The Birds (1963)
Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films hosts a second blogathon in honour of Alfred Hitchcock and his films, and I am writing, as they say, on his most terrifying film – “The Birds” (1963). The film takes inspiration from a story by Daphne Du Maurier (“Rebecca” (1940)) of the same name, and it is about a strange behaviour of birds in Bodega Bay, California. The centre of the story is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a wealthy socialite who romantically pursues a lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), whom she has just met. While we watch all the romantic tensions and a love triangle developing, the birds in the area start to attack people, and what initially looks like a light and intriguing romance story takes a sinister turn and we are confronted with unimaginable horrors. Complex and technical to film, “The Birds” represents one of Hitchcock’s most admirable accomplishments. Here, an intriguing romance story with thought-provoking elements meets an original take on horror and the result is a classic, “must-see” film.
“The Birds” starts innocently enough. A somewhat opinionated wealthy young woman Melanie Daniels meets a charming young lawyer Mitch Brenner in a pet shop in San Francisco. This is no ordinary Hollywood romance. A bit unusual by the standards of that time, Hedren plays a strong-willed, clever lady who first teases her male counterpart and then actively chases him. Even though Melanie is presented as feminine, enticing and flirty, we also guess that she is not one’s usual blond or spoiled socialite and there is more to her than first meet the eye. As she meets Mitch in the pet shop, she lets him believe that she is a shop-assistant, and advises him on a type of bird to buy for his sister for her birthday. Mitch, who is “all-man” from his jaw line to his “serious” profession, in turn, tries to pinpoint her weaknesses in knowledge. The “battle of wits” between the characters of Hedren and Taylor is fascinating to watch because we sense that, even though both try to outsmart each other, they also feel strong attraction for each other. Even without birds coming into play, “The Birds” has plenty wonderfully constructed scenes with interesting dialogues.
To describe the film as pure fiction will also not be entirely correct since Hitchcock knew about some real news at the time of people being attacked by birds without any explanation. The film progresses forward paying only little attention to the birds’ growing threat. When Melanie visits the pet shop, there are many birds flying in the sky, but nothing at all hints at the disaster that awaits everyone. That is the genius of Hitchcock – to drop small hints and messages to the audience here and there, and they then accumulate to produce an effective overall result. One of the first incidents of the birds’ invasion is when Melanie gets struck by a gull in her small boat as she visits Mitch’s home. She is on the mission to give a secret present of love-birds to Mitch’s young sister Cathy. As is typical of Hitchcock, it is not the words, but the actions that speak the loudest in the film. Rebuffed by Mitch in their first meeting, Melanie takes matters in her own hands and goes to extreme lengths to buy some love-birds for Cathy, find out Mitch’s real name and then to go all the way to Bodega Bay and to his house to “secretly” leave the birds there. Theatricality and the obsession with an observer viewpoint from “Rope” (1948) and “Rear Window” (1954) respectively are also clear in “The Birds”, for example, in the scene where Mitch takes binoculars to look for Melanie as she attempts to make her getaway by boat after leaving the love-birds as a present.
We then uncover deeper layers to Melanie’s character as her relationship with Mitch grows, and the interesting personalities of Mitch’s mother and the local school teacher emerge. Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) who works at the Bodega Bay School takes Melanie in to stay the night with her for a pay and we learn that Hayworth has her own story to tell about Mitch and his family. The classical blond-vs.-brunette battle for a man ensues, only to be overshadowed by the equally compelling presentation of the character of Jessica Tandy, who plays Lydia Brenner, Mitch’s mother. The “Psycho” (1960) influence is felt when Lydia’s overprotective manner towards her son and the fear of loneliness attempt to derail Melanie’s schemes towards Mitch. Despite the slow, unhurried scenes (some scenes could really have been cut or edited), the tensions between the characters and the dialogues scenes are very interesting to watch, for example, as Lydia feels more threatened and intimidated inwardly by the courageous and determined blond who seems to be after her son.
Hitchcock’s ability to present masterfully the most innocent things as potentially dangerous is next to none, for example, the scene where children sing at the school turns a bit unnerving when birds start to gather around the premises. Birds then clearly start to attack people in the film, such as during Cathy’s birthday party or at the school, and it is impossible not to comment here on the technical feat of this movie. Hitchcock achieved the impossible in “The Birds” by the standards of that time, experimenting non-stop. There is an effective fast-editing of key scenes, and paintings were often use to make complicated long shots, but Hitchcock also used the new invention “yellow screen” (the odium vapour process) under the guidance of Disney people for some birds scenes, as well as the precursor of today’s modern electronic music – the electronic sound composition pioneered in Germany.
There are no explanations given why birds attack people in the film, and that caused many theories being put forward. Even in the plot itself, we are invited to think and speculate as the characters in the film at one point gather at a Bodega Bay restaurant and debate whether birds could have the intelligence to mount a systematic attack and whether the end of the world is really coming. Something strange is happening in the story and it seems that nature may be taking back control. Melanie is dressed in green in the film, and Mitch sports dark green trousers, which may hint at their “nature” implications in the film with green being the colour of unusual, as well as the colour of nature. Even the pet shop in the film stands for the image of humans “enslaving” the birds, nature, and now birds have decided to take “revenge”, seeing that humans take delight and their amusement in taking birds as pets. The love-birds bought by Melanie are seen in a cage, subdued and taken under control by humans, and these provide a nice contrast to wild bird-beasts (black ravens) attacking children in the story.
There is also the so-called “Freudian” explanation for the behaviour of birds in the film. According to this explanation, birds are linked to women in the film, in particular, to women around Mitch: Lydia, Annie and Kathy. Another female arrives at the scene – Melanie, who is neither too old (Lydia) nor too young (Cathy), nor even the past (Annie), but all the future possibilities, and the birds (symbolically) in the story try to regain back the control by attacking either Melanie or those around her. The birds are the innate anger and tension directed at the newcomer. In the film, one woman points her finger at Melanie as being the cause of the recent disturbance, and, in fact, the majority of the birds’ attacks in the story happen with Melanie being in close proximity.
It is impossible to finish this review without commenting on the outstanding acting. For Tippi Hedren, this is a debut credited film, and she is quite impressive here, even if not brilliant. The power of Hedren’s performance is in her facial expressions. Seeing that surprise on her face, and then curiosity is a delight to watch, and her chemistry with Taylor is very good, not least because their characters represent two different sides of society: one playful and social, and another more serious and traditional. Jessica Tandy (“Driving Miss Daily” (1989)) as Mitch’s mother is the unparalleled Jessica Tandy, and her key scene when her character discovers one murder allegedly perpetrated by birds is one of the highlights of the movie.
Alfred Hitchcock successfully crafted an unusual romance, an unusual intrigue and an unusual horror story, and the film works wonderfully on all these levels. The film awes even today with its atmosphere, attention to detail, directing and acting. “The Birds” was a film which was extremely challenging technically to film, and, on that basis, its accomplishments are even greater. The weakest part of the film is still its ending which simply leaves one hoping for a continuation and does not come to any meaningful conflict resolution. Even so, whether one looks at the film as an effective and original horror mystery, a strange romance story with a horror background or a thought-provoking piece of art whose Freudian or other meanings must be distilled, all versions are equally compelling. 9/10
The ending is as much talked about feature of “The Birds” as its main premise. The ending of the final film shows Melanie’s car, with Mitch, Melanie, Lydia and Cathy in it, moving away from their house with thousands of birds sitting quietly on all the roads, electric wires, fences, etc. That is a very unfortunate, clearly underdeveloped ending because it neither provides a satisfactory conclusion nor hints at some thought-provoking deeper insight into the picture. Hitchcock toyed with a number of different endings, and the original ending included in the script was never shot, largely for technical reasons and to the surprise of the screenwriter.
Had the original ending filmed, it would have provided for a great, satisfactory conclusion to the story. This is because the original ending showed the true devastation of the town (corpses laying around) and the birds even sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge, cementing the point that the birds might have won in this battle. More importantly, the original ending was written in such a way that it becomes clear that Melanie and Lydia finally truly reconcile. In the ending, Melanie and Lydia console/hug each other in the car, with the clear meaning being that Melanie finally found her true mother in Lydia and Lydia accepted the fact that her son found his true match. Taking into account the Freudian explanation of the story, that clear reconciliation between Melanie and Lydia would have signal the fact that birds will not attack anymore, because Melanie is no longer viewed as an outsider, but as a part of the family and the community.