Birds, The: Hitchcock’s Last Masterpiece–Part Three

Part Two

The Dutch scholar Thomas Elsaesser has written: “Not only every generation, but every critic appropriates his or her own Alfred Hitchcock, fashioned in the mirror of the pleasures, or uncanny moments, one derives from his films. And so, I choose “The Birds,” which he made in 1963, as one of my three or four favorite Hitchcock movies. The maestro has made at least 20 great films, by the way.

It’s the second masterpiece that Hitchcock contributed to the genre of small-town America—the first is “Shadow of a Doubt,” in 1943. “The Birds” is still underestimated for its brilliant narrative structure, formal control, and technical execution. The film represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistic powers, again demonstrating the strong influence of Murnau (camera movement) and Eisenstein (montage) on his entire work.

I don’t accept the claim that “The Birds” is flawed because the two stories, the light comedy of manners and the terror tale, don’t gel or weld together, because in my view they do. Nor do I accept the charge that the link between the characters’ love story and the birds’’ attack is not very strong. Au contraire: The birds, and their aggression help to clarify the distinctive personalities of the characters, and to bring their relationships into focus. By and large, the birds’ attacks bring out the best in the film’s persona (More about it later). But even the detractors would have to acknowledge that the stature of “The Birds,” which is rich in ideas as well as stylistic virtuosity, grows with each viewing.

“The Birds” served as opening night of the prestigious 1963 Cannes Film Festival, and it coincided with a Hitchcock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York, in 1963, organized by Peter Bogdanovitch before he became a director. And so, this is a tribute to one of the greatest films made fifty years ago

When “The Birds” opened in France, the critic Jean Andre Fiesci noted that it was the first Hitchcock film “where the tension isn’t aimed at solving a mystery, but at elaborating and developing it. But in his next picture, “Marnie,” Hitchcock returned to solving a mystery in a more conventional psychological way.

The narrative follows closely the three unities of place, time, and action. Unfolding over a period of three days—a weekend–most of the story takes place at Bodega Bay, California. Structurally, the plot consists of three parts. The first, beginning in a pet shop in San Francisco and up to the heroine’s arrival in town, is a typical Hitchcock romantic comedy of manners (in the tradition of British theater).

The second part describes the attacks of the birds on the town and the varied reaction of the members to the attacks. And the third part shows the attack of the birds on the Brenner household , ending in their departure from town.
The second and third segments are equal in screen time. More significantly, in each of these parts, different ideas are stressed and different aspects of the protagonists are revealed.

The action begins in the Big City, San Francisco, when Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a rich socialite, sleekly groomed and exquisitely dressed, meets at a birds store Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a young handsome lawyer.
Pretending that she works there, Melanie walks with the quick sureness of the city dweller, a mischievous grin on her face and a sense of purposefulness in her stride. Mitch is there to get lovebirds for the birthday of his much younger sister. He projects the image of his ideal woman by describing the birds he would like to buy for his sister: “not too demonstrative, but not aloof either, a pair that is just ‘friendly.'”

It turns out they have met in court, when one of her practical jokes resulted in “the smashing of a plate glass window.” Committed to “the law,” Mitch is not “too keen on practical jokes.” Mitch puts Melanie in her place so that she can see “what it felt like to be on the other end of a gag.”

A loose woman with no focus in her life, Melanie needs to be restrained. Their first encounter, set in a pet store, is marked by double entendres that are later developed.

Melanie decides to deliver the birds incognito to Mitch’s house in Bodega Bay, a small, attractive town, surrounded by water and green land. But it’s not a famous town–Melanie has never heard of it before.

On Saturday morning, the town is booming with inhabitants: fishermen are crossing the road, old ladies carry shopping begs, women are seen with hair in curlers. The Brenner family is not well integrated in town: Geographically isolated, their house is on the other side of the bay. The residents don’t even know their names. The town’s postal clerk is sure the little girl’s name is Alice (another man believes it is Lois), but her name is Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). There is no longer intimacy and knowledge of people’s names, as was the case in small towns (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) of previous decades. Which is one reason why the mail never gets delivered to the right place. The Brenners belong to the upper middle class.

Mitch is a successful (criminal) lawyer in San Francisco, but he spends his weekends in town, which makes him an insider-outsider. We are led to believe that he has previously brought his urban girlfriends to Bodega Bay, but his mother did not like any of them.

Annie Haywroth (Susanne Pleshette), the town’s schoolteacher and Mitch’s old flame, is also an outsider. She first visited Bodega Bay when Mitch invited her for a weekend. But because of his attachment to his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and her demands on him (but also lack of passion and commitment on his part), their relationship dissolved. Still in love with him, Annie decided to live there permanently, long after their relationship ended, because she did not want to give up his friendship.

Annie is bitter, disillusioned about the prospect of living a fulfilling life in Bodega Bay, which explains her ambivalence toward Melanie’s growing involvement with Mitch. “I guess that’s where everyone meets Mitch,” she says, upon learning that they had met in San Francisco. On the verge of entering middle-age, she is a woman who is willing to compromise. “I’m an open book,” Annie says, but then contradicts herself, “or rather a closed one.” Annie is actually both open and closed book. She’s a committed teacher, a bit idealistic. One reason she left San Francisco was boredom with her job, teaching at a private school “little girls in brown beanies.” By contrast, the kids at Bodega Bay are thirsty for knowledge. “I haven’t got very much, but I’ll give them every ounce of it,” says Annie, “It makes me want to stay alive for a long long time.”

Annie is responsible to maintaining order, in and outside the classroom. Annie loses her life while protecting Cathy from the birds. Overall, Annie is not the stereotypical schoolteacher–a permanent staple of small town films. But she had to die, because her very presence is a reminder, if not threat, to Mitch’s problem of being single-mindedly committed to one woman. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in his long interview-book that her character was “doomed from the beginning.”

Annie provides the most interesting comments about the town. She’s first introduced working on her garden; her hair deranged, she is wearing earth-stained gloves. Next to her, Melanie looks completely out of place. “This tilling of the soil can become compulsive?” she tells Melanie, explaining she had no time to smoke. “It’s a pretty garden,” remarks Melanie. “It’s something to do in your spare time,” says Annie, “there’s a lot of spare time in Bodega Bay.” Annie thinks the town doesn’t offer much to the casual visitor, “Unless you’re thrilled by a collection of shacks on a hillside. It takes a while to get used to.”

The town’s local hangout is “The Tides,” a small neighborhood restaurant, where women hang in their housedresses and curlers, and the TV set always seems to show an old Western film.

The other crucial information about the town and its residents is revealed in the middle section of the text, during which the birds attack sacred (the school) and strategic (the gas station) institutions. The various reactions to the birds’ attack indicate different perspectives–and solutions–to dealing with the problem.

One view, held by the ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy, an old, butchy woman, dressed bizarrely, is that: “Birds are not aggressive creatures. They bring beauty into the world. It’s mankind who makes it difficult.” She doesn’t believe birds possess “sufficient intelligence” to do such thing. She obviously has some knowledge about birds, correcting Melanie about the kinds of birds, which attacked, and providing statistics about their numbers.

The other extreme view is held by Jason, a drunk, unshaven, shabby-looking man, a religious fanatic who believes in apocalypse. “It’s the end of the world,” he screams, quoting from the book of Ezekiel: “In all your dwelling places, the cities shall be laid waste.” His opinion is so extreme that nobody takes him seriously.

The third position, voiced by a well-dressed man who appears to be a traveling salesman, is the most extreme, propagating the use of physical force, violence. Most birds are scavengers, he claims, “If you ask me, we should wipe them all out. World would be better off without them. All they do is make a mess of everything. Who needs them?” Hitchcock later makes sure that he himself is punished with a violent death–his car explodes.

But there are other, more moderate, opinions. Al Malone,the deputy sheriff, represents the legal authority’s approach, based on limited commonsensical knowledge and experience. A plain man, he was used to giving out speeding tickets and warning drunks. Of limited intelligence, he asks if they had a light burning, “cause sometimes birds are attracted by light.” “Birds just don’t go around attacking people without no reason.” Malone, and the Santa Rosa police, is not trustworthy. The police hold that the murder of farmer San was a felony, by a burglar who broke in.” When Mitch suggests making fog with smoke, because Mrs. Bundy claims that seagulls get lost in a fog, all Malone can do is cite the regulations: “There’s an ordinance against burning anything in this town.” “Sure is peculiar,” he concludes.

There is also the hysterical woman, a mother of two, who accuses Melanie of being a witch. “You’re evil,” she charges, reasoning that, after all, it all began with Melanie’s arrival in town. Irrational and susceptible (mob behavior) this woman is the type of dangerous individuals who spread vicious rumors and ignite the masses’ worst instincts. Melanie slaps her hard to calm her down. Lydia, Mitch’s mother, also bursts into hysterics when she realizes that the birds have invaded their house.

At first, Mitch and Melanie apply their rational, logical faculties to the birds’ attack. However, they gradually realize–as the viewers do–that some issues defy logical analysis, which is a major message conveyed by the film. “It’s an uprising of birds,” Melanie says, “birds of the world unite.” “Why should humans rule?” the birds ask themselves. ?

Two images feature prominently in “The Birds,” both imbued with symbolic meanings: The cage and the glass.
The cage serves as a consistent metaphor throughout the film. Early on in the birds’ store, Melanie opens a cage and a bird flies out. It’s Mitch who catches the bird and puts it back in the cage, saying, “Back to your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” Melanie’s careless lifestyle and complacency have insulated her from “real” life; she has been in her own insular cage.

The glass suggests the fragility of stability and the social order and the precariousness of human life. At the Brenners’ house, the teacups shake in Lydia’s hands, and she later drops a cup in her kitchen. The broken pieces of the Lydia’s tea-set during the birds’ attack signify the shattering of a protected, sheltered life (see Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” 1955)

The paradigm of the outsider is used most interestingly in “The Birds.” There are various types of outsiders, and different degrees of being outside/or inside. Melanie begins as a complete outsider, and her arrival in town (similar to the arrival of Hal in William Inge’s “Picnic”) changes the lives of its inhabitants. But in the course of the film, she becomes more of an insider, particularly after Mitch’s mother accepts her. Another outsider, though to a much lesser extent, is Annie, the schoolteacher; despite the fact that she resides in Bodega Bay, she is lonely and does not really belong. Born in town, Mitch was an insider, but he no longer resides there; he visits the town only on weekends. Lydia and her daughter Cathy are nominally town’s residents, but they are not well integrated.

As a group, however, the Brenners (which at the end includes Melanie) are insiders fighting for their survival and for maintaining their family’s unity against the birds, the outside attackers. According to one convention of the outsiders’ paradigm, an external threat or a menace, here the birds, are capable of bringing out the best in people (the Brenners) and of overcoming class and other barriers (the initial animosity between Lydia and Melanie). Under specific conditions outsiders, such as Melanie, change, turning out to be insiders in their commitment and courage.

In the tradition of small-town works, one-parent families prevail in “The Birds.” The Brenner family is headed by Lydia, a widow; her husband died four years ago. And Melanie recalls how her mother “ditched us” at the age of eleven. Mitch believes that Melanie “needs a mother care,” and, at the end, she does get such care from Lydia, who helps to band-aid her. The very last image shows Melanie in the arms of Lydia.

There is nothing agrarian or small-town about Lydia; she speaks with the quick tempo of the city dweller. Mitch went through a lot with his mother after his father died, four years ago. Lydia appears to be a possessive and domineering mother, but she is not. More than being afraid of losing her son to another woman, she is afraid of being abandoned. “It’s odd how you depend on someone for strength, and how suddenly all the strength is gone, and you’re alone.” Lydia lacks her husband’s natural gift with children. “He really knew the children–he had the knack of being able to enter into their world, of becoming a part of them.” Lydia understands that Mitch “has always done exactly what he wanted to do,” which for her “it’s the mark of a man,” but “I wouldn’t want to be left alone.” Lydia’s fragility and vulnerability is suggested by the shaking teacup she is holding in her hands. A lonely woman, she was utterly dependent on her husband: “If only your father was here!” says the hysterical Lydia during the attack.

The imagery of the Big City: Cathy believes that most of the people Mitch knows in San Francisco are ‘hoods,” because he spends “half his day in the detention cells at the Hall of Justice. “In a democracy, everyone is entitled to a fair trial,” says her mother. “I know all the democracy jazz,” says Cathy, “they’re still hoods.” Mitch told his sister “San Francisco is just an ant hill at the foot of a bridge,” and that it gets “a little hectic at times.”

A society girl, Melanie’s father is a rich publishing tycoon, owning a newspaper. “She’s always mentioned in the columns,” says Lydia, recalling this story of how she jumped into that Fountain in Rome while in the nude. Melanie denies that, claiming she was pushed. The reason why it was mentioned is that “the newspaper that ran the story happened to be a rival of my father’s paper.” Melanie is accused by Mitch of “running with a pretty wild crowd, who didn’t much care for propriety or convention or the opinion of others.”

Melanie has no roots, no bonds to commit her to a career or meaningful life. She does “different things on different days,” like working for the Travelers Aid at the airport, twice a week, taking lessons here and there. But she has childish ideas, wanting to buy her 70-year-old aunt a myna bird that’ll talk to her. At the same time, she would be the first to admit that it’s “silly and childish teaching a bird to shock my aunt.” Admittedly, as she says, “I ought to go join the other children.”

As in other small-town films, appearances are deceitful. Lydia seems to be possessive and jealous, but she is not. Melanie appears to be self-assured and arrogant, but she is insecure. A sophisticated urban socialite on the surface, she is an immature child underneath, one who needs to grow up, to mature. The asymmetry in Melanie’s looks as the story progresses signifies process maturation, of awaking up. Note Melanie’s perfect and meticulous appearance in the first scene and her appearance in the last one, bruised, her forehead covered with bandages.

The ideological message of “The Birds,” As Donald Spoto points out, is similar to that of “Shadow of a Doubt”: the fragility of our supposedly ordered world. The film views the universe as a place that must always be guarded against imminent disaster; chaos is around the corner, ready to burst in. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Things go crazy from time to time. The world has to be watched very carefully.”

The birds represent the unpredictable and arbitrary element of life, the unacknowledged invisible forces of destruction that cannot be explained or controlled with rational reasoning or commonsense. Hitchcock is intrigued with showing how a peaceful scene or setting can turn into the most horrible and violent. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” the depiction of black smoke signals the arrival of the villain, Uncle Charlie.

In “The Birds,” Hitchcock contrasts Lydia’s arrival into Dan’s farm with her departure, upon discovering his dead body with his eyes missing. Hitchcock put smoke in the truck’s exhaust to make the road dusty, after Lydia discovers the farmer’s body

The birds attack everyone—especially innocent children. Dan, the farmer, is attacked at his farm; Melanie on the boat, Cathy at her birthday party. The birds know no discrimination: chaos could be universal and is potentially everywhere. Unlike other films, Hitchcock does not use the birds’ attack as a form of punishment of those who deserve it most: violators or transgressors of norms. Innocent (children), complacent (Melanie), hard-working teachers and farmers (Annie, Dan) are all victims of irrational forces. The birds attack the most ordinary institution (school), but also most sacred ones (Cathy’s birthday party)

In the film’s last third, the Brenners become imprisoned in their own house. The house, a symbol of shelter and protection, becomes the birds’ target. The traditional meaning of other symbols is shattered and/or reversed. Eye-glasses, a sign of better vision and greater clarity get smashed during the attack.

A lot has been written about the resolution of The Birds. Initially, Hitchcock the ironist considered having a more frightening closure: the Brenners arrive in San Francisco, only to realize that the birds have taken over the Golden Gate Bridge! “It looks clear up ahead,” is Mitch’s last sentence in the film, indicating hopefulness for the future. The last shot shows the car moving fast into the magnificent sunrise over the crest of the hills, while the birds are sitting and waiting. The ending reaffirms the Brenners’ marginal status: leaving town, they become complete outsiders–literally

“The Birds” combines thematic conventions and stylistic devices of various genres. On one level, it is a suspenseful film, but it also has elements of science-fiction (Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in 1956) and horror-action (“Aliens”) films. On another level, it is a melodrama with a number of emotional/romantic triangles: the troubled nuclear family (Lydia, Mitch, and Cathy); the romantic triangle of two women in love with the same man (Mitch, Annie, and Melanie); and the three women, representing three generations, which form meaningful bonds (Lydia, Melanie, and Cathy).

“The Birds” is also a romantic comedy of manner (particularly in the beginning). Hitchcock blends the conventions of these genres masterfully, in a wonderfully paced narrative, making The Birds a great small-town film.

Birds Attacks

If memory serves, there are five attacks in the film. The first and most surprising is the attack of one gull of Melanie, while she is on the boat. The second attack is during Cathy’s birthday party. The third is on the school’s children. The fourth and fifth attacks are interiors. The fourth assault is on the Brenner’s house at night, and the last and scariest one is on Melanie again, while she goes to the attic alone.

But the birds’ assaults lend themselves to many interpretations, including the visual-cinematic. The birds are strikingly photogenic as a subject for movies, and in terms of impact, one shot of a raw of black birds sitting behind Melanie, who is smoking a cigarette and unaware of their being there) is worth many lines of dialogue I

But the lingering question is, why do the birds attack?
According to Robin Wood, the birds may embody “whatever makes human life and human relations precarious.” As such, they are a symbol of evil. Wood, in fact, suggests three possible readings of this presumably inexplicable, irrational act by which the idyllic daily life of a small California town is derailed: cosmological, ecological, and familial. But other scholars, such as Joel McElhaney, have gone further, suggesting that the birds do come from the Big City, San Francisco (when they are first seen by Melanie), and, more significantly, that the birds display a strong predilection for children. The attacking forces have been libidinized from the outset—the first scene is set in a pet store. Could they be read as spilling out of Melanie’s psyche. The message is as ominous as it is overt (“the taming of the shrew”).

Technically, the film is brilliant. “The Birds consists of 1360 shots, including 370 trick shots. The last, torturous scene was compiled from 32 pieces of film. And the absence of a non-diegetic score creates truly ominous effect.

The main theme, as the seminal critic Andrew Sarris had pointed out, is complacency. When we first meet the characters, they are all self-absorbed. Melanie is a bored socialite, Mitch is a self-righteous lawyer, who flaunts his arrogant sensuality, his aggressive sexuality, Annie the former fiancée, wallows in self-pity, Lydia, the mother, is possessive, cringes from fear of abandonment and loneliness. They are a bunch of complex, unsympathetic characters, to the point where the viewers may identify with the birds, that is, inhuman POV (Sarris)

Three people are killed in the course of the attacks: Annie and Dan the farmer by the birds, and one man by explosion at the gas station. Critics and viewers expected more individual to be killed and assaulted.

In the film’s most brutal and disturbing scene, Melanie is irresistibly drawn to the noises she hears upstairs in the bedroom. Unable to get out, she becomes the object of nearly fatal attack. It’s a primal scene with any touches of fatal allure.

The scariest scene is when Lydia drives to visit Dan.
Peering into a room that’s been ravaged by the
birds. She sees a body in a pajama, with its eyes torn out. The camera first shows the entire body, and we expect it to track forward slowly to show in detail the bloody sockets of the missing eyes. But Hitchcock gives an inversion of the expected process. Instead of slowing down, he drastically speeds up, with two abrupt cuts, each bringing us closer to the man. He quickly shows the corpse’s head. Slavoj Zizek has pointed out that the subversive effects of these quickly advancing shots is created by the way in which they frustrate our desire to view the terrifying object more closely. We approach too quickly, skipping over the time for understanding. The pause needed to digest, to integrate the brute perception of the object.

Ending: Ambiguous Closure

“The Birds” manifest the influence of European art cinema of the 1960s in the lack of clear resolution. The anti-climactic ending left audiences frustrated and more bloodthirsty. But the idea of innocence survives: at the end, when Cathy wants to go back to the house to bring her love birds, she says, they haven’t done any harm. We fear and anticipate another attack, but nothing bad happens. The two guiltless and guilded creatures clear the path to the car, as if the rediscovery of innocence were the only hope for a better future world.

Tippi Hedren is appealing but not really pretty or seductive like other Hitchcock’s heroines, such as Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly. She doesn’t offer the kind of visual pleasure. I think William Rothman is right in suggesting that Hedren does not repel, but we don’t sympathize with her, either. Hedren encourages distance, the viewers (and the camera) wish to avoid intimacy with her. The classic reaction shots, when Tippi holds her head in three different directions, in response to the gasoline explosion, are impressive, but they are blunted by her unpleasant face; I can only imagine how they would look if Bergman or Kelly shot these stills.

Universal (Hitchcock Productions)

Cast

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren)
Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor)
Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy)
Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette)
Cathy Brenner (Vernoica Cartwright)
Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies)
Sebastian Sholes (Charles McGraw)
Mrs. Magruder (Ruth McDevitt)
Waitress at Tides (Elizabeth Wilson)

Crew

Released by Universal
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Assistant to Hitchcock: Peggy Robertson
Screenplay: Evan Hunter, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier
Camera: Robert Burks
Special Effects: Lawrence A. Hampton
Special Photographic Advisor: Ub Iwerks
Bird Trainer: Ray Berwick
Set Design: Robert Boyle and George Milo
Sound Consultant: Bernard Herrmann
Electronic Sounds: Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala
Assistant Director: James H. Brown
Credits Sequence: James S. Pollak
Editing: George Tomasini

Oscar Nominations: 1
Special Visual Effects: Ub Iwerks

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:
The winner in that category was “Cleopatra.”