Indisputably one of the most acclaimed films from the Hitchcock catalogue, this horror slash thriller is actually more than what it’s given credit for. Perhaps the most viewed and the most famous of all of Hitchcock’s films, likely everybody remembers that story of when the birds attack the town and… seemingly most people don’t remember much details after that. Yet contrary to conventional wisdom the film is as effective as a love story as it is anything else, and is criminally underrated for its ability to have characters and romance flourish in the face of such hysteria. Nevertheless where the film has always gotten its just due is for its appeal to mystery and terror, in which case Hitchcock and his talent overwhelmingly deliver.
The third and final adaptation from a Daphne du Maurier novel, this film appropriately begins in the peaceful sanctuary of a bird shop in San Francisco. A charming lawyer played by Rod Taylor is hoping to buy some love birds (nice touch) for his niece when he notices Tippi Hedren in her film debut, playing a beautiful socialite that he recognizes from a previous encounter. She plays along when he pretends to mistake her for the salesperson, and I’d have to say that flirtation had never been so poetic until Hitchcock put it on screen. It is outside the shop where the intrigue continues, as Hedren takes it upon herself to do the courting by driving all the way to Bodega Bay to deliver the lovebirds herself. She cunningly decides to hide the birds in his mother’s house but is seen by Taylor as she playfully tries to escape, thus leading us to our first sight of airborne assault as Hedren is clipped by a flying bird. Taylor consoles Hedren as he treats her wound and invites her to dinner, yet rather disillusioned she accepts and decides to stay in the bay overnight at the home of a local schoolteacher played by Suzanne Pleshette. The dialogue between Hedren and Pleshette is further stimulating as the nature of their recent friendship is precarious, considering Pleshette was a previous lover of Taylor and moved to the bay to be near him even if they couldn’t be together. Nonetheless the civility and decency shown between the two women is something that always resonated with me, as Hitchcock seemed to have a touch for class and dignity that was immeasurable even in more decent times of nobility.
Amidst the complicated love triangle there is of course an abundance of thrills, all of which involve the unprecedented behavior of birds attacking men, women, and children seemingly for no reason whatsoever. It goes without saying that the birds are completely unprovoked and demonstrating behaviors unheard of, as discussed by our main characters as well as the concerned townspeople, some of whom believe Hedren to be responsible by a supernatural interpretation. Memorable scenes include bird attacks on a children’s birthday party and the town centre, the latter involving a heavy explosion and the historic shot of Hedren inside a phone booth that provides no shelter from the demonic avians. When it’s revealed that Pleshette had lost her life during the chaos, the audience undoubtedly shares that pain with Hedren and Taylor, illustrating the character development that Hitchcock was able to produce in the heart of anarchy.
My final thoughts relate to the technical aspects of the film in regards to the special effects and storyline. Hitchcock was able to combine different combinations of animated, puppet, and live birds throughout the film, a remarkable feat for any time period. It’s been well documented that Hedren was bludgeoned by aggressively trained seagulls attached to her infamous green ensemble in the upstairs attic sequence, and the final shot of the characters slowly driving away from Bodega Bay was said to be the most difficult of his career. I otherwise have a great appreciation for the film’s ambiguity in its ending, as Hitchcock knew that to provide an explanation would compromise the despair of dealing with the unknown. I can think of few other apocalyptic films that apply this fear of uncertainty, and even less that go to the extent of concealing critical details such as cause or origin. Yet understanding the human psyche Hitchcock amplified the horror by not divulging any details whatsoever, leaving the outcome open to interpretation while not allowing the end credits to relieve any tension, thus its general theme has maintained its mystique to this very day. Ultimately this film will always leave us terrified of the fateful moment when the birds may turn on us, but thanks to a clever script and phenomenal characters this film will always be much more than that.