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Happy Birthday: Hitchcock's The Birds Turns 50

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Spring has finally sprung, and with it comes the 50th anniversary of The Birds. When The Birds had it's world premiere at the RKO Palace in New York on March 28, 1963, it proved to be Alfred Hitchcock's most modern, avant-garde and frightening film. "I suppose that The Birds is the most prodigious job ever done," said Hitchcock.

After Hitchcock bought the film rights to Daphne du Maurier's chilling short story in 1961, he set about trying to top Psycho by constructing a savage thriller where nature inexplicably turns against man. The Birds was an enormous technical challenge, requiring the collaboration of every major studio in Hollywood, including MGM, Disney and Universal. "We used the optical printing facilities of every studio in Hollywood," said Hitchcock, "And the supervision of one of the most brilliant men, a man called Ub Iwerks who is Disney's man and yet the Academy gave the award to some little dissolve effect in Cleopatra." Hitch was so irate that The Birds failed to win the Oscar for Best Special Effects, the only category that it was nominated in. In the end The Birds boasted 371 special effects, a feat not equaled until Star Wars some 15 years later.

"How did you get the birds to act so well?" the press asked Hitchcock when he unveiled the film. "They were very well paid," was his sardonic reply. The real answer was that he enlisted the help of expert bird trainer Ray Berwick to catch 25,000 birds, many of which were trained, including seagulls, crows and ravens, to create the frightening bird attacks on the hapless cast.

What do the birds signify? Everyone wants to know. Are they an act of punishment? Agents of evil? A manifestation of the tensions between the central characters? The Birds was made against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the film exactly spanned the tumultuous background of JFK's presidency, which witnessed the Bay of Pigs invasion, the rise of Fidel Castro and the assassination of Kennedy. Hitchcock said his film was about complacency, and that ordinary men and women go about their inconsequential lives unaware that disaster is all around them. He deliberately started the film, with the help of screenwriter Evan Hunter, as a light comedy to lull the audience into a false sense of security.

In my new book The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds, which is a prequel to Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, I investigate the writing of the screenplay that took almost a year to complete, the pioneering electronic score, the training of 25,000 birds, the problems Hitchcock encountered working with the cast and crew on location in Bodega Bay, and the ultimate challenge of creating convincing and frightening birds attacks. I also reveal why the proposed screening of The Birds at the Museum of Modern Art, New York was part of Hitchcock's campaign to be taken seriously as an artist.

With The Birds, Hitchcock achieved the dream of any director, by assembling his repertory group, an expert group of professionals, who spent weeks together on location in Bodega Bay, and back at Universal Studios. The book features new interviews with Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright, Rita Riggs, Norman Lloyd, Virginia Darcy and screenwriter Evan Hunter, as well as previously unpublished interviews with Hitchcock's A-list technical team Robert Boyle, Harold Michelson and Albert Whitlock.

"It's my number one commercially most important film," says leading man Rod Taylor. "It's a really good scary movie," agrees co-star Veronica Cartwright. "I thought the special effects were terrific." The Birds is an outstanding example of how far the film making process can go using real birds, live action and the sodium vapour process. "I felt a great sense of satisfaction at the end of The Birds," recalled AD Jim Brown. "And that we had created something special." "The Birds does have the craft of film," acknowledges costume supervisor Rita Riggs. "It's amazing that it has lasted and doesn't seem to be as dated, even though it was 50 years ago. We who started in the 1950s were rebelling against much of that craft in the 1950s and 1960s, and now film has become so digital and instantaneous, maybe we are going back to the craft, and Mr. Hitchcock was a supreme craftsman."

In the 50 years since it's release, The Birds has had a tremendous impact on science fiction and popular culture. No other Hitchcock film, apart from Psycho, has achieved such long lasting influence and notoriety. With birds a part of our everyday lives, Hitchcock's film is likely to remain in our consciousness for the next 50 years.

The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds is published by Kamera Books on 28th March.