Flashback: The Birds - Alfred Hitchock - Veronica Cartwright

Flashback: The Birds

Not only was The Birds Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate masterpiece, but it became one of the most influential horror movies of all time. We spoke to original star and subsequent genre icon Veronica Cartwright about working on the classic production with the master of suspense…

By 1961, Alfred Hitchcock was in a bit of a dilemma ahead of making The Birds. A year earlier the great master of suspense had delivered one of the most spine-chilling experiences ever committed to celluloid, and consequently his most profitable movie to date. It both revolutionised the habits of cinemagoers and ingrained a heightened level of fear in the cinematic psyche of the times. That film, Psycho, was a controversial masterpiece of manipulation. It daringly killed off its star, Janet Leigh, halfway into the story in its horrific, now legendary shower scene and then pulled the carpet out even further by revealing that the polite, seemingly innocent motel owner Norman Bates was the cross-dressing, mother-fixated culprit.

It’s not surprising, then, that expectations were exceptionally high for Hitchcock’s eagerly anticipated follow up. But what trick would the master pull out of his sleeve this time?

Inspired by a series of strange, unprovoked bird attacks reported across the country and recoiling that he’d already purchased the rights to Daphne du Maurier’s dramatic Cornwall-set short story ‘The Birds’ for his macabre TV series, the filmmaker considered the cinematic potential of adapting the apocalyptic episode to the big screen. Throwing everything out except the title and concept of birds attacking people, Hitchcock hired American author and occasional Alfred Hitchcock Presents story scribe Evan Hunter to pen the screenplay.

Hunter came up with an initial screwball comedy concept that hinged on mischievous San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who secretly purses lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to a small Californian town after he humiliates her in a bird shop. Hitchcock liked the idea as it placed the audience under false preferences for the unexplained bird terror that lay ahead.

With former model and debuting actress Hedren in the lead as the feisty Melanie and Australian Taylor (star of the original version of The Time Machine) as the lawyer and love interest, along with future Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy actress Jessica Tandy as his overbearing mother and Suzanne Pleshette as his sultry former flame Annie, only one crucial role remained: that of Brenner’s sweet 12-year-old sister Cathy.

“I’d done a movie called The Children’s Hour which Mr Hitchcock had seen me do, and so he requested a meeting,” explains former child actress Veronica Cartwright, who had previously appeared in two of Hitchcock’s TV shows. “I went over to Universal Studios to meet him, and we just talked. He told me how to cook a steak, as he felt I would need to know this some day when I was married,” she laughs. “Then he found out I was born in Bristol, and proceeded to tell me the best wine cellar was there. I ended up getting the part, so it was just a conversation to see if we got along.”

Veronica Cartwright being attacked in The Birds
Hitchcock already had the rights for Daphne du Maurier’s dramatic Cornwall-set short story ‘The Birds’…

Although the director famously loathed location shooting – due in part to the sometimes uncontrollable conditions — The Birds was shot almost entirely in the quaint, mystical North Californian coastal town of Bodega Bay. Together with the colossal scale of the dramatic action sequences, which required a greater length of storyboard-ing and the tricky technicalities of the titular antagonists themselves, the film became Hitchcock’s greatest undertaking yet – pushing the boundaries for the director.

Arguably the greatest challenge, however, was working with the temperamental creatures themselves. “The first thing that I shot was the bird attack at Cathy’s birthday party,” reveals Cartwright. “That was an actual bird that swooped dawn and hit me on the head. They had this seagull on a string, with his beak and claws bound up and somebody just chucked him from a ladder He swooped down at me, as I had bird seed in my hair, but unfortunately the string broke and he started flying out to the bay, so they had to go after him before he hurt himself.”

Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the film is the massive attack on a group of running school children, which directly follows the iconic sequence where a flock of crows moss precociously on a jungle gym behind on oblivious Hedren. “We ran for our lives!” continues Cartwright. “Everything was shot twice: once on location in Bodega Bay where we ran down that hill, with remote-controlled mechanical birds on some of the kids shoulders; then again in the studio, when they put us on this huge treadmill with a mobile arm that swooped birds down at us. There were big mattresses placed to cushion our fall. Everyone was desperate to stay in front on that treadmill, otherwise if you fell you’d just wipe everybody out.”

Being a naturally inquisitive youngster at the time, Cartwright wasn’t afraid to quiz the great master on the believability of certain sequences. “I could always ask him questions about how things were done. He never seemed to mind, and would always answer me in detail,” she explains. “For example, when cardboard birds were mixed in with real birds on the jungle gym asked: ‘Isn’t the audience going to know that those birds are fake?’ And he said, ‘It’s the illusion; the audience sees movement and they automatically assume that all the birds are alive.’ And of course he was right – to this day it’s hard to pick out the fake birds! It was the same toward the end of the movie, when Rod Taylor opens the door and goes outside, I said: ‘But there’s no door there!’ and he said: ‘If there was a door there I wouldn’t be able to see you.’ Then he said: ‘Rod, let’s show her how it’s done!’ And of course the light flashes across the screen so it looks like the door is opening. He said to me” ‘You see, this is the magic of the movies!’ and that’s what l believe made Hitchcock so special.”

Tippi Hedren played the mischievous San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels in The Birds
Tippi Hedren played the mischievous San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels.

However, it wasn’t all fun and games with smoke and mirrors. When the filming of the climactic home invasion sequence called for the actors to interact with real birds, things got decidedly more intense. “A couple of times it was creepy when the birds came down the chimney,” explains Cartwright. “Those were real birds and thousands of them went up, hit the ceiling and then, realising they couldn’t go anywhere, just dropped. Then people would come along, sweep them up with brooms and shovels and put them into the shafts again. 15,000 birds flying around – it was nasty!”

Another unsettling component of the invasion scene was when the birds attempt to make their way into the house by relentlessly pecking and clawing their way through the front door. “They had hand puppets and pegs on hammers with prop men beating the door so you had that effect of the wood splitting,” Cartwright reveals. “And they had birds that were sent in there when Rod is trying to close the window. It was very realistic.”

Far more pleasurable to work with were Cartwright’s fellow human co-stars, particularly Tandy who, despite playing a stern mother figure, was far nicer in the flesh: “She was just lovely and such a great actress,” remembers Cartwright. “They made her look a lot older than she was, but it was an interesting part because she’s obsessed with her son, who she’s sort of in love with, and anyone who’s going to take him away is just unacceptable to her.”

Unlike Janet Leigh, who allegedly never took a shower after seeing herself in Psycho, Cartwright claims The Birds hasn’t consequently cemented any real tears for feathered creatures. However, an incident at home left the actress completely dumbstruck: “Years later I had a wooden shingled roof house and a big eucalyptus tree outside, which of course crows would nest in,’ she explains. “One day I heard this horrific sound and lots of running on my roof. So I went outside, and I saw about 30 birds on my roof pulling out all my shingles to make a nest. It was so creepy, I told the birds that I’d done that movie already and that they should just go away!” she laughs.

The actress also recalls being taken by surprise by the great master filmmaker himself when she turned 13 on set. “Hitchcock laid out a surprise birthday party for me with this enormous cake,’ she reveals. “Tippi gave me love birds for a present, Jessica gave me a wonderful sweater and Mr Hitchcock took out a piece of board and a crayon and wrote” ‘To the woman I love, Veronica’ then drew his face, signed his signature and handed that to me. When I got home there was a big bouquet of flowers too. He was generally a nice person and was always kind to me. I understand Tippi had problems, but I never saw that side of him.”

Veronica Cartwright in The Birds
The Birds was shot almost entirely in the quaint, mystical North Californian coastal town of Bodega Bay.

The Birds premiered in New York on 28 March 1963, and later screened out of competition in May at the Cannes Film Festival. A still unsettling horror thriller about the dangers of complacency, with moments of foreboding terror that use unnerving silences and orchestrated sounds of real birds – instead of a traditional score – to conjure up its eerie atmosphere instead, The Birds was arguably Hitchcock’s final masterpiece. It also influenced a spate terror-of-nature flicks, including most prominently Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and most ridiculously Frogs (which featured Dial M For Murder actor Roy Millard).

Hitchcock would direct another five films, but none of them matched the creative, critical or financial success of The Birds, with the filmmaker ultimately bowing out with 1976’s disappointing crime comedy Family Plot. Though Hedren went on to be cast opposite Sean Connery as the titular lead in Hitchcock’s follow up thriller Marnie, the film was a box office disaster, and her movie career never recovered. She notably featured in Rick Rosenthal’s disastrous 1994 made-for-television sequel The Birds II: Land’s End, albeit as a completely different character.

For Cartwright, however The Birds led to a long and successful screen and television career, including a couple more horror classics. 15 years later she starred as the mud bath proprietor wife of Jeff Goldblum in Phillip Kaufman’s superior Seventies remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and then played the Nostromo’s navigator Lombert in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Cartwright would also feature in a memorably wacky role in George Miller’s fantasy comedy The Witches Of Eastwick, and made a slew of guest appearances in various cult TV shows, including The X-Files, Six Feet Under, Invasion and Revenge.

“I saw The Birds not so long ago and it really holds up,” she concludes of the experience. “It’s still very creepy and accessible, and I’m so proud to have been a part of it.”

The Birds is available on Blu-ray and DVD. Main image credit: © 1963 Universal Studios All Rights Reserved


Read our other FLASHBACK interview with Veronica Cartwright about her many other genre credits. Read it here