The first time I saw The Birds, my dad turned it on television in the middle of the day. He was so excited, telling me that the birds were going to attack and he was probably waiting for me to jump. I must have been around seven, maybe eight years old then, so when he said attack, images from Godzilla and King Kong came to my mind. Part of me was surprised and intrigued that these were not giant or mutant birds and they weren’t terrorizing a big city, but a sleepy little bay town. It was a very different kind of monster movie, but unlike Godzilla and Mothra, it still scares me.
Based loosely off off Daphane Du Maurier’s novella, Hitchcock begins The Birds like it could become a screwball comedy. While Melanie (Tippie Hendren) is waiting to pick up a bird from the pet shop, Mitch (Rod Taylor), a lawyer recognizes her from a past mishap she was in. He lets her pretend she is an employee and she makes a fool of herself letting a bird loose in the store. While she’s annoyed at him, there’s attraction underneath. So as a prank, maybe to make her more appealing and mysterious, she drives all the way from San Francisco to Bodego Bay to deliver the pair of lovebirds he was shopping for. As her plan to regain his attention is working and she is in the middle of practicing her innocent who-me? face, a sea gull attacks her. That first drip of blood running down her forehead is only the beginning of a terrifying weekend of escalating bird attacks.
The more I see The Birds, the more I love to hate Melanie. From that first scene in the pet shop, you can tell she’s a girl who has always gotten her way and doesn’t know how to be the butt of a joke gracefully. Once she is in Bodega Bay, she is obviously a rich fish out of water, showing up in that sports car and fur coat. These all seem like forgivable qualities, but in the diner just after that first attack, she becomes a compulsive liar, saying that she has known Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the local school teacher, for years and she was not in town to see Mitch at all. Maybe these birds have started to attack to punish this spoiled blonde girl with a history of skinny dipping in Roman fountains. Perhaps she goes into that room full of birds as a self inflicted punishment. Otherwise she’s just an idiot, which is just as easy to believe.
The big bird filled scenes can range from quietly creepy to explosive, literally. When Melanie is sitting outside the school yard, we can hear the children inside singing. They provide the perfectly creepy and repetitive soundtrack for birds to land quietly behind Melanie, who smokes a cigarette nervously. That image when she suddenly sees all the crows on the playground behind her is amazingly unnerving and gets me every time. It’s all part of the slow build, until the children run from the school and are violently attacked by the murder of crows.
My favorite scene from The Birds has to be when Melanie seeks shelter inside the phone booth. A bird has just attacked a man at the gas station, causing him to spill gas and you can guess what happened when a man lit a cigar. From the phone booth, Melanie has full view of all the chaos as it unfolds all around her. As the fire spreads, a man driving is attacked by birds and causes a crash. The firefighters lose control of a hose, spraying wildly at the phone booth. A man covered in blood runs into the glass, a bird biting at his face. Just when you think it can’t get any crazier, birds start flying right into the phone booth, breaking the glass, giving Melanie nowhere to run.
I sincerely hope that one day The Birds scares the shit out of my future children. Even better, this may be the perfect film to introduce any kid to Hitchcock films. Once the action starts, it picks up with great speed and can keep a child’s attention easily. It is filled with great moments of classic Hitchcock suspense and the violent horror isn’t too graphic. Plus, I personally love how this kind of horror feels so grounded into real life. Something has caused the birds to attack people, and according to the bird expert in the diner, the odds are in their favor.
“It’s the end of the world!”