A murder of crows has never looked so menacing as when Alfred Hitchcock put them on the screen 50 years ago.
For the few of you that haven't seen the film, it does sound completely absurd that a movie about birds could be so terrifying, but the silence before they strike, their growing numbers, and the fact it seems no one in Bodega Bay can manage to cover their eyes and necks in time leaves viewers looking at the sky a little differently. Nevermind how much technology has changed since 1963, Hitchcock really was the master of suspense and it doesn't matter that at times look the seagulls look like marionettes.
To celebrate the milestone of birds terrifying people for five decades, we've chatted with Tony Lee Moral, an author on Hitchcock movies, whose latest book, The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds, hits the U.S. market on September 1.
Also this weekend, The Birds' actors and fans will celebrate the anniversary at the same spot birds terrorized from the sky so long ago -- the small North Bay towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay. There's an assortment of free and paid events; in Bodega Bay, Hitchcock fans can meet Tippi Hedrin, dine with her on Saturday night before a screening of the film, and get an autograph at the three-day 50th Anniversary Celebration of the making of The Birds. In Bodega, there will be docent led tours of movie sites, a parade of people dressed like Tippi Hedrin and Alfred Hitchcock, and a chance to meet Veronica Cartwright (you'll remember her as the little girl Cathy). Tickets and more information on the Bodega events are on the B50 site.
Talking Hitchcock and the Birds with author Tony Lee Moral
What's drawn you to research and write three books on Alfred Hitchcock's films?
Hitchcock for me is a giant of cinema, and there's so much to learn and draw upon from his movies. My favorite films are The Birds and Marnie, which is why I wrote individual books about their making; they've both just been recently published in the U.S. Both movies feature strong animal imagery and I may be drawn to that because I have a zoology degree. I'm currently writing a fourth book on Hitchcock's reputation which is very exciting as I've been able to interview many people who haven't spoken before about working with Hitchcock. I think it will change the way people will see him and watch his movies in years to come.
Rumor has it the final scene was supposed to feature a murder of crows sitting on the Golden Gate bridge. Is this true? If so, do you know why was it cut?
Yes, the final scene was to have the four main characters arriving in Melanie's convertible at the Golden Gate Bridge, only to find it covered in birds! "That's a belly laugh," said Hitchcock in an interview. He didn't film it because the film was already over budget because of the numerous special effects, he felt that the shot of the Brenner family and Melanie leaving Bodega Bay covered in birds would elicit the same response. It's an image however I would have liked to have seen, it could have rivaled the end shot of Planet of the Apes and the discovery of the Statue of Liberty, or even the new Planet of the Apes, when the apes taking control of the Golden Gate Bridge. The unresolved ending Hitchcock opted for was very European and avant-garde, but disappoints and infuriates many people.
What were some of the more interesting facts you learned about "The Birds"?
The capture and training of The Birds' birds was fascinating to research. This was achieved by an animal trainer named Ray Berwick, who also worked on another famous San Francisco movie, The Bird Man of Alcatraz, starring Burt Lancaster. His daughter Tamara told me he would train these small cheepy birds in the family bathroom much to her mother's consternation! This lead to the very big task of catching thousands of wild seagulls, crows, ravens and sparrows, which Berwick patiently trained to swoop down on people for the chilling bird attacks. The Birds was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects, but lost out to Cleopatra which I know disappointed Berwick and Hitchcock.
What are a few of the errors you've noticed on "The Girl," [a BBC and HBO movie on Tippi Hedrin] that contradict the research and interviews you've done?
There are so many errors in The Girl, too numerous to mention! You only have to watch Tippi Hedren's real screen test on YouTube to compare how different it is to the one presented in The Girl. The worst thing about The Girl is how it suggests that Hitchcock would deliberately harm his lead actress with broken glass in the middle of shooting a $3 million dollar movie. He was in fact a cost conscious professional who brought his films in on time and budget because of his pre-planning and careful story boarding. This year I interviewed Lois Thurman the script supervisor on The Birds, Rita Riggs the wardrobe mistress and Virginia Darcy the hairdresser, and all contradict the portrayal of Hitchcock in The Girl. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the wonderful assistant director, the late Jim Brown, who said that Hitchcock treated him like a son, and he wouldn't have endorsed the film either. There is some truth however to Hitchcock's controlling and possessive side, which I talk about in The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds, but it's nowhere near as exaggerated as the HBO movie claims.
In most of Hitchcock's films there's a femme fatale character, and it's easy to pick her off as either smart (Eve Kendall, "North By Northwest") mentally unstable ("Marnie"), sophisticated (Lisa Fremont, "Rear Window"), and so on. What do you think was Tippi Hedren's character's role was as one of Hitchcock's ladies?
Tippi Hedrin plays two very interesting and totally different women in The Birds and Marnie, which I discuss in great detail in my books about the making of those films. In The Birds she's a flighty playgirl, but in Marnie I think she's a more interesting character due to the fact she's full of neuroses from her childhood trauma. For only her second film [Marnie], I think Hedrin did a remarkable job; the film and her performance has been much maligned over the years, and I address this in the recently released revised edition of Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie.
Reading over the plot of the film, it reads much more campy to me than the rest of Hitchcock's films. How was it received by people initially? A bunch of birds -- not even birds of prey -- that murder people?
Yes, The Birds is campy, but great fun! I remember watching it a couple of years ago in the Top of the Mark bar in San Francisco and it raised a lot of laughs among the young hip audience as well as [gave them] the chills.
I think it disappointed some people when it was first released because everyone expected it to top Psycho, which was a monster hit, and that's really impossible to do. The Birds should be judged on it's own merits. It's a film that shows off the beautiful location scenery of San Francisco and Northern California, it has state of the art special effects for it's time, suspenseful storytelling, and a modern electronic soundtrack full of bird caws and screeches.
How do you think The Birds will be received in future years? Do you think it'll still be frightening people at its 100th Anniversary?
Because birds are all around us and part of our everyday lives, I think The Birds will be with us for the next 50 years. It really was pioneering in many ways, becoming the forerunner for Man vs Nature and the cycle of disaster movies. Hitchcock wanted to stir people out of their complacency with the fact that nature can revolt against us at any moment. Just think about that the next time a pigeon crosses in front of you in Union Square.
And in case you've never seen it, here's the trailer for The Birds: