Birds: Hitchcock’s Last Masterpiece: Part Two

50 Years Ago

Part Two
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, her dependency on her husband was too heavy. “If only your father was here!” says the hysterical Lydai 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.”