To coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of The Birds (1963), a new book which seeks to deconstruct the making of Hitchcock’s avian Armageddon has just been released.
The Birds (1963) was the film that Hitchcock made after the surprising blockbuster smash that was Psycho (1960) (the making of which was depicted in the recent drama Hitchcock (2013)). There are both similarities and fundamental differences between these two seminal horror films; low budget black and white shocker Psycho contrasting with the high budget, luridly colourful, effects laden The Birds. Both films had a huge influence on the way horror films would be created, perceived and received, from the future slasher shockers to apocalyptic and effects heavy ‘disaster from nature’ films such as The Swarm (Irwin Allan ). The Birds remains a compelling and original work. In the era of DVD and Blu-Ray ‘making of’ extras, you might think that an extensive commentary on the film would be limited or of mainly academic interest, but fortunately The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds by Tony Lee Moral is fascinating on a number of levels – both for those who are new to the film and those who love it.
The premise of the film combines a simple concept with complex characterisation as cheeky city girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) decides to play a prank on Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) by taking him some lovebirds to his family home in Bodega Bay. A brief but shocking attack on Melanie by a seagull is the first of what becomes an increasingly violent series of unprovoked assaults on humans by birds, whether on an individual basis or flocks en mass – with no reason or justification for the events. The basis of the horror is centred on its simplicity and the strangely unbelievable aspects of the premise, something the film takes great pains to emphasise by centralising community and character then adding the shocking element of ordinary birds being the focus of the horrific attacks. The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds discusses all these aspects and more, from the original concept through to the creation of the film and the effects work (which remains impressive, even today).
The premise of The Birds is based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier. Hitchcock had, of course, made two films from her work previously, Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940). We learn that developing the script for The Birds was a challenge for screenplay writer Evan Hunter whose task it was, along with other, uncredited, writers who were brought on board, to create a vision from the relatively short work, mixing the shock and horror with the offbeat characterisation. Indeed the scale of the project and dedication of those involved becomes very clear in The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds’ increasingly interesting revelations about the production of the film. This was not the brilliantly conceived but cheaply produced Psycho, but a lengthy project where costs were high. We learn much about the financing of the film, including the salaries of those involved which, given the number of years since the film was made, are notably high in many instances.
In many respects the famous aspects of the film fall into two categories, at least before you read the book: technical creation (there is an excellent breakdown not only of the visual elements, such as the visual effects and cinematography, but also how the sound was designed for the film) and, of course, Hitchcock’s relationships with the actors, most notably Tippi Hedren. Tony Lee Moral offers new directions and opinions on this and Hedren is given a balanced and justified perspective, although the book doesn’t disregard the traumas involved with filming some of the scenes. Moral places everything in context through extensive use of interviews, recollections, articles and references and also refutes some of the more common perceptions about the film’s creation.
Happy anniversary, then, to The Birds and welcome to a book that celebrates the film. A fascinating reading for cinephiles, media students and those who simply remember – and love – normality becoming shocking.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds will screen at the Irish Film Institute on Sunday, March 24th and Wednesday, March 27th as part of the IFI’s complete retrospective of Hitchcock’s 52 surviving films.