitchcock the unequivocal master of suspense could never be accused of such a thing (other things possibly). He injects the storyline with an impending dread and a continual payoff that makes the Birds a tense horror classic even to this day putting the emphasis on his major assets. The first being his antagonistic ornithological forces cycling in and out of the narrative menacingly. The second strength is his impeccable use of panoramic locales.
Much like Douglas Sirk, Hitchcock knows how to use the glossy palette of Hollywood to the nth degree and it becomes one of his main attractions taking his favorite spots in Northern California once again — this time the idyllic Bodega Bay — and developing them into the perfect canvass for the drama he draws up.
A short story from Daphne du Maurier (author of Rebecca) provided the inspiration rather than true source material, however, Ed Mcbain, a reputable writer in his own right, crafts something that’s still quite compelling. It proceeds like you might expect from a normal romantic drama. There’s the meet-cute, the flirtatious repartee, the woman pursuing the man who catches her fancy. Beautiful skies, sunshine, and love in the air. There’s a younger sister (Angela Cartwright), an old flame (Suzanne Pleshette), and a mother (Jessica Tandy). Each looks at this new woman with an entirely different perspective.
But upending the typical progressions The Birds becomes a grim thriller as the bird populations including crows, seagulls, and even sparrows become belligerent. Invading homes, causing havoc, and terrorizing the general population. Melanie and Mitch become our intrepid heroes but it’s almost easy to lose them amidst this churning force of nature.
In one particular scene inside the iconic Tides restaurant, all the locals trade talk about the current state of affairs. It becomes very obvious that there’s a great deal of fear and confusion. What’s at hand is almost apocalyptic as one drunkard wildly quotes the Bible out of context and a didactic bird expert tries to assuage any concerns. But none of that dialogue can possibly mitigate what happens next. A fire starts. The birds rain down in waves of fury. People are chased hither and thither. Melanie first looks on from the restaurant, fights her way to a telephone booth and somehow reaches safety. Others were not so lucky.
Most assuredly, the film benefits from long stretches of wordless action. The most striking example involves a murder of crows gathering on a jungle gym near the schoolhouse. Never before was the name of their posse more applicable. And while the narrative lacks a true score, the unnerving screeches from the birds is sound enough to send chills down the spine of any audience.
At different times both Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn had the potential to be in this project, but perhaps it’s better that they were not. Although Hitchcock essentially tortured her and ultimately ruined her career, Tippi Hedren gives a sparkling performance here that is nevertheless overshadowed by her many adversaries. After all, it’s not her name in the title. The same goes for Rod Taylor a handsome and adequate actor but he’s not the main attraction either. However, to its credit, the script does at least devote time to several of its supporting characters to develop their contours, namely the schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) and Mitch’s skeptical mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). But that’s not what keeps us watching or what keeps audiences coming back over 50 years later. No one knew that better than Hitchcock himself.