Written by: Evan Hunter, based on the novel by Daphne DuMaurier
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Warning: This review contains a few spoilers.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a feisty, flirtatious young socialite, catches the eye of defense attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and tracks him down at his weekend home in Bodega Bay, California.
She meets one of Mitch’s previous love interests, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) and learns that Mitch is a bit of a heart-breaker and tied to his possessive mother. Undeterred, Melanie spends time with Mitch, enjoying their flirtation and bonding with this 11-year-old sister Cathy.
Various signs reveal that something is amiss. Melanie is attacked by a seagull. Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) notices that her chickens are acting strange. We catch ominous glimpses of birds clustered together, still and silent, as if waiting for something. Then for reasons that are never explained, birds of various species flock together and attack humans. It happens in waves, with lulls between the attacks. During these reprieves, birds gather, silent and menacing, as if waiting for their next assault.
This was my first time watching this classic horror film. Perhaps because we’re more jaded in this generation, for the most part, my family and I found the bird attacks more humorous than frightening.
What really worked for me was the heightening sense of unease, blossoming into growing fear — it is this cinematic quality that sets Hitchcock apart as the master of his craft. The interplay of light and darkness, looming shadows, and panoramic shots of a beautiful, eerily silent landscape at dusk. The smooth, soundless way birds gather, waiting. The growing unease and fear of townspeople, who react in diverse and often inexplicable ways. One bar patron drunkenly proclaims that this signals the end of the world. A serious amateur ornithologist explains why — scientifically — none of this can be happening. A young mother panics and hysterically lashes out at a scapegoat. Seemingly innocuous moments of silence also build fear. These quiet moments, when there is little action and important feelings and events are left unsaid, often feel the most real and powerful.
One iconic scene — the climactic moment when Melanie is attacked by birds in the attic — punctured my suspension of disbelief a bit. Yes, the scene was beautifully done. But I couldn’t get past the fact that after everything that had happened, including several deaths, and after the house had been boarded up to protect its inhabitants, Melanie hears some flapping in the attic … AND SHE GOES UP THERE. Alone. It’s like one of those “Grade B” horror flicks where the nubile young blond is traipsing down into the creepy basement. The viewer is screaming at the television: “Don’t go down there! DON’T! Stay … the hell … OUT of the BASEMENT!” But she soldiers on.
Nevertheless, this is a beautifully crafted movie which reflects all the reasons Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense. I loved the ambiguity — we’re never told why the birds attack. A modern thriller would have attributed it to some sort of scientific experiment gone wrong, killing the sense of mystery and shapeless dread.
I also liked the inconclusive ending, with Melanie and the Daniels family moving forward into a dim, mysterious, and uncertain future. Part of Hitchcock’s genius is that he knew what not to reveal and when to draw a scene with a light hand. This film’s status as a classic is definitely well earned.