Drink and a Movie: The Birds

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

First things first: most movies are better accompanied by a drink.

I don’t mean they’re all bad and you’ve got to drown your sorrows, though I sure would have liked Jurassic World more with a frosty pint in hand. It’s just that I find sipping often aids reflection, and besides, watching a movie at any time is a cause for celebration. You’ve got the leisure to watch and a whole world of cinema to explore. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate?

Plus, movies and drinks have a lot in common. Great drinks set a mood. So do great movies. Every cinephile remembers the first time a movie blew their mind apart, and everyone remembers the first truly great drink that showed them there’s more to life than Bud Light and Jager bombs.

So in the spirit of celebrating the movies, alongside the atmospheric (and sometimes medicinal) properties of a dram or a highball, in Drink and a Movie I’ll pair the two, aiming for both fittingness and an element of surprise.

Are you in? Good. Let’s begin.

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When I was a kid, Mom told me about a movie she watched when she was young. “There were tons of birds,” she said. “And they flew into a town and killed everybody, and I had nightmares for a year.” I don’t remember why she told me this; probably we’d just seen a flock of crows settle on the lawn, or something similar. But that vision—of a flock of birds killing everyone—nestled its way into a corner of my imagination, and so even when I got older and watched Psycho and Vertigo and Rear Window and North by Northwest, I skipped The Birds. Too terrifying.

Now I am 31, so I gamely gathered my courage and watched The Birds, finally. I still think Vertigo is much scarier, but in the days since I watched it, The Birds has continued to sit in the back of my mind or, I guess, roost back there. (I’m sorry.)

Part of what’s so startling about the movie is it starts out as a different film—a slightly mysterious flirtation, a movie in which you suspect the problem here is Melanie (Tippi Hedren), who is cheeky and adventurous but also thinks little of hopping in the car to deliver a practical joke to a stranger a long drive from San Francisco. Or maybe the real trouble is Mitch (Rod Taylor), who might have stalked Melanie around town after seeing her in court. Could also be the schoolteacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), who rents out a room in her home and looks at Melanie askance for her association with Mitch. Or there’s always creepy Mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy)—creepy mothers being one of Hitchcock’s recurring characters.

All these characters are there, but the center of the plot seems hollow for a long while. Okay, so Melanie drives up to Bodega Bay, but she seems nice enough. Mitch doesn’t appear to have any bodies buried in the backyard. Annie turns friendly after a while. Lydia makes dinner for everyone and is honest with Melanie and good to her children.

And so, if all you know is that eventually birds are going to land and bad stuff will go down, then you might not be paying attention at the moment where the movie shifts from small-town drama to Greek-style myth. It creeps up on you, not unlike the flocks themselves.

The moment, I think, is in the diner, when the cast of characters and a veritable chorus of town characters gather to discuss what’s happening, complete with Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist, who grimly suggests it’s barely worth resisting, and (my personal favorite) the drunken Irishman quoting Scripture in the corner and intoning the end of the world.

And the end of the world, it seems to be. It starts as a whisper but grows to a bang. Smoke seems to attract the birds, from the tiny fires at the end of people’s cigarettes and the larger smoke blown up a chimney by a housefire, climaxing in the wide shot of the town on fire, burning after petrol leaks onto the pavement. These birds are looking for fire—or hell, I suppose—and they know how to find it. They silently and then aggressively colonize, pausing only for collective breaks that confuse everyone and throw them off their game—first the jungle gym, then the town center, then the house itself where our heroes have gathered (minus poor Annie).

What seems obvious by the end is the film’s resemblance to Night of the Living Dead, which came out five years afterward, in 1968. The latter film has birds, not zombies, but everyone’s still trapped in a house trying to get out. Critics at Dead's release argued about what exactly the film was critiquing, but watching it today it’s hard not to read it as at least a metaphor for the Cold War; the same seemed awfully true as I watched The Birds—which in turn is based on the 1952 Daphne du Maurier story, itself a parable of the Cold War.

In pop culture today, we’re finally mythologizing and retelling the history of the Cold War—there’s Bridge of Spies and The Americans, for starters—so maybe it’s time to revisit The Birds and hear what Melanie and Mitch and a flock of crows are trying to say. In the meantime, though, you might get freaked out.

And so, I recommend the following cocktail to ease the panic just a bit. It’s a twist on the old Blood and Sand, for obvious reasons, but this one is called the Bodega Bay. Cherries, a favorite of birds, grow on trees and make a good liquor, plus they’re tart like a reception a stranger might get in town. Vermouth is fortified wine, and it’s generally flavored with botanicals—roots, barks, flowers, other things favored by birds, especially ones who are invading your space. Oranges for California, of course. And smoky scotch for the hellfire (you can go with most any scotch, but if you want to have the full apocalypse in your glass, I recommend Laphroiag).

To make, it’s pretty easy: for one serving, mix a half jigger each (.75 oz) of cherry liquor (most people recommend Cherry Heering), sweet vermouth, orange juice, and scotch. Put it in a shaker filled with ice, shake it around, and strain it into a cocktail glass. Or if you’re holed up hiding out from a silent and deadly outside force, too nervous to make much noise, just mix everything together in a glass and add a few ice cubes, then take them back out in a moment (or don’t, if you’re staring fearfully at the boarded-up windows).

Normally you’d garnish a Blood and Sand with a little bit of orange peel, but this is a Bodega Bay, and it’s getting a little crazy out. So sprinkle just a dash of black pepper on top—like a small, manageable flock—and drink it down, conquering your fears and staving off danger. For now.


Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington PostThe AtlanticThe Los Angeles Review of BooksPacific StandardMovie MezzanineBooks & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans in the spring.