The Birds – A Retrospective

Lately, I’ve been watching old movies. Why? Is it because I have a fascination with vintage fashion? Or is it because I have a particular fondness for trans-Atlantic accents? While those are certainly reasons why I enjoy watching old movies, they are not why I actively seek them out. I like old movies, because they are simply better. I don’t mean this in an “I was born in the wrong generation,” kind of way. Rather, I feel that older movies are better made due to the creative and practical limitations that were set upon movie makers.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is a shining example of this. Released in 1963, the film’s production team had to overcome a wide variety of technical problems to create a seamless viewing experience. The film has a very simple premise that was difficult to execute given the time period. It’s about birds, more specifically, killer birds. The plot follows a young socialite, Melanie Daniels, who, through certain circumstances, ends up trapped in a small California town. While there, the birds in the town act strangely, and then collectively decide to attack the humans.

If a film with a premise like that was made today, CGI would be used. But in 1963, the production team used a combination of live trained birds, mechanical birds, and film footage of birds. In fact, they spent over $200,000 on mechanical birds. In addition, they pioneered new techniques in film, by finding a way to seamlessly superimpose the footage of the birds onto other scenes. This was done using something called the sodium vapour process, allowing for a cleaner composition. Although, to the modern eye, it is a little bit obvious that the birds are superimposed, I cannot help but appreciate the amount of effort and care put into the production of this film. In fact, one of the last shots of the film is a composite of 32 different shots.

Alfred Hitchcock with birds!

In addition to  the technical feats achieved by the film, Another reason to watch this film lies in its plot. The story still holds up today, and in many cases, it surpasses many of the films made today. The Birds is a film largely driven by its female characters. The main character is a woman, and all but one of the major characters are female. Melanie Daniels, the main character, is also not exactly a “proper lady.” She’s bold and charming. When she meets her love interest, Mitch, she makes the first move. She’s not catty either. When she runs into Mitch’s ex, she’s polite to her. They even become friends! I was pleasantly surprised to see them develop an interesting relationship, rather than a jealous and competitive one. Melanie also develops a loving relationship with Mitch’s mother, despite his mother not liking her at first.

Melanie Daniels with Annie Hayworth, Mitch’s ex.

In fact, I’ve noticed that many films that were filmed during the time the Hays Code was in effect actually have more nuanced and detailed female characters. The Hays Code was a morality code enforced on films in America, limiting the subject matter that films could show, including excessive violent or sexual scenes. As an unintended consequence, female characters could not be excessively sexualized, the Hays Code prevented writers from writing any “Sexy Lamp,” type characters. As a consequence you find nuanced and complex female characters in older films. I find them much more relatable than the typical “Girl Power” protagonist found in many films today. Those protagonists are usually about as interesting as the “Sexy Lamp,” type characters. This is another way that the restrictions that were imposed on film-makers in the past, yielded more creativity. 

On a final note, The Birds, like all of Hitchcock’s work, is masterfully tense. I did not think birds could scare me. I was wrong. The last 20 minutes of that film was quite literally torture. I could barely breathe as I watched the characters go through what they had to go through.

One of my favourite shots of the film.

All in all, The Birds is a worthwhile watch. The film’s special effects, though a little bit dated at times, still hold up overall. It has an interesting and surprisingly modern plot, driven by interesting female characters, and like all of Hitchcock’s works, is masterfully tense. Give it a watch! Let me know what you think!

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