Storyboarding terror: Hitchcock’s The Birds turns 50

It’s 50 years since Hitchcock’s The Birds first flew into the world and revolutionised on-screen horror. These storyboards reveal the intricate planning for the classic schoolhouse attack sequence.

Samuel Wigley
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Fifty years and a day ago, birds were still those benign winged creatures you might happily have left nuts out for in the garden or tossed breadcrumbs to in the park. But on 28 March 1963, all that changed forever. Fresh from making the domestic safety of the shower a thing of abject terror in his 1960 chiller Psycho, the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock turned his attention to nature and the skies, imagining what would happen if our feathered friends flocked against us.

Adapting Daphne du Maurier’s short story ‘The Birds’, Hitchcock moved the action from windswept Cornwall to the distinctly Cornwall-like coast of northern California. The setting for Hitchcock’s avian apocalypse is the quiet little town of Bodega Bay, where San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) has followed Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), flirtatiously gifting him with a pair of lovebirds. Then, on leaving town, she is attacked by a seagull, the first of a series of escalating strikes from the air, as a one-sided war begins between man and bird.

By this point as well-known as a consummate showman as a master filmmaker, Hitchcock was coming off an extraordinary run of films which few have equalled for their originality and influence. Though many of these would take years before finding full appreciation, Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960) by now need little introduction as some of cinema’s richest pleasures.

The Birds was a conscious attempt by Hitchcock to one-up the sensational shocks of Psycho. With its soundtrack of eerie electronic bird noises (by composer Bernard Herrmann) and its chillingly effective special effects, it was at once avant garde and remorselessly inclusive in its appeal to our collective nightmares.

Opening on that early spring night at RKO Palace in New York, Hitchcock’s latest masterpiece shared the muted, even negative, critical reception that had greeted Vertigo and Psycho, with Newsweek, Time and The New Yorker all quick to write the film off as a potboiler. Given the film’s largish budget, it was not even deemed much of a commercial success – especially in comparison to the box office bonanza of the micro-budgeted Psycho.

But just as Psycho bequeathed us the modern slasher film, The Birds was an undoubted milestone in the cinema of apocalypse, its legacy clear in vast strains of horror and science fiction cinema since, from Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Jaws (1975) and beyond.

To celebrate this very special anniversary, we present these storyboards (courtesy of the artist, Harold Michelson, and Universal) for the classic sequence in which Melanie Daniels sits outside the Bodega Bay schoolhouse, pensively smoking a cigarette but oblivious to the crows which slowly amass on a climbing frame behind her.

The sequence is Hitchcock at his best, as each cut back to the climbing frame reveals ever more winged threats perching on its metal bars. A terrifying onslaught – timed for the schoolchildren leaving the school in their unsuspecting droves – is just moments away.

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