Rod Taylor Site banner
         

 
 

The Birds (1963)

Rod Taylor plays Mitch Brenner in this classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

Taylor's performance -- often overlooked amid the flock of birds and the fuss about Tippi Hedren -- is one of subtlety and strength. It covers a range from the light romantic comedy and verbal jousting of the opening scene to the fear and inner turmoil he must convey in the near-silent final sequences.

ON THE SCREEN

Although the very title puts the birds in the forefront, the human relationships stand at the center of this film. Because Hitchcock intentionally offers no rational explanation for the bird attacks, he focuses our attention on how people respond in such a trying situation.

So as suspense builds, we watch as the central characters -- Mitch, Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch's widowed mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) -- cast aside superficiality and preconceived notions, face their fears and eventually bond under the most terrifying of circumstances.

As one author put it: "Life is a matter of beating off the birds, and the only (partial) security is in the formation of deep relationships."

And as a fellow fan put it: "The story may seem to be about Melanie Daniels, but it all depends upon Mitch Brenner."

Mitch definitely is the man in the middle of this movie. Before the "real" bird attacks begin, there's a flock surrounding Mitch, all making demands of him. There's his mother, fearful of abandonment; his sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), so much younger she could be his daughter; and his former girlfriend, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), who leads a lonely life in Bodega Bay just to be near Mitch. And then Melanie migrates into this mix.

Mitch's relationship with Melanie starts as one of mutual provocation and continues more or less along those lines until the horror truly sets in. In the controlled "gilded cage" of the bird shop, they pose and pretend, exchange flirtations and insults. Later, Mitch, the lawyer, stands as inquisitor over Melanie in her car, parroting his mother's questions and judgments. But following the bird attack at Cathy's birthday party and the swarm of sparrows that invade the Brenner living room -- when all pretense has been swept aside in the face of fear -- they share tender kisses and sincere words of concern.

Toward the movie's climax , as he boards up the house, the actor's physical strength is obvious in his broad shoulders and back. This is a hallmark of Taylor's abilities, because despite his rugged stature, he exudes tenderness. The birds are massing, and Taylor's performance makes us feel the weariness of a man gathering his resolve for one more battle.

Just as we brace for the ultimate assault from the birds, it's an attack from within the home -- when Lydia lashes out at her loyal son -- that shows Taylor in his finest light and brings Mitch to the fore.

After peppering Mitch with questions, which he does his best to answer, Lydia blurts out, "You don't know! When will you know? When we're all dead? If only your father were here!"

Mitch's face flickers with confusion and hurt. He tries to rally himself from the emotional blow, but the unanswerable questions keep flying. And when he finally takes a seat, the portrait of his father peers down over his shoulder. Here, Taylor conveys the extreme discomfort of his character: It's a rare moment that Mitch is not in motion, he's still stinging from his mother's rebuke, and he suffers under the image of his father. It's an uncomfortable few moments, but when the birds finally begin their assault, Mitch takes charge again, leaping into action to secure windows and doors.

Because "The Birds" is an achievement in special effects -- of both images and sound -- the carefully planned and choreographed final scenes depend largely on the actors' convincing us that the danger is real. Taylor deals with broad physical challenges as he's bloodied by pecking birds, but he also deftly conveys fear, relief and love in silent, subtle reactions -- often to objects that aren't really there.

BEHIND THE SCENES

"What separates a great director from a not-great director is their vision. ... They can look at a thing and compose it as well as Cezanne. Hitchcock would have his Cezannes around in sketch form. Everything was planned. He was so extremely technical ... He was an architect, rather than a wonderfully fluid painter."

-- Rod Taylor, April 17, 1997, Palm Beach Post

The film is indeed a technical marvel. For two years before filming began, scenes were meticulously planned and drawn in storyboard form. "The Birds" features inventive effects, state-of-the-art filming techniques and a groundbreaking soundtrack made up of simulated bird sounds rather than a musical score.

For further quality, Hitchcock chose novelist Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) to write the screenplay, as the director sought the critical respect that had eluded his other films. The result of that decision keeps "The Birds" from being "just" a horror movie or a special effects showcase. In fact, Hunter explained that he and Hitchcock made the "decision early on that we were never going to explain the bird attacks, never. Otherwise the film would become science fiction and we didn't want to do that."

Hunter, however, notes three main ways the film differs from his screenplay:

An addition is the scene where Mitch and Melanie leave the children's birthday party and go up into the dunes and discuss Melanie's empty life and her lack of "a mother's love." Hunter recalls:

It's a stupid scene and I don't know who wrote it. Rod Taylor said to me, "Evan, did you write this scene?" I read it and I said, "No," and he said, "We're shooting it this morning." ... I went to Hitch and said, "This is a dumb scene, it's going to slow down the movie enormously, slow down the point where the birds attack the children at the birthday party, and it serves no purpose and I don't think it should be in the movie." And he looked me dead in the eye and he said, "Are you going to trust me or a two-bit actor?"

-- Writing for Hitch: An Interview with Ed McBain

While we consider whether we forgive Hitch for that comment, let's look at a pair of omitted scenes (which are detailed in "All About The Birds," a comprehensive documentary included on the DVD version of "The Birds"):

One scene was shot, but not included, and occurs the morning after the first bird attack at the Brenner house. Mitch and Melanie continue their verbal sparring, concoct a comical reason for the "bird rebellion" and wind up in a passionate kiss. The scene would have formed a bridge between the couple's previous antagonism and their affection in the next scene, but it was discarded as "The Birds" reaches a turning point, when terror is overtaking romance.

The other omission was not filmed and would have followed the Brenners and Melanie as they drive through the devastated town and on toward one final escape from a bird attack. That ending, Hunter explains, would have made it "not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town."

But, with an ambiguous ending, "The Birds" stays true to itself and Hitchcock leaves us with a deeply personal story of a specific group of characters and their reactions to bizarre and terrifying circumstances.

 

 

Click for Gallery

ROD ON BEING CAST
IN THE BIRDS

"I don't know which of my films Hitch may have seen, but he invited me to Universal to chat about 'The Birds.' He told me he didn't want an elegant actor, like Cary Grant. He wanted someone with balls. I didn't think we got on too well at that meeting. He was a strange man to talk to, and he had very rigid ideas. But to my great surprise, he cast me two days later."

-- Starlog, July 1986

The bird shop scene alone, for Rod Taylor to strike that balance between arrogance and charm, with a point of view regarding the law and society that was a bit quaint even in 1963, is quite an accomplishment.

-- Commentary by Ray Cunneff

And to just watch him once they're all boarded up inside the house, the bird smashing through the window, the birds coming through the front door... hardly a word spoken... just the sound effects (that were used like music) and the actor... it's a revelation.

-- Commentary by Ray Cunneff

Then there's his face when he opens the door and looks out on the sea of birds... the crow that stabs at his hand... the imagined safety of the garage... he makes you believe the danger.

-- Commentary by Ray Cunneff

Rod is the center of gravity for the entire film. His performance strikes just the right balance of strength and inner conflict. Too much of one or the other and the whole picture falls apart. His reactions to the birds are what make the terror real and allow us to share it.

-- Commentary by Ray Cunneff

 

LINKS

A page of "Birds" extras:

  • All About The Birds

  • AFI Life Achievement Awards: Alfred Hitchcock

  • Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock

-=-=-=-=-=-

IMBb // Wikipedia

Turner Classic Movies

Filming locations

The Birds and Bodega Bay

Veronica Cartwright page: "Cathy" has her own website

The script

Life magazine article

Filmsite review

Salute/analysis at the Classic Film & TV Cafe

==========

In June 2001, "The Birds" was hailed as one of the top 10 Most Heart-Pounding Movies of the century. It came in at No. 7 on the American Film Institute's latest list celebrating the centennial of American cinema.

 

VIEWERS GUIDE

Collector's edition DVD

Essentials DVD box set

 

 

 

         
   

www.rodtaylorsite.com