Birds, The: Hitchcock’s Tale Concerns Social Reactions to Disaster

The second masterpiece that Hitchcock contributed to the body of small-town movies (the first was “Shadow of a Doubt,” in 1943) was “The Birds” (1963), a film that’s still underestimated for its brilliant structure, richness of ideas, stylistic virtuosity, and technical execution by standards of its time.

“The Birds” combines thematic conventions and stylistic devices of various genres. On one level, it is an extremely suspenseful film, but it also has elements of science-fiction (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and its remakes) and horror-action (“Alien” and its sequels) 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, that eventually 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.

The narrative follows closely the three unities of place, time, and action. Unfolding over a period of three days, most of the story takes place at Bodega Bay, California. The text consists of three parts. The first, which begins in a pet shop in San Francisco and continues up to the heroine’s arrival in town, is a typical Hitchcock romantic comedy of manners (in the tradition of British theater). The second segment describes the attack of the birds on the town and the various reactions of its residents. The third part 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 much shorter. In each of these parts, different ideas are stressed and different aspects of the protagonists are revealed.

The town’s locals hang out at “The Tides,” a small restaurant, where women hang in their housedresses and curlers, and the TV set is always showing old Western films. The other crucial information about the town and its residents is revealed in the film’s middle section of the film, during which the birds attack sacred (the school) and strategic (the gas station) institutions.

The various reactions to the birds’ attack reflect different perspectives of–and solutions to–the problem. The older ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy, who’s dressed bizarrely, holds 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. Obviously, Mrs. Bundy possesses some knowledge about birds, for she corrects Melanie about the kinds of birds that had attacked, and provides statistics about their numbers.

The other extreme view is held by Jason, an unshaven, shabby-looking drunk, 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.” Jason’s opinion is so radical that no one takes him seriously.

The third position is voiced by a well dressed man who appears to be a traveling salesman. His is the most extreme for it propagates the use of physical force. Most birds are scavengers, he claims, “If you ask me, we should wipe them all out. The world would be better off without them. All they do is make a mess of everything. Who needs them” Hitchcock makes sure that he’s later punished with a violent death himself, when his car explodes in flames next to the gas station.

But there are other, more moderate, opinions. Al Malone, the plain deputy sheriff, represents the legal authority’s approach, based on commonsensical knowledge and experience. As a cop, Malone’s job was to give out speeding tickets and warn drunks. Based on his 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.”

However, Malone and the Santa Rosa police are not trustworthy. The police hold that the murder of the farmer Dan was a felony by a burglar who broke in. When Mitch suggests fabricating fog with smoke, based on Mrs. Bundy’ claim that seagulls get lost in a fog, all Malone can do is to cite the regulations: “There’s an order against burning anything in this town.”

Then there’s a hysterical woman, in the diner, 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, she represents the type of dangerous individuals who spread vicious rumors that tend to ignite the masses’ worst instincts. Losing her temper, too, Melanie slaps her hard across the face. Lydia, Mitch’s mother, also bursts into hysterics when she realizes that the house is surrounded with birds.

At first, Mitch and Melanie apply their seemingly rational faculties to the birds’ attack. However, they gradually realize, like the viewers, that some issues defy logical analysis. “It’s an uprising of birds,” Melanie says at one point, “birds of the world unite. Why should humans rule the birds ask themselves”

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.

The ideological message of The Birds, as Donald Spoto has pointed out, is similar to that of Shadow of a Doubt, it’s about 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 out. Similarly, in “Shadow of a Doubt,” the detective says, “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 setting can turn into the most horrible and violent one. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” Hitchcock uses black smoke to signal the arrival of the villain. In “The Birds,” he 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.

Unlike other films, Hitchcock does not use the birds’ attack as a form of punishment against those who “deserve” it: violators or transgressors of norms. The birds assault everyone–even innocent children are not spared. Dan, the farmer, is attacked at his farm; Melanie on the boat, Cathy at her birthday party. The birds show no discrimination, signaling that chaos could erupt and is potentially everywhere.

Innocent children, complacent adults like Melanie, hard-working teachers like Annie, and farmers like Dan, all become victims of irrational forces. The birds attack the most ordinary institution (school), but also the most sacred of occasions, Cathy’s birthday party. Gradually, the Brenners become imprisoned in their own house. The house, ordinarily a symbol of shelter and protection, becomes the birds’ ultimate target. The traditional meaning of other symbols is shattered and/or reversed. Indeed, eyeglasses, meant to provide better vision and greater clarity, get smashed during the attack.

A lot has been written about the resolution of “The Birds.” 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 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.

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