The Birds (1963) was directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock and based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. It starred Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette. Running time: 119 minutes.
It is one of the most disturbing sequences in cinematic history: a woman tiptoes through a house until – in three staccato shots – she discovers the bloody corpse of its occupant on the bedroom floor, his eye sockets two black holes dripping with gore.
The scene is just one of several grisly moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s peerless horror flick, The Birds, made three years after his scorching success with Psycho.
It begins as screwball comedy. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a go-getting playgirl who drives a swish Aston Martin. After a smart-arse lawyer called Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) flirts with her in a San Francisco pet shop, she tracks him down to Bodega Bay, north California, where he weekends with his mother (Jessica Tandy). Australian Taylor, who had won acclaim for his role in The Time Machine, died in January 2014 aged 84.
Soon after she drives out to see him, a seagull pecks at her head – an ominous substitute for Cupid’s arrow – and it isn’t long before the town is under attack from flocks of divebombing gulls and crows.
The bird-attack sequences are tremendously complex (the movie contains more than 370 trick shots), and the absence of a score renders the horror more immediate: Hitch’s long-time composer Bernard Herrmann fashioned an eerie soundtrack from caws, strident screeches and rustling wings.
But the true genius of the film, based on a 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier, is the way Hitchcock makes the malevolent birds seem like manifestations of his characters’ mental unease –especially that of Mitch’s mother and his former lover, Annie, now a local schoolteacher.
What woman wouldn’t feel threatened if Melanie arrived in town? In her chic green suit, her peroxide hair swept into an immaculate chignon, and her soft lips moulded into a succession of minxish pouts, Hedren makes Melanie the very height of 1960s sophistication.
Mitch’s mother smiles daggers at Melanie when they are introduced, her animosity perhaps sparked by their uncanny resemblance. Indeed, many people mistake the famous poster art of a woman assailed by birds (taken from the scene in which sparrows cascade into the Brenners’ living room) for Hedren. In fact, the grimace belongs to Tandy – her grey hair tinted blonde to abet the confusion.