Today we’ll examine the last Hitchcock masterpiece, and begin our discussion of his slow denouement. Though often criticized for their unevenness (especially after the phenomenal run of films which preceded them) these later works remain fascinating for various reasons (as you shall see soon enough). In most cases, any other director would have been considered a genius for crafting what, in the context of Hitch’s singular career, look like duds.
“I believe people are too complacent. People like Melanie Daniels tend to behave without any kind of responsibility, and to ignore the more serious aspects of life. Such people are unaware of the catastrophe that surrounds us all.”—Alfred Hitchcock
The Birds begins along the lines of a romantic comedy: The lovely and expensively dressed Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) walks along a San Francisco street when a man whistles at her. She turns at the sound to acknowledge the offender, wide-eyed and cocking her head to one side, then smiles before proceeding to a bird shop. There Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) mistakes her for the shopkeeper and Melanie plays along “helping” him find lovebirds for his sister’s birthday. Of course, she knows nothing about birds and when she accidentally lets a canary loose in the store, it is Mitch who captures and returns it to its proper place saying, “Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” He has been playing her as much as she had him, knowing her by her reputation in the society pages (and court system) as something of a trouble-making socialite. Turnabout being fair play, Melanie purchases the lovebirds after Mitch leaves and eventually drives out to the home he shares with his mother and sister in Bodega Bay, sixty miles away. It’s a long way to go to flirt with someone she just met, but such is the preposterous set up of a romantic comedy. Of course, only Melanie believes she is participating in such a benign joke. All this silliness belies the tension of the viewer who knows quite well that Hitchcock’s follow up to Psycho is no comedy.
The coy tone is quite suddenly disrupted when Melanie, so entirely out of place crossing the bay in a tiny boat dressed in her designer suit, heels and fur coat, is struck on the head by a swooping gull. There is a sense of humiliation in this moment, the sort that makes the viewer cringe and want to look politely away so Melanie, only a moment ago triumphant, now bewildered, disheveled and bleeding, can collect herself. It also furthers the connection with Mitch, but along more traditional lines: she is now the damsel in distress and he the hero.
Melanie’s stay in Bodega Bay extends from the intended few hours through the weekend, during which time Melanie’s relationship with Mitch progresses, as does her relationship with Mitch’s possessive mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his former girlfriend, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleschette), who lives in the town to be close to Mitch, despite their failed romance. Both women initially see Melanie as a threat, but as the bird attacks increase in scale and frequency throughout the weekend, the tension between the women dissolves and the focus sharpens on the birds: why are they attacking?
At every turn, Hitchcock refuses to meet viewer expectations, beginning with the derailed romantic comedy storyline, obviously, but also in our understanding of the characters. For example, Annie openly dismisses any Oedipal reading of the Mitch/Lydia relationship: “With all due respect to Oedipus, she’s not afraid of losing Mitch; she’s afraid of being abandoned.” As if to solidify this, we get a longish speech from Lydia about how much she misses her husband (and no mention of Mitch except as one of “the children”) after her trauma of discovering Dan Faucett’s mutilated body (his eyes have been pecked out, significantly). Of course, these speeches hardly preclude a psychoanalytic reading of the film and much has been written from this position about Melanie. Regardless of what sort of threat Melanie represents, the end result is the same, bringing her, quite violently, into submission under Mitch’s authority.
But the most obvious question of the The Birds—why are they attacking?—goes unanswered. Every theory is quashed almost as soon as it is put forward. Did Melanie’s presence in Bodega Bay bring this on? Is it the natural punishing Melanie’s “unnatural” representation of womanhood? This leaves out the innocent school children or even Dan Faucett, who is completely unknown in the film, and so is any supposed “crime.” Perhaps then the attacks are just nature rebelling against man and civilization, the wild reclaiming the domesticated landscape. This theory, too, seems to come undone in that the birds themselves are behaving unnaturally, not just in killing people, but in their interspecies flocking and “planned” attacks. Is it “the end of the world,” as the town drunk in The Tides restaurant keeps proclaiming? He is presented almost as comic relief to counter the mounting hysteria inside the cafe and is thoroughly dismissed by everyone within earshot.
And yet, this apocalyptic aside has some credibility, at least as a belief, if not a fact, when considered in light of two external circumstances. First, screenplay writer Evan Hunter’s memoirs and Hitchcock’s quote (above) about complacency. The drunk’s “end of the world” business is dismissed out of hand mainly because he said it. One has the sense he is a fixture in the cafe and from the reaction of the other patrons and the staff, they are accustomed to his ramblings and, likewise, to ignoring them. Supposing the drunk is right (it would hardly be the only point in this film that requires a suspension of disbelief), then the others are the most guilty of the complacency Hitchcock decries and are “unaware of the catastrophe that surrounds” them.
Second, when one considers the film in the Cold War context in which it was produced, the testing of nuclear missiles (referred to as “birds”) in the 1960’s and fear of a nuclear war, then an apocalyptic message is not far-fetched. Annie’s response to the birds accumulating in the schoolyard, lining them up to walk out in orderly rows, becomes reminiscent of air-raid drills; the hysterical mother in the cafe screams that everyone should go home and lock their doors and windows; Mitch makes sure the door is locked before the final attack on the house. All these are exercises in futility, pointless precautions that offer no protection from the birds. All this allows us to read The Birds as, in the words of one critic, “a cultural script of fear”.
It is this cultural fear in The Birds that resonates in a post-9/11 world. It certainly could be argued that an American/Western complacency was ruptured with that event and the ensuing chaos. The fear of an external and presumably undecipherable Other resulted in a range of reactions familiar in the patrons of the cafe: hide, analyze, dismiss, annihilate the enemy, proclaim the apocalypse. Again, this last one seems extreme. But then again, it was for us as it was for the townspeople of Bodega Bay: the end of the world as we know it.
Renée Scolaro Mora