Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Birds

Title: The Birds
Year: 1963
Studio: Universal Pictures
Screenplay: Evan Hunter
Source Material: A short story by Daphne Du Maurier.
Running Time: 119 minutes

Sunday 3rd July, 10:00am
Ah, 1963. What a superb year. Two of my favourite films were released (The Haunting and The Birds) and Doctor Who began on BBC television. If I could travel back in time and experience it all first hand, I would. Oh, and perhaps give a bit of warning to the U.S. president. i.e. "Duck!"
Despite political assassinations, 1963 was not half bad.

In 2008, I visited San Francisco and found the city itself to be reasonable pleasant and entertaining, but I had the best time when I visited Bodega Bay - I felt at home there. I ended up spending a fortune on Bodega Bay/"The Birds" merchandise. I have no regrets about that!

I am attempting to remain fairly upbeat and chipper as I type this, but I am suffering from rather nasty cramps in my intestines which are subsequently leading to dashes to the old 'W.C.' - I haven't eaten anything out of the ordinary, so I can't really explain it. Maybe this is the start of a new form of terror coming to a theatre near you... "The Bowels".

Enough about my infernal internal problems, let's crack on with one of the best films ever made (God, I sounded a bit like Alan Partridge there. Ooh - 'Partridge'! Birds everywhere.)

Mitchell Brenner - Rod Taylor
Lydia Brenner - Jessica Tandy
Annie Hayworth - Suzanne Pleshette
Melanie Daniels - 'Tippi' Hedren
Cathy Brenner - Veronica Cartwright
Mrs Bundy - Ethel Griffies
Sebastian Sholes - Charles McGraw
Mrs McGruder - Ruth McDevitt
Deke Carter - Lonny Chapman
Salesman - Joe Mantell
Fisherman - Doodles Weaver
Al Malone - Malcolm Atterbury
Post Office Clerk - John McGovern
Drunk - Karl Swenson
Mitch's Neighbour - Richard Deacon
Helen Carter - Elizabeth Wilson
Farm Hand - Bill Quinn
Hysterical Mother - Doreen lang
Schoolkid - Morgan Brittany

Melanie Daniels, socialite and a daughter of a newspaper editor, heads to Davidson's Pet Shop in San Francisco in order to pick up a mynah bird as a gift for her Aunt Tessa who is soon to return from overseas.
Mrs McGruder tells Miss Daniels that the bird has not yet been delivered but she will telephone to find out when it is due.
While Melanie waits, a man named Mitchell Brenner enters the shop. He recognises Miss Daniels and pretends to not know her and addresses her as though she were a salesperson. Melanie, always game for a bit of role play, enjoys the scenario until he asks too many leading questions. She accidentally lets a canary free and she and Mrs McGruder struggle to catch it. When it comes to rest on a table, Mitch catches it and returns it to its cage, referencing Melanie's name as he does so. This makes are angry and he explains that he knew her by sight. He had come into the store initially to buy some love birds for his sister's eleventh birthday. He leaves Melanie fuming but she chases after him and notes his licence plate - WJH 003 - she then calls Charlie at City Desk and asks him to trace it for her. Then, she gets Mrs McGruder's help to purchase some love birds.

Melanie has the information she needs and she heads to Mitch's apartment with the two love birds in a cage. She leaves them outside his door with a note, but his neighbour alerts her to the fact that Mitch is away in bodega Bay for the weekend. This infuriates Melanie, so she decides to drive up to Bodega Bay and deliver them personally.
When she arrives, she visits the local Post Office and General Store to find out Mitch's address and the name of his sister. They tell her where to find his home and say that his sister is either called Lois or Alice. They suggest she ask Miss Hayworth, the schoolteacher.
When Melanie meets Annie she learns that the girl is called Cathy. Annie Hayworth is suspicious of Melanie and slightly resents her classy looks and obvious wealth.
Melanie then takes a boat across the bay to deposit the love birds. She waits until Mitch is out in the barn, enters the house, leaves the birds and a note for Cathy, but tears up the original note she wrote for Mitch.
Back in the boat, she watches from the security of the bay as Mitch discovers the birds. He comes out of the house and spies her. He gets in the car and drives around the bay, getting to the wharf before she does.
Just as she approaches, a seagull swoops down and hits her on the head, making her bleed.
Mitch is appalled and helps her out of the boat. he takes her to the Tides Restaurant to help fix her up.
Lydia, Mitch's mother, comes in and Mitch tells her he has invited Melanie to dinner. Lydia seems to take an instant dislike to Melanie but accepts the guest into her home.
Melanie asks Annie Hayworth if she can rent her spare room for the night and Annie agrees.

That evening at the Brenners', Lydia is concerned about her chickens as they don't seem to be wanting to eat. She calls her chicken-feed supplier and he tells her that a local farmer is having the same problem, even though he uses different feed. She worries there might be a sickness affecting the birds.

Cathy likes Melanie and asks her to come to her birthday party the following day. Melanie says it's unlikely she'll attend as she has to return to San Francisco.
Whilst Cathy and Melanie are talking, Mitch and Lydia are in the kitchen talking about Melanie. Lydia tells of how she'd read about Melanie's antics in Rome where she allegedly jumped into a fountain naked. Later on, as Melanie is about to head back to Annie's, Mitch questions her about this. She denies it and is indignant, stating that the report was in a rival paper to her father's and they just made it up to discredit her. Fuming, she drives back to Annie's where the two woman begin to bond whilst discussing Mitch and Lydia. Just before Melanie heads to bed, there's a thud at the door - they open it to discover a seagull dead on the veranda...

It's Cathy's birthday and the party is in full swing. Melanie has decided to attend all along. She has a deep conversation with Mitch out on the dunes and opens up about her mother who left her when she was eleven years old.
They return to the party where Cathy is playing Blind Man's Buff with her friends. Suddenly, the seagulls start attacking, swooping from the sky and hitting the children. Panic breaks out and the adults struggle to get the kids indoors.
Mitch insists that Melanie stays for dinner as he would like to know she is safe.

That evening, as Lydia, Cathy, Mitch and Melanie relax, a swarm of small birds fly into the living room via the chimney. It's like a blizzard indoors. The women manage to beat their way out and Mitch tries to fend them off. Much later, when the birds have left, the sheriff is round and is perplexed by the whole thing and reluctant to take any serious action.

Cathy is at school and Lydia drives around to Dan Fawcett's home to ask about the chicken problem. She lets herself into the house and discovers the place a mess. Crockery is broken in the kitchen and the windows are smashed. She makes her way through the house looking for Dan. She finds him in his bedroom - dead with his eyes pecked out. She flees the scene in terror and heads straight home.
Mitch puts her to bed and heads off to the farm with the Sheriff.
Melanie makes tea for Lydia and they talk. Lydia opens up about her life and how she feels about losing Mitch. After losing her husband Frank four years ago, she is so scared of being alone. She panics about Cathy and Melanie offers to pick her up from the school.

Melanie drives around to the school and waits on a bench outside smoking a cigarette whilst the children finish their singing lesson. Unbeknownst to her, the climbing frame behind her is slowly filling with a murder of crows. Eventually, one crow in the sky catches Melanie's attention, she follows its flight until it lands on the frame. She is horrified and heads straight into the school to alert Annie.
Annie makes the children do a fire drill and they exit the building and run off down the road. The crows attack. One of Cathy's friends falls and Cathy and Melanie help her up amongst the flurry of wings and beaks. They hide in a car until it's over.

Back at the Tides restaurant, Melanie telephones her father to explain what has been happening. Other locals start sharing their stories but one woman, Mrs Bundy, implies it's all nonsense as she is an ornithological expert. A mother of two small children asks everyone to be quiet as the talk is scaring her children, although, admittedly, it is she who appears more scared. She persuades a travelling salesman to show her the best way to the free-way. They leave the restaurant. It isn't long before they fly back in again as another attack is happening outside.

The man at the petrol station is hit, he drops the pump nozzle and it leaks across the forecourt. A man oblivious to events around him lights a cigar and drops the match. His life is over as the fire ignites and his car explodes. The flames shoot back to the pump and that too explodes. Chaos ensues and the birds watch callously from above before swooping again. Melanie rushes outside but tries to find shelter in a phone booth. The birds still attack, trying to smash the glass. She escapes and heads back to the diner. Everyone is huddled in a corner. The hysterical mother accuses Melanie of bringing the trouble to Bodega Bay and calls her 'Evil'.
Mitch takes Melanie away once the birds have moved on. They go to fetch Cathy from Annie's home only to find the schoolteacher's corpse on the steps. Cathy is safe inside but visibly distressed. Mitch is fuming and attempts to seek revenge by throwing a stone at one of the birds, but Melanie stops him just in time. They take Cathy away, back to the Brenners' home.

The bay is teeming with birds and Mitch quickly sets about boarding up the windows to the best of his ability. Once all inside, they sit and wait. Lydia is verging on hysteria and Cathy is concerned about her own love birds, knowing they haven't done anything wrong.
An attack on the house is heard from inside. One gull tries to break through the boards in the kitchen, but Mitch fends it off. The back door is being shredded by ravaging beaks. Mitch drags the hall stand/dresser and covers the door, nailing it in place. The power goes out, but Mitch has a torch and they wait for it to be over...

Eventually, everything is quiet again. Hours pass and all are asleep apart from Melanie. She hears noises upstairs. She takes the torch and ascends the stairs. In a room at the top of the house, she finds a hole in the roof. The birds are everywhere. They attack her and she falls back against the door, desperately flailing her arms around to protect herself. They are beginning to overcome her but Mitch has woken and drags her from the room.
Downstairs, they all tend to Melanie's wounds, but she has gone into severe shock.
Mitch insists they take her to hospital. He sneaks outside to retrieve Melanie's car from the garage. The birds are still around, swamping the area, but they are not attacking. Once the car is out of the garage, he goes back into the house to fetch Melanie and his family. With trepidation, they leave the house, Cathy insisting she brings the love birds. They carefully drive off through the masses of birds waiting patiently for their next attack...

Great Lines

Cathy: (on her brother's job) "He has a client now who shot his wife in the head six times. Six times! Can you imagine it? I mean, even twice would be overdoing it, don't you think?"


Annie: "...probably lost his way in the dark."

Melanie:: "But it isn't dark Annie, it's a full moon."


Melanie: (on how she fills her days) "On Tuesdays, I take a course in General Semantics at Berkeley, finding new four-letter words."

(She embellishes)

"I have an Aunt Tessa... I'm giving her a mynah bird when she comes back from Europe. Mynah birds talk, you know. Can you see my Aunt Tessa's face when this one tells us one or two of the words I've picked up at Berkeley?"


Child in restaurant: "Are the birds gonna eat us Mommy?"

Even Hunter's script is wonderful. It plays with you as it builds up the relationships of the characters and making them flawed yet real.

There are number of moments where I still get chills when watching this film, most particularly when the beaks are pecking through the door.

Hitch has done an amazing job building up the tension slowly and the terrifying his audience with horrific and unwarranted attacks on the humans but still maintaining his edge of black humour.
My favourite shot in this film is towards the end when the trapped family hear that the birds are leaving the house. We silently see their faces looking upwards with hope and fear, then we slowly pan out from Lydia, to incorporate Melanie and then Mitch's face. It's subtle but incredibly effective.

The cast is stunning. Everyone is perfect in their roles from the young Veronica Cartwright as Cathy Brenner to Ethel Griffies as the cantankerous and self-righteous Mrs Bundy. 'Tippi' is beautiful and classy throughout and Jessica Tandy is wonderful as the icy mother who slowly shows signs of thawing.

There is no musical score to the film which makes the whole thing just uncomfortable enough to creep you out. Bernard Herrmann did, however, supervise the sound effects of the birds. The song the children sing was actually penned by the screenwriter, Even Hunter.

My Verdict
Sure, some of the special effects look dated now, but it is still very high on my list of 'favourite films of all-time'. 10/10


  1. Oh you make me want to watch it again for the, um, nineteenth time? The extras available on most decent discs are also worth watching, exp. the interviews with Tippi about her stay in the sanatorium following that dreaded attic scene...

  2. By the way, did you now that the fisherman - Doodle weaver - was the uncle of actress Sigourney Weaver?

  3. Actually, no, I didn't know about Doodle! Nice trivia!