Pecking Order: Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS At 60

There are few examples of A-class terror among the schlock and gonzo "animal attack" imitators.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · March 29, 2023, 6:20 PM EDT

"We put our animals in zoos or reservations and our plants in pots or organized rows; a place for everything, and everything in its place." Christopher and Kathleen Vander Kaay, Anatomy of Fear (2014)

Forces of nature are the ultimate test on humanity. After thousands of years huddled in caves fending for ourselves, what we would deem to be more civilized (and I use this term lightly in today's world) has led to conquering frontiers… while building walls to keep "things" out, organized lives packed into cubic meters covering thousands of square mileage. All this time, we have become increasingly complacent to the sheer power of the elements, no longer relying on the hunt to survive or a retreat into those ancient dark places… now we thrive on order. And all the while, nature resembles something unpredictable, especially when caught in the realms of cinema… presented as an unexplainable terror.

Taking flight

Dubbed an "apocalyptic poem" by Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic The Birds remains a prime example of the inexplicable forces at play while exploring "man versus nature." In this instance, a subgenre often referred to as "animal attack movies" that Hitchcock's masterpiece set the template for. No giant apes or lizards from 20,000 fathoms here ironically, those creature features made more sense in their exposition instead, we are shown a more benevolent threat. At least to begin with.


Although Hitchcock's film is one of few that hints at the supernatural, the "Master of Suspense" sets out to feed on the fear of his audience. He threw breadcrumbs before the film was even released, taking great pleasure in increasing anxieties through a carefully constructed teaser akin to Walt Disney's promotional films of the era, albeit tinged with Hitchcock's dark sense of humor and iconic "How do you do" before introducing his lecture on the birds' "age-long relationship with man"; a warning against tampering with nature. In all honesty, Hitchcock was exploiting the fear of nuclear fallout at its height, culminating in the Cuban missile crisis during those "13 days" in October of 1963.


But, rather than lean heavily into science fiction already fuelled by nuclear threat the decade before Hitchcock returned to Daphne du Maurier's highly respected source material after adapting two of her novels back-to-back (Jamaica Inn and Rebecca) over twenty years prior. The seeds of such anxieties are very much rooted in the ideas that du Maurier explored in her original short story from 1952, in which she reflected upon the experiences of the British during the Second World War; the isles cut off from mainland Europe, society (and domestic spaces) under threat by aggressive forces. Loosely inspired by the story, Hitchcock, with screenwriter Evan Hunter, transposes an allegorical tale of "aerial assault" ― wings of war, birds instead of bombs ― from du Maurier's home county of Cornwall, England, to the sleepy seaside town of Bodega Bay, California. The film was also inspired by several accounts of bird attacks during the early '60s in California, where Bodega farmers reportedly told Hitchcock stories of crows plucking out the eyes of newborn lambs, not only fueling the narrative further but, in turn, intensifying an irrational fear of our feathered friends [1]. All of this, and there is still the film's "shocking mystery" wrapped up as Hitchcock's trademark MacGuffin; the final result is not a far cry from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone with his dystopian twist and grasp of speculative fiction.


Fowl… and foul play

Of course, this is a movie; the film's technical accomplishments are some of the best of its era, setting a high benchmark not surpassed for over another decade with Steven Spielberg's other Universal release, Jaws, in 1975. The Birds marked Hitchcock's first release from Universal since his psychological thriller Shadow of a Doubt twenty years prior, offering the director his biggest budget to date, costing $3.3 million, and making back almost four times the amount. After the success of Psycho, he returned to the (bloody) vibrancy of Technicolor, employing all manner of techniques. The Oscar-nominated special visual effects (no CGI back then) came courtesy of Disney animator (and co-creator of Mickey Mouse) Ub Iwerks, who helped integrate the animation and special effects through almost 400 trick shots of double/triple printing. Legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock (John Carpenter's The Thing) worked on the incredible matte paintings that served as the integral backdrops, notably, the unforgettable final shot composed of sixteen separate pieces of film.


The diegetic sound design that replaces the vacant score was chosen in an effort to suspend the audience's disbelief further. Composer (and frequent Hitchcock collaborator) Bernard Herrmann served as a sound consultant with a team of technicians and recordists, notably pioneering composers Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann, who used an early electronic synthesizer known as the Trautonium to create sounds utilizing a mix of real and electronic chatter. The result was less the whispering emotional melodies we are often used to with film scores and, instead, something far more immersive via (unnerving) bird cry and flapping of wings. And if all this still doesn't feel frightening or dangerous enough, we are often reminded of the real horrors behind the scenes…


During the infamous attic attack involving Tippi Hedren, we witness a pivotal moment that has often been replicated in horror ― from zombie hordes to slashers and other "shining" examples ― in which (female) victims are often trapped and attacked within the confines of a small space. In this case, dagger-like beaks are reminiscent of Hitchcock's shower scene as the killers hack, stab, and "penetrate" that final barrier of (domestic) safety. The scene is made all the more uncomfortable, knowing Hedren [2] was sexually harassed and constantly intimidated by Hitchcock during filming, locked under his obsessive glare, enacting his frustrations on screen as celluloid rape. Quoted via Donald Spoto's The Dark Side Of Genius: The Life Of Alfred Hitchcock, the director shared this during filming: "I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou. He said, 'Torture the women!' The trouble today is that we don't torture women enough." [3] Glib? Contrary? He obviously didn't give a flying fuck.

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Although there are also obvious references to imagery reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe ― ominous birds and the death of "beautiful women" ― the symbolism and poetry are somewhat mired by such vile behavior. Over the years, this has become a (nasty) convention of certain horror; Dario Argento's sadomasochist obsessions, for example, acted out on screen a decade later as alluring female characters are (artfully) tortured and murdered over and over again. There is real torture in The Birds (that's Hedren's blood, by the way), but it is also about something else hidden under its bloodied foliage; if you look more closely at the female presence throughout, we see other human emotions manifest.


Mother, nature

Each character in The Birds has a distinct personality. The central leads, in particular, are consumers of nature and love, the caged lovebirds a deliberate reference to their courtship. Hedren, in her acting debut, plays the "gilded" Melanie Daniels, a self-absorbed and bored socialite who we see constantly preening herself; with immaculate hair and lipstick in complete contrast to her deliriously blood-stained, battered appearance by the end of the film. Rod Taylor is Mitch Brenner, a somewhat self-righteous lawyer who flirts and flaunts an arrogant sexuality. Once we arrive at Bodega Bay, we meet his raven-haired ex-fiancée, schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who has become almost invisible, wallowing in self-pity. The reason? Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), Mitch's lonely possessive mother who, if we choose to believe, could be a catalyst for the attacks.

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The birds seem to play as a metaphor for Lydia's possessive jealousy of her son, viewing any other woman (poor Annie back in her cage) as a threat to her nest. However, the mother/son relationship obviously steers away from the psychotic and Oedipal references of Hitchcock's previous film. As well as no resolution, the ambiguity throughout ― the unexplained ― veers towards the supernatural and allows for such a film to be read into further. Claw away at the surface, and the birds' aggression represents a possessive maternal instinct when a mother is threatened by their potential replacement. In their flocks, the birds completely contrast Lydia's fear of being alone, hysteria induced by her fears and anxieties from losing her son and potentially even her daughter, Cathy, played by a young Veronica Cartwright [4]. Agitation of the birds also coincides with bells and whistles, a precursor to the first attacks centered around Mitch's previous love interest, Annie. By the end, these jealous manifestations have grown into something apocalyptical.


An unforgettable scene sees Hitchcock ramp up the gore ― providing a genuinely shocking A-budget scare ― as Lydia visits her neighbor and discovers the man with his eyes plucked out. Lydia and the audience recoil; the stunned silence is in complete contrast to the iconic shower scene in Psycho, the lack of Herrmann's piercing strings only emphasizing the terror. This emphasis is just as much down to how familiar the surroundings are and how much we make ourselves at home visiting Bodega Bay. As with any great film, the environment often plays a major character. In this case, one which helps diffuse the audience, luring them into what they perceive to be relative safety. For this, Hitchcock once again drew upon Edward Hopper's paintings [5] as a touchstone, the isolated and ominous landscape of Lighthouse Hill (1927) eerily reminiscent. Once captured by its beautiful design and setting, the film begins to deliver portentous imagery, from the gathering of birds on a jungle gym right up to its more gruesome moments. Amongst all of this, Hitchcock manages to focus on the reliability (and relatability) of everyday life, pitting the everyman (and woman) against insurmountable odds, in this case unleashing something almost biblical on a familiar safe haven ― a community, the home ― threatened by the wrath of nature… or the wrath of God.

Birds of a feather

As a forerunner to Jaws, the imprint of Hitchcock's film on Steven Spielberg's masterpiece is undeniable, if somewhat overshadowed by its leviathan presence on the landscape of cinema and popular culture. The parallels are right there: both films are based on original texts, and each builds a supreme sense of tension. However, Hitchcock wasn't so much an influence but a lifesaver, with Spielberg having no choice but to rely on his clever use of the "shark's-eye-view" when the mechanical shark proved unreliable, once admitting to The Roanoke Times in 2013: ​" The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller."


Then there is the coastal setting ― Bodega Bay replaced by the fictitious Amity Island (a very real Martha's Vineyard) ― the cast of ordinaries, the high-octane explosions, the plucked eye(s), and other numerous jump scares. When it comes to the use of music, John Williams may have opted for an adventurous score instead of a silent sea, but the shark's theme is a genius orchestration of minimalism that delivers something relentlessly powerful and primordial. In terms of character study, what The Birds does for female insecurities, Jaws does with its male characters, the "three men on a boat" model during the final act drawing alphas together to fight the fear of nature and the elements.

The influence and legacy of The Birds is all about its execution and mechanics. We have hardly been inundated with bird attack movies, the years proving that few are serious (or skilled) enough to make anyone afraid of such animals. Instead, filmmakers often play with B-movie tropes (birdemics and sharknados ahoy!) more closely aligned with that inherent cannon of '70s exploitation that milked the subgenre ― frogs, bats, killer bees, a killer whale, and a mutant bear to name a few [6] ― with the latest gonzo effort, Cocaine Bear, ironically based on a true story. There will undoubtedly be a meth lab full of drug-induced beasts on their way.


A stark reminder

As a MacGuffin, the birds help eschew any reasoning, leaving the audience shocked and full of important questions about humanity. While on one level, The Birds remains as obvious as Hitchcock's initial "lecture," on another, there are the metaphors ― the Freudian feminist theories, social and sexual elements at play ― that add another layer of poetry. Watching the film 60 years later, it still seems to reflect a turbulent current climate that echoes the tumultuous decade it was released; a time of mindless violence, from the Clutter family murders in 1959 to assassinations, endless war, nuclear threat, and race riots. It would seem that, in reflection, Hitchcock's blatant sadism delivered no reasoning and no resolution. A harsh truth. We may feed off, package, and own every other living thing on the planet, but in reality, nature owns and consumes us all. Ultimately, The Birds paints a bleak picture of our relationship with Mother Nature (she's in charge); in our own flock, we belong to her, with no choice but to submit because we underestimate living things ― from deadly spore to sparrow ― and, in the end, this becomes our downfall.

1.The fear of birds is known as "ornithophobia".
2.The stories are well-known and also documented first-hand in Tippi: a Memoir (2016).
3.He also said: "Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints."
4.Cartwright would return to familiar scream queen territory as an adult in Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).
5.Hopper's House by the Railroad (1925) the model for Norman Bates' house.
6.Check out: Frogs (1972), The Food of the Gods (1976), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Squirm (1976), Ants (1977), The Swarm (1978), Nightwing (1979), Prophecy (1979).