Birds, The (1963): Hitchcock’s Last Masterpiece, Tale of Insiders and Outsiders

The narrative of “The Birds” (1963), arguably Hitchcock’s last masterpiece, follows closely the three dramatic unities of place, time, and action.

Unfolding over the course of three days–a weekend, with the exception of the opening sequence in San Francisco, the story largely takes place at the small town of Bodega Bay, California.

Structurally, the text consists of three parts.

The first begins in a pet shop in San Francisco and continues up to the heroine’s arrival in town. The second describes the attack of the birds on the town and the various reactions of its residents. And the third shows the attack of the birds on the Brenner household and their departure from town. The second and third are almost equal in time; the first is shorter. In each of these parts, different ideas are stressed and different aspects of the protagonists are revealed.

It is significant that the action begins in the Big City, San Francisco, when Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a rich socialite, sleekly groomed and exquisitely dressed, meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a young handsome lawyer, at a birds store. Pretending to work there, Melanie walks with the quick sureness of a city dweller. There’s 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, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Mitch projects his image of the ideal woman in his description of the birds he would like to buy for Cathy: “Not too demonstrative, but not aloof either, a pair that is just ‘friendly.'”

It turns out that Mitch and Melanie had 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.” Presumably loose in morals and lacking in focus, Melanie needs to be restrained. Their first encounter is marked by double entendres that are later developed.

Melanie decides to deliver the love birds incognito to Mitch’s house in Bodega Bay, a small, attractive town, surrounded by water and green land. It’s not a famous town, since Melanie, for one, 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 their hair in curlers.

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. 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 thinks the little girl’s name is Alice, and another believes it is Lois–her name is Cathy. There is no longer intimacy, if knowledge of people’s names is any indication, as was the case in small town films (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in 1956) of previous decades. Which is one reason why the mail never gets delivered to the right address.

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

Two images feature prominently in “The Birds,” both imbued with symbolic meanings: The cage and the glass.

The cage is a consistent metaphor throughout the film. Early on, in the birds’ store, Melanie opens a cage and a bird flies out. Mitch catches the bird, and after putting it back in the cage, he says, “Back to your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” Melanie’s careless lifestyle, her complacency have insulated her from “real” life; she has been in her own insular cage.

The second recurrent image, the glass, suggests the fragility of the social order and, by extension, 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. A similar scene, with similar meaning, appears in “All That Heaven Allows,” when Jane Wyman breaks a vase of flowers.

The popular narrative paradigm of the outsider is used to great advantage in “The Birds.”  But there are different types of outsiders, and different degrees of being outside/inside.

Melanie begins as a complete outsider, and her arrival in town (similar to the arrival of Hal, played by William Hoden, in “Picnic”) changes dramatically the lives of its inhabitants. But in the course of the story, Melanie gradually becomes an insider, a process that begins with Mitch’s mother warming up to her.

Another outsider, though in a different way, is Annie, the schoolteacher. Despite the fact that Annie resides in Bodega Bay, she is both alone and lonely and does not really belong to any group.  Annie is bitter and 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, Annie is a woman who’s willing to compromise. “I’m an open book,” Annie says, but then contradicts herself, “or rather a closed one.” Annie is actually both an open and a closed book. She’s a committed teacher, a bit idealistic. In San Francisco, she was bored 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 out of the classroom. Indeed, later in the story, Annie loses her life while protecting Cathy from the birds. Annie is not the stereotypical schoolteacher, a character that’s a permanent staple of small town films. But she had to die, because her very presence is a reminder of, if not a threat to, Mitch’s problem of being committed to one woman. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in his long interview-book that Annie’s character was “doomed from the beginning,” reflecting perhaps the bias against single women in Hollywood films and American culture in general.

Through Annie, we get the most revealing commentary about Bodega Bay as a 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, by way of explaining why 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.”

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 residents of the town, 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.

As in other outsiders’ tales, an external threat or a severe menace, like the birds (or in sci-fi films, aliens), are capable of bringing out the best in people (the Brenners) and of overcoming class and other barriers, such as the initial animosity between Lydia and Melanie. Under specific conditions, outsiders such as Melanie tend to change. They can turn into insiders in their commitment and courage.

In the tradition of small-town features, 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,” when she was eleven. Mitch believes that Melanie “needs a mother care,” and at the end, Melanie does get such care from Lydia, who helps to band aid her. The film’s very last image shows a bruised and freightened Melanie, a survivor of a vicious birds attack, in the arms of Lydia. Will Lydia try to control her

There is nothing rural 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. Lydia appears to be a possessive, 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 obviously lacks her husband’s natural gift with children. As she admits, “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 frailty and vulnerability are conveyed by her shaking, when she holds the teacup and glasses. A lonely woman, her dependency on her husband was too heavy. “If only your father was here!” an hysterical Lydia yells at Mitch 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 that “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, a newspaper owner. “She’s always mentioned in the columns,” says Lydia, recalling a story that related in details how Melanie jumped into that Fountain in Rome in the nude. Melanie denies that, claiming she was pushed. The reason why the scandal was mentioned at all was that “the newspaper that ran the story happened to be a rival of my father’s paper.”

For his part, Mitch accuses Melanie of “running with a pretty wild crowd, who didn’t much care for propriety or convention or the opinion of others.” She has no roots, no bonds to commit her to a career or meaningful life. Melanie says 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 still entertains childish ideas, like buying her 70-year-old aunt a myna bird that’ll talk to her. At the same time, Melanie would be the first to admit that, “It’s silly and childish teaching a bird to shock my aunt.” When she says at one point, “I ought to go join the other children,” she may mean it literally.

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, Melanie is immature and childish underneath who needs to grow up. The changes in Melanie’s looks as the story progresses signify a process maturation, of awaking up. Note Melanie’s perfect and meticulous appearance in the first scene and her appearance in the last one, bruised, with her forehead covered with bandages.

Initially, Hitchcock considered a more frightening and ambiguous closure. The Brenners arrive in San Francisco, only to realize that the birds have taken over the Golden Gate Bridge! But in the final cut, Mitch says in what’s the film’s last sentence, “It looks clear up ahead,” indicating hopefulness. 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. By leaving town, they literally become outsiders.

*If you want to read more about these issues, please consult my book, Small-Town America in Film.