During the tail-end of his career Alfred Hitchcock began to dabble in the horror genre and over the course of a few years developed two of the finest examples going. In 1960 Psycho was released and became one of his most popular and enduring works, then 3 years later he developed what could ostensibly be called a ˜monster film’ in The Birds.
Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop in San Francisco. Intrigued by him, she finds his address and travels there in secret to deposit a couple of love birds, which he was trying to find in the shop. However he notices her travelling across a lake away from the home and rescues her after she is attacked inexplicably by a seagull. As the two become closer, attacks from birds become more frequent across town, leading to a full-on assault by the animals against the townsfolk.
Riddled with allegory, as most Hitchcock films are, The Birds is open to a variety of interpretations. Starting with an innocent encounter between two believable, if slightly dull characters, Hitchcock toys with conventions of horror. There’s little in terms of foreshadowing of what is to come, other than the title of course. It feels for all the world like a quaint relationship drama. Then, suddenly and inexplicably a seagull attacks and pandemonium ensues. An odd change in pace ensues, but one which Hitchcock handles with a breathless ease as the bird attacks increase in frequency and brutality.
Arguable the two most memorable scenes involve Hedron screaming, stranded in a phone booth as the birds fly, suicidally into it. It’s a moment of utter chaos that epitomizes the idea of nature fighting back against the spread of humanity. But the far more effective moment sees our heroine sitting by a children’s playground, while behind her the climbing bars, slowly and menacingly fill with more and more birds. It is disconcerting because it creates a sense that not only are the birds capable of societal thought, but they are also capable of psychological intimidation.
There is an argument that the birds of the title are actually some variation of the Furies from classical mythology. The furies were winged creatures who hounded their victims as penance for, among other things, violation of the natural order and notably matricide. The fact that the birds initially target the jealous ex-lover of Mitch, played with beauty and danger by Suzanne Pleshette before switching focus to Mitch’s house seems to support the hypothesis. Mitch’s house is where his overbearing mother (Jessica Tandy) keeps him under her stern, watchful gaze, no doubt inviting thoughts of matricide.
But regardless of intention or note, there can be no denying the quality of The Birds. Often overlooked in favour of Psycho, it is a sublime investigation of numerous human emotions and character inter-relations, laced with sweet black comic moments. A film that could so easily have fallen into camp pastiche or overwrought melodrama, but in the hands of Hitchcock remains, decades later, a masterpiece in horror film-making.