Study Guide

The Birds

The Birds Introduction


Release Year: 1963

Genre: Horror

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Evan Hunter, Daphne du Maurier (story)

Stars: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette


Okay, let's get this out of the way right now:

Angry Birds.

We know you were thinking it.

Yes, the birds in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 horror classic The Birds are angry. Murderously angry, in fact. But this movie ain't about pigs or birdcages or fried chicken or habitat destruction or … whatever is going on in that game.

In The Birds, for completely unexplained reasons, the feathered friends of Bodega Bay suddenly turn … bad. They wreak havoc on the town and, in the process, derail the budding romance of a couple of meet-cute San Franciscans.

Hitchcock, already an uber-famous and influential director, was fresh off the success of 1960's Psycho when he decided to make his first foray into the pure horror genre. How did he go about it? By using a short story by Daphne du Maurier about a flock of nasty birds that attack a small English village. He'd also read about an incident in the beach town of Capitola, California, where residents found birds dropping out of the sky and suicidally banging into their rooftops. Apparently, poisoned shellfish was to blame.

Put the two together, and you've got a Hitchcock-ready story.

Hitch imagined the visual possibilities of crazed birds terrorizing a town, and he set off to make a film that would tax the technical genius of an army of animators, bird trainers, and special-effects wizards. It would be his most technologically complex film ever. Oh, and it would scare audiences silly.

Critics didn't quite know what to make of the film. Was it a love story? Why do we have to wait 45 minutes for the first bird attack? Why are these birds attacking in the first place? The film doesn't provide any set answers, a fact that put off early reviewers in 1963. Still, The Birds was a modest box-office success upon its release and scooped up a number of accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Special Effects and a Golden Globe for Tippi Hedren for New Star of the Year.

  

Since then, The Birds' reputation has, uh, taken flight.

It's now considered one of Hitchcock's masterpieces of suspense and a horror film classic. It's been analyzed to death by philosophers, psychoanalysts, and feminist thinkers, all trying to figure out the relationship between the attacks and the tangled relationships in the film.

Here's the thing, though: audiences don't care. For us, it's all about the suspense and the mysterious, gruesome attacks. Basically, Hitchcock frees the birds and puts us in the cages.

In the man vs. nature conflict in The Birds, nature gets the win. So, you'd better bring in the bird bath and bird feeder, as The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther suggested in 1963. And, the next time you see more than a few birds perched on a telephone wire …

Run.

What is The Birds About and Why Should I Care?

Studying any Hitchcock film is like taking a crash course in cinema with the best professor you ever had. Hitchcock's mastery of suspense and his innovative camera techniques inspired generations of directors from Francois Truffaut to Steven Spielberg.

You get an especially big bang for your buck by studying The Birds. Why? Because if you pay attention, you'll be able to see its DNA in loads of other films.

Let's give the mic to film critic Matthew Steigbigel for a sec:

Hitchcock [challenged] himself and movie audiences alike by undertaking to film what turned out to be one of the first global apocalyptic horror movies, and one that has influenced every monster movie since The Birds premiered on this day in 1963. Hitchcock showed future filmmakers how to take the incredible power of the natural world and bend it to his will in order to terrify.

Translation: it's the mother of all movies where nature goes mad and where our usual natural world is suddenly turned upside down.

The Birds has lots of offspring, but probably its most famous grandchild is Jaws. The shark attacks in Jaws have all the hallmarks of Hitchcock's bird attacks: they're random, they're irrational, and they're unexplained. They build on one of Hitchcock's favorite themes: ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances. In creating Jaws, Spielberg admitted, "I threw out most of my storyboards and just suggested the shark. My movie went from William Castle [low-budget horror director] to Alfred Hitchcock." (Source)

Spielberg's shark was only onscreen for about four and a half minutes, but we were scared out of our wits for two hours. We saw that shark on the movie poster and knew that something terrible could happen at any moment. That suspense was a page right out of The Birds' playbook: we saw the bird attacks in all of the movie promos and were just waiting for 'em to happen. As Hitch (apparently) said and Spielberg knew: "There is no terror in the bang, just in the anticipation of it" (Source)

Our critic Steigbigel sees The Birds' fingerprints everywhere:

Hitchcock's classic can also be sourced in films that took his premise—nature gone mad—and placed it on other planets, underground, or, brilliantly, in our world but one in which nature itself has been perverted. Think Alien, international hits like The Descent, District Nine, and The Host, and certainly […] the current AMC-TV zombie hit The Walking Dead. (Source)

Hey, Steigbigel, we'd put Cujo on that list, too.

Sure, The Birds' special effects might look primitive from where we sit today, and the violence might be less nonstop and grisly than we're used to seeing in modern-day horror flicks. But Hitch knew that it didn't take buckets of blood to really scare audiences. No need for aliens or monsters.

It's the stuff that could believably happen in this world that's truly terrifying.

Trivia

According to actor Rod Taylor, the seagulls were fed a mixture of wheat and whiskey to get them to stay still for long periods of time. Birds were lining up outside the studio door to audition for these roles. (Source)

To attract the birds to the actors, they had ground meat and anchovies smeared on their hands. Anchovies, yum. (Source)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back outside, after the film's London premiere, the sadistic theater owners put loudspeakers in the trees just outside the theater and played sounds of birds screeching and wings flapping. (Source)

Catching live ravens and crows to use and train was way harder than you'd think. There wasn't time to hatch the birds and train them from birth. Bird trainer Ray Berwick offered $10 per bird to anyone who could supply the birds. No one could. Finally, they resorted to stalking and trapping the birds themselves. It took four months. About a dozen crew members spent time in the hospital for bird injuries. Plus, almost everyone got a case of lice from the birds, who were infested. (Source)

Tippi Hedren, the actress who played Melanie, is now an animal rights activist who founded a wildlife refuge where she helps look after rescued lions and tigers. Guess she's not taking any more chances offending the animal kingdom. (Source)

The Birds Resources

Websites

The Hitchcock Zone
Just what it sounds likea massive collection of websites, blogs, articles, and Hitchcockiana.

How They Did It
A must-see with amazing detail about the making of the filmfrom catching the birds to painting the backdrops. The amount of work that went into each birdalicious scene was truly incredible.

52 Films in 52 Weeks
The Hitchcock project analyzes a film a week. Here's Week 47: The Birds. It's a great analysis of how Hitchcock created shots to get exactly the effects he wanted.

Like Us on Facebook
The Birds has had a Facebook page since 2009. Wouldn't it have been awesome if they had a Twitter account, too?

Come to Scenic Bodega Bay, Get Pecked to Death
The official website of Bodega Bay, including tourist info, articles, and information about the filming of The Birds.

It's All Here
AMC's Filmsite gives you a ton of analysis and a blow-by-blow account of the action.

The Critics Speak
Hear what the talking heads had to say about the film. Spoiler alert: They liked it.

Book or TV Adaptations

Hitchcock Wants to Peck Out Rick Rosenthal's Eyes
There was a 1994 sequel, The Birds II: Land's End. Tippi Hedren had a bit part. She (and everybody involved) was embarrassed. It looks more like a remake of Jaws than The Birds, with an East Coast island mayor in deep denial of danger, and an old salt who knows all about killer birds.

Where It Was Hatched
Here's the text of the original story by Daphne du Maurier. After you've seen the film, you ask yourself how this could be as scary in print. Here's your answer.

The Simpsons Hearts Hitchcock
There are lots of Hitchcock parodies in The Simpsonsall brilliant. Here's the one of The Birds, except with toddlers.

The Awful Truth
Sienna Miller is Tippi Hedren in this recent film about Hedren's relationship with Hitchcock in Marnie and The Birds.

Mad About the Birds
Mad Magazine parodied the film in 1963. It's hard to find the full version online, but here's a sample cartoon panel featuring Alfred Hatchplot's film starring Tippi Headrinse.

Articles and Interviews

Best. Hitchcock. Ever.
The Guardian film critic Xan Brooks argues that The Birds is awesome and terrifying. Also awesome.

Tippi Hedren Explains It All
An interview with the lead actress about Hitchcock's abusive obsession with her.

The 1963 Review
Here's the original review from The New York Times, whose critic suggests you bring in that birdbath and bird feeder this minute.

The Pervert's Guide to The Birds
A Freudian reading of The Birds (with a guest appearance by philosopher Slavoj Zizek).

Funny, You Don't Look 50
On the 50th anniversary of the film's release, Moviefone tells us all the secrets behind the making of the film.

Video

The Birds Is Coming!
The 1963 trailer for The Birds, complete with lots of screaming.

Alfred Hitchcock Is Coming!
Another trailer for The Birdsthis one featuring less screaming and more Hitchcock nattering on goofily.

Hey, That's Not What I Wrote
Screenwriter Evan Hunter explains how the film's ending was changed from his original version.

Audio

The Birds Love Women
In an NPR interview, Camille Paglia argues that Hitchcock was not a misogynist and that Tippi Hedren presents a strong female character.

Hitchcock/Truffaut
In 1962, iconic French director Francois Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock for about 12 hours over the course of a week. Truffaut idolized the older director. Here are the tapes of those interviews, which were published in a book in 1967. A discussion about The Birds is in section 24.

Images

Beware the Poster
The original poster for The Birds.

Art for the Birds
The original storyboard drawing of the famous scene with the crows on the jungle gym.

More Storyboards
Everything was pre-planned.

Birds at the Brenners
Hitchcock directs the action at a bird-covered Brenner home.

Stay out of the Attic
A still from the film shows Melanie attacked by birds in the attic.

Not Just Behind the Camera
One of Hitchcock's promotional pix for the film.

Not Just Behind the Camera Part II
Here's Hitch's cameo appearance in the film.

The Bird Whisperer
Here's a shot of the bird trainer, Ray Berwick, getting ready to film an attack using real birds. He's the guy on the ladder. Another crew member is holding a terrified child actor who does not want to do the scene.