Rich socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is expecting a mynah brid from her local pet shop in San Francisco, but it hasn't arrived yet, and the assistant tells her if she waits it might be here soon. She doesn't like the sound of that, so as the woman goes into the office to phone the supplier Melanie writes out her address and ends up mistaken for the assistant by Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who she fools into thinking she's in charge, which sees her freeing a canary by mistake. But Mitch wasn't fooled: he recognised her from court as she is an inveterate practical joker. They part frostily, but she can't let it lie and plans an elaborate revenge...
Perhaps even more than Psycho, The Birds was the film of director Alfred Hitchcock which invited the most analysis. Some would tell you that it was pretty much what you saw: a horror movie about birds turning on humanity, but there were so many other scenes apart from the attack ones - the creatures descend in waves - that you could spend quite a lot of time picking apart the motivations and themes of the movie and still it would remain an enigma. Certainly there appeared to be something in the depiction of women here which spoke to an unease, and even an outright panic, that the fairer sex were not half as docile as Mitch and his ilk would like to think.
Mitch is really the sole male character of any significance, as the rest of the time we were caught up in the affairs of Melanie and Mitch's circle of females, which included his mother (Jessica Tandy) who fears abandonment, his sister Cathy (future star of Alien, Veronica Cartwright) and his old girlfriend who chilly Mrs Brenner shooed away, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), yet nevertheless has stayed working as the schoolteacher in the small coastal town of Bodega Bay as if there might be a chance the flame could be rekindled. The thought that these characters could have more sway over Mitch's actions would seem to be manifested in the chaos of the bird attacks, as if femininity itself was the source of the terror; they do call her Mother Nature, after all.
The script was loosely based and expanded from the Daphne du Maurier short story by Evan Hunter, best known as prolific thriller novelist Ed McBain, under the guidance of Hitch, and many like to seek out examples of the director's inner thoughts in the way this film plays out, especially in light of his, shall we say, complicated relationship with then-newcomer Hedren, who he had talent-spotted in a television commercial. It's now widely known that his main impetus for choosing an unknown actress to star was so he could mould her into his ideal leading lady, the sort of thing more suited to a Josef von Sternberg than Hitchcock, and although Hedren suffered under his tutelage they did make another film together, Marnie, where predictably they fell out.
Knowing the pressure the leading lady was under, and the oddly misogynist tone to the movie, maybe we should be surprised The Birds (even the title is slang for females) turned out quite as well as it did. For some, the passages between the attacks were far too slack, yet by placing an already tense set of connections between the main players under jeopardy, the feeling of something going badly wrong with no end in sight was palpable. Given Hitchcock's record on shaky special effects it might be strange to see him make a project which relied so heavily on them, and even back then there were grumbles that those effects were far from seamless. However, the inherent nastiness, the pointlessness to the violence and initimidation was one of the strongest elements: you can't reason with something which willingly assaults people, especially children, with no apparent motivation.
No matter what Hitch said about our feathered friends taking their revenge on humanity for our misdeeds being the source of his interest in the material, you could see undercurrents running deep underneath each setpiece, not to mention the uneasy interaction. Those setpieces were all examples of the birds attacking: the scene outside the school where the crows flock to launch themselves without any conscience at the pupils, or the scene in the diner which contained examples of the only humour in the film, and bleak, dark humour it was. When Melanie is accused by a hysterical mother for bringing this plague by dint of her outsider status here, we wonder if that's what is really happening, then again, such was the slipperiness of the themes that you could just as easily view Mitch's disquiet with his tenuous hold on independence as the trigger for the nightmare. One of the goriest pre-seventies horrors, The Birds was troubling, far from perfect yet hard to dismiss, and very influential, more so than many might care to admit.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.