Study Guide

The Birds Director

Director

Alfred Hitchcock

Big Bird

"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.

The Master of Suspense

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)

Of course.

Obsession

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.

Bird Man

Hitchcock engaged in a massive promotional effort for The Birds.

  • He posed for publicity photos with birds.
  • He set up a coast-to-coast pigeon relay contest and had bird trainer Ray Berwick bring crows to theater openings.
  • He created the phrase "The Birds is coming," much to the dismay of grammar purists everywhere.
  • He appeared in radio commercials warning, "If you have ever eaten a turkey drumstick, caged a canary, or gone duck hunting, The Birds will give you something to think about." (Source)

It worked.

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.

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