Jessica Tandy easily acts everyone else off the screen, giving her widow steely resilience and a painful history. The characters are for the most part a bit of a let-down, only working in the broadest of strokes, and that’s after Hitch asked his screenwriter, novelist Evan Hunter, for rewrites. Everyone gets just one unique character trait and 11-year-old Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) is hilariously made to sound like a hippie student (“Aw mom, I know all that democracy jazz!”).
The more potentially interesting moments of characterisation are likely unintended and only show up when viewing the film through specific critical frameworks, like the fact that no matter what feelings she voices regarding Mitch there is a bit of a flirtatious lesbian atmosphere between Melanie and schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette).
Sooner or later this kind of movie needs an expert to come in and explain it all and that role falls to local ornithologist Mrs Bundy (Ethel Griffies): “Birds have been on this planet since archaeopteryx, 140 million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a war against humanity?”. Ultimately she’s not a lot of help to the group, but she has a valiant attempt at rationalising the chaos whilst gesturing with her cigarette for effect.
The Birds was made in an era when (at least in a film) everyone left their doors unlocked and a stranger could ask in a corner shop for someone’s exact address or a teacher for a child’s name and for some reason nobody would call the police. Having said this, Hitchcock famously dismissed any such logical criticisms of his plots or why his film’s characters don’t do things that most of us would, commenting “because it’s dull”.
There’s a long build with not a lot happening in this film before all feathery hell breaks loose at the halfway point. A series of tense set pieces with the survivors running from cover to cover and trying to fortify their positions against attacks may well have influenced the standard structure of the zombie movies that would become horror’s most popular sub-genre in the following decades. Like even the early Dead films, The Birds is fairly bloody and brutal for a film of the time, with the bird attacks and their aftermath resulting in pecked up and mutilated bodies and no small amount of trauma for the those lucky enough to come away with everything intact. Any hope of a happy ending is also left fairly ambiguous at Hitch’s request.
The Birds has a lot going for it, with Hitchcock’s effortless mastery of maintaining suspense and pacing the story for maximum impact. The screenplay is serviceable enough, but the characters are paper-thin and your overall enjoyment might largely depend on your response to special effects that look more striking than 100% convincing, though never as terrible as shonky reimaginings like Birdemic might have you believe.