One for The Birds — Hitchcock’s Masterpiece at 60
…And remember, the next scream you hear could be your own!
Revisiting Hitchcock’s The Birds
Alfred Hitchcock is undeniably, inarguably one of the titans of cinema. An incredible number of his films have achieved classic status, from early efforts like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935) through his incredible 1940s-50s streak which included Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944) Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959). His films have long been a staple of film study programs, his set-pieces – like the crop duster sequence from North by Northwest – used in filmmaking programs and textbooks as prime examples of how to integrate pacing, editing, and shot composition for maximum impact. For generations, his mastery of the medium was the gold standard in cinematic technical expertise.
Noted film critic Andrew Sarris called him “…the supreme technician of the American cinema. Even his many enemies cannot begrudge him that distinction…”
As early as the 1950s, he’d been dubbed the “Master of Suspense,” and his name had become a brand, “Alfred Hitchcock” on a movie house marquee carrying as much weight (maybe more!) as those of the stars of his films; a cachet none of his peers – even greats like Ford, Welles, Hawks, et al – ever attained, and few filmmakers have managed since.
Still, Hitchcock, by his own admission, was no auteur:
“When I’m asked how I feel about Truffaut and other French critics describing me as a metaphysician and so on, I can only say that it’s very nice. Some of it makes sense to me – Truffaut’s comment for example that I’m one of the few people who know how to use the medium – but all these ‘philosophical’ theories hold no water at all.”
The avalanche of accolades and laurels draped on Hitchcock over the years – all well-earned – have unfortunately eclipsed the crucial contributions of a key element in Hitchcock’s best films: his writers. Even though in interviews Hitchcock seemed more interested in explaining how he pulled off some of his trickiest shots than delving into a movie’s dramatic elements, he, too was aware of the importance of having a dramatically sound script. Joel W. Finler in his The Movie Directors Story: “(Hitchcock) was known for the care and attention which he put into his scripts…Major projects were abandoned by him after much hard work when he felt that the script was not quite right.”
Of course, Hitchcock collaborated with his writers, explaining to them what he wanted, but it fell to them to deliver material fulfilling his vision. Ironically for a filmmaker who rarely discussed the human elements of his movies, that component was crucial. Sarris, again: “…the theme of complacency that runs through all his work is now so explicit that it is generally misunderstood. Hitchcock requires a situation of normality, however dull it may seem on the surface, to emphasize the evil abnormality that lurks beneath the surface.”
For that reason, “I can’t work well with mystery or thriller writers because I can do all that stuff myself,” he said when interviewed for Charles Higham’s and Joel Greenberg’s collection, The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak. “I’d rather work with writers who don’t normally do thrillers so that I can get an extra contribution.”
Best example: Shadow of a Doubt, a self-professed favorite of the director. Would Shadow have had that delicious spark which comes from the clash between small-town-America values with the dark cynicism of serial killer Uncle Charlie without Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder’s screenplay?
For his most technically challenging work, Hitchcock tapped a writer with just that schizophrenic worldview: the drama of the everyday colliding with an invading evil.
Hitchcock had purchased the film rights to Daphne du Maurier’s short story, “The Birds,” in 1952. By then, he’d already had success adapting two of her novels (Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca) and though there wasn’t much to the short story (a farmer and his family are besieged by attacking birds), he saw the potential for a big screen thriller. But the story sat on the shelf for years until, according to Patrick Humphries in The Films of Alfred Hitchcock: “…his interest was reawakened by reports of birds attacking houses and animals on the West Coast.” Du Maurier’s story focused on the plight of a single family, but Hitchcock not only wanted to transpose the short story’s English setting to the U.S., but also expand its scope as well. For that task, Hitchcock turned to writer Evan Hunter.
Born Salvatore Albert Lombino, he adopted the name Evan Hunter, a combination of the names of schools he’d attended, thinking a WASPier name would give him greater literary credibility. “If you’re an Italian-American,” he believed, “you’re not supposed to be a literate person.”
Hunter wrote under several pen names besides his own, the most well-known being Ed McBain. As Evan Hunter, the author penned his – for lack of a better word – “serious” work, the first of which was based on his brief stint as a teacher in a tough New York neighborhood, The Blackboard Jungle (adapted by writer/director Richard Brooks into a hit film in 1955). As Ed McBain, he turned out a number of tough-hided crime novels, the most popular being his “87th Precinct” series, books which, according to The New York Times, “…virtually invented the American police procedural…”
This bifurcated career occasionally led to some interesting screen credits when Hunter began to write for film and TV. On Fuzz (1972), the screenplay is credited to Evan Hunter…based on the novel by Ed McBain!
Prior to working with Hitchcock, Hunter had only written one screenplay, an adaptation of his novel Strangers When We Meet (1960). Its story of two suburban neighbors who fall into a love affair is a world away from the Hitchcockian universe. But perhaps that’s what attracted Hitchcock to Hunter.
In some ways, The Birds is typically Hitchcockian. It has its memorable set piece – that wonderful bit of suspense where Tippi Hedren sits on a bench smoking a cigarette while behind her, crows begin to gather on a playground monkey bars set; first one bird, then a couple, and then Hedren turns and finds the monkey bars threateningly crowded with crows.
And there is the way “Hitch” dealt with his favorite thing; the technical challenges of the project. In his interview with Higham and Greenberg, the director goes on for three pages discussing the complex matte shots that were the only way to get the film done, and working with 3,200 trained birds of all types. But he never discussed the story. And The Birds has quite a bit of character-driven story.
Even Hitchcock admitted The Birds was unlike his other films. He considered it a horror film although the construction more reminds one of monster movies, with a few low-key mysterious incidents, a gradual escalation in their severity, leading up to an eventual reveal of the threatening beast, only here the threat is an massive army of little beasts. Hitchcock/Hunter don’t show us the first bird attack – a single gull striking Tippi Hedren as she crosses Bodega Bay in a small open boat – over 25 minutes into the film, and the next attack doesn’t occur for another 25 minutes – this in a film that runs 119 minutes. By Hitchcock standards, that’s an exceptionally slow build, but it gives The Birds great breathing room to create that “situation of normality” the director favored to contrast with the horrors to come.
In that time, we get to meet and know the central characters: Hedren’s Melanie Daniels, a wealthy jet-setting prankster who seems to regularly wind up in gossip columns; Rod Taylor’s moralistic criminal lawyer Mitch Brenner; his emotionally fragile mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy); his much younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright); and his former girlfriend-turned-just-friends-friend Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette).
Hitchcock held that “Usually, in a suspense story there isn’t time to develop character,” and often in his most popular films (I’m thinking North by Northwest here) it doesn’t take long for the plot to take flight. One of the reasons Shadow of a Doubt was one of the director’s favorites was “It was one of those rare occasions when you could combine character with suspense” because Thornton Wilder’s script gives the audience time to settle into the relaxed rhythms of quaint, quiet Santa Rosa and its untroubled residents.
The slow build of The Birds works similarly, and Hunter uses that time to build a rather rich set of characters and interrelationships. Melanie initially comes off as a bit haughty and recklessly carefree, but as her initial interest in Mitch develops into a more romantic connection, her guard comes down – slowly – and she draws closer not just to Mitch but his family. For his part, Mitch initially enjoys putting Melanie on the butt end of a prank for a change, and he clearly delights in teasing her about her interest in him, but his walls also slowly come down.
The more intriguing dynamic is between Mitch, Lydia, and Melanie. Lydia, a widow, is terrified of winding up alone while at the same time uncomfortably living with the idea that Mitch is his own person. The emotional push/pull between the three at times seems closer to Eugene O’Neill than Alfred Hitchcock.
Making the mix even more O’Neillesque is luckless Annie Hayworth who has settled for being “just friends” with Mitch as that’s the only relationship she can have with him. There is, at first, some restrained envy on her part of Melanie’s relationship with Mitch, but even that evolves into something supportive; that maybe Melanie can be for Mitch what Lydia wouldn’t allow Annie to be.
One of Hunter’s strengths, particularly in his Ed McBain novels, was wonderfully dancing dialogue rife with a cynical wit. One of my favorite passages is from his novel Lightning where two homicide detectives, studying the corpse of a young woman hanging from a lamppost, dispassionately debate with the callousness of men grown immune to the grotesque whether the proper descriptive is “hung” or “hanged.” In The Birds, Hunter particularly shines in early exchanges between Mitch and Melanie where he tries to trip her up on her explanations for her scandal sheet escapades. Listen to those scenes closely and what you’ll hear isn’t a conversation but a shrewd cross-examination by a lawyer who knows how to snare a faulty witness.
Sense of place has always been important to Hitchcock, something to be used rather than just serve as a backdrop, and Hunter delivers on this score to. With efficient but effective economy, Hunter gives us a quick sense of quiet little Bodega Bay when Melanie first arrives in the town. It’s the kind of place where the post office has a corner in the town’s general store, where everybody seems to know everybody else. Bodega Bay is another Santa Rosa, an idyll infected with a malevolence that, unlike the one in Shadow of a Doubt, eventually becomes all-enveloping.
The movie, like du Maurier’s story, never explains the bird attacks, and according to Patrick Humphries, something about the story – possibly that unanswered question of why? – “disturbed Hitchcock more than any other in his career. He always saw filming as a job like any other…and despite the horror and suspense he so brilliantly evoked on the screen, (he) was always able to switch off when he got home. Something in The Birds though cut through the cortex and Hitchcock confessed that he was ‘tense and upset’ during filming. It is du Maurier’s vision and Hitchcock’s depiction of the way the world will end: not with (a) bang…but with the whimper of birds flocking to attack.”
Hitchcock always maintained a viewer didn’t get everything in his movies unless they saw them “at least three times,” according to Patrick Humphries, and The Birds, for all its flagrant horror, may even require more, not just to respect what was, in those pre-CGI days, a monumental technical achievement, but because Evan Hunter gave us a group of people who, even as their world is coming apart, get past their dysfunctions, forget old wounds, and hang on to each other.