If there was ever any testament to the endless talents of Alfred Hitchcock, it was that he managed to take an utterly absurd premise, a pair of uncharismatic leads, a shrill supporting cast and dated special effects and turn it into inarguably one of the greatest horror films ever made. There’s no need to wax poetic about The Birds – a firm constituent of the maestro’s top-tier, its quite simply one of the most iconic works of cinematic terror ever put on screen, and even over half a century later, it continues to stand as one of the scariest movies ever produced. This isn’t even my own crippling ornithophobia talking – The Birds is an incredible work of fiction, a deft provocation of both form and content put together by a director who, for lack of a better term, understood intrinsically all the methods to make a great film. Some may argue this is his last true masterpiece (I tend to agree, while still being partial to his wonderful swan song, Family Plot), while others cite it as one of the best representations of his skill, style and darkly comical humour that made him inarguably one of the most important film directors to ever work in the medium. There’s been so much written about this film over the course of its existence – its endeared itself to innumerable viewers over the years, many of which still tend to talk about this film fondly. This was the first time I had watched it since encountering it as a much younger film-lover when I first began exploring horror cinema, and while there’s always some merit in seeing an unimpeachable classic with new eyes and a decade or so of experience and eroded enthusiasm, getting through The Birds is still an ordeal like no other, and that is the most generous compliment anyone could pay a film as visceral, petrifying and unforgettable as this one.
Whatever your perspective on this film or its director is, its difficult to see The Birds as anything other than something of a true masterpiece – whether a horror aficionado or a casual viewer, there’s a certain elegance that bolsters it and makes it such an electrifying work of cinematic terror. This doesn’t imply that its a perfect film – like all the most ambitious works that had maintained their reputation for as long as this has, there are certain imperfections that do tend to be very clear, but they’re ultimately inconsequential, mainly due to the fact that Hitchcock was able to conceal many of these problems beneath the veneer of very impressive filmmaking and storytelling that distracts from minor problems, and unless dealing in something truly morally reprehensible to the point where no amount of artistic nuance can hide it, The Birds does a remarkable job of overcoming its flaws, particularly through simply embracing them. Hitchcock was the most economic of filmmakers when he wanted to be, and even when it was clear the technology wasn’t entirely there for his entire vision to be realized, he and his crew toiled endlessly to put together something entirely incredible with the resources they still have, and in the process produced a film far more terrifying than anything that can possibly be made today. The problem with many canonical classics is that there’s always the danger of them being overhyped or sold as being more impressive than they actually are through the snowballing of its reputation – The Birds doesn’t have this problem, and if anything, undersells its brilliance, to the point where even those who are dyed-in-the-wool devotees of horror will find themselves shifting in their seats in a state of complete anxiety, or shivering in the unbridled fear that the master imbues into every frame of this incredibly compelling work of horror.
While it may be impossible to overstate the genius simmering beneath this film, talking about a classic work like The Birds is challenging if you’re seeking to say something that hasn’t been said before. In this regard, there’s nothing else to do other than to just praise it for what it is, and comment on what it means on an individual level. Its a horror film that defined generations – occurring at a time when filmgoing was finally an affordable pastime for many people (rather than a special event), but recent enough for the pioneer audiences to still be around to attest to it, it feels like The Birds was one of the most important horror blockbusters of its generation, and it’s not difficult to see why even those who don’t subscribe to the idea of cinema being anything more than just entertainment light up in delight when the title of this film is spoken. Generations have grown up with this film, which is unsettling enough to be a thrilling experience, but not too terrifying to repulse viewers from ever revisiting it. On a personal level, I’ve encountered so many people who state The Birds as being the first horror film they ever saw – this could even possibly apply to my own experiences, with the memory of seeing these terrifying, airborne creatures eviscerating unsuspecting townfolk being amongst the earliest filmgoing memories I remember. The legacy of The Birds is very special – and it certainly helps that it earns every bit of praise because while many of the most significant classics normally gain their reputations through sentimentality or socio-cultural factors, Hitchcock does something here that defies both narrative and technical boundaries, which was very much par for the course in the career of a director whose entire body of work is worth viewing as a series of rousing moments of inducing fear, thrill, dread and suspense in all viewers, and never allowing us to forget the experience through some unorthodox, but utterly brilliant methods.
The Birds is remarkably well-formed both in terms of the way the story is structured, and how Hitchcock executes it. Based on a short story by Daphne De Maurier (who was also the mind behind another one of the scariest films ever made, Don’t Look Now), the film starts as a delightful comedy, a polite series of coincidences and misadventures that serve to give the viewer the chance to settle into the quaint seaside hamlet of Bodega Bay, with lovable characters and a general easygoing nature. However, no one would be misguided enough to think this was all it was going to be. While it may not be the film that I’d personally select as the most effective condensing of Hitchcock’s style, it does feature some of his most distinctive foreshadowings – his title of Master of Suspense didn’t come from nothing. The ways in which the director slowly immerses the audience into a hellish version of reality through a subtle but gradual descent into horror is amongst the finest in the genre. Even when making something as bold and outrageous as The Birds, Hitchcock retained an elegant style that never pushed his vision too far, to the point where it lost its spark of understated brilliance. He’s permanently in control, and if there has ever been a better portrayal of the growing sense of foreboding danger, you’re not likely to find it anytime soon. Formulated by following a familiar pattern, but taking many different twists and turns towards its resolution (which is mercifully not all that predictable, and actually manages to pack an emotional punch), the director employs some incredibly effective filmmaking techniques that are quintessential of their time, but still quite brilliant in the context of the film around it. The special effects may be bewildering by modern standards, but they only add to the joy of experiencing this film – there’s a certain sinister brilliance that comes with the gaudy effects that contribute to the uncanny, disquieting nature of the film.
On the topic of products of its time, The Birds is smart enough to understand the limitations of Tippi Hedren as an actress. Her professional relationship with Hitchcock has been well-documented and discussed, and doesn’t need to be replicated here. Instead, going by what we see on screen, the director knew exactly how to evoke whatever talents she purported to possess, particularly through never positioning her as anything other than a misguided, hedonistic young woman who takes an ill-conceived vacation and may just find herself getting more than she bargained for. Hedren is not a good actress, but somehow her meek talents work well in the context of the film – she plays the ditzy innocence of the initial comedic subplot exceptionally well and manages to convey the terror in the later stages of the film very effectively, even if that’s more a feat of the filmmaking than her own performance. Rod Taylor, who was definitely a good actor, is the dashing hero of the story, and naturally doesn’t get anything substantial to do either other than venture through various perils to save the day. The best performances come from those who don’t tend to take the screen for very long – Jessica Tandy is wonderfully demented as the hysterical older woman who finds herself a few steps away from a complete breakdown, selling every bit of the elegant insanity that the character required, while still showing some restraint. Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright are perfectly serviceable in their own supporting roles. Even Ethel Griffies (as a prickly bird expert) and Doreen Lang (whose official credit as Hysterical Mother in Diner was very well-suited, as I kept expecting her to shout “won’t someone please think of the children?”). The Birds is a terrifying film, but its also a darkly comical character study and each one of these castmembers deliver, whether a professional performer or a fashion model thrown into the lead role.
It’s impossible to do The Birds justice through mere words – there’s no doubt that this can be considered one of the defining works of 1960s horror, a brilliant piece of subtle despair that gradually compounds into fully-fledged terror that pushes us beyond any conceivable logic. Perhaps the best way to celebrate the work Hitchcock does with The Birds is to note how he outright refuses to offer any explanation – horror films, particularly those centred around such bizarre phenomena, tend to have a huge revelatory moment where everything makes sense. This film lacks that, and it all the better for it – to justify the behaviour of these feathered villains is to strip them of the malice they possess, which would make the entire concept of these cursed beings terrorizing the town (and, as implied by the haunting final moments, possibly the entire country or even the world) more palatable, which is certainly not something The Birds ever strove to be. This is an unsettling work of terrifying brilliance, the rare kind of horror film that isn’t only truly disconcerting but also carries some sense of artistic merit to it. Whether in the intricate structure the director employs to convincingly tell this otherwise bewildering story (who would’ve thought a film about killer birds would be as compelling as this?), or the general technical mastery that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, The Birds is something very close to a true masterpiece, an unforgettable entry into a genre that it helped usher into a new age, where it didn’t abide by the conventions of the animal horror, but actually set the standards overall. This is an unforgettable experience and stands as one of the best portrayals of the unmitigated genius of Alfred Hitchcock.