Alfred Hitchcock liked to take chances.
He took a huge one with Psycho, a film now recognized as basically the first slasher movie and considered so distasteful by his studio that it refused to budget for it, forcing Hitch to come up with the production money on his own. As it turned out, Psycho made Hitchcock richer – and more independent – than ever.
And a couple of years later the so-called “Master of Suspense” made another daring move by filming The Birds, inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s short story about our feathered friends turning homicidal and waging war on humanity.
I saw The Birds at the Plaza Theatre on its opening night in 1963. I was a 15-year-old drawn not so much by Hitchcock’s name as by the premise: Killer birds!
Like everybody else in the place I jumped when the birds attacked. I screamed when Jessica Tandy found the corpse of her neighbor with his eyes pecked out. I squirmed in fright as leading lady Tippi Hedren was lured into the upstairs bedroom where she was attacked by hundreds of bloodthirsty avians.
And I was puzzled by the film’s ending.
You see, the film didn’t really end at all. We saw the shellshocked principal characters – played by Rod Taylor, Hedren, Tandy, and young Veronica Cartwright – cautiously wade through the sea of birds that had settled outside their home. They quietly get into a car, start the engine and drive off, hoping against hope to outrun the bird madness.
The birds on the ground part to let them pass. Others wheel gracefully in the sky. The car grows smaller and smaller.
I recall the moan of frustration that went up at that final moment.
What? We don’t get to see if they make it? No explanation of why the birdies have gotten so bloodthirsty? What a gyp!!!
Hitchcock knew he was defying audience expectations.
“I’m sure we’re going to be asked again and again, especially by the morons, ‘Why are they [ the birds ] doing it?’ ” he told his colleagues.
But he was convinced that the power in this unconventional horror story came from NOT explaining. Perhaps nature has had enough of mankind’s meddling. Perhaps drifting radiation from Russian A-bomb tests is responsible.
The point of the whole exercise, Hitchcock maintained, was to engage the audience in a duel of wits.
“They come to the theater and they sit down and say, ‘All right. Now, show me!’” he told fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut in a celebrated series of interviews.
“And they want to be one jump ahead of the action: ‘I know what’s going to happen.’ So, I have to take up the challenge: ‘Oh, you know what’s going to happen. Well, we’ll just see about that!’
“With The Birds I made sure that the public would not be able to anticipate from one scene to another.”
It wasn’t just the unresolved narrative that was unusual. To make The Birds Hitchcock’s technicians (foremost among them former Kansas Citian Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s in-house genius and the designer of Mickey Mouse) had to create a host of special effects practically from scratch.
(Watching The Birds today, one wonders what the film would have been like had Hitch had access to the utterly convincing computer-generated special effects filmmakers now enjoy. As is the case with the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, I think much of the film’s pleasure comes from our appreciation of what the moviemakers accomplished with primitive chisel-and-stone technology.)
Hitchcock’s willingness to stick his neck out extended even to The Birds’ soundtrack. There is no music in the movie. Or at least there is no melodic music.
Hitchcock employed electronic sounds, including recordings of bird noises cannily orchestrated (by musical genius Bernard Hermann) to achieve an eerie and disorienting effect.
But perhaps the surest sign that Hitchcock was willing to take chances can be found in his decision to improvise on the set.
Hitchcock was known as the best-prepared director in Hollywood. He thought it reprehensible for a director to sit around the set spitballing ideas while dozens of highly-paid technicians and actors cooled their heels.
But with The Birds he did just that, shooting scenes that were later cut out of the movie, rewriting dialogue on the fly, improvising the actors’ physical performances as they fight off invisible birds that wouldn’t be added until post-production. (To keep the actors in the mood during scenes when the birds are laying siege to the house, Hitchcock placed a percussionist just out of camera range and had him pound loudly on a set of drums.)
The resulting movie is both terrifying and beautiful.
But after that? I’d say The Birds, a movie as challenging today as it was when it was made 50 years ago.
Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 5: Lilies of the Field (1963) Not Rated
- January 12: Hud (1963) Not Rated
- January 19: Tom Jones (1963) Not Rated
- January 26: Captain Newman M.D. (1963) Not Rated
- February 2: Charade (1963) Not Rated
- February 9: Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Not Rated
- February 16: The Birds (1963) Not Rated
- February 23: The Great Escape (1963) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.