The special edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 Judgment Day thriller, The Birds (available on DVD), carries not only various production notes, cut scenes from the script, storyboard sketches, trailers, other promotional footage, Tippi Hedren’s screen tests–with actor Martin Balsam, and with Hitchcock’s off-camera voice directing and kidding around–but also an eighty-minute documentary that goes into enormous and fascinating detail about how this technically most difficult picture was made 48 years ago. Long before computer generated images were even dreamed of, Hitchcock conceived a production so challenging that he himself knew never to raise the issue, “Can it be done?” Because, he told me at the time, “Then it would never have been made. Any technician would have said ‘impossible.’ So I didn’t ever bring that up, I simply said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.'”
I happened to be in Los Angeles for a while in 1962 while Hitch was shooting The Birds and visited his set one of the days they were doing the sequence in which a couple of hundred live sparrows come down the chimney into the Rod Taylor character’s living room. The whole area had been netted in with plastic sheets so the little birds couldn’t get off the actual room-set. The actors–Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, and 12-year-old Veronica Cartwright–were, of course, to react in terror to this invasion. The bird wranglers essentially poured the birds down the chimney chute and into the fireplace but, although the actors ran about in proper fright, the small birds seemed more terrified themselves than threatening. Rather than attacking, they flew around trying to find a way out. Hitchcock, extraordinarily calm and cheerful, called out “Cut!” and told the actors to “slip out” of the set so the wranglers could begin the arduous and time-consuming task of trying to recapture all the birds for another take.
Eventually, the sequence had to be enhanced in a big way through the special Disney animation process Hitchcock used for the entire picture–the best way at that time to do the sort of multiple image-combinations required. Since there were some 371 trick shots in the final work, the job was extremely daunting and laborious. The concluding shot in the film–a lone car driving away through a landscape dominated by hundreds of birds in ominous waiting–required 32 separate images which had to be melded seamlessly together. All these amazing technical feats– excellently defined and explained in the fine documentary by Laurent Bouzereau–with today’s computers would not be especially troublesome. That Hitchcock had the vision, and the patience, remains enormously impressive.
After making the two biggest popular successes of his long career–North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960; see Picture of the Week 10/31/10)–Hitchcock could essentially do whatever the hell he wanted. The studio, therefore, did not insist on big stars for The Birds, the idea being that Hitchcock–-already a household name as a director, now also the host of his own popular TV series for over six years–-was the star, and the picture’s subject matter itself would be enough to guarantee the box office. Also, because of his crack production team’s awesome expertise and his own experience and ingenuity, the film was not a wildly expensive picture. Nevertheless, The Birds was not one of the Master’s greatest hits, nor was it received with much critical excitement.
In retrospect, the film marked the start of a general decline in Hitchcock’s fortunes, and he only made five more pictures before his death in 1980–just one of them, Frenzy (1972), rated with high marks. The irony was that not only did the opening of The Birds kick off the first U.S. Hitchcock retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (I organized it and wrote the accompanying monograph, The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock), but four years later Francois Truffaut’s classic interview book altered forever the critical downplaying of the director and elevated him to the pantheon, where he has remained and increasingly dominated ever since. He remains today the most famous film director in picture history.
Overall, while The Birds is by no means my favorite Hitchcock, it remains a visually striking work and one that has noticeably influenced a great many filmmakers. When I asked Hitch what he felt the movie was really about, he answered, “Generally speaking, that people are too complacent…” With the essentially inconsequential nature of the characters and the somewhat comedic quality of the beginning, Hitchcock said, he meant “To epitomize the fripperies of people, the lightness with which they live, their lack of concern about the fact that nature can turn on them.” To me, it has always seemed like the director’s way of saying that no matter what we may do, Mother Earth somehow would eventually have her revenge.
The recent hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis the world over, the generally terrible air, all the other obvious results of global warming, only prove how prescient, metaphorically speaking, Hitchcock really was nearly half a century ago. Having predicted with Psycho the death of the heroine, the drastic downgrading of women in film, the killing of the feminine principle, he naturally would next destroy the world that has wrought such an outrage. (More on Hitchcock, The 39 Steps, Picture of the Week 7/20/11.)