Fifty years ago, with a flap and a screech, The Birds (1963) burst onto our cinema screens. It proved to be Alfred Hitchcock’s most modern, avant-garde and frightening film. ‘I suppose that The Birds is the most prodigious job ever done,’ said Hitchcock. His aim was to out shock his previous blockbuster hit Psycho.
The Birds was based on the Daphne du Maurier short story of the same name, which was written in Cornwall during the winter of 1951. Daphne du Maurier derived the idea one autumn day walking from her beloved Menabilly home down a coastal path to Polridmouth Beach. She saw a flock of seagulls following a tractor and wondered what would happen if the birds suddenly decided to attack man?
When Hitchcock bought the film rights in 1961, he set about trying to top Psycho by constructing a savage thriller where nature inexplicably turns against man. The Birds was an enormous technical challenge, requiring collaboration between the major studios in Hollywood, including MGM, Disney and Universal. ‘We used the optical printing facilities of every studio in Hollywood,’ said Hitchcock, ‘And the supervision of one of the most brilliant men, a man called Ub Iwerks who is Disney’s man and yet the Academy gave the Award to some little dissolve effect in Cleopatra.’ Hitch was irate that The Birds failed to win the Oscar for Best Special Effects, the only category that it was nominated in. In the end The Birds boasted 371 special effects, a feat not equalled until Star Wars some 15 years later.
‘How did you get the birds to act so well?’ the press asked Hitchcock when he unveiled the film. ‘They were very well paid,’ was his sardonic reply. He enlisted the help of expert bird trainer Ray Berwick to catch 25,000 birds, many of which he trained, including seagulls, crows and ravens, to create the frightening bird attacks on the hapless cast.
What do The Birds mean? Everyone wants to know. Are they an act of punishment? Agents of evil? A manifestation of the tensions between the central characters? The Birds was made against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the film also exactly spanned the tumultuous background of John F Kennedy’s presidency, which witnessed the Bay of Pigs invasion, the rise of Fidel Castro culminating with the assassination of Kennedy himself. Hitchcock said his film was about complacency, and that ordinary men and women go about their inconsequential lives unaware that disaster is all around them. He deliberately started the film, with the help of screenwriter Evan Hunter, as a light comedy to lull the audience into a false sense of security.
In my book The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds, which is a prequel to Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, I investigate the writing of the screenplay that took almost a year to complete, the pioneering electronic score, the training of 25,000 birds, the problems working with the cast and crew on location, and the ultimate challenge of creating convincing and frightening birds attacks. I also reveal why the failed screening of The Birds at the Museum of Modern Art, New York was part of Hitchcock’s plans to be taken seriously as an artist.
With The Birds, Hitchcock achieved the dream of any director, by assembling his repertory group, an expert group of professionals, who spent weeks together on location in Bodega Bay, and back at Universal Studios. The book features new interviews with Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright, Rita Riggs, Norman Lloyd, Virginia Darcy and previously unpublished interviews with Hitchcock’s A-list technical team Robert Boyle, Harold Michelson and Evan Hunter.
The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds is published by Kamera Books on 28th March.
Scheduled Author Events
30th March 2013 – Blackwell’s Park Street, Bristol, UK Book signing between 1-4pm
15th April 2013 – Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road, London, Talk and signing between 6.30-8pm
14th May 2013 – Fowey Town Hall, Fowey Literary Festival, between 2.30-3.30pm