Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie was Rebecca, based on the novel by author Daphne DuMaurier. It became the only Hitchcock movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. After what must have seemed an unlikely twenty-year stretch in which he did not earn another award from the Academy, perhaps Hitchcock was hoping lightning would strike twice when he chose to adapt another story by Daphne du Maurier for his 1963 film, The Birds.
The Birds is often viewed as a nightmarish scenario in which nature decides to fight back against the encroachment of man, but just like the story on which it is based, there is more to it than merely a man versus nature conflict. Du Maurier’s 1952 novella is allegorical, with the invasion of a small British village (shortly after World War II) by birds from the east working as a metaphor for the Nazi threat.
By relocating the setting to a small California fishing village and updating the setting to his present day, Hitchcock opened the gates to a flood of interpretations about what exactly the attacking birds are supposed to represent. Interpretations of the film range from a big budget attempt at environmentalist propaganda, to the birds acting as a psychological manifestation of Oedipal guilt. Some critics have deconstructed the film as an example of male fear of the increasing power of the liberated woman, and have tied the attacks to the punishment of a character for moral wrongdoings (in this case, Melanie is the one being punished for her unwomanly pursuit of Mitch). Others have tied it to the constant fear of nuclear attack during the Cold War.
Many of these readings have merit, but the manner in which Hitchcock ends his film, and what he leaves out, suggests that he may never have intended there to be any cohesive reason for the attacks. Perhaps because he was criticized for too much explanation at the end of Psycho, his previous film, Hitchcock uses the lack of an explanation in The Birds to heighten the viewer’s fear throughout and at the very end of the film. It may also be that he intentionally provides details that suggest at several of these readings of the film, only to poke holes in them at other times in the film, in order to align the viewer with the emotions and fears experienced by the characters in the film as they struggle to understand the events, and eventually panic and blame each other.
The Birds did not manage to bring Hitchcock the Academy Award, and, though it was a box office success, it had a mixed critical reception. Many critics at the time did appreciate the way Hitchcock built suspense, and it was praised as a Hitchcock classic in its style, while others criticized some of the acting as flat and some of the scenarios as too unnatural or unrealistic. In fact, The Birds snagged just one Oscar nomination—for its special visual effects—and it lost that to the only other nominated movie, Cleopatra.
On the other hand, The Birds managed to win a place in pop culture that even many of Hitchcock’s bigger hits and greater critical successes have not enjoyed. It would later gain more critical appreciation, as critics began to think of it as one of Hitchcock’s last, truly “Hitchcockian,” unflawed films. It would later receive the horror hall of fame award (in 1991) and be recognized by the American Film Institute as the 7th greatest thriller of all time.
In 2012, an HBO film titled The Girl recreated many of the most famous scenes from The Birds from the perspective behind the camera as the film recounted the tempestuous relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady, Tippi Hedren. Many years later, Hedren would accuse Hitchcock of sexual assault and abuse on set, which was corroborated by Hedren’s co-star, Diane Baker. He allegedly often isolated her from the rest of the cast and crew, had her followed, and whispered obscenities to her. In order to film the scene in which she is attacked in the Brenners’ house, she was locked in a cage as men wearing protective gear threw birds at her, and Hitchcock eventually started tying the birds to her with nylon strings to prevent them from being able to fly away too quickly.