Birds, The (1963): Hitchcock’s Last Masterpiece: Part One

Part One

The Dutch scholar Thomas Elsaesser has written: “Not only every generation, but every critic appropriates his or her own Alfred Hitchcock, fashioned in the mirror of the pleasures, or uncanny moments, one derives from his films. And so, I choose “The Birds,” which he made in 1963, as one of my three or four favorite Hitchcock movies. The maestro has made at least 20 great films, by the way.

It’s the second masterpiece that Hitchcock contributed to the genre of small-town America—the first is “Shadow of a Doubt,” in 1943. “The Birds” is still underestimated for its brilliant narrative structure, formal control, and technical execution. The film represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistic powers, again demonstrating the strong influence of Murnau (camera movement) and Eisenstein (montage) on his entire work.

I don’t accept the claim that “The Birds” is flawed because the two stories, the light comedy of manners and the terror tale, don’t gel or weld together, because in my view they do. Nor do I accept the charge that the link between the characters’ love story and the birds’’ attack is not very strong. Au contraire: The birds, and their aggression help to clarify the distinctive personalities of the characters, and to bring their relationships into focus. By and large, the birds’ attacks bring out the best in the film’s persona (More about it later). But even the detractors would have to acknowledge that the stature of “The Birds,” which is rich in ideas as well as stylistic virtuosity, grows with each viewing.

“The Birds” served as opening night of the prestigious 1963 Cannes Film Festival, and it coincided with a Hitchcock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York, in 1963, organized by Peter Bogdanovitch before he became a director. And so, this is a tribute to one of the greatest films made fifty years ago

When “The Birds” opened in France, the critic Jean Andre Fiesci noted that it was the first Hitchcock film “where the tension isn’t aimed at solving a mystery, but at elaborating and developing it. But in his next picture, “Marnie,” Hitchcock returned to solving a mystery in a more conventional psychological way.

The narrative follows closely the three unities of place, time, and action. Unfolding over a period of three days—a weekend–most of the story takes place at Bodega Bay, California. Structurally, the plot consists of three parts. The first, beginning in a pet shop in San Francisco and up to the heroine’s arrival in town, is a typical Hitchcock romantic comedy of manners (in the tradition of British theater).

The second part describes the attacks of the birds on the town and the varied reaction of the members to the attacks. And the third part shows the attack of the birds on the Brenner household , ending in their departure from town.
The second and third segments are equal in screen time. More significantly, in each of these parts, different ideas are stressed and different aspects of the protagonists are revealed.

The action begins in the Big City, San Francisco, when Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a rich socialite, sleekly groomed and exquisitely dressed, meets at a birds store Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a young handsome lawyer. Pretending that she works there, Melanie walks with the quick sureness of the city dweller, a mischievous grin on her face and a sense of purposefulness in her stride. Mitch is there to get lovebirds for the birthday of his much younger sister. He projects the image of his ideal woman by describing the birds he would like to buy for his sister: “not too demonstrative, but not aloof either, a pair that is just ‘friendly.'”

It turns out they have met in court, when one of her practical jokes resulted in “the smashing of a plate glass window.” Committed to “the law,” Mitch is not “too keen on practical jokes.” Mitch puts Melanie in her place so that she can see “what it felt like to be on the other end of a gag.”

A loose woman with no focus in her life, Melanie needs to be restrained. Their first encounter, set in a pet store, is marked by double entendres that are later developed.

Melanie decides to deliver the birds incognito to Mitch’s house in Bodega Bay, a small, attractive town, surrounded by water and green land. But it’s not a famous town–Melanie has never heard of it before.

On Saturday morning, the town is booming with inhabitants: fishermen are crossing the road, old ladies carry shopping begs, women are seen with hair in curlers. The Brenner family is not well integrated in town: Geographically isolated, their house is on the other side of the bay. The residents don’t even know their names. The town’s postal clerk is sure the little girl’s name is Alice (another man believes it is Lois), but her name is Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). There is no longer intimacy and knowledge of people’s names, as was the case in small towns (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) of previous decades. Which is one reason why the mail never gets delivered to the right place. The Brenners belong to the upper middle class.

Mitch is a successful (criminal) lawyer in San Francisco, but he spends his weekends in town, which makes him an insider-outsider. We are led to believe that he has previously brought his urban girlfriends to Bodega Bay, but his mother did not like any of them.

Annie Haywroth (Susanne Pleshette), the town’s schoolteacher and Mitch’s old flame, is also an outsider. She first visited Bodega Bay when Mitch invited her for a weekend. But because of his attachment to his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and her demands on him (but also lack of passion and commitment on his part), their relationship dissolved. Still in love with him, Annie decided to live there permanently, long after their relationship ended, because she did not want to give up his friendship.

Annie is bitter, disillusioned about the prospect of living a fulfilling life in Bodega Bay, which explains her ambivalence toward Melanie’s growing involvement with Mitch. “I guess that’s where everyone meets Mitch,” she says, upon learning that they had met in San Francisco. On the verge of entering middle-age, she is a woman who is willing to compromise. “I’m an open book,” Annie says, but then contradicts herself, “or rather a closed one.” Annie is actually both open and closed book. She’s a committed teacher, a bit idealistic. One reason she left San Francisco was boredom with her job, teaching at a private school “little girls in brown beanies.” By contrast, the kids at Bodega Bay are thirsty for knowledge. “I haven’t got very much, but I’ll give them every ounce of it,” says Annie, “It makes me want to stay alive for a long long time.”

Annie is responsible to maintaining order, in and outside the classroom. Annie loses her life while protecting Cathy from the birds. Overall, Annie is not the stereotypical schoolteacher–a permanent staple of small town films. But she had to die, because her very presence is a reminder, if not threat, to Mitch’s problem of being single-mindedly committed to one woman. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in his long interview-book that her character was “doomed from the beginning.”

Annie provides the most interesting comments about the town. She’s first introduced working on her garden; her hair deranged, she is wearing earth-stained gloves. Next to her, Melanie looks completely out of place. “This tilling of the soil can become compulsive?” she tells Melanie, explaining she had no time to smoke. “It’s a pretty garden,” remarks Melanie. “It’s something to do in your spare time,” says Annie, “there’s a lot of spare time in Bodega Bay.” Annie thinks the town doesn’t offer much to the casual visitor, “Unless you’re thrilled by a collection of shacks on a hillside. It takes a while to get used to.”

Read Part Two

Universal (Hitchcock Productions)


Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren)
Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor)
Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy)
Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette)
Cathy Brenner (Vernoica Cartwright)
Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies)
Sebastian Sholes (Charles McGraw)
Mrs. Magruder (Ruth McDevitt)
Waitress at Tides (Elizabeth Wilson)


Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Assistant to Hitchcock: Peggy Robertson
Screenplay: Evan Hunter, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier
Camera: Robert Burks
Special Effects: Lawrence A. Hampton
Special Photographic Advisor: Ub Iwerks
Bird Trainer: Ray Berwick
Set Design: Robert Boyle and George Milo
Sound Consultant: Bernard Herrmann
Electronic Sounds: Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala
Assistant Director: James H. Brown
Credits Sequence: James S. Pollak
Editing: George Tomasini

Oscar Nominations: 1
Special Visual Effects: Ub Iwerks

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:
The winner in that category was “Cleopatra.”