Much like Psycho there is a lot going on here, and, in fact, The Birds is so densely packed that its hard to take it all in.
Things start off in relatively normal form as we meet our protagonist Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and, what seems to be simply a love interest, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) as well as a shop full of birds. This whole sequence and, as it continues, Melanie heading to the small town of Bodega Bay to find Mitch and deliver the love birds he was looking for, has the feel at times of a screwball comedy and certainly a romantic picture, rather than the sort of thing that one would expect from the man who had just created the world’s first slasher movie.
As we get to Bodega Bay though, the slow build to something else begins and Hitchcock certainly lives up to his moniker of Master of Suspense from the moment where a seagull swoops down onto Melanie a feeling that something is amiss begins to grow and the tropes of many of Hitchcock’s films start to enter the fray as well.
Already we have the couple meeting and having what seems to be a slightly out of the ordinary relationship and a sense of voyeurism is introduced (though relatively soon dismissed) as Melanie searches for Mitch. Also added to this comes a mother, in the form of Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), who, along with her son have issues relating to the loss of a husband/father and the general sense of women being something ‘other’ that is somehow distant and unfathomable.
This may all sound like there is a bit of a scattergun approach to motifs from the director here, and at times it does feel like that, but it coalesces in such a way as to pay off in great style.
While the first 45 minutes of the movie merely hints at what’s to come there is a sudden change as gulls swoop down during a children’s birthday party and things from here on in are almost like another film, but with all the slow burn set up we’ve had so far.
For a film made in the early 1960s the bird attacks are surprisingly graphic and brutal, with one moment in particular being especially horrific (and aided by a short but hugely effective build up as Lydia goes in search of a neighbouring farmer).
While the horror builds, Hitchcock continues the slow burn by putting in a scene where Melanie is trapped in a restaurant with many of the townsfolk and a lengthy discussion as the whys and wherefores of what’s going on takes place. This allows us to really get into the head of the town and adds a wider context to the story than simply that of the main characters, this continues with radio broadcasts heard later in the movie and highlights the suddenness and randomness of the birds’ attacks.
From this point on things shift slightly again and what we end up with is the nearest Hitchcock would ever get to a zombie film as elements that seem to reference Night of the Living Dead, and even The Evil Dead (both of which came after The Birds) and create yet another aspect of horror cinema to come.
It’s not often I get too much into the subtext of movies, but, with a film as dense as this, I would remiss to not give it a mention. As I’ve already said, there seem to be several of Hitchcock’s usual tropes here, but, in more specific terms the birds themselves could be read in a few different ways. The one that really struck me here was how they seem to be a representation of something within the lead family, the Brenners, as there is throughout a sense that since the loss of the father/husband, things have not been right and something has been building which is released in a manner represented by the bird attacks. This, I will admit, isn’t totally paid off in the end, but, in the tradition of many zombie-type movies, the ending is left partially open on several levels.
The music and soundtrack of The Birds are also certainly worthy of note as, much like in Psycho and many of Hitchcock’s films, it is used in a very specific way, but, here, unlike those other films, there is no real score to speak of, with a soundtrack of bird calls being used and adding even more menace to many of the scenes, which could have become otherwise somewhat melodramatic if a score had been added.
The movie is topped off with a montage scene reminiscent of Psycho but, if anything, even more creepily effective and horrific that, to discuss much would lead to major spoilers, but certainly that has to be seen in context to get the full effect.
While, I think Psycho, remains my favourite of Hitchcock’s films (if for nothing else than its breakneck pace) I have to say The Birds has been confirmed as a close second thanks to its sheer intensity following a hugely effective build up into a really horrific story and a real masterpiece of horror cinema.