Book Review: Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System

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Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Release Date: September 11, 2014

“Rarely when authors talk about Hitchcock’s filmmaking team do they address the contributions of his actors. There is little or no serious attention paid to them or any in-depth study of their contributions to his films… While actors are often the focus of the gossip surrounding Hitchcock’s life, the contributions and performances given are rarely approached with any seriousness…

…The memorable statement on livestock is an ironic one considering just how many iconic performances by some of Hollywood’s greatest stars he directed.” –Lesley L.Coffin (Introduction to “Hitchcock’s Stars”)

Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System tackles a topic that is rarely discussed in any amount of detail. Coffin’s text attempts to shed new light on Hitchcock’s method of using actors (or “stars”) in interesting ways throughout his career in Hollywood. Each chapter covers a different film. The early British period is ignored entirely, instead focusing only on the director’s career in the Hollywood studio system (1940-1976). Each of the director’s films from this period is discussed, with the notable exceptions being Topaz and Frenzy.

Coffin claims that she excludes these films because they weren’t made in American studios, and were shot outside of America (using foreign actors). This leads us to one of the book’s major problems. Her claim that Torn Curtain was Hitchcock’s final film for Universal is simply incorrect. Topaz would have never been made if Universal had not urged Hitchcock to make the film (instead of the un-produced Kaleidoscope/Frenzy project). It was very much a “Hollywood” production. While there was indeed a great deal of location work; some of this location work was in America. A good deal of work was also done in the studio. Frenzy was also produced for Universal (though it was shot in London with a British cast and crew). There are many other factual errors in the book that mar the text. This issue usually stems from her chosen sources. However, at times Coffin uses conjecture presented as fact. This is rather unfortunate, because her writing is fluid and enjoyable.

Many of the interesting discoveries found within the text might very well be true, but they come from “gossip columns” and similar sources from the period. These columns are interesting, but often misleading. Studios often fed false information to columnists (such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons). This gave the studio free publicity, and allowed them to keep the actual details from the public. It was also common for these columnists to invent information when sources couldn’t give them anything to write about. This means that some of these interesting tidbits of information might or might not be true. Coffin never questions the validity of her sources (or attempts to back them up with a second source). This is a small complaint, but the unquestioning reader may be led astray by some of this information.

Coffin’s knowledge of Hitchcock seems to stem mostly from texts by Donald Spoto. Because she never questions the validity of these sources (despite the fact that some of her sources directly contradict Spoto), her thesis is led astray. There are times that her own preoccupations overwhelm a wealth of other information that is never addressed. This means that the reader never has an objective view of the subject being discussed. (To be fair, this approach is almost certainly intentional.)

There is a lot to like about Coffin’s text, and the book was a noble undertaking. It is a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly nice to see that this particular topic is finally receiving a book-length treatment. It simply falls short of being absolutely “essential.”

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:59:29

Video: 1080P AVC (MPEG-4)

Main Audio: DTS-HD English Mono Master Audio (48kHz, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.37 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. This disc also comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

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“A very important thing about The Birds: I never raised the point, ‘Can it be done?’ Because then it would never have been made. Any technician would have said ‘impossible.’ So I didn’t even bring that up, I simply said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ No one will ever realize that had the pioneering technical work on it not been attempted, the film would not have been made. Cleopatra or Ben Hur is nothing to this–just quantities of people and scenery. Just what the bird trainer has done is phenomenal. Look at the way the crows chase the children down the street, dive all around them, land on their backs. It took days to organize those birds on the hood of the car and to make them fly away at the right time. The Birds could easily have cost $5,000,000 if Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn’t been technicians ourselves.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

INTRODUCTION:

One expects a text on The Birds to focus on the dynamics of the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his protégé, ‘Tippi Hedren.’ Unfortunately anything written about this relationship would be trumped by more famous texts by Donald Spoto. However, it would be a mistake to take Spoto’s account into consideration without looking at more responsible accounts that use evidence instead of hearsay and wild theory. The trouble with a Spoto text is that he is perfectly willing to ignore evidence that disputes his theories. Admittedly, Hitchcock’s publicity persona doesn’t help his case (and probably planted these theories). A 1962 article in The Hollywood Reporter announcing Hitchcock’s new contract player is an example of publicity that (purposefully) feeds into public perception.

“…In The Birds, I am introducing another young lady who happens to be blonde, Miss Tippi Hedren. But I am happy to say she is not the spectacular type of blonde who flaunts her sex. It is important to distinguish between the big, bosomy blonde and the ladylike blonde with the touch of elegance, whose sex must be discovered.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

It is probably Hitchcock’s fault if contemporary perception of the director is based on his publicity persona, but intelligent people should at least attempt to separate his persona from reality. To do this, one needs hard evidence rather than interviews and publicity items (especially if the interviewee is unreliable). Therefore, this article prefers to focus on the working relationship between Evan Hunter and Alfred Hitchcock, the prodigious special effects, and the film’s reception.

THE GENESIS

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is considered by many people to be one of the director’s best films. This is likely do to the fact that it is a considerable technical achievement, and paved the way for advancements in special effects photography. It is certainly an important film, but this reviewer does not include it on his list of best Hitchcock films. It is a flawed work that has moments of brilliance. It is the opinion of this reviewer that much of what is wrong with the film can be traced to the film’s script.

It was certainly a compelling concept, and Daphne du Maurier’s short story was a wonderful mood piece. Hitchcock probably became aware of the story when it was published in one of his anthologies. However, Hitchcock probably gained much of his motivation for making the film from an article in the “Santa Cruz Sentinel.” The article discussed a real life account of bird attacks. It was a signal to Hitchcock that The Birds should be his next film.

WRITING WITH EVAN HUNTER

Alfred Hitchcock originally asked Joseph Stefano to work with him on the script, but Stefano declined to participate. One can only speculate as to why Hitchcock eventually turned to Evan Hunter, but two of Hunter’s stories (“Number Twenty-Two” and “Vicious Circle“) had been made into episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957, and he had adapted the teleplay for “Appointment at Eleven” in 1959.

“[Appointment at Eleven] was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o’clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid’s drunk and trying to get drunker and obnoxious, and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.

This may have been in Hitch’s mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there’s no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some ‘artistic respectability’ with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock often preferred working with novelists and playwrights instead of screenwriters, so the decision to hire a novelist for The Birds wasn’t as unique as Hunter implies.

“The call came from my agent toward the end of August. I thought at first that Joan Harrison wanted me to adapt another story for Hitch’s TV show. But no, it seemed Hitch had purchased motion picture rights to a Daphne Du Maurier novella titled The Birds, and he wanted me to write the screenplay for the movie he planned to make from it. I told my agent I would have to read the story before I decided. In truth, for the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock on a feature film, I would have agreed to do a screenplay based on the Bronx telephone book.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Of course, Hitchcock planned to expand upon the premise of the original story.

“…When I spoke with [Hitchcock], he said ‘forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.’ He said, ‘That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.’ In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

It is easy to understand why Hitchcock vetoed Hunter’s original two ideas, both of which would have resulted in a very different picture.

“…The first of these was to add a murder mystery to the basic premise of birds attacking humans, an idea I still like. But Hitch felt this would muddy the waters and rob suspense from the real story we wanted to tell. The second was about a new schoolteacher who provokes the scorn of the locals when unexplained bird attacks start shortly after her arrival in town. In the eventual movie; the school teacher survived (but not for long) in the presence of Annie Hayworth. In the movie, the town’s suspicion and anger surfaces in the tides restaurant scene. But Hitch did not want a schoolteacher for his lead; he needed someone more sophisticated and glamorous…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Much of the trouble with the film lies in the approach that Hitchcock and Hunter agreed upon.

“I take full credit – or blame, as the case may be – for what I suggested to Hitch that afternoon: a screwball comedy that gradually turns into stark terror. The idea appealed to him at once. I think he saw it as a challenge equal to the one the birds themselves presented. I think, too, that he saw in it a way of combining his vaunted sense of humor with the calculated horror he had used to great effect in Psycho. …My own reference points were the black and white comedies I’d grown up with in the forties…” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

One imagines that Hitchcock found another misleading first act appealing, but the “screwball comedy” opening isn’t nearly as interesting as the first 45 minutes of Psycho (1960). The tone of a “screwball comedy” is also very much at odds with the tone of a horror film. One could argue that there was a sufficient amount of humor in Psycho (1960), but gallows humor and madcap comedy are two very different things.

“When I first suggested ‘screwball comedy becomes terror,’ Hitch should have said ‘That is the worst idea I have ever heard in my life. Let’s move on.’ Instead, we marched ahead confidently, blithely trying to graft upon Du Maurier’s simple tale of apocalyptic terror a slick story about two improbable lovers confronted with an even more improbable situation – birds attacking humans.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hitchcock’s working methods with Hunter were similar to those that he employed with most of his other writers.

“… I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say ‘Tell me the story so far,’ and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That’s the first bird attack… But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

Hitchcock’s influence over the details and the final shape of the screenplay is evident in a lengthy letter that the director wrote to Hunter after reading the first draft. (This is after Hitchcock and Hunter worked out the story and the structure of the film in Hitchcock’s office.)

“…I have had the opportunity of going over the script a couple of times and in consequence, would like to make some further observations…

…The first general impression is that the script is way too long. This, of course, I know you are already aware of. However the consensus seems to indicate that it is the front part of the script that needs some drastic pruning. I will suggest some ideas to you later on in this letter.

Now the next prevalent comment I have heard is that both the girl and the young man seem insufficiently characterized. In endeavoring to analyze this criticism, I have gathered the impression ‘there doesn’t seem to be any particular feature about the young man himself to warrant the girl going to all the trouble she does in delivering a couple of love birds.’

Another comment about him was obviously misconstrued from the wording in the script – some people looked upon him as a shy, awkward young man. Now I think this was caused because the reader failed to appreciate the fact that his manner was awkward only because in our script he behaves self-consciously about wanting to purchase such things as ‘love birds’. When I reflected upon this, it looked to me as though the joke about buying love birds and the young man’s self-consciousness about it wouldn’t come off. In other words, people would say, ‘What’s difficult about buying a pair of love birds?’ After all, they are not contraceptives! …It could be that the whole scene is too mild for the young man to make any sharp impression on the girl at all.

Evan, would you please permit me to interpose here with an observation that I think we should look out for in this script and this scene in the bird shop is a fair example of what I mean. We run the risk of having in a picture what I call ‘no scene’ scenes. By this I mean that the little sequence might have narrative value but in itself is un-dramatic. It very obviously lacks shape and it doesn’t within itself have a climax as a scene on the stage might…

…Now we have a number of these in our present script. For example, in the newspaper office in the scene between Melanie and her father I feel the audience will get nothing much out of the scene. In fact, one of the comments made was that the father was just a stock figure whose relationship with his daughter seems fairly conventional.

Now at Bodega Bay I can clearly see that we do have one or two scenes with no particular shape. These are scenes of Melanie buying temporary garments and going to the hotel for a room. They really accomplish very little and account for some of the excessive length in the front part of the picture. I feel sure these could be eliminated so that the scene when she presents herself at the school teacher’s house with only a paper bag can be dramatically capitalized. This is to say that she explains her purchases and wish for a room – after the fact.

But here again her relationship with the young man must have a very solid premise for her going to the trouble of taking a room for the night…

…Now, Evan, there is, I am sorry to say, an almost unanimous comment that the interior of the church scene should go because, apparently to the script reader, the story does not progress at all. The scene outside the church, of course, serves a very good purpose for us. It brings our couple together again and sets up the children’s party.

Incidentally, at the children’s party I think Bob Boyle, our production man, had quite an interesting thought that it would be more interesting and, I am inclined to agree with him, that the bird attack might take place during the blind-man’s buff sequence so that we get a little blindfolded girl attacked. Of course, we could have the entrance of the cake about the same time.

Generally speaking, Evan, the rest of it seems to be in pretty good shape except perhaps for some pruning here and there.

Now for some other thoughts; in order to keep the suspense alive from the very beginning I do think we ought to punctuate the sequences with some more positive ideas that will keep the audience a little on edge in the matter of ‘birds’. And, I think we could start this right from the very beginning.

I know you had an idea of this when you had Melanie walking down the street and a flock of pigeons fluttered away. Now an audience might get some significance in this or they may not but somehow I think if we are going to put in ideas of this nature they should be a little less blurred. For example: How would it be to open the picture on a San Francisco street with a series of cuts of upturned faces, some stationary, others moving slowly along, and what they are looking at is an unusual number of sea gulls flying above the buildings of the city. We could continue the upturned faces until at last we come to Melanie also looking up and pan her right into the bird shop where she could make some comment to the woman inside who dismisses it with a remark to the effect that when the weather is bad at sea they often get driven inland. Another spot that occurs to me where we could have a sharp moment – at the end of the night scene between Annie and Melanie there could be the sound of a thump on the front door. They open it to find a dead bird lying there and the scene could fade out on this. This will also tie in with Annie’s last line in the scene. There are probably some other spots which lend themselves to this kind of treatment in the earlier part of the script. Incidentally, I still think that at some moment Annie should see the cut on Melanie’s head.

You know I’ve often wondered that the Audubon Society’s attitude might be to this picture. And if we have any fears that they might be a little ‘frowning’ we might find a spot towards the end where Kathy theorizes about ‘It’s all because we put them in cages, we shoot them down, we eat them, etc.’ This, of course, leaves only one other question as to whether the Audubon Society will frown at the birds having a revengeful nature!

Well, Evan, there you are. Until we have further conversations these are all the things that I can think to put down. Naturally there may be a few more things to be done. I’m still wondering whether anything of a thematic nature should go into the script. I’m sure we are going to be asked again and again, especially by the morons, ‘Why are they doing it?’ …” –Alfred Hitchcock (Letter to Evan Hunter, as printed in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

It is worth noting that all of Hitchcock’s notes on the rough draft proved to shape the final film. The scenes that he suggested to be cut were omitted, and the additions that Hitchcock suggested are included in the final film. Outside parties were consulted about the script. Both men found the script to be lacking sufficient characterization. Hitchcock would worry about these problems well into the film’s production. Of course, Evan Hunter was rather irritated with these outsiders having anything to do with the outcome of the script.

“What I did not know was that Hitch had already solicited comment on the script from Hume Cronyn, an actor who had received ‘adaptation’ credit on two of Hitch’s previous films, Rope in 1948 and Under Capricorn in 1949. Mr. Cronyn’s comments had arrived before my revisions. In his letter of January 13, 1962, he suggested that there was ‘still room for improvement in the development and relationship of the principal characters. The implied arrogance, silliness, and selfishness of the early Melanie may need heightening so that the change to consideration, responsibility, and maturity are more marked – and more enduring.

He was merely the first who – without my knowledge or consent – stuck his finger in the concept and his foot in the whorehouse door.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Alfred Hitchcock also sought the opinion of V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett’s involvement was more pronounced than Cronyn’s, and Hunter’s ego was sufficiently bruised by his influence.

“Unknown to me, Hitch had already sent the script of The Birds to an old friend of his, V.S. Pritchett, a short story writer who used to be the book review editor for the ‘New Statesman.’ …Pritchett wrote back. He said that audiences of The Birds would get the impression that they are in two different stories – in this case a light comedy and a terror tale – that do not weld together. While Hitch pondered this startling revelation that merely defined the entire approach to the film, he asked me to take another look at the final scene, with an eye towards giving it a deeper meaning and a stronger purpose.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter certainly had a valid point when he commented that Pritchett “merely defined the entire approach to the film.” However, it might have been a red flag to Hitchcock that this approach wasn’t working (at least not in the script’s then-current state).

PRITCHETT & ‘THE SAND DUNES’

Pritchett’s involvement would again aggravate Hunter during the film’s production.

“One morning Rod Taylor came to me. ‘Did you write this scene?’ he asked, and handed me some pages. I read the scene. It takes place on a hill above the Brenner house, just prior to the bird attack on the children’s birthday party. Melanie and Mitch are alone. Miraculously, he has a martini pitcher and long-stemmed martini glasses with him. He pours, they drink. Then Melanie pours out her heart… I was happy to tell Rod I had definitely not written that scene, and had not in fact seen those pages until the moment he’d handed them to me. ‘Well, were shooting it this morning,’ he said. Over my dead body, I thought, and went to find Hitch.

He was in the production trailer with Peggy. I asked if I might talk to him privately, and then showed him the scene Rod had given me. I said I didn’t know who’d written it but that it was totally inept and devoid of any craftsmanship, that no single speech in it logically followed the speech preceding it, that a first-year film student at UCLA could write a better scene, and that I would be thoroughly embarrassed if it were to appear in a movie with my name as screenwriter.

Hitch did a straight-faced little take. Then he said, ‘Are you going to trust me or a two bit actor?’ They shot the scene that morning. It is in the picture.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hunter credits Hitchcock for writing the scene, but the scene was in fact written by V.S. Pritchett. The scene attempts to give Melanie additional characterization (which was admittedly needed). Unfortunately, Pritchett’s approach is rather awkward.

THE DELETED SCENE

Many drastic changes were made to Hunter’s script during the film’s production. However, most of these changes were probably improvements. One significant case in point is the omission of a scene between Melanie and Mitch.

“…There was a love scene between the girl and the man that was eliminated. It took place after the mother went off to take the little girl to school. Melanie goes down, puts on her fur coat and sees the man burning the birds in the distance. She wanders off in his direction; she obviously wants to be with him. When he is through with his job of burning the birds, I showed him coming toward her and you can read on her face her desire to receive him. Then – suddenly – he turns around and goes into the house. What’s wrong? She’s disappointed and I put that in to stress that Melanie’s really keen on Mitch. A few minutes later he emerges from the house and says, ‘I’ve put a clean shirt on because the other one smelled of birds.’

Then we continued that scene in a light comedy note, with their speculations as to why the birds were behaving in that way. They joked about the fact that the birds have a leader, that he’s a sparrow perched on a platform addressing all the birds and saying to them, ‘Birds of the world, unite. You’ve nothing to lose but your feathers…

…The scene became more serious, winding up with a kiss. Then we went on to show the mother driving back from the farm, terribly agitated. She rolls up just as the couple is exchanging another kiss, and I put a slight wince in her expression. One doesn’t – at the time – know for sure whether that’s because she’s seen them in that embrace, but subsequent developments will indicate that was the reason. Now, since the love scene was suppressed, the dialogue in the following scene between the mother and Melanie is slightly different from what it was originally…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hunter was vocal about his objection to the scene’s omission.

“From what I understand, Hitch shot this scene. But he never used it, and its absence is sorely felt. Without this scene, no one in the film ever really questions why the birds are doing this, and if our leading characters aren’t even looking for answers, then the audience will demand them. Moreover, without the only scene in the picture that would have shown our screwball lovers finally kissing seriously and passionately, there is no climax – you should pardon the expression – to all their nutty sparring and running around. We haven’t the faintest clue as to why Mitch is suddenly calling her darling for the rest of the film. We are utterly baffled.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

To be fair, Hunter is overstating his case a bit. There are a handful of moments dedicated to the questioning of the reasons behind the bird attacks. The entire Tides Restaurant scene is devoted to this purpose. There is also at least one moment when Cathy asks why the birds are terrorizing them. It is certainly enough to get the point across to even the slowest member of an audience. It is also clear from the proceeding scenes that affection between Melanie and Mitch is growing. Film audiences are sophisticated enough to understand that there are a number of things that happen off camera. One gathers that Melanie and Mitch become friendlier towards one another while Lydia is at the Fawcett farm.

Hitchcock addressed his reasons for cutting the scene during his famous interview with François Truffaut.

“…I felt that the love interlude slowed down the story. Right along, I was concerned about the fact that the word-of-mouth rumors would make the public impatient. I was worried about the audience sitting through this part of the picture and thinking to itself, “Come on. Where are the birds? Let’s get on with it… Anyway, I felt that a prolonged love scene at that point might have irritated the public.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

IMPROVISATION

Such changes weren’t typical of Alfred Hitchcock. While the director normally preferred to have every minute detail planned well in advance, he found himself making many changes while shooting The Birds. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick discuss one example in their excellent book, “Scripting Hitchcock.”

“During production [Hitchcock] also created a scene that does not exist in the Hunter screenplay in which the unseen birds attack the Brenner House, one of the tensest, most frightening scenes in the film because the characters and the audience are forced to imagine the number and ferocity of the murderous attacks outside of the house as the threatening noise of the birds fills the soundtrack.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Hitchcock discussed the shooting of this scene in a number of interviews.

“I’ve always been afraid of improvising on the set because, although one might have the time to get a new idea, there isn’t sufficient time in the studio to examine the value of such an idea. There are too many crew people around… Something happened that was altogether new in my experience: I began to study the scenario as we went along, and I saw that there were weaknesses in it. This emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me.

I began to improvise. For instance, the whole scene of the outside attack on the house by birds that are not seen was done spontaneously, right on the set. I’d almost never done anything like that before, but I made up my mind and quickly designed the movements of the people inside the room. I decided that the mother and the little girl would dart around to search for shelter. There was no place to run for cover, so I made them move about in contradictory directions, a little like rats scurrying into corners.

I deliberately shot Melanie Daniels from a distance because I wanted to make it clear that she was recoiling from nothing at all. What could she be drawing back from? She cringes back into the sofa and she doesn’t even know what she’s recoiling from.

Because I was so keyed up all of this came very easily and very quickly.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

According to Hitchcock, the most difficult aspect of shooting the scene was getting the proper reaction from the actors. However, he found a creative solution to this problem.

“We had a problem when we were shooting that scene to get the actors inside the besieged house to respond properly because we didn’t yet have the sounds of the wings and the noises made by the birds. I had a drummer put on the set, with a small side drum and a mike with a loud speaker. Whenever the actors played their scene, there was a loud drum roll to help them react.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE FAWCETT FARM

Lydia’s discovery of the corpse at the Fawcett Farm was also improved by Hitchcock’s on-set improvisation.

“Another improvisation is the mother driving up to the farm, going into the house and calling the farmer before noticing the wrecked room and discovering the farmer’s body. While we were shooting that, I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ She calls the farmer and he doesn’t answer. Well, a woman in that position wouldn’t push it any further; she’d walk out of the house. So that’s how I got the idea to keep her there by having her notice the five broken teacups hanging from the hooks.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock was occasionally inspired by real life events, which added credibility to a few of his ideas.

“While I was shooting in Bodega Bay, there was an item in a San Francisco paper about crows attacking some young lambs, and – of all places – right in the same locality where we were working. I met a farmer who told me how the crows swooped down to kill his young lambs. That’s where I got the idea for the gouged-out eyes of the dead man.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hitchcock employed an unusual method of cutting in this particular scene. There are three “staccato” jump cuts – each getting progressively closer to the dead man’s eyes.

“I did it for several reasons. I wanted a change from the zooming in, but I wanted to be prepared for censorship problems. If I ran into censorship anywhere – you, like so, you can tape it out you see. And another item interesting about that moment, I never show the woman’s reaction to it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

The scene is quite effective, and is one of the brilliant moments in the film. Of course, the soundtrack added to the scene’s impact.

“The sound track was vital just there; we had the sound of her footsteps running down the passage, with almost an echo. The interesting thing in the sound is the difference between the footsteps inside the house and on the outside. Did you notice that I had her run from the distance and then went to a close-up when she’s paralyzed with fear and inarticulate? There’s silence at that point. Then, as she goes off again, the sound of the steps will match the size of the image. It grows louder right up to the moment she gets into the truck, and then the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish. We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would.

For the arrival of the truck, I had the road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away…

…The reason we went to all that trouble is that the truck, seen from a distance like that – moving at tremendous speed – expresses the frantic nature of the mother’s moves. In the previous scene we had shown that the woman was going through violent emotion, and when she gets into the truck, we showed that this was an emotional truck. Not only by the image, but also through the sound that sustains the emotion. It’s not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that’s like a cry. It’s as though the truck were shrieking.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE TIDES RESTAURANT

Of course, many of the scenes were planned and written ahead of time. Evan Hunter’s favorite example is the scene in the “Tides Restaurant.” Various characters are assembled with Melanie, and are discussing various theories about the reason behind the bird attacks.

“…the scene in the movie that I feel is really mine is the scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist. There’s the drunk at the bar, ‘It’s the end of the world’. The fisherman who complains that the birds are playing hell with his fishing boats… That whole scene is like a one-act play, and I really love it. I wrote that after I left California, and I sent it to Hitch. And he shot it without a moment’s hesitation.” –Evan Hunter (‘Crime Time’ Interview with Barry Forshaw)

Alfred Hitchcock seems to share Hunter’s affection for the scene.

“That scene doesn’t necessarily add anything, but I felt that after the attack of the birds on the children at the birthday party, the small birds coming down the chimney, and the attack of the crows outside the school, we should give the audience a rest before going back to horror. That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs. The character of the drunk is straight out of an O’Casey play, and the elderly lady ornithologist is pretty interesting. …The scene is a little on the long side, but I feel that if the audience is absorbed in it, it is automatically shortened. I’ve always measured the length or brevity of a scene by the degree of interest it holds for the public. If they’re completely absorbed, it’s a short scene; if they’re bored; the scene is bound to be long.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE SOUNDTRACK

Hunter seemed disappointed most of Hitchcock’s decisions. As a matter of fact, many of the more brilliant aspects of the film were opposed by Hunter. For example, Hunter wasn’t pleased to hear that there wouldn’t be a traditional score for The Birds.

“We sat alone in the screening room, side by side, Hitch and I, watching the opening credits of the film. He had decided by then that there would be no score for The Birds. Unmindful of his artistic pretensions for the film, I told him I thought that would be a mistake; that music could subtly foreshadow dire events to come or stridently accompany bird attacks until we had the audience screaming. He said no. No music.

The titles had no music behind them. The titles had no music behind them. The screen was filled with fuzzy images of flying birds. There was the sound of wings whirring. There was the sound of birds squeaking and eeking. It was all very scary and portentous. Maybe he was right.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

It is this reviewer’s opinion that Hitchcock was indeed “right.” Could Hunter really not grasp the effectiveness of Hitchcock’s sound design, or is this simply another example of ‘bitter grapes’? The film’s soundtrack is one of the more thrilling aspects of The Birds. This isn’t terribly surprising. Alfred Hitchcock always paid meticulous attention to the sound design in his films.

 “After a picture is cut, I dictate what amounts to a real sound script to a secretary. We run every reel off and I indicate all the places where sounds should be heard. Until now we’ve worked with natural sounds, but now – thanks to electronic sound – I’m not only going to indicate the sound we want but also the style and nature of each sound.

For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds, we inserted the natural sounds of wings, but we stylized them so as to create greater intensity. We wanted to get a menacing wave of vibration rather than a single level. There was a variation of the noise, an assimilation of the unequal noise of the wings. Of course, I took the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all.

To describe the sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’ That’s what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to achieve that effect through the use of electronic sound.

For the final scene, in which Rod Taylor opens the door to the house for the first time and finds the birds assembled there, as far as the eye can see, I asked for silence, but not just any kind of silence. I wanted an electronic silence, a sort of monotonous low hum that might suggest the sound of the sea in the distance. It was a strange, artificial sound, which in the language of the birds might be saying, ‘We’re not ready to attack you yet, but we’re getting ready. We’re like an engine that’s purring and we may start off at any moment.’ All of this was suggested by a sound that’s so low that you can’t be sure whether you’re actually hearing it or only imagining it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

THE ENDING

The film’s admirable ambiguous ending was a Hitchcock creation that wasn’t in the script. Hunter had written a very different scene.

“Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car’s top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.

Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it’s covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they’re driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.

Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch’s sister says, ‘Mitch do you think they’ll be in San Francisco when we get there?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, honey,’ and that’s the last line of the movie.” –Evan Hunter (MysteryNet Interview with Charles L.P. Silet)

 Obviously, none of this is in the film.

“When I saw the movie for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art’s invitational screening a year later – and realized that Hitch had sacrificed my ending in favor of what he called ‘the most difficult shot’ he’d ever done, a composite of birds requiring thirty-two separate exposures against a matte painting – I was appalled. The very hip and sophisticated black-tie audience, was to say the very least, somewhat glacially polite in its reception. A stunned silence greeted the final complicated mosaic of what appeared to be 3,407 pieces of bird film. Later, when I saw the film in a commercial theatre, people actually turned to each other and mumbled, ‘Is it over? Is that it? Huh?’ I left before they realized I was the man who’d written the screenplay and mistakenly assumed the ending they had just seen was concocted by me… Hitch didn’t film the scene that I wrote because then he would have made a movie with a thrilling suspenseful ending. He wasn’t going for that. He was going for high art.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Perhaps Hunter was too close to the material. The ending is appropriately haunting (and more original) than the one devised by Evan Hunter. Hunter liked to condescend about the ending for the simple reason that it wasn’t his own idea. Hitchcock was rightfully fond of the ending, and liked to discuss it in his interviews.

“There are 371 trick-shots in it, and the most difficult one was the last shot. That took 32 different pieces of film. We had a limited number of gulls allowed. Therefore, the foreground was shot in three panel sections, left to right, up to the birds on the rail. The few gulls we had were in the first third, we re-shot it for the middle third, and for the right-hand third, using the same gulls. Just above the heads of the crows was a long, slender middle section where the gulls were spread again. Then the car going down the driveway, with the birds on each side of it, was another piece of film. The sky was another piece of film, as was the barn on the left, and so on. These were all put together in the lab.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock originally had another idea for an ending that wasn’t used.

“…I toyed with the idea of lap-dissolving on them in the car, looking, and there is the Golden Gate Bridge–covered in birds.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

SPECIAL EFFECTS

If the film is remembered today, this is largely due to the fact that the film pioneered many complicated special effects techniques. It was a huge advancement in what was possible to achieve at the time. Today, people can achieve even better results with very little effort, but this was not the case in 1963.

Alfred Hitchcock used the traveling matte process to produce many of the effects in The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock himself described this process in a lengthy article about the making of The Birds.

“…Let us assume that we’re going to photograph two men talking on the corner of Fifth Avenue, New York, and were shooting the picture in June, but the story requires a snow covered street… Now, say the picture isn’t going out until the following year. The first snows come to New York in November. The cameraman goes out and sets the camera up roughly where the two men have stood and photographs Fifth Avenue in the snow. That film is brought into the studio – the lab – and they work on what is called the optical printer. The first film that goes into the printer is the raw stuff – the unexposed film – and against that the negative of Fifth Avenue.

Now, a print is made of the two men in front of the white backing and is overdeveloped to such a degree that the two men become silhouettes. So you add that as a third film to go through the printer. Thus you have a raw film, Fifth Avenue, and this black silhouette of two men talking.

In the printer, the black portion of the men has prevented the light from going through, so that the only part exposed onto the raw film is Fifth Avenue around the two men. If you were to develop that film at that moment and run it on a screen, you would get Fifth Avenue and two white silhouettes. Of course you don’t develop it, you just rewind the film and start again.

Now, what is the negative of the two men? We shot them against a white background; therefore the white background in the negative is black. So you just put this negative and the already partly exposed raw film through a printer the second time and now you have the men being printed in the space provided for them – the unexposed portion of the film. That is what is called a traveling matte.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The film’s color cinematography introduced other challenges for Alfred Hitchcock.

“…We’re going to have children running down the street and we have the problem of overlaying the ravens. We had about thirty or forty ravens who were trained to fly from one perch to another in the studio against a plain background. But now were in color. So, in order to get a silhouette (we must have a silhouette, otherwise it will ghost – like two snaps on one film), we photograph in color against a yellow background (the same light that they use for fog lights on cars). This sodium light, as it is called, is a color that is the narrowest band on the spectrum of light and comes out black. It’s the only color that won’t photograph.

So now you have your colored image and a black background. At the same time there is a prism – a lens which makes two images. One goes through in color and the other is reflected through a red filter onto ordinary black-and-white film, so that you make your silhouette at the same time as you’re making your scene. So that when you put the two together you have the negative of the children running down the street and the silhouette of the birds printed first and the real birds afterwards. So they’re overlaid. Now, you don’t hold that scene very long – you hold it for a flash. Then you go to a close-up op one of the children and you throw a live trained bird onto the shoulder of that child. And it’s the inter-cutting, the quick inter-cutting, that gives you the illusion of the scene in close-up and in distance and so forth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

One of the justifiably famous shots in The Birds was the shot of the birds descending upon the town. The point-of-view seems to be an apathetic God. The success of the shot belongs to many people, who worked tirelessly to bring Hitchcock’s vision of the shot to life.

“…Now, we didn’t have a full town out there, we had a dockside and so forth. So we put the camera on a hill of the studio where they were building a new car park. In our scene we had a gas station on fire and a trail of flaming gas toward a car park… But all the rest was nothing – we just marked it out with lines so that people could only run in a certain direction. The matte-artist painted a painting of the view above the harbor, except he blacked out the live portion – the flame and the people running. These two – live portion and matte – are printed together. So that now, when we look at it on the screen, it’s as though you’re in a helicopter or high up in a balloon. There’s a whole town, there’s a blaze, and people running.

Now the next problem: having the birds fly down. We hired an island off the coast and put a camera on a high cliff. We brought the gulls around with fish behind the camera and then threw the fish over the cliff – and with the camera on the beach below. When this film was shown we looked at it and there it was: a cliff side, surf, [and] beach, with gulls going down.

Now, two women took this film frame by frame – each little frame. Only fifteen feet in all, but it took them three months to transfer by painting each individual bird onto a plain background. They also painted the silhouette of each bird. And that’s the way the birds were printed over the scene and they were seen going down. That lasted ten seconds on the screen – we took three months to do it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

The matte painting that Hitchcock mentions was the work of Albert Whitlock. This was only one of many matte paintings that Whitlock contributed to the picture.

RECEPTION

Despite an aggressive ad campaign, The Birds received a very mixed reception upon its release. Variety’s review hinted at the kind of reception that the film would receive from “important” critics.

“Beneath all of this elaborate feather bedlam lies a Hitch cock-and-bull story that’s essentially a fowl ball.

The premise is fascinating. The idea of billions of bird-brains refusing to eat crow any longer and adopting the hunt-and-peck system, with homosapiens as their ornithological target, is fraught with potential. Cinematically, Hitchcock & Co have done a masterful job of meeting this formidable challenge. But dramatically, The Birds is little more than a shocker-for shock’s-sake.

Evan Hunter’s screenplay, from Daphne du Maurier’s story, has it that a colony of our feathered ‘friends’ over California’s Bodega Bay (it’s never clear how far-reaching this avian mafia extends) suddenly decides, for no apparent reason, to swoop down en masse on the human population, beaks first. These bird raids are captivatingly bizarre and terrifying.

Where the scenario and picture slip is in the sphere of the human element. An unnecessary elaborate romantic plot has been cooked up and then left suspended. It involves a young bachelor attorney (Rod Taylor), his sister (Veronica Cartwright), their mother (Jessica Tandy), and a plucky, mysterious playgirl (Tippi Hedren) whose arrival from San Francisco with a pair of caged lovebirds for Taylor coincides with the outbreak of avian hostility…” –Variety (December 31, 1962)

Time magazine’s review followed with a similar review of the film that can be summed up with a single sentence; “The movie flaps to a plotless end.” The review seems to site Hunter’s “screwball comedy” opening as the source of most of the trouble with the film, as is evident in the opening paragraph.

“…With a shrieking din, the lettering of the titles and credits comes on, only to be pecked from the screen by a squadron of crazed starlings. Having hinted at the ornithophobic horror to come, director Alfred Hitchcock goes nattering on with an hour of some silly plot-boiling about a flirtatious society girl (Tippi Hedren), a lovelorn schoolmarm (Suzanne Pleshette), an Oedipus wreck (Rod Taylor) and a pair of lovebirds…” –Time (Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach’s review for “Film Quarterly” was a rather lengthy diatribe against the film. It would be ill-advised to take Callenbach’s opinions too seriously. His review is redundant, and rambles for the sake of showcasing his own intelligence (which is lacking). In this reviewer’s opinion, his use of the word “Dionysiac” instead of “Dionysian” discredits him. This is of course, if his audience hasn’t already stopped reading after he mistakes Vera Miles for Janet Leigh. His condescension is irritating, even when one agrees with his opinions. I understand that shortly after the review was published, the editor considered renaming the publication “Pretension Quarterly.”

“‘The Birds is coming!’ says Hitchcock on the posters, and we enter the theater with a pleasant chortle of anticipated horror. Ah that phallic symbolism!

The result is disappointing. The film has been made; it seems to me, on two mistaken assumptions. One is that a frightening film can be made in naturalistic color, and the other is that an attack by birds carries the emotional impact of a really horrific situation. There are other mistakes too — Tippi Hedren, an atrocious and atrociously directed child, and Hitchcock’s usual inability to dramatize affectionate relationships. But some of these might have been remedied.

No doubt Hitchcock’s reasoning was that the pastoral loveliness of Bodega Bay, rendered in soft color, would make us feel more attachment to the scene when it is abruptly threatened by thousands of attacking gulls and crows: so beautiful a little town, to have such a thing happen in it! Yet the effect is precisely the reverse: it reduces the scene to postcard dimensions, so that we care less rather than more, because it is only picturesque. The ratty motel in Psycho, by contrast, was a setting apt for the most extreme horrors; in itself it was a ratty motel only, yet quickly — through the lighting, the hole in the wall, the excellent playing of Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins — the film slid into an area of real emotional impact. The Birds never does. The trick work tries hard — with, reportedly, as many as five simultaneous super-impositions of various birds attacking. But the film has too many obvious loopholes. Above all, why does Rod Taylor, presented as an intelligent and experienced man, not devise with the townsmen — who are largely fishermen and obviously very competent about mechanical matters — any reasonable attempted defense? Who ventured to imagine that seagull beaks could pierce heavy planks? Such nagging mundane questions arise, obviously, because the film is unable to tap in, as a skillful thriller does, on unconscious fears. (Some women seem to be frightened by The Birds, but the general report is that it isn’t very scary; Psycho, on the other hand, terrified almost everybody, though its pseudo-psychiatric ending relieved the tension by being inadvertently comic.) A flock of attacking birds may be surprising, since we all have a somewhat rosy picture of the gentleness of birds, but they remain just a lot of attacking birds; they are natural, external forces to be combated somehow or other, or fled from; they do not share the potentially supernatural mysteries and terrors of those things which are human or inhuman. Hence when Hitchcock makes Tippi walk slowly up the stairs and enter the bird-infested room, it is not at all the obsessive action of Janet Leigh going down the stairs to Mrs. Bates in Psycho; her action leads not toward a psychic resolution of fears, but only to a bloody fight. (The discovery of the body of the feed-dealer, at the end of another corridor, is much more effective.)

Now Hitchcock reportedly concedes that the picture is somewhat allegorically intended. Certainly the McCarthyite grotesque of the mother who accuses Tippi of witchcraft has too many overtones to be neglected. The ending without an end title also, presumably, is intended to make one reflect upon fatal perils seemingly averted — when will the next wave of birds strike? (It is worth remembering that the military slang for missiles is “birds.”) Yet most such aspects of the film would have to be interpreted as cynical triviality if we took this seriously — the lovebirds as a token at the end? — the cops as the bumblers of Civil Defense? — or even the birds is irrational evil or dionysiac forces? No, it must be merely more of Master Alfred’s jokes, perhaps thrown in to insure respectful treatment in Cahiers du Cinema.

The trick work deserves special scrutiny in itself, since the picture is largely a tour de force on this level. Here too Hitchcock falls short. It is not easy to make us believe that birds, normally cautious and timid creatures, might attack men — who after all, even if they were armed with nothing but ball-bats or old 2×4’s, are among the earth’s most dangerous inhabitants. We therefore scrutinize the trick shots with great care: how exactly would birds behave in such a situation? And of course they don’t behave at all in the crucially necessary sense. They seem to fly by at more or less the correct angles to be attacking; they glide in a way almost lifelike enough to convince us; their beaks are made to slash (like the knife in Psycho) against Tippi’s outstretched stigmata-ready hands; their bodies bang into the glass of the telephone booth. Another Hitchcock gargoyle, a hermaphroditic bird-watcher, and skeptic, spells out for us the gigantic number of birds in the world — in which might lie real danger. But in fact, of course, we never actually see any single live bird unambiguously committing a hostile action, like standing there and visibly pecking at somebody’s eyeball. If we had, the effect would have been electric and genuinely horrible, for it would have clearly contradicted our stereotyped feelings about birds, and it is upon such unsettlements of our usual control reactions that the maker of horrific films must play. But since Hitchcock cannot accomplish this, he cannot really touch us, and we are left sitting there amused at good old Alfred’s ingenious but old-fashioned cutting tricks.

These tricks are deployed without the ease and verve of Psycho, moreover. Whereas Psycho is a sickening slide into ever more terrifying events, until the ridiculous psychiatry sets in at the end, The Birds uses up its excitement early, then tries to rise to what is only an anticlimax — the escape of the four individuals in the sports car. One expects, as they inch their way out of the house surrounded by thousands of quietly clucking gulls, that Tippi will yell in terror, or the child going back for the lovebirds will disturb the gulls, and that they will attack again, in a kind of doomsday fantasy which has been rather common in fiction lately. However, the four do get away — at least for now. It is hard to care much; one wonders idly what has been happening elsewhere, if anything. The radio has said that apparently the plague is only local. But nothing follows; the curtains close.

Visually the film is far from Hitchcock at his best. Some of it — like the boat ride Tippi takes across Bodega Bay — is downright clumsy; some is merely tedious, like the protracted conversation in the schoolteacher’s living room. There are inexplicably shaky tracking shots, and on the whole the film has the feel of being skimped both in the shooting and in the shot-planning. Tippi Hedren is a pretty blonde of very modest abilities, working here slightly below the Grace Kelly class level the film tries to ascribe to her. Rod Taylor is a large but emotionally featureless object, and the rest are routine characterizations signifying nothing.

As often in Hitchcock, there are a lot of irrelevant characters and details — a former lover of the hero’s, who is firmly established only to get her eyes pecked out while the child is watching; TV-level ‘sophisticated’ dialogue between hero and heroine; widowed anxious castrating mother, etc.

Worse still, the dialogue has a way of undermining the film. Somebody reports a past plague of gulls in a nearby city — or were they just lost in the fog? (At any rate, they flew away peacefully next day.) The radio reports, later in the film, seem to imply that the outbreak of bird attacks is a local matter — dreadful for the handful of people involved, no doubt, but not some great upheaval of nature. The police of the nearby county-seat are skeptical and rather make light of the whole thing. This accentuates our concern for the safety of the principals, but it detracts from the over-all sense of danger. A really skillful film frightener takes pains to make his dangers open-ended — there is no telling how bad things might get! — and suggestive of ultimate horrors and revelations; he avoids elements in the film which will narrow things down to even possibly controllable dimensions. Orson Welles’s Martian broadcast is still a model in these matters — it scared some 40,000 people into leaving New York City — and makers of films about Menaces would do well to study it. Hitchcock tries to play in this league and fails — predictably so, perhaps, for his forte is the projection of the personally murderous impulse. Psycho, in its own sick way, was a small masterpiece, despite its denouement. But a mess of inconclusive phallic symbolism like Hitchcock’s new film is — let’s say it once again — for the birds.” -Ernest Callenbach (Film Quarterly, 1963)

The review published in The London Times (aka The Times) provides us with a bridge between the negative and the positive. The review begins by lauding many aspects of production, but qualifies the film’s merits with a number of criticisms. In the end, it labels the film “second-grade Hitchcock.”

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock seldom fails to pull a surprise out of his sleeve, and his latest film is no exception. ‘The Birds is coming!’ scream the posters, and evil-looking black silhouettes hang over us; ‘It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made’, Mr. Hitchcock warns us (with characteristic ambiguity) from hoardings. So, naturally, we go along prepared at once to be scared out of our wits. And what happens? For the first three-quarters of an hour, virtually nothing. In his most insolently insidious fashion Mr. Hitchcock begins with throwaway social comedy shading little by little into drama… It is all very cool, and precise, and leisurely. And so it goes on for exactly 45 minutes. We know these people, from films and from life; we know where we are, and can prepare with reasonable equanimity for a fairly conventional thriller with, presumably, science-fiction touches.

Then the birds come. First one, a stray seagull which for no apparent reason swoops out of a clear blue sky and pecks the heroine. Then other little attacks here and there. Then suddenly a sort of collective frenzy which all at once seizes great flocks of otherwise harmless birds — the sort of birds one disregards and walks happily among on the pavements of any city in the world — and sets them tearing and clawing at a humanity totally unprepared for any such betrayal. For betrayal it seems. We are used to supposing that nature is there for us; “man superior walks amid the glad creation” and mere animals and plants know their places. But how fragile is the structure of our complacency; what would happen if something went wrong and the balance of power we so casually take on trust were changed overnight?

This is the theme of The Birds, and it is in general brilliantly handled. The old master’s skill in starting from the ordinary only to drop us terrifyingly into the extraordinary has seldom been better deployed. No traditional menace is allowed to intrude; there are none of the birds that normally frighten us, no suggestion that these birds have somehow acquired superior intelligence or are the agents of a superior intelligence. They are throughout just birds, ordinary birds, behaving as birds might given the one basic, by no means incredible assumption that something — some form of rabies, perhaps — might sweep, through them rather as myxomatosis did the rabbit population of the world. Once one accepts the possibility of this, all the rest falls into place as a cunningly unanswerable morality; the mushroom-shaped cloud may be the least of our troubles — that at least is part of our own house and we can, if we will, keep it in order; rather, we should remember that we occupy that house only on sufferance.

The conception of the film, then, is compelling.

What prevents it nevertheless from matching the most extraordinary of Mr. Hitchcock’s achievements — Psycho, Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry — is an occasional faltering in the execution. Though a lot of the process work needed to show the birds attacking is superbly done, there are odd shots which look so patently fake that they weaken our confidence in the whole. Then the cast seems, in comparison with those Mr. Hitchcock has lately been assembling, a trifle colourless: Mr. Rod Taylor’s lawyer hero is rather a dull stick and Miss “Tippi” Hedren, another of those cool-but-sizzling-underneath blondes that Mr. Hitchcock delights to feature in his films, is less appealing than many: one takes the point that she is not meant to be a very agreeable character, but at least the qualities she does have might come over more vividly. And finally the script (by Mr. Evan Hunter, vaguely suggested by a story of Miss Daphne du Maurier) does lie a little heavy, especially towards the end of the first movement, when all the characters spend too much time un-illuminatingly discussing their relations with their own and each other’s mothers.

But when all this is said, second-grade Hitchcock is still about twice as exciting as first-grade anyone else. There are marvelous ideas (like the irony of the heroine fluttering frantically, “caged” in a phone-booth by savage, blood-lusting birds) and always the sheer drive and discipline of his visual story-telling. And, to come back to the basics which still mean most to the average filmgoer when the name of Mr. Hitchcock is mentioned, it can be safely guaranteed to make even the most stout-hearted think twice the next time he starts casually to brush aside a couple of stray pigeons that cross his path.” –The Times (August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut was extremely kind to the film in his review for Cahiers du Cinéma, but admitted that the film “isn’t perfect.”

“…Hitchcock has never won an Oscar, although he is the only living filmmaker whose films, when they are reissued twenty years after their first appearance, are as strong at the box office as new films. His last film, The Birds, is admittedly not perfect. Rod Taylor and ‘Tippi’ Hedren are imperfectly matched, and the sentimental story (as almost always, husband hunting) suffers from it. But what an injustice there is in the generally bad reception. I am so disappointed that no critic admired the basic premise of the film: ‘Birds attack people.’ I am convinced that cinema was invented so that such a film could be made. Everyday birds — sparrows, seagulls, crows — take to attacking ordinary people, the inhabitants of a seacoast village. This is an artist’s dream; to carry it off requires a lot of art, and you need to be the greatest technician in the world.

Alfred Hitchcock and his collaborator, Evan Hunter (Asphalt Jungle), kept only the idea of Daphne du Maurier’s short story: seaside birds take to attacking humans, first in the countryside, then in the town, at the exits of schools, and even in their homes.

No film of Hitchcock’s has ever shown a more deliberate progression: as the action unfolds, the birds become blacker and blacker, more and more numerous, increasingly evil. When they attack people, they prefer to go for their eyes. Basically fed up with being captured and put in cages — if not eaten — the birds behave as if they had decided to reverse the roles.

Hitchcock thinks that The Birds is his most important film. I think so too in a certain way — although I’m not sure. Starting with such a powerful mold, Hitch realized that he had to be extremely careful with the plot so that it would be more than a pretext to connect scenes of bravura or suspense. He created a very successful character, a young San Francisco woman, sophisticated and snobbish, who (in enduring all these bloody experiences) discovers simplicity and naturalness.

The Birds can be considered a special-effects film, indeed, but the special effects are realistic. In fact, Hitchcock’s mastery of the art grows greater with each film and he constantly needs to invent new difficulties for himself. He has become the ultimate athlete of cinema.

In actual fact, Hitchcock is never forgiven for making us afraid, deliberately making us afraid. I believe, however, that fear is a “noble emotion” and that it can also be “noble” to cause fear. It is “noble” to admit that one has been afraid and has taken pleasure in it. One day, only children will possess this nobility.” -François Truffaut (1963)

It comes as a surprise that Bosley Crowther was another of the film’s champions.

“…Making a terrifying menace out of what is assumed to be one of nature’s most innocent creatures and one of man’s most melodious friends, Mr. Hitchcock and his associates have constructed a horror film that should raise the hackles of the most courageous and put goose-pimples on the toughest hide.

Whether Mr. Hitchcock intended this picture of how a plague of birds almost ruins a peaceful community to be symbolic of how the world might be destroyed (or perilously menaced) by a sudden disorder of nature’s machinery is not apparent in the picture. Nor is it made readily clear whether he meant the birds to represent the classical Furies that were supposed to pursue the wicked on this earth.

I prefer to suspect the latter, although it isn’t in Mr. Hitchcock’s style to inject allegorical meanings or social significance in his films…

…But whether or not it is intended that you should find significance in this film, it is sufficiently equipped with other elements to make the senses reel. Mr. Hitchcock, as is his fashion, has constructed it beautifully, so that the emotions are carefully worked up to the point where they can be slugged…

…Notice how clear and naturalistic the narrative elements are: a plausible confrontation, beautiful scenery, a literal enactment of a playful intrigue — all very nicely arranged.

Then, sneakily, Mr. Hitchcock tweaks us with a tentative touch of the bizarre. The plausible is interrupted by a peculiar avian caprice. A seagull attacks a young woman. Flocks of angry gulls whirl in the air. A swarm of sparrows swoops down a chimney and whirrs madly through the living room. And, then, before we know it, he is flying in shock waves of birds and the wild, mad, fantastic encounter with a phenomenon of nature is on.

There may be no explanation for it (except that symbolic one, perhaps), but the fierceness and frightfulness of it are sufficient to cause shocks and chills. And that is, no doubt, what Mr. Hitchcock primarily intends.

The cast is appropriate and sufficient to this melodramatic intent. …And those birds! Well, you’ve never seen such actors! They are amazingly malevolent feathered friends.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, April 1, 1963)

 Andrew Sarris also admired the film upon its release.

The Birds is here (at the Palace and Sutton), and what a joy to behold a self-contained movie which does not feed parasitically on outside cultural references—Chekhov, Synge, O’Neill, Genet, Behan, Melville, or what have you. Drawing from the relatively invisible literary talents of Daphne Du Maurier and Evan Hunter, Alfred Hitchcock has fashioned a major work of cinematic art, and “cinematic” is the operative term here, not “literary” or “sociological.” There is one sequence, for example, where the heroine is in an outboard motor boat churning across the bay while the hero’s car is racing around the shore road to intercept her on the other side. This race, in itself pure cinema, is seen entirely from the girl’s point of view. We see only what she can see from the rowboat. Suddenly, near shore, the camera picks up a sea gull swooping down on our heroine. For just a second, the point of view is shifted, and we are permitted to see the bird before its victim does. The director has apparently broken an aesthetic rule for the sake of a shock effect—gull pecks girl. Yet this momentary incursion of the objective on the subjective is remarkably consistent with the meaning of the film.

The theme, after all, is complacency, as the director has stated on innumerable occasions . . . As in Psycho, Hitchcock succeeds in implicating his audience to such an extent that the much-criticized, apparently anticlimactic ending of the film finds the audience more blood-thirsty than the birds.” -Andrew Sarris (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)

LEGACY

Today, The Birds is simply accepted as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important films. Because it is an important work that made advancements in what could be achieved on the screen, people consider The Birds to be of his best films. Donald Spoto even claimed that it is one of the director’s masterpieces.

“…The result is perhaps Hitchcock’s least accessible motion picture, for it reveals its richness like a demanding art novel or a complex symphony, only after considerable effort. Even ardent Hitchcockians among those mystified and disappointed by this picture, although The Birds is certainly among his half-dozen masterpieces and one of the purest, most darkly lyrical films ever created. Part of the problem may be Hitchcock’s refusal to compromise, for The Birds is nothing like the traditional narrative with a beginning, a middle and a firm conclusion… (Discussing The Birds with the author of this book, Federico Fellini called it an apocalyptic poem and affirmed it as his favorite among Hitchcock’s works and one of the cinema’s greatest achievements.)” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

While this reviewer does not subscribe to popular belief that The Birds is one of the master’s best efforts, it is an endlessly interesting work that rewards viewers with new revelations each time that it is seen. After all, second tier Hitchcock is still much better than most other films (especially these days).

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

 This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

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The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork that improves on the artwork used for the various DVD releases of the film.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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There is very little room for complaint (especially concerning the individual release).

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Birds is a troublesome title to judge in terms of picture quality. The film is marred to some extent by the special effects photography. Some shots are naturally second, third, and even fourth generation images. Obviously, these images will not be as immaculate as one expects from Blu-ray transfers. This reviewer cannot hold this against the transfer, even if some of these images aren’t as pristine as one might prefer. The image is a bit softer than one expects in high definition, but much of this is due to the production photography. This transfer is vastly superior to previous DVD releases of the film, and warrants an upgrade. There is more detail evident in the transfer, and aliasing is less of an issue here. The picture contrast is also vastly superior than it has been in previous releases of the film. Colors seem to be accurately rendered, and black levels are deep and lovely. Some shots do exhibit a bit of unattractive noise, but these incidents do not represent the presentation in its entirety. There has also been a bit of digital tampering, and there is an occasional artifact. This is never distracting, but it is somewhat unfortunate. This transfer might not be great, but it is certainly a vast improvement. It would be a mistake to expect much more than this.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The faithful DTS-HD 2.0 Mono Master Audio track is fabulous. Certain audiences might prefer a 5.1 mix, but this track best represents the film as it was intended to be experienced upon the film’s release. The sounds are always crisp and clear, and dialogue is always intelligible. The sound effects are full and have an aggression that one might expect in more modern films (even if they are focused through the front speakers). While a 5.1 mix would certainly be an enjoyable experience, this loss-less Mono track does the job admirably.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

All About The Birds – (SD) – (1:19:49) –

Laurent Bouzereau’s feature-length documentary about the making of The Birds is incredibly comprehensive. It covers every aspect of production in explicit detail. The program was produced at a time when supplemental features were actually quite wonderful (instead of mere fluff pieces). Patricia Hitchcock, ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Rod Taylor, Veronica Cartwright, Evan Hunter, Ray Berwick, Robert Boyle, Hilton Green, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Harold Michelson, Howard Smit, Steven C. Smith, and Robin Wood all share memories, or provide their expertise about the film. The viewer will also hear Alfred Hitchcock discuss the film’s ending with Peter Bogdanovich. The disc would be worth its asking price if this were the only supplement included! This documentary is second only to Bouzereau’s similar program about Psycho… and it is a very close second.

The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie – (HD) – (14:23) –

This featurette is exclusive to the Blu-ray of The Birds, and is essentially an analysis of the film’s place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. The piece makes the argument that The Birds is the master’s “monster movie.” It is nice to have it included here, but it isn’t one of the discs better supplements.

‘Tippi’ Hedren’s Screen Test (SD) – (9:57) –

This footage from ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s screen test (featuring Martin Balsam) is an absolute gem. Alfred Hitchcock fans should find this footage to be absolutely essential, and will be thrilled to have it in their collection.

Suspense Story: National Press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:54) –

This newsreel includes a humorous speech that Alfred Hitchcock gave for the National Press Club. It is both interesting and enjoyable.

The Birds is Coming (Universal International Newsreel) – (SD) – (1:17) –

This newsreel features footage that highlights pigeon races that publicized The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock and ‘Tippi’ Hedren witness the event.

Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Excerpts – (SD) – (13:58) –

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films.

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics – (HD) – (9:13) –

This featurette is essentially a commercial for the Universal catalog, and discusses the restoration of a few Universal films (including The Birds). The few nuggets of information that are related to the viewer concern the restoration process.

100 Years of Universal: The Lot – (HD) – (9:26) –

This featurette is essentially a fluff piece about the Universal lot, but it does include a few brief moments of interesting footage that makes it worth watching.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (5:11) –

The theatrical trailer for The Birds is an incredibly creative promotional film featuring Alfred Hitchcock discussing the history of man’s relationship with the birds. It is of course done with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. It is truly excellent, and this disc would be incomplete without it.

Deleted Scene – (SD) – (4:20) –

This deleted scene featuring Melanie and Mitch was shot, but no longer exists (at least not to anyone’s current knowledge). Therefore, the scene is presented as a sort of slide show with excerpts from the script and images from the scene.

Original Ending – (SD) – (3:40) –

Since the original ending was never shot, we are given a slide show presentation of script pages and conceptual sketches that illustrate what the ending would have been like.

Storyboards – (SD) – (24:21) –

Audiences are given a slide show comparing various storyboards with images from the film.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

Another slide show of production photos, stills, advertisements, posters, and other images is also included.

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Final Words:

The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s important efforts, and fans will want to include this Blu-ray in their libraries. The special features included on the disc are truly excellent, and the transfer is a definite upgrade from previous DVD releases of the film.

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Source Materials:

Article (The Hollywood Reporter, November 20, 1962)

Daphne du Maurier (The Birds)

Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 18, 1961)

Alfred Hitchcock Using Sentinel’s Seabird Story (Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 21, 1961)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Charles L.P. Silet (MysteryNet)

Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Interview (Cinema, August-September, 1963)

Interview with Evan Hunter and Barry Forshaw (Crime Time)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Review (Variety, December 31, 1962)

Review (Time, Apr. 05, 1963)

Ernest Callenbach Review (Film Quarterly, 1963)

Review (The Times, August 29, 1963)

François Truffaut Review (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1963)

Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, April 1, 1963)

Andrew Sarris Review (The Village Voice, April 4, 1963)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Tony Lee Moral (The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds)

Review By: Devon Powell

Book Review: The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds

Cover

Publisher: Kamera Books

Release Date: September 1, 2013

Those who have read Tony Lee Moral’s “Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie” will not be surprised to hear that his book about the making of The Birds stands as one of the better books about the creation of a single Hitchcock film. Moral covers his subject in exhaustive detail. The book begins with the genesis of Daphne du Maurier’s short story and works its way through the film’s release. Every stage of the film’s production is given equal attention using files from the actual production that are held at the Margaret Herrick Library, archival articles and interviews, personal interviews, previously published books on the director’s work, and other sources. Moral’s work will serve both the film scholar and the casual fan in equal measure.

One is especially appreciative of Moral’s understanding that it isn’t always wise to accept everything one hears or reads. He seems to question certain stories and comments made from individuals involved with the project. He often raises questions about the validity of some of the information he presents instead of accepting it at face value simply because it would make for an interesting story (or support an agenda). Moral makes an honest attempt to present multiple perspectives in a manner that leaves the conclusions up in the air for the reader to sort out. This is a very responsible approach to scholarship, and one cannot say this about a lot of texts that focus on Hitchcock.

Review by: Devon Powell