Mar 5, 2020
The Birds (1963)
Unlike Halloween and Christmas, there really aren’t many movies which revolve around Thanksgiving. Sure, we have the classic comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as well as (of course) A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Garfield’s Thanksgiving. But overall, the holiday doesn’t exactly get the same cinematic love as those other two holidays.
The closest thing I’ve seen to a Thanksgiving film in recent years is Eli Roth’s charming makeshift trailer for the never-made slasher film Thanksgiving, which was itself merely a nice gag, as it was part of the the Tarantino-Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse (which is sad, because if that production’s first makeshift trailer Machete can actually be made into a full-fledged movie, why can’t Thanksgiving?).
Hence, one of the few films I can think of that can come even a tenth of the way to be placed in the same category as the holiday is Alfred Hitchcock’s classic shocker The Birds. The movie was based on a story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, who also penned the novel Rebecca, which Hitchcock had previously made into a classic movie in 1940.
The story begins with San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) going to the local pet store (where Hitchcock makes his customary cameo, walking out with a pair of dogs), and encountering a lawyer named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). He requests a pair of lovebirds to give to his sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) for her upcoming birthday. But Mitch also recognizes Melanie from when he previously saw her in court for pulling one of many pranks she’s known for (I guess that means she’s tight with the Kardashians). Melanie is pissed off when Mitch comes clean after pretending not to know her. The two engage in banter that, even then, made people suspect that romance was in their future. When Mitch departs, Melanie manages to get his license plate number, and a short time later, she delivers a pair of lovebirds with a note to his apartment door.
But Mitch’s neighbor sees this, and informs Melanie that Mitch is spending the weekend in Bodega Bay. Obviously not wanting to have to feed the birds over the course of a weekend (how sweet), Melanie makes the long drive to his location. Melanie rents a boat, since the home where Cathy and the widowed Brenner matriarch Lydia (Jessica Tandy) live is across a river, and she learns Cathy’s name from the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) before heading over and sneaking into the house to make the special delivery. Mitch sees the birds, and with binoculars, happily spots Melanie as she attempts to return to the other side of the river.
He drives to the other side to meet up with her. But just as Melanie’s about to reach the shore, a seagull smacks her on the side of the head. Both of them are obviously startled, but as Mitch patches Melanie up in the local diner, they engage in more not-love banter before Melanie meets Lydia and is subsequently invited to dinner by Mitch.
That night, Melanie meets Cathy, who warmly thanks her for the lovebirds. Dinner goes by pleasantly, although Lydia asks Mitch about Melanie in private, as she’s also aware of her prank-pulling antics, which apparently include an incident in which Melanie supposedly romped naked in a fountain in Venice (not exactly a nice way to meet the parents). Cathy pretty much begs Melanie to come to her birthday party, which is the next day, but Melanie politely declines, saying she has to return to San Francisco. Not surprisingly, the evening ends with Melanie and Mitch bantering more before she drives off to Annie’s place, where she managed to rent the room from Annie.
Over drinks, Annie informs Melanie that she and Mitch were once involved, but Lydia’s domineering personality and fear of being alone kept things from going very far. Despite that, Annie later moved to Bodega Bay to be near Mitch, and she and Lydia actually became friends since that time. Mitch telephones and asks Melanie to Cathy’s party, and with Annie’s encouragement, she agrees. The ladies are then interrupted by a loud thud at the front door. They open it to see a dead gull that simply flew into it. Annie thinks that the gull lost its way in the dark, until Melanie points out that there’s plenty of light thanks to the moon.
Lydia and Annie both watch Melanie and Mitch getting better acquainted at the party the next day. At that moment, numerous seagulls start attacking everyone. After getting the children inside the house, Mitch tells Melanie not to drive back to San Francisco for now. Later, sparrows manage to get into the Brenner home via the chimney. Melanie and the Brenners survive the attack and later describe what happened to the police, who are skeptical that birds would deliberately assault humans.
But this sense of concern continues to grow the next day as Lydia goes to a friend’s house, only to find the friend in question pecked to death by birds, complete with his eyes poked out and smashed glass, furniture, and bird corpses everywhere. Lydia silently flees back to her home in terror and is soon comforted by Melanie. This happens right after Melanie kisses Mitch (whoa! Didn’t see that coming), and tells him to be safe as he goes to the wrecked house. Melanie and Lydia begin to open up to each other a little, and Lydia thanks her for giving her a shoulder before asking her to look in on Annie, who’s at school.
While Melanie waits in the front yard of the school for Annie to be available, she’s unaware that crows are slowly but surely gathering behind her on the school’s jungle gym. Her eyes widen in terror when she sees the mass of birds and she goes into the school to inform Annie. The latter tells the children that they’re going to have a fire drill, and to run home when she tells them to.
Sure enough, once the children begin barrel-assing it, the birds go apeshit and begin attacking. Melanie, Cathy, and one of her friends eventually take shelter in an abandoned car.
Later at the diner, Melanie is telling her dad (who runs a newspaper) on the phone about the bird attacks. When Melanie confesses that she doesn’t know the difference between blackbirds and crows, a bird expert (Ethel Griffies) proceeds to give her and us an earful about said differences and all about the world’s bird population. Several of the other diner patrons begin describing their recent encounters with birds as well. The expert dismisses the stories as flukes, saying that birds of different species don’t flock together, and that the world would be screwed if they did.
Mitch shows up and begins planning a way to counter the attacks. When more birds arrive to cause trouble, he goes outside to assist, telling Melanie to say inside. She and the other patrons see the beginning of an attack, which leads to gasoline being spilled and making its way to a car, just as its driver gets out of it and begins to light a cigar. Not surprisingly, this causes an explosion which brings on more gulls. As people fight both the fire and the birds, Melanie locks herself in a phone booth before Mitch pulls her out. When they re-enter the restaurant, the other patrons give her accusing stares as the attacks coincided with her arrival. A woman (Doreen Lang) with two children shouts that Melanie is evil, before the latter thankfully gives her a hard slap on the face.
Melanie and Mitch go to Annie’s to pick up Cathy, only to find Annie dead outside. A tearful Cathy explains that they went outside to investigate the explosion and Annie hurried her back inside before birds overtook her.
The Brenners and Melanie begin boarding up the Brenner home as the radio reports of further bird attacks. Eventually, the home is attacked, and Mitch, after calming a frantic Lydia, uses every bit of furniture he can to barricade the doors and windows, while also keeping the fireplace going. The attack eventually leads to the power going out, leaving our group no choice but to wait it out as long as they can in the living room.
As the Brenners sleep, Melanie hears a noise from upstairs. She goes up and opens the door to Cathy’s room, only to see that birds have broken through the roof. She’s quickly trapped in the room as the birds viciously attack her before Mitch manages to pull her out. The Brenners patch Melanie up as best they can, but realize that she needs to get to a hospital.
But getting to one won’t be easy, because the Brenner home is now surrounded by birds. Mitch quietly manages to get to the garage and get Melanie’s car to the front door. He and Lydia bring the almost catatonic Melanie to the car while Cathy brings her lovebirds. The movie ends with our heroes slowly driving away as the birds remain perched all around.
I’ve heard some complain that the non-bird scenes in this film are a waste of time, but I didn’t mind them, because they don’t distract from the sense of tension this movie builds once Melanie is attacked by that first seagull.
This was Hitchcock’s follow-up to his classic Psycho, and, like that film, it always manages to make everyone’s list of favorite horror movies. The staging of the attack scenes, as well as the anticipation in between attacks was clearly influential, as can be seen in later classics such as Night of the Living Dead and Jurassic Park. The fact that, unlike those films, the entire bird attack is never explained only adds to the movie’s intensity.
Hitchcock would follow this film with the underrated Marnie, which reunited him with Hedren. Alas, their differences would make their second film together also their last, with Hedren stating that Hitchcock blackballed her out of the industry afterward. Happily, she since has had the pleasure of seeing both her daughter, Melanie Griffith, and her granddaughter, Dakota Johnson, become stars.
I guess another reason I often think of this film as a Thanksgiving film is because of its trailer, which has Hitchcock hilariously discussing birds and their relationship with humanity, while eating turkey and showing off a hat with a feather in it. This film didn’t stop me from eating turkey, but it’s still is a nerve-jolting thrill ride.