Behind the Scenes: “The Birds” (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock had a different picture – in fact, several movies – in mind as the follow-up to Psycho (1960), the biggest hit of his career. In pole position was Marnie to star Grace Kelly (“she voluntarily offered to do the picture after reading the story”), the woman he had made a star, in a sensational return to the screen after her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Her participation would bring her around $1 million. He worked on a script during 1961 but Kelly’s schedule meant the film would have to be postponed to 1963-1964 at the earliest.

A close second came No Bail for a Judge to star Audrey Hepburn. When those projects failed to get off the ground in the gap between Psycho and The Birds (1963), Hitchcock also considered reuniting with James Stewart (Vertigo, 1958) for Blind Man. The original idea came from a visit by the writer to Disneyland where he had an idea for a blind man given an eye transplant who subsequently remembers things he could not have witnessed. This was then transposed to an ocean liner, with Ernest Lehman signing on for script duties in December 1960. For almost a year he worked on a movie called Frenzy, no relation except for serial killing, to the later picture. But there was also Trap for a Solitary Man, Cold War thriller Village of Stars and The Mind Thing.

When Hitchcock finally settled on The Birds, based on a short story published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1952 and reprinted in a Hitchcock anthology in 1959, he first turned to Scottish author James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960). That collaboration lasted until Kennaway decided the only way the movie would work would be if the birds were never seen. He considered Wendell Mayes (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Ray Bradbury (The Picasso Summer, 1969) before in August 1961 turning to Evan Hunter (Last Summer, 1969). Wearing his Ed McBain (Fuzz, 1972) hat, Hunter  was a crime aficionado so it was no surprise he suggested adding a murder to the mix.

But Hitchcock’s first act was to shift the location from Cornwall to Bodega Bay, sixty miles away from San Francisco. While the screenplay was being worked upon, an extensive proce3ss that would include last-minute changes once filming had begun, Hitchcock considered a potential female star.

He screen-tested Pamela Tiffin (One, Two, Three, 1961) and examined footage featuring Yvette Mimieux (The Time Machine, 1960), Carol Lynley (Return to Peyton Place, 1961) and Sandra Dee (Tammy Tell Me True, 1961). He also considered two actresses he already had under contract Joanna Moore (Walk on the Wild Side, 1962) and Claire Griswold (Experiment in Terror, 1962).

Both the women already under contract had proved disappointing. Of Moore, John Russell Taylor wrote: “no one could have been less cooperative in the required making-over process, she did not like the clothes, she did not like the hair styles and she did not seem to like anyone she came into contact with at the studio.” Griswold, more compliant, “seemed to have little professional ambition and was quite content with what she was, Mrs Sydney Pollack.”

But then he spotted model Tippi Hedren in a television commercial. She was signed up to a seven-year $26,000-a-year ($254,000 at current prices) contract before she even met Hitchcock, one of the director’s modus operandi to ensure fees did not increase when his name was mentioned. Although actors, once successful, tended to complain they were hired at unfair salaries, this was in fact a pretty good amount for an untrained actress who would automatically become a star by the very fact of being in a Hitchcock picture. Of course, Hitchcock hoped to profit by keeping her salary low for any future movie. But it was still a gamble; if her career fizzled out, as did occur, he would lose out.

However, given his reputation for treating actors as cattle and expecting them to know what to do with little direction, he went to extreme pains to ensure Hedren was prepared for the role. He encouraged her to sit in on script conferences, meetings with set designers, and other essential collaborations like the director pf photography and the music supervisor and went into considerable detail about her motivation and how the film would move from periods of intensity to relaxation. Nobody ever received a more complete education in the Hitchcock method.

Hitchcock admitted he would have preferred to cast more experienced stars with guaranteed box office marquee such as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn  but the long shooting schedule and the time required for trick photography would render them too expensive.  

For this picture, Hitchcock switched studios from Paramount to Universal. At $3.3 million, very little going to the stars, this was his most expensive movie date especially in comparison to the $800,000 of Psycho. After a tortuous screenplay process, Hitchcock also sought input from others like famed short story writer V.S. Pritchett whose several notable suggestions the director accepted, much to the ire of Evan Hunter.  According to Taylor, Hitchcock found himself “nervy and oppressed” possible due to the film’s Day of Judgement elements, and abandoned his normal shooting routine.

He was famous for shooting the picture he already had in his head. Instead, here “he started studying the scenario all over again while shooting it…(and) began to do something he never normally did – improvising on set.” He went deeper into characterizations – making  the viewpoint far more subjective than initially conceived, in particular “keeping the audience much closer to the Tippi Hedren character”

At the last minute he dropped several pages of dialogue and the original Hunter ending. He edited out a love scene between Hedren and Taylor and detailed a script for the sound, specifying what kind he wanted for every scene. While Bernard Herrmann was involved, it wasn’t in the usual sense, and instead they worked out musical scenario of “evocative sound and silence” which was created by Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala who specialized in electronic music.

It was by far the most complicated shoot Hitchcock had ever attempted. The birds were a mixture of trained birds, dummies and optical illusions. When the gull attacked Hedren as the boat docks that was a dummy on a wire pulley, the blood a pellet implanted on her clothes. But as filming intensified, the blood seen on the screen was real blood. Anchovies and ground meat were spread on the actors’ hands at attract the gulls. 

But when it came time to shoot the scene in the attic Hedren was not warned the birds would be real. Hitchcock believed terror would be better expressed by an untrained actress if it was real. While propmen wore thick leather gloves to protect their skin, the actress was permitted no such luxury. When the birds avoided Hedren, the propmen simply picked them up and threw them at the actress. Filming took a week, by the end of which, after getting her eye clawed, Hedren broke down in tears. It would be impossible for a director to take such liberties today although young, impressionistic actors tend to fall prey to such actions.

The proposed ending was jettisoned in favor of a lengthy shot of Hedren and co-star Rod Taylor driving through a bird-infested landscape that the director called the “single most difficult shot I’ve ever done.”

Hitchcock got into trouble with the authorities over unauthorized use of birds. His permit allowed for the use of 20 dead and 30 live birds but an investigation by the U.S. Wildlife and fisheries found 40 dead gulls and 54 live ones as well as 60 songbirds for which no license had been given. He was fined $400. The movie was of course a boon for exhibitors planning promotional stunts. A thousand pigeons were released in a shopping center in Albany, carrier pigeons carried a message from Los Angeles to Memphis, birds trainers were in full flight, 200 exotic birds were displayed in the lobby of the Stanton in Baltimore, while the director attracted notoriety by making birds singular rather than plural when the tagline became “The Birds Is Here!

Much has been written of Hedren’s reactions to the birds, but it’s worth having a look at Roar (1981), a famous disaster of a picture, which she and husband Noel Marshall financed, where she appeared to be quite happy to be bitten and clawed by lions, a lot less tame than was suggested. The mauling was so bad Hedren required 50 stitches, required plastic surgery and nearly lost an eye. In one unscripted scene that ended up in the picture a lion grabbed her hair and would not let go. Most of the lion attacks resulted in injury to someone, actors and crew, including cinematographer Jan de Bont who required 120 stitches to sew his torn scalp back in place.  By such standards, her treatment by Hitchcock was relatively tame.

SOURCES: Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock, A Life in Darkness and Light (Regan Books, 2003), p608-629; John Russell Taylor, Hitch, The Authorised Biography (Faber and Faber, 1978) p262-270; Brian Hannan, Darkness Visible, Alfred Hitchcock’s Greatest Film (Baroliant, 2013); “Princess Grace’s Take Per Hitchy Estimate,” Box Office, April 4, 1962, p2; “Fine Hitchcock $400,” Box Office, April 18, 1962, p17; “Pigeons Blaze a Trail,” Box Office, April 8, 1963, pB3; “Pigeons for Birds,” Box Office, May 6, 1963, pB3; “The Birds Is Here,” Box Office, May 13, 1963, pA1; “Bad Girls Bird House,” Box Office, May 27, 1963, pA3.

The Birds (1963) *****

Years ago I was asked to write a book on the six best Hitchcock films and from those choose the one I considered his very best. My choice was The Birds (1963). And it is for these reasons.

Firstly, unusually in the master’s work, there is a proper meet-cute. In most of his films, the couple are either already together (Rear Window, 1954; Torn Curtain, 1966) or when they get together it is for a hidden reason, one is on the run, or being pursued by the other, and the getting together is a convenient way of reaching an ulterior goal. When Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) meet in the pet shop it is a certainly a precursor for the future and ensures that Mitch gets in a stickier jam he would otherwise likely have avoided but in the true sense it is the traditional Hollywood boy-meets-girl.

Secondly, and now cutting more to the chase, this is where the modern action film was invented. You might think that honour rested with Dr No (1962) or any other of the Bond pictures or even as late as Bullitt (1968) with its epochal car chase. But although the Bonds are filled with derring-do and escape, there is nothing to match the scene when the birds attack the town, wave after wave, as if they were World War Two bombers. There is even the point-of-view from the air which Hitchcock also invented and has been repeated in airplane war films ever since, most famously Pearl Harbor (2001).

But the way in which full-scale disaster, with everyone rendered helpless, unfolds is a true first. People in the café can see the river of petrol and the match about to be discarded and can only observe as the river of flame reaches the petrol tanker and in a perfectly ordinary town setting – rather than a military base – there is an almighty explosion. It is terror for the sake of it. And there is no escape, no one racing to the rescue, just pure devastation,

Lastly is the ending. It is apocalyptic. In every other Hitchcock when the hero/heroine escapes from dire peril, that is the end of the matter, there is no final twist as with a film like Carrie (1976). But although the birds are now silent and the couple can pick their way through their lines, you know full well this is not the end and that the birds will soon be as inexplicably massing somewhere else.  

That’s three reasons but there are many more. For a start, in other films where the hero/heroine is in danger, the peril is not relentless. And often it is the threat of danger or of being captured that provides the narrative spring. And if there is physical threat in that era it was not unrelenting. And it is with another character whom you can fight or at least attempt to outwit. Not just, later in this instance rather than sooner, realize that there is no way to defeat these marauding creatures, no way at all. So, compared to his other films, when attacks of one kind or another punctuate a film, here it is like a battery of machine-guns and not episodic but virtually non-stop for over 30 minutes.

The storyline since it is after all a meet-cute is excessively simple. Melanie and Mitch meet, trade remarks, she leaves him what would easily be interpreted as a love token, and they link up after she is attacked by a gull. Wherever they go now, there will be no escape. Gulls attack children playing outside. The same day sparrows invade Melanie’s home. There is another attack on children. In town the gulls swarm in wholesale, wreaking the devastation mentioned above. All his is just a prelude to the final overwhelming siege. Except in modern horror pictures where a body is dispatched every ten minutes or so, there is  nothing to match the unremitting attacks. It is as though Mitch and Melanie are in the front line of battle, under siege, Zulu (1964) with birds perhaps, but with no hope of salvation. Unlike Zulu, there is no sign that in raising the siege, the birds are hailing their bravery.

Unusually, too, for a Hitchcock film, there is considerable back story that informs current action. Mitch has an overbearing mother who seems to hover over his life attempting to scare off any woman who comes near. Annie has been left behind precisely because he needed to escape his mother. For her part, Melanie’s mother ran off with another man and she is a spoiled socialite with a habit of getting into trouble, possibly attention-seeking behaviour as a result of abandonment issues. Full to the brim with sophistication. Melanie is the least likely candidate for motherhood, yet her maternal feelings rush to the fore when she has to care for a terrified child.

Tippi Hedren’s career when south when she parted company with Hitchcock so we only have this and Marnie (1964) to consider her worth as a star. This is easily her best performance, shifting from icy cold to playful to romantic to maternal and of course no one has quite emoted such shock and terror. This is Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) coming into his stride as a leading man. He always had the charm and certainly the brawn, but rarely displayed both in the one picture. You would not have picked the Rod Taylor of Seven Seas to Calais to lead a squad of mercenaries in Dark of the Sun but he might well be first pick after this performance.

Hitchcock got so many of his effects by laying on the tension, a man or woman on the run, an innocent framed, a man displaying dubious morality (Rear Window, 1954, and Vertigo, 1958) nonetheless being presented as hero, the question in every instance being whether they will escape their fate. Here, the barrage of devilry is so intense it is almost inconceivable that anyone could get out alive. That they sneak out by the skin of their teeth, watched by their silent conquerors, for me was only the prelude to The Birds Part Two.  

Marnie (1964) *****

Arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most difficult film and with some attitudes that will not sit well with today’s audiences nonetheless this is an assured work and the completion of an unofficial trilogy that tries to explain the unexplainable. The director had not been making what might be termed traditional Hitchcock pictures for well over half a decade if you take North by Northwest (1959) as the anomaly in a sequence that began with the obsessive Vertigo (1958). You could argue that Hitchcock had turned a bit “north by northwest” himself, the “hero” of Psycho (1960) a mother-obsessed serial killer, the “bad guys” in The Birds (1963) the titular rapacious creatures who besiege the leading characters and set the world on an apocalyptical course.  

Attempts are made in both Psycho and The Birds to explain the actions of the predators, but such explanations are external, remote, and with Marnie Hitchcock takes the bold step of attempting to explain what makes such a devious, compulsive, frigid liar tick. Hitchcock called the movie a “sex mystery” but it was unclear whether he was just once again trying to tantalize his audience or whether he believed it was film about the mystery of sex, what causes attraction between two people and what sets others up to steadfastly reject the concept.  To embellish his thesis he chose one of the world’s most beautiful actresses (Tippi Hedren) and the actor (Sean Connery) who could easily lay claim to being the world’s sexiest man (as he was later anointed in various polls).

It seemed almost an indecent proposal to deny the bed-hopper-par-excellence – as viewed from the James Bond perspective. And it certainly took all the charm Connery could muster to prevent audiences baulking at the almost perverse scientific aspects of his character, an amateur zoologist who welcomed a known criminal into his world for the chance to examine her at close quarters.  The audience is constantly kept at one remove. In the first section we watch enthralled as Hedren carries out her bold thefts, as if she is capable of wrapping the entire male population around her little finger by the simple device of adjusting her skirt.

But in the middle section, it is Connery who is in control and the trapped Hedren who is twisting and turning searching for an escape route. In the final section, when it is clear that it is the lover, not the scientist, in Connery that tries to find a way round the problem, the tension is at its height because we have no idea whether she will run true to form and manage to steal and lie her way out or whether Connery’s patience will snap and he will throw her to the wolves who are certainly by this point circling.

The central device on which Hitchcock hooked an audience was the moviegoer demand for a happy ending. He duped cinemagoers in Psycho, slaughtering the heroine halfway through. In The Birds Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren underwent a harrowing physical assault and while clearly romantically involved by the end Hedren was a wreck. Here, the assaults are mental. There is none of the romantic banter that defines the greatest of his traditional works. Hedren and Connery are together because he has forced the issue and loving though his blackmail is it is still an unequal relationship and one from which she will seek to escape at every opportunity. Hedren’s compulsive character is a mystery that appears insoluble as she resists every attempt to break down the wall she has erected to protect herself from her past.

Cover of the Winston Graham source novel. In the book, Marnie is being pursued by two men but in the film this is turned to Connery being the one with two women in tow.

The story is straightforward with few of the twists of other pictures. We meet Hedren as she escapes with nearly $10,000 stolen from her employers. We learn quickly that she is a master of disguise, has several social security cards up her sleeve, can turn from brunette to blonde, and is so practiced in her deception that she can convince an employer to take her on without references. As that particular duped employer is spelling out his predicament to the police, an amused Sean Connery, a customer of her employer,  appears. Hedren runs off to a bolthole, an upmarket hotel, close to the stables where she keeps a horse, Forio.

Shifting back to Hedren we find her visiting her mother in a tawdry street near the docks. The artifice of confidence is shredded away. She is jealous of the attention her mother gives a little girl whom she looks after. She wants love that her mother is unable to give. When she lays her head on her mother’s lap waiting for the soothing stroke of a hand all she receives is rebuke for leaning too heavily on her mother’s sore leg. The mother in North by Northwest was played for comedy, in Psycho an occasion for murder, and here a means of control. Here, too, we witness the color red sparking an inexplicable and frightening experience.

When Hedren applies for a new job it is at Connery’s firm, where he is the coming man. He watches amused as she is interviewed, intervenes to ensure she is hired. They have in common that they are widowed. Hedren is already planning her next big score, discovering that the combination to the safe is kept in a drawer to which her employer’s secretary has the key.

But he is ready for her and it seems almost perverse that he does not let her know he is aware of her true identity. Instead, under the guise of asking her to work overtime, he gives her an academic paper to type. The subject is predators, “the criminals of the animal world” in which females feature. His gentle pressure is almost sadistic and she is saved by a sudden storm which triggers another bad subconscious reaction.  

Her theft of money from the office is a classic Hitchcock scene. It begins in complete silence. The screen is divided in two, the office and the corridor. Seeing a cleaner appear, Hedren removes her shoes to make her getaway. Almost as she reaches the safety of the stairs, a shoe falls out of her pocket and clatters on the floor. The cleaner does not look up. She is very hard of hearing.

But Connery is again prepared and when she disappears tracks her to her bolthole, confronts her, questioning her again and again until he thinks he is close to the truth. He can’t turn her in because he has fallen in love. Her choice is stark – him or the police. Soon they are married. But the honeymoon, despite his patience, is a disaster, she cannot “bear to be handled” and they return home further apart than ever.

Meanwhile, figures from her past begin to appear. Lil (Diane Baker) who lusts after Connery brings peril to their door. Connery persists with trying to get Hedren to open up.

Eventually, there is a break in her compulsive syndrome, brought on by love, and we head back to her mother’s to get to the root of the problem. Even when the problem is solved her mother remains distant, still won’t stroke her hair. If there is a happy ending it is like that of The Birds, an immediate problem solved but who knows when or if the crows will return, and there is a similar resolution here, Hedren learns the source of her nightmares but it would be a very blind person who did not see terrible ramifications for the future.

There are certainly a few jarring moments, Hitchcock’s insistence on back projection for a start, but then you didn’t really think in North by Northwest that the director was allowed to film in front of the United Nations, did you? Rather than a technical flaw, the back projection seems to fit another purpose, a device to make the audience stop and examine what is going on, for much of it occurs when Hedren is in her fantasy world. And you would have to take exception to Connery’s actions in the bedroom on honeymoon, no matter how gentle his caresses at other times. And certainly, the psychological assumptions ring hollow given our current knowledge of such conditions, but despite that make for tense viewing.

But the meat of the movie is self-deception. Hedren is convinced she can get away with a series of thefts. Connery is convinced her can cure her. His constant interrogation is what passes for lovers’ banter. In aligning himself as her moral guardian and perhaps her savior, “dying to play doctor,” Connery has entered a nightmare of his own making. Only an arrogant man would believe all women would fall at his feet and Hitchcock clearly makes a connection with Connery’s ongoing incarnation as James Bond where that is exactly the case. Connery is every bit as flawed, as obsessive, as Scottie in Vertigo, determined to shape a woman into perfect form, and, yes, expecting to eradicate the imperfect past.

Connery emanated such ease, such amazing grace, on the screen that it backfired. Critics often didn’t believe he was putting much into his acting when in reality he was acting his socks off. This is a tremendously difficult part, walking the tightrope between looking a deluded fool and retaining audience empathy and coming across badly when he pushes a vulnerable woman too hard. This is a very rounded character, a gentle adoring lover in the main, but not one to be crossed. His interrogations are intense and yet still you can see that it will kill him if he is double-crossed. The casual amusement with which he greeted her appearance at his office is replaced by fear at her sudden departure.

Hedren, too, whose acting ability was often called into question, carries on where she left off in The Birds. By the end of that picture her nerves had been shredded. Here, her emotions, which she cannot as easily control as the rest of her life, too often fly off into a high pitch. Half the time she is the cool collected customer of The Birds, the rest of the time she is demented.  Except in The Birds she was self-confident around men. Any self-assurance she has now is skin deep. There was always a fragility about Hedren, hidden behind the glossy exterior and fashionable outfits, and here it is exposed. The touching scenes with her mother, the mouth tightened in jealousy over the little girl, are perfectly played. A little girl lost in wolf’s clothing. And trapped, she is almost snarling at her captor, the submissive dialogue concealing the mind hard at work looking for an exit.

The interrogative scenes between Connery and Hedren are extremely difficult to pull off. It would have been easier if Connery was not in love with her, and to some extent pulled his punches. It would be easier for her if he was an out-and-out predator who could be paid in kind to shut up and go away. Instead, they both have to walk a verbal tightrope and only actors of some excellence can pull off that trick without losing the audience.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. There is a particularly awful pan-and-scan version of this film on YouTube. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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