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Insufferable Human Drama as Catalyst in 'The Birds'

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Tuesday, Jan 18, 2011
Setting off even the most explosive powderkeg of human emotion would not make a flock of birds go insane and start attacking, much less this smoldering controlled burn. But such is the only line of causation the film allows its viewer.

Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds is an extraordinary study in tension. The film involves “nature” as a backdrop, always offering context and counterpoint to the human drama, until set dressing eventually rebels against the story it would usually be meant to frame.


The film opens with a chance meeting between two “modern people” in a San Francisco bird shop. Mitch and Melanie exchange some standard banter, everything very ordinary. If this was a Billy Wilder film, Mitch and Melanie would have continued to meet in the bird shop, she because of her niece’s sick bird (or something), he because, of course, he would deliberately seek her out there. But this is not a Billy Wilder film, and Melanie is a bit more forthright than even the most modern woman of her era. Mitch leaves after their encounter without really thinking or considering her any further, it would seem. Melanie, on the other hand, sets into motion a totally unqualified sequence of events to make her desires, which is to say herself, known to him. This stunt requires her to manipulate quite a few people and finally pull a clever bit of home invasion, all to impress someone she has met only once, whom she nonetheless considers as a potential mate, and yet whose marital status she learns only after her plan to win him has passed the point of no return.
  
Along the way Melanie meets Annie, Mitch’s one time lover and current hanger-on, a woman who reveals that her entire reason for living is to be accessible to Mitch, who still for some reason supplies Melanie with all the information she needs to claim him. Rather than an innocent naïf, Annie is played by Suzanne Pleshette as a worldly hard-luck case, and a school-teaching one. Eventually Melanie weasels her way into Mitch’s life and meets Mitch’s mother, Lydia, played by Jessica Tandy. We learn that Lydia was the reason Annie and Mitch did not marry; Mother cut their romance short so she wouldn’t have to be a lonely widow.


The scene is ripe for Melanie’s influence. One sees from the perspective of each character that no one person is really at fault for the sad state of affairs the precedes her arrival, though together they comprise an intricately woven network of irrational expectation just waiting to be jangled. And jangle them, Melanie does. As much as there is a cause to what ensues, Melanie is it. Of course, setting off even the most explosive powderkeg of human emotion would not make a flock of birds go insane and start attacking, much less this smoldering controlled burn. But such is the only line of causation the film allows its viewer. Melanie is the catalyst in upsetting the natural order, and she becomes the birds’ first victim. Everything had been fine before she got there, a townsperson screams at one point in the confusion. And yet for all its lack of transparent causality, one is almost almost glad when the birds finally attack, so tightly wound and brittle is the human drama that has unfolded below them. As unexplainable as it is, when the birds come, it seems a fitting reaction.


The conflict of realism that ultimately gives way to the more fantastical one, is of “nature” being disallowed to run its course and finally taking action. This sense of overturned order is represented on the one hand by Mother Lydia’s unwillingness to let her son marry the woman of his choosing and to let herself fade into oblivion, generation giving way to generation and all that, on the other hand by Melanie’s forthright, man-chasing modernity. Realism, with its sometimes cruel sensibilities, is overturned quite emphatically by the pastoral frame it would use as a counterpoint, turning bewilderingly into a genre film that would have been just as comfortable—and probably was—in a book of ancient folk tales. A newspaper heiress, Melanie has the money and breeding of 1963’s version of Paris Hilton, though with infinitely more intelligence. This world-conquering combination proves magic enough to set the very laws of nature on edge.


Other townspeople present with more traditional mania in the face of the birds’ menace, though—and it has been said many times—to answer craziness with more craziness doesn’t indicate insanity but humanity. The ordinarily harmless and homespun mores of the townspeople turn dark under the birds’ threat. Melanie’s character, however, develops along a different track to that of the townspeople. She is, after all, a city girl. The only thing clear about Melanie at the film’s outset is that she is a woman with little feeling for anybody. She wants what she wants, and that is all there really is about her. Norman Bates, for instance, seems infinitely more human next to her.  Unlike him, though, she becomes more human throughout the film, until the moment when she is almost flayed to death by a particularly vicious flock and all but makes a full character recovery by falling into a quite appropriate mania. Were the birds demons coming to claim Melanie’s flimsy soul or ministrating angels sent to chastise her engorged ego? Of course, only they know.


Tippi Hedren is at all times a beautiful sight to behold in her portrayal of Melanie, yet she also seems somewhat oppressed by her beauty, hidden in mannerisms. Where an actress like Grace Kelly effortlessly lives on-screen, Hedren is often stilted and awkward. Great film beauties are presented a predicament not unlike that of character actors like Paul Giamatti. They could build entire careers out of being typecast. Yet here, Hedren’s impulse to pose—she had been a model before she became an actress—works well and actually adds to the performative strain of her character.


Hedren is typecast here, yes, and flourishes in her role of a beautiful, though totally insufferable character. Or rather the film flourishes around her, and she just happens to hit the right notes of awkwardness that the film requires. Or does it, and does she? Perhaps the awkwardness is contained, deliberate on her part? One might wonder whether she was intentionally acting awkwardness rather than acting awkwardly. Does the recurrence of what would seem amateurish mistakes give her away, the way she rushes through those simple, menial on-screen tasks, like walking across a room or driving through a countryside? These moments are a staple of Hitchcockian cinema, always figuring profoundly in his construction of scene. Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether the awkwardness of her performance is deliberate or just a happy accident. But this fact doesn’t keep one from wondering about it, either.


Hedren’s performance is like those of bit actors in television crime dramas, where one can never really tell if the acting is bad or if the character is merely lying. Melanie is a liar, yes, but the overlapping of her character’s lies and the actor’s (perhaps) awkward portrayal sometimes happen at unsatisfying moments, create dissonance where one wants a fluidity of form and content; Melanie does not awaken to the awkwardness of her humanity linearly, as should probably be required, but sporadically, more of a scattershot pattern than an arc. But no matter. The performance is good, even for these flaws, and adds to the film. Hedren’s herky-jerky movements and awkward line readings even mirror the birds’ frenetic menace, which we know is always looming just overhead.

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