"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible." (Source)
That was the goal of our twisted directing genius, Alfred Hitchcock. We'd have to say he succeeded. Whether scaring us out of our wits in Psycho or doing a 180 on us in The Birds, there's rarely a comfortable moment in a Hitchcock film.
That's just how he wanted it.
Probably the single most famous director of classic Hollywood cinema and possibly the most influential director in English-language movie history, the future Master of Suspense was born in England, and he didn't exactly have a happy childhood. No bird attacks (that we know of), but his parents weren't especially affectionate. He channeled that anxiety into a series of suspenseful, anxious movies, often about cold, distant women.
Hitchcock began his career in his native England. Making silent films—that's right, he was born that long ago—he made a name for himself by provoking thrills and chills, and even the occasional shriek from audiences. His films told stories of murder and mayhem, intrigue and romance.
His early films were so successful that they earned him an invitation to Hollywood from famed producer David O. Selznick. Selznick's gamble paid off: Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
In the 1940s, Hitchcock began to hit his stride. He directed films like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), and Rope (1948), all of them still adored and studied by film buffs. But, it was in the 1950s that Hitch's career really took off. Movie-lovers and cinema-nerds admire his films from that era—which include Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960)—not only for the stories they tell but also for the film techniques he pioneered.
Hitch's time in silent films gave him an appreciation for the primary importance of the visual image in cinema. He thought that the sign of a good film was that you could play it without sound and the audience would still know what's going on. Dialogue? It should only be used as a last resort when pictures alone couldn't tell the story. He said: "We don't have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie house." (Source)
Hitchcock was the master of using those images to create suspense and manipulate the emotions of the audience. "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano," he told an interviewer. (Source) Think of the super-famous shower scene in the surprisingly low-budget Psycho, where lots of quick cuts in the film correspond to the cuts made to poor Janet Leigh's body. That scene launched the entire slasher horror genre.
Then, of course, there's our movie: The Birds (1963). Those special effects were unheard of in Hitch's day.
Hitch liked to make audiences suffer, and he made The Birds' audiences suffer for 30 full minutes before the first bird attack. We know it's coming—we've seen the promos and posters. We're just waiting. Then, bam.
The attacks are gruesome, but the waiting is worse.
Hitchcock knew the difference between shock and suspense. In his famous example, he imagines some people sitting around a table having a discussion. Five minutes into the conversation, a bomb under the table goes off and blows everyone up. In this situation, you've given the audience a few moments of shock. But, what if you show the audience the bomb under the table that's set to go off in five minutes and place a clock in the room so the audience can see the time ticking away? The audience is now involved; they're thinking, "Stop talking—there's a bomb under the table!"
Instead of a few seconds of shock, they've had five minutes of nail-biting suspense.
That's what Hitch was after. Critics thought it was a flaw in The Birds that there were no attacks early in the film, but here's what he had to say about it: "I think it was Fellini who remarked about The Birds, 'I don't know why Hitchcock made us wait so long before the first bird attacked.' That was deliberate, of course." (Source)
Hitchcock was known for being an extremely hands-on director, obsessively involved in every aspect of production, from choosing the scenery to what his characters wore. He knew exactly what he wanted and was relentless in getting it. In The Birds, every scene that involved birds or other special effects was meticulously pre-planned and shot exactly as storyboarded.
This obsession with detail was particularly true of the actresses he worked with. In The Birds, Hitchcock's main target was his leading lady, Tippi Hedren. The director saw her in a television commercial and called her in to audition for the role. She had the look he loved: blonde, sophisticated, a little remote. Ever since his favorite leading lady, Grace Kelly, left Hollywood for real royalty and married Prince Rainier of Monaco, Hitch had been known for trying to recreate his actresses in her image.
With Hedren, the director controlled not only her character, but every single thing about her—down to what lipstick and jewelry she wore. Hedren welcomed it to a point. "Melanie Daniels is his character," she explained. "He gives his actors very little leeway. He'll listen, but he has a very definite plan in mind as to how he wants his characters to act. With me, it was understandable, because I was not an actress of stature. I welcomed his guidance." (Source)
What Hedren didn't welcome were the sexual advances Hitchcock was alleged to have made toward her. When she refused, he took it out on her throughout the production. Instead of using mechanical birds in the attic scene, as he'd promised her, he tied real birds to her clothing and had crew members throw more birds at her. She was traumatized, obviously. "Are you trying to kill her?" her doctor asked Hitchcock. He ordered her to rest for a week afterward. (Source)
Sound like the stuff of movies? It is. The turbulent relationship was portrayed in a 2012 film, The Girl, based on a book by Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto titled Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
Hitchcock engaged in a massive promotional effort for The Birds.
The New York Times film critic Thomas McDonald was in Bodega Bay watching Hitchcock film The Birds. He asked the director if he thought that bird lovers would rise up in protest. Hitchcock rubbed his hands and smiled. "I hope so." (Source)
Hitchcock never won an Oscar for Best Director. Was the suspense genre considered too lowbrow? Were his films too popular? Was the Academy turned off by his shameless self-promotion?
We don't know, and we don't care. He kept us on the edge of our seats.
Did anyone ever refer to your high school as "The Blackboard Jungle"? If so, you've got Evan Hunter to thank. Hunter penned the 1954 novel of the same name, about a newbie teacher trying to survive in an inner-city public school. (It was adapted into a hugely successful 1955 film that caused riots in theaters because of its rock-and-roll soundtrack.)
Hitchcock tasked Hunter (born Salvatore Albert Lombino) with adapting Daphne du Maurier's short story "The Birds" into a screenplay. In addition to writing The Blackboard Jungle, Hunter had been a successful writer of crime fiction under the pen name Ed McBain and had written a bit for Hitchcock's television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The director decided to move the action to northern California. He thought audiences would be turned off by the rural farmers in du Maurier's story and wanted the characters to be attractive, sophisticated city types. Other than that, Hitch gave Hunter a lot of freedom in creating the personalities of the characters and the situations they found themselves in. "Nothing would be too difficult to shoot, he assured me, hence scenes like the gull swooping down on the gas station attendant and the following fire and havoc," said Hunter. "I never again gave a thought to the technical problems that might lie ahead." (Source)
Did Hunter write a good script? Well, that's a matter of some dispute.
Early reviewers noted that the story takes a long, long time to get to the stinkin' birds; before that, you're hanging around with Melanie and Mitch, neither of whom is really all that interesting. The dialogue is also often overheated and bland. Take a look:
MITCH: I just thought you might like to know what it's like to be on the other end of a gag. What do you think of that?
MELANIE : I think you're a louse.
MITCH: I am.
Hardly witty repartee.
To be fair, Hitchcock said that he wanted to give the audience some light familiarity with the characters before he got down to the real business of the film. He didn't need the kind of psychological complexity that characterized his other films. Still, he said later that he wasn't totally happy with Hunter's work. (Source)
Hunter said in an interview that there was one scene he was definitely not responsible for: the scene where Melanie reveals that her mother left her and that she's just a wounded child at heart. "I have the feeling that Tippi Hedren ad-libbed her way through this one, because I can't believe that anyone actually wrote such inane dialogue," said Hunter. "Someone did write it, however. I saw the script." (Source)
Hitchcock also left out a scene that Hunter felt would provide motivation for the bird attacks and also explain Melanie and Mitch's relationship. In that scene, Melanie and Mitch joke about a global bird rebellion complete with a chairman of the bird board urging his airborne associates to turn the tables on the humans. Melanie suddenly gets serious and tells Mitch that she thinks the birds really did come down the chimney deliberately intent on killing them. Then, they embrace and kiss.
Hunter thought the scene explained Mitch and Melanie's affectionate behavior later in the film. Without it, the film made no sense to him. Watching the film on TV years later, script in his lap, Hunter said he realized that the final version was not the one he wrote. (Source)
The other major change in the script, Hunter said, was to the final scene.
Yep, that final scene.
Hunter had a whole sequence with Mitch, Melanie, Cathy, and Lydia driving through the town and surveying the devastation. And then? One final bird attack.
That all got cut. (He described the original ending in this interview.)
Hunter worked with Hitchcock on his next film, too—or tried to. He was supposed to write the screenplay for Marnie, but he and the director had a falling out over the rape scene. Hitchcock fired him. He wrote a couple of other screenplays, but the best-known film work he ever did was The Birds.
But, sadly for Hunter, almost everyone watched The Birds for the birds—not the words.
Universal Pictures knew horror.
They were the home of the Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein franchises, and from the 1920s through the 1950s, their bread-and-butter productions were low-budget horror flicks. (Source)
Hiring Alfred Hitchcock? Yeah, that definitely upped their game.
Universal had a long on-again, off-again, sometimes contentious relationship with Hitchcock. Way back in 1942, Hitchcock made a film called Saboteur for Universal, in which the studio made him use contract performers Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. Did anyone tell Picasso what color to use in his paintings? Did they tell Shakespeare what words to put in his sonnets? Nah, but Hitchcock wanted to get paid, so he took Cummings and Lane and slapped them down in his film like he was told.
He wasn't happy about it.
By the 1960s, Hitchcock was a world-famous director. In 1960, he made what was probably his most successful film for Universal. The horror/suspense movie Psycho was a massive box-office hit; it made Hitchcock himself more than $15 million dollars. He used the money to buy into MCA, Universal's parent company, in the hope that they'd have to stop messing with him. He agreed to make six more films for Universal.
Did it work? Not really. Universal did give Hitchcock a lot of time and resources to make his next film, The Birds, but the studio couldn't help meddling. Hitch's original conclusion shows Mitch's car driving through all the birds, followed by a fade out.
Ambiguous, creepy, and unsettling, right?
Well, Universal thought it was a little too creepy and unsettling and confusing. So, instead of a fade out, they put in a title card saying, "The End." Hitch had wanted audiences to feel like the story did not end and would not end—that maybe the bird attacks would continue.
That would keep everyone awake nights, yeah?
P.S. Sound familiar? Some streaming and DVD versions have eliminated the end title in keeping with the director's wishes.
Hitchcock, a perfectionist genius (that's a polite way of saying "control freak"), hated to shoot on location—too many uncontrollable variables like weather, traffic, and annoying local residents. So, The Birds was shot partly on location in San Francisco and Bodega Bay, California, with most of the interior shots (and some exteriors) done on the studio lots.
Check out the film's very first shot: Melanie strolls across the street in San Francisco en route to the pet store. The first part of that shot was actually on the street; as soon as she passes behind a sign, the rest of the scene was shot in the studio. (It's seamless—you can't tell.) Some of the scenic shots of Bodega Bay were shot on location, and some were created in the studio using matte painting backgrounds. Those, you can tell. (Source) The scene where Melanie and Mitch are having their heart-to-heart at Cathy's party? Totally fake.
Hitchcock wanted to create an atmosphere of gloom at Bodega Bay, but the place was just too darn sunny. That's one of the reasons he used matte paintings as backgrounds; he could make the sky overcast to create an ominous atmosphere. "I remember some of the reviews criticized us for not playing up the beauty of Bodega Bay, but we didn't want it to be colorful. We weren't making a 'Bright Day at Malibu' type picture," said art director Robert Boyle. (Source)
The crew built facades around some old run-down buildings on location for exterior shots of the Brenner and Hayworth homes. They refurbished the old schoolhouse, which was due to be torn down.
All of these scenes were hugely complicated to construct. For example, the bird's-eye view shot of the gas station explosion started with a matte painting of an aerial view of Bodega Bay. A gasoline fire filmed on an asphalt stage at Universal Studios was superimposed on that. The crew then filmed gulls in another location, and animators traced them and inserted them into the scene to make it look like they were about to swoop down on the town. (Source) Talk about an expensive shot.
Hitchcock made most of his films within the big-budget studio system, but he was famous for pushing the boundaries of filmmaking technique. Unique camera angles, cutting-edge special effects, long tracking shots, and short choppy shots: he was a master at using cinematic techniques to get exactly the audience reaction he wanted. Even the opening titles are unsettling, with the flapping wings and the shattered letters of the credits.
In The Birds, the most impressive technical accomplishment, is, well, the birds. It wasn't easy to get live bird actors—they refused to work for chicken feed.
Seriously, though, the trainers had to put out ads promising cash for anyone who could produce a crow or raven. The camera crew shot about 20,000 feet of film just at the San Francisco city dump, churning up the garbage to attract gulls, then filming them diving and hovering. In the end, Berwick and associates had to hunt birds themselves, finding some large roosts of crows and trapping them. It took four months or so of pre-production to get the birds, live and otherwise, ready for the shoot.
Hitchcock used a whole range of methods to get those frightening fliers to menace the townsfolk. There are live trained birds, puppet birds, mechanical birds, and animated birds—often all in the same scene. The effects guys would go back to the footage from the city dump, for example, and painstakingly add them back into the scenes.
Take the scene where the birds fly down the chimney of the Brenner house. At first, Hitchcock tried to use all live birds—but the birds just flew down the chimney and sat around, occasionally pooping, because that's what birds do when they're not acting.
Instead, they used a yellow screen technique which allowed them to combine live avian actors with fake backgrounds. The animated bird elements were provided by Disney animator Ub Iwerks, who got The Birds' sole Oscar nomination for his work. Some real birds were released down the chimney, and the animators turned them into a squawk flock.
The jungle gym scene with the birds did use some real, actual crows … but only a few. Most of the birds were cardboard cut-outs or dummies. A few live birds made the scene look realistic, so they didn't have to find several hundred crows willing to sit still for an extended shot. (Finches won't fly; crows won't sit—it's tough directing birds.)
Hitchcock called the final scene "the most difficult single shot I've ever done." (Source) It involved live, animated, and puppet birds, with a real car driving toward a painted background.
The overall effect? Stunning.
After Melanie first gets slammed by a gull, we spend the rest of the film waiting for the next attack. That's what we came to see, right?
After the birds arrive uninvited at Cathy's birthday party and pop the balloons—a nice touch—Hitchcock builds the suspense by showing us a few birds just minding their own business. Then, we see them massing on the schoolyard as Melanie waits for class to end. It takes forever for class to end, and meanwhile, more and more birds arrive as the schoolchildren sing an innocent nursery rhyme in the background. The buildup of tension is unbearable, as we see the birds long before Melanie does and we dread what's coming.
The gas station incineration scene is another great example of using long shots and reaction shots to build suspense. A single bird attack injures a guy filling his gas tank. The gasoline nozzle is knocked loose, and gas pours out on the ground, heading straight for some cars. A man gets out of one of the cars and starts to light a cigar. We see the gasoline flowing to his feet; he doesn't. The gasoline ignites and whooshes back towards the pump.
Melanie watches as the action unfolds, and the camera cuts back and forth between her horrified expression and the flames. Hitchcock shortens each cut by just a little, giving you a rush toward the inevitable big boom. That's followed by a very high-angle shot from a bird's-eye view, looking down on the explosion. It's as if Hitchcock pulled way back to tell you, "I am Alfred Hitchcock, and we are the birds and we will rain chaos down upon all of you."
Finally, the director definitely rained chaos all over his leading lady in the climactic attic scene. The attack leaves Melanie in a catatonic state; it landed Tippi Hedren on the disabled list for a week at her doctor's insistence. Hitchcock had assured her he'd use fake birds in the scene. Instead, he had live birds attached by nylon wire to her clothes and had the camera crew throw more birds at her. Even though their beaks were tied shut, she was wounded and traumatized.
She probably didn't have to do a heckuva lot of acting in that scene.
And, just in case you weren't planning on sleeping tonight anyway, we'll briefly mention those three quick jump cuts zooming in on the face of the dead farmer with nothing left of his eyes but bloody sockets.
Yeah … that.
Hitchcock + scores = terror.
The Master of Suspense was famous for his scores, many of which were written by the composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann had provided the score for Hitchcock's previous film, Psycho, which included those unforgettable sawing, screeching, jagged violin bursts for the infamous shower scene.
For The Birds, Herrmann was relegated to the role of sound consultant; he didn't write a score. Instead, the soundtrack was handled by Oskar Sala, a German composer who used an early electronic synthesizer known as the trautonium.
Sala used the trautonium to create a synthesized soundtrack, including bird shrieks, wing flaps, and even the slamming of windows as people try to close out the winged invaders. Rather than music, there's an eerie electronic bird chorus. Does that make it scarier? Check out this version of the attic sequence dubbed with a full orchestral score and compare it to the original bird-only soundtrack, and see what you think.
Yeah, that's what we thought.
Alfred Hitchcock was a pop culture icon, with all of the mass-marketing potential and enthusiasm for self-promotion that the role suggests:
Translation: he had enough of a popular fandom that he could sell his own films.
Any film geek is likely to be a Hitchcock geek as well.
One place they can satisfy their cravings? The Hitchcock Zone, a compilation of websites and blogs about their favorite director.
The fan base reaches deep into the heart of academia, too. Hitchcock's films figure in some of the definitive texts of film studies, and multiple collections of essays like this one and this one gather some of the finest and most influential contributions to Hitchcock scholarship over the years. Feel like geeking out in the library? You'll have a field day.
Just make sure you board up the windows and fireplace before you leave home.