Birds are not your typical frightening creatures, so how does one make them the stuff of nightmares? One way is to taint them from the very beginning — and so Hitchcock starts The Birds with an ingenious opening credits sequence that shows frantic crows flying in every direction, making horrible, shrieking sounds. This creates immediate discomfort and makes it very clear that the birds featured in the movie will not be nice.
Like in many of Hitchcock’s films, the first scenes could be a part of your average romantic movie: socialite Melanie Daniels meets handsome attorney Mitch Brenner in a bird shop. He’s looking for lovebirds, and pretends to mistake her for one of the store’s assistants. Melanie plays along as she leads him through the store, both flirting with each other. When realising the practical joke he was playing on her, she decides to pay him back by following him all the way down to Bodega Bay, sneaking into his house and leaving a couple of lovebirds in a golden cage.
However, being this a Hitchcock movie, all these scenes don’t go by without any symbolic incidents: before entering the bird store, Melanie spots a bunch of seagulls, inland; while showing Mitch some canaries, one of them bites her; and when crossing the bay returning from his house, she’s attacked in the head by a seagull.
Gradually, the violence of the bird attacks increases, and she’s no longer the only target. These attacks come in random waves; they are vicious and merciless but, most disturbingly of all, we don’t know why they’re happening. This is the main question that we and the characters ask throughout the movie, and one that cleverly remains unanswered.
Former model Tippi Hedren plays the classic cool blonde with a fresh edge while perfectly dressed by Edith Head (take note of her fabulous fur coat). Rod Taylor’s Mitch acts has a sort of gravitational center for all the women in the film, wanted and needed by them for different reasons. Between shots of traditional chivalry from the strong, rugged man who saves the day, one can see the nuanced feelings of frustration that stem from his mother smothering (interpreted by Jessica Tandy), in a subtle performance that is often overlooked.
—– SPOILERS AHEAD —–
Loosely based on the 1952 story The Birds by Daphne du Maurier, it features scenes of graphic horror that are amongst the most unsettling of Hitchcock’s work — particularly the one with the murdered man, cut with quick shots that get closer and closer to the eaten eyeballs. Having no soundtrack, it sets the tone by shifting from noisy, nervous bird attacks to moments of eerie silence — for nothing is scarier than the growing tension of seeing the crows outside the school or the massive amount of birds in the end that are silent and still, as if waiting for the right moment to strike.
Equally disturbing are the apparently random accidents that happen as we begin to notice the birds’s behaviour is not natural, like a bird loudly crashing into a window.
—– IT’S SAFE AGAIN —–
But the most interesting achievement is the symbolic inversion of the bird/human dynamic, as crucial moments in the film have the main characters trapped in confined spaces — like a house, a bar, or even a phone booth — trying to protect themselves from the enraged animals who roam freely outside. In this thriller, humans are the ones trapped in cages.