I have seen bits of this Hitchcock classic before. And then, as now, there is one small detail which still rubs me the wrong way – but I’ll save that for the end. Because there’s a good deal else about the film which is similarly odd, but somehow works.
The script is a weird hybrid – it starts out as a romantic drama, but then takes a hard left into an environmental disaster story. Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) are the “lovebirds”, so to speak – ironically meeting when Brenner enters a San Francisco pet shop to get lovebirds for his kid sister. Daniels is already there in search of her own pet. Brenner – a prosecuting attorney – has an existing grudge against Daniels, the high-spirited daughter of a media mogul who uses Daddy’s money to buy her way out of trouble (and the public eye) when she does things like break picture windows or jump into the Trevi Fountain. Since Daniels dismisses her hijinks as “pranks”, Brenner decides to pull his own prank on her – pretending to mistake her for a pet store employee and grilling her with questions about bird behavior for a few minutes before calling her out and then leaving.
Instead of being ashamed or confounded, though, Daniels is intrigued – and decides to step up the prank war. Since Brenner left without his lovebirds, Daniels buys them – using Daddy’s connections at the newspaper to find Brenner’s whereabouts – and sets off for the small town of Bodega Bay to the north, where Brenner’s on a visit for his sister’s birthday. She rents a boat so she can sneak in from the back and “mysteriously” leave the lovebirds. But Brennan spots her as she leaves and races to the boathouse in town to meet her there. …So he’s watching as she’s approaching the dock, and sees when a seagull swoops out of the sky and bites her on the head.
Brennan leaps to the rescue, cleaning her up in the local diner and insisting she come to dinner that night and stay in town overnight to recover. Why, she can even stay with his ex-girlfriend Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the town schoolteacher. Brennan’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), dazzled by her surprise lovebirds, also asks Daniels if she can stay for Cathy’s birthday party the next day, an impulsive invitation which Mitch and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) grudgingly accept. Daniels is just as dubious as Lydia, but agrees to the invitation; so she’s there when another gull dive-bombs Annie’s front door later that evening, and when a flock of crows starts attacking the kids at Cathy’s party the next day. And when Lydia discovers their neighbor, a chicken farmer, has been pecked to death.
This is where all the really memorable stuff about the film kicks in, as the rest of the town notices the birds are acting really weird and scramble to figure out what to do. And this is where Hitchcock’s work really starts to shine – there’s the slow build of suspense when Daniels, sitting on a park bench, is oblivious to a whole flock of crows gradually building on the fence behind her. Or the fantastic sequence where Daniels and Brennan are crowded in the diner, discussing the latest attack, and everyone present has their own unique reaction – the nervous mother frets over her kids, the birdwatcher tuts about the fuss (“their brain pans are not big enough for a massed attack like you say”), and the town drunk keeps quoting apocalyptic passages from the Book of Ezekiel. Or the chaos when a bunch of birds do attack a group of kids trying to sneak away from school and get to safety.
Again, this film isn’t perfect – but very few of the “flaws” bothered me. Hitchcock leaves it an open question as to the cause of the birds’ sudden attacks, save for a few throwaway comments in that diner scene suggesting that it’s revenge for eons of mistreatment. But…that didn’t bother me, nor did the vague ending, where Daniels joins the Brennans in a drive off to an uncertain future. The special effects fall a bit short, but only when you compare them to 21st-Century technology; in the climactic scene where Daniels is cornered by hordes of gulls and crows, there’s some obvious use of double-exposure work, and it looks like Hedren is being pecked by handpuppets once or twice. But Hitchcock only used those kinds of “action” shots sparingly, preferring to stick to either the aftermath or to the power of suggestion, which always makes things all the creepier. Hitchcock’s masterful use of suspense and his close read of human nature also more than make up for it.
But trying to be “creepy” may have led Hitchcock to make the one choice that nagged at me. Hitchcock did away with music in the film almost entirely and went all-in on the sound effects; but instead of using actual recordings of bird calls, Hitchcock enlisted the German composer Oskar Sala to generate a lot of otherworldly noises on the trautonium, an early synthesizer. And they were indeed otherworldly – so much so that they didn’t sound like they could possibly have been made by birds, and that distracted me from the movie at a couple of pivotal moments. I grant that’s a small nit to pick – but can’t help but think that a little more verisimilitude with the bird sounds would have terrified me so much more.