JT's Blog

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The Birds Is Gone

I received several queries as to why The Birds (1963) didn’t make my Hitch favorites list. While there are lots of things I like about The Birds, it suffers from a very anemic script by Evan Hunter.

So much to explain there. I’ll start with the movie and its strengths.

The Birds contains some of Hitch’s greatest special effects, and while they could be easily surpassed by today’s CGI effects, they hold up well for their time. They never take you (or at least me) out of the movie. And some of the scenes are absolute classics, such as the gasoline fire at the filling station with that aerial view (or birds’ eye view, if you will) of the scene.

The birds’ eye view of the gasoline fire in The Birds

It has one of my all time favorite Hitchcock scenes where Tippi Hedren’s character is waiting outside the schoolhouse while the children are inside singing. On the soundtrack we hear the children’s subdued voices as the teacher takes them through seemingly endless verses of the song, while Hitch’s camera develops a rhythm of cutting back and forth between closeups of Tippi and the monkey bars that are gradually attracting some crows. First one crow, then a couple more in the next shot, and still a few more in the next. Then the camera remains on Tippi for a longer time period as the audience is wondering what’s going on behind her. Finally, she notices a lone bird up in the sky as it flies lower and lower, and she turns just in time to see it land on the monkey bars which are now filled with thousands of crows, as are the neighboring rooftops and every surface in sight.

I also like Hitch’s decision to not use a regular musical score but instead to fill the soundtrack with electronic sounds and bird sounds. Very effective.

So, yes, there’s a lot I like about the movie, and I probably should have at least given it an honorable mention.

Tippi Hedren waits at the school, oblivious to the birds slowly amassing behind her in The Birds

Oh, but that script!

Evan Hunter, in his slim volume, Me and Hitch, has said that after many conferences with Hitch, they decided to start the movie as a screwball comedy and then have it transform into horror. That might have worked, but Hunter had no experience writing screwball comedies, and what he came up with just isn’t very amusing. But what’s worse, all the exposition that occurs in the first 45 minutes of the film (and there is a lot of it) essentially has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. There’s no payoff.

Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren share martinis in the worst scene in The Birds

Also, there’s a scene that might be one of the worst scenes that Hitch ever filmed. Hunter claims he didn’t write it and that he tried to stop Hitch from filming it but failed. It’s the scene between Tippi and Rod Taylor that takes place during the children’s party. Rod and Tippi climb onto a mound with their martinis (martinis at an afternoon children’s party!) and toss a bunch of non sequitur lines at each other. What makes it especially bad is it looks like it was shot inside a studio set because the actors cast multiple shadows.

That said, there is at least one scene that is extremely well written. I’m referring, of course, to the scene in the diner when the ornithologist played by Ethel Griffies comes in. That scene is another classic.

Ethel Griffies as an ornithologist who knows her birds

Now lest the reader gets the impression that I’m dumping unfairly on Evan Hunter, I want to add that I’m a big fan of his writing under both of his nom de plumes. His birth name was Salvatore Albert Lombino but he legally adopted the name Evan Hunter in 1952 because of prejudice (real or imagined) against people with foreign sounding names. He wrote under both that name and Ed McBain, and I’ve read and enjoyed most of the novels he wrote under both names.

And one more thing. Evan Hunter apparently wrote a lot of the book Me and Hitch from memory without reference to contemporaneous notes or dairies, or without checking on easily checked facts. And he describes a script that he wrote for Hitchcock’s television show, Appointment at 11. Almost everything he says about that script and the way Hitch introduced it on the show are wrong, as a recent viewing of the episode revealed.