This was quite a departure for Hitchcock, and quite a revolutionary film in all ways. Hitch had always been into suspense, action, and adventure, and there was always some explanation for what was going on. Here, there is no puzzle to figure out. The birds are attacking in waves, and no one knows why, and no one really has any way of trying to explain it, and in fact it is never explained. It just happens. Almost always in a monster film—and the birds, collectively, certainly constitute a monster—there is some explanation of why it’s happening. Usually radioactivity, or some other reason why nature is giving us a payback. I thought it was great that the big question was not even addressed. They’re attacking. What do we do? That’s the only question.
The film is also quite gruesome here and there. I remember when I saw the dead chicken farmer with his eyes pecked out, I’d never seen anything quite like it, and neither had anyone else. Another stroke of genius is that there is no music in the film (other than that horrible song the children are singing, which I can’t get out of my head for days).. Anyone else would have used a startling chord when we see the farmer, when Tippi encounters the birds in the attic, when the crows come after the fleeing children. Not Hitchcock, and it makes the scenes all the more powerful.
Which brings me to what I think is one of most brilliant examples of scene construction and film editing in a motion picture, ever. That is when Tippi is sitting on a bench with the monkey bars (or jungle gym, or whatever you called I when you were a kid) behind her and a crow flies into the picture and sits on the bars. Back to a close shot on Tippi, then cut to the angle that shows the monkey bars again, and there are three or four crows on it, with another arriving. Do this several times, and my god are we ever getting alarmed by now. And then she sees a flying crow. She follows it, and so does the camera, and then, and then, and then … the monkey bars are covered with crows. Because there was no music to get in our way, I recall the collective gasp—very much including my own—that must have dropped the air pressure in the theater drastically, along with a few shouts and screams. (We have crows that come into our back yard, and we’ve had fun with the collective noun for crows which, no kidding, is “a murder of crows.” But how many is a murder? I think we’ve settled on ten or twelve. Below that it’s “a manslaughter of crows,” or “a negligent homicide of crows.” [Ha ha!] Well, my friends, what we have in this scene is a genocide of crows, a holocaust of crows.)
The technology of the times was not quite up to what was needed for this film, even though they used a new process to matte in the birds. You can still see the blue screen auras in some scenes. Today, of course, it would be seamless, so today’s audiences might scoff at the effects. Their loss. King Kong was jerky as hell in the original, but it’s still a better movie than either of the remakes. (They say a remake of The Birds has been in development since 2007, but is currently stalled.)
I suppose most people know that Tippi Hedren was hospitalized from exhaustion and was on the edge of a nervous breakdown after having live birds throw at her for seven days in a row. Production was shut down for a week after that, and a body double was used to complete the rest of her scenes. She described it as the worst week of her life.
I have two small carps. One, it is such a cliché for her to go alone into that attic, step into it after she’s seen the hole in the roof, and then fall back against the door so she can’t get out. Tippi herself had a problem with that, and asked Hitch why she went in there. In his typical dictatorial fashion, he replied “Because I tell you to.” And two, if you were going to drive away through a flock of birds on the ground that might get murderous any minute, which would you choose: An Aston-Martin ragtop, or a sturdy pickup truck sitting right beside it? Rod Taylor chooses the Aston-Martin “because it’s faster.” Oh, right, like you can outrun them. Plus, he has to get four people plus a cage of Veronica Cartright’s lovebirds into a vehicle that basically has no back seat. Me, I’d want the vehicle that most closely resembles a Sherman tank. The Aston-Martin is a classy car, else why would James Bond have driven one, but it’s the total wrong car for this scenario.