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Hollywood: Alfred, Squeeze Me a Grape

4 minute read

A farmer is found dead, and blood streams from his empty eye sockets. A flock of birds swoops down on children returning alone from school. Slowly, the people of the town realize that the birds have declared war on them. Soon dark flights sweep down everywhere, pecking the helpless to death—and corpses soon become skeletons. Great winged armies form—crows, hawks, seagulls, ravens, eagles, finches, starlings. The birds swoop down chimneys, chip through windows, even doors, whipping every corner with angry wings. There is nowhere to hide. No one is safe.

No one except Alfred Hitchcock, the birds’ strategist and director. “It makes me tired just watching them,” he says, surveying the work of the millions of birds he has cast in his new horror movie, The Birds. “Thank goodness I’m only paying them bird seed.”

Flying Actors. Hitchcock’s fantasy—loosely based on a chilling novella by Daphne du Maurier—promises to be up to his exacting standards of blood and gore, and to accomplish its frightening turns he has plunged his own “teevee money” into the elaborately detailed production. He had 700 birds trapped and trained, and spent meticulous hours coaxing them to become flying actors.

For a scene in which a band of schoolchildren is attacked, trained birds are used to fly menacingly close to the running children; mechanical birds, who peck at innocent napes, have been stitched to coat collars. Then four different strips of film are superimposed and cut into each other, drawing migratory flights photographed far away into the attack. Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock’s new “classic beauty” discovery, is attacked by coveys of birds and desperately bats them off with a flashlight; to shoot the minute-long sequence, six days were required—with a dozen trained birds attacking, plenty of stuffed birds for Tippi to swat; the final illusion shows 500 birds swarming over her.

“Birds make excellent heavies,” Hitchcock says glowingly. “After all, they’ve been put in cages, shot at, and shoved into ovens for centuries. It’s only natural they should fight back. Many people are terrified of them. Once the picture is released, it may do wonders for cat sales and the scarecrow market.”

Closed Set. “I’m amazed at the reasoning power of the crow,” says Bird Trainer Ray Berwick, a raven perched on the top of his head. “Crows are the chimpanzees of birds. The hardest to train and catch are the hawks and eagles. You could teach them to hunt and kill, but they know it already. But you can’t teach them any tricks.” The seagulls have turned out to be the most fierce; Berwick and an assistant have been badly pecked. Berwick has taught the gulls to fly at an actor’s head, clobber him with a wing, and circle back for another pass (or a retake). But his favorite is a crow named Nosey, which he has trained to fetch his car keys, bring the morning paper, even put a cigarette in his mouth and light it for him. Berwick can start Nosey half a block away from the camera and get him to fly right into the lens.

Much of the film was shot on location at Bodega Bay, a Pacific-front hamlet 60 miles north of San Francisco. In Hollywood now, the company works within a polyethylene bag that completely surrounds the set, preventing the birds from flying into light banks and catwalks. Grips entice the birds back and forth across the set with food; air jets on the cameras are used to coax the birds away from the lens, and other blasts of air are used to set them flapping about wildly on cue. Humane Society observers hover around to make sure “the birds don’t get too tired.” The gory scenes, of course, hold the greatest fascination for Hitchcock. In some scenes, actors smear their hands with hamburger, put their hands over their eyes and timidly wait for the birds to peck at them. “There will be some fine scenes of birds pecking people’s eyes out,” Hitchcock says with relish. “I can see it now —squeezed grapes hanging down the cheeks.”

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