The Birds (1963)
Written by Daphne du Maurier & Evan Hunter
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The Birds is unlike any Hitchcock film I have ever seen. Three years after shocking audiences with Psycho, a film that is also slightly off from most of the director’s work but still sharing some psychological traits, we get this straight up man versus nature horror film. The first half is very slow, almost a comedy-drama, and every once in a while, we get a hint that something is off. Then the second half hits, and the film slides into total chaos. What we get is what I see as a reasonably angry film that expresses some of Hitchcock’s misanthropy in horrifying and comedically absurd ways.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a San Francisco socialite that meets cute with Mitch Brenner at a pet shop. He is trying to buy lovebirds for his eleven-year-old sister’s birthday, and Melanie has a slightly standoffish moment with him. To make up for the slight tiff, Melanie buys the lovebirds and drives up the coast to deliver them to Mitch at his family home in Bodega Bay. The two flirt back and forth while celebrating young Cathy’s (Veronica Cartwright) birthday festivities while the disapproving matriarch Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) watches on. It’s noted that the birds are behaving oddly, and then all hell breaks loose at Kathy’s birthday party. It becomes clear that these animals seek blood, and humans become caught up in the paranoia of survival and trying to understand why this is happening to them.
There’s a very telling scene near the end of the second act that is the most explicit the picture ever gets. Melanie and other townspeople and visitors to Bodega Bay are hiding in a diner while gulls fly about outside, wreaking havoc. A mother who has been fretting over her children’s safety turns on Melanie, shouting that the other people told her this all started when Melanie showed up in town. She screams at poor Melanie, imploring her to explain who she is, what she is. Melanie being an outsider, is an essential component of the story and this mother is right that the chaos came with her arrival.
Melaine has a foil throughout the picture, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the school teacher. Annie reveals her history with Mitch, a visitor who pursued him to Bodega Bay and was blocked by Lydia. Annie gives up and becomes a schoolmarm, a maid in her prime, because she doesn’t seem to be able to get over Mitch. Melanie doesn’t let the disapproving glare of Lydia inhibit her and toys with Mitch, not quite sure of where she wants to go with the whole thing, long term or just a fling. Mitch is defined by the women around him. He’s Lydia’s son, Cathy’s brother, and Annie’s ex-lover. Mitch is said to be a lawyer, but he doesn’t really do anything related to that or even really help out his family home. Melanie does small jobs but lives off of her father’s wealth. Both of them are most certainly symbols of privilege. Hitchcock has said complacency is a big theme of The Birds, and it’s definitely exemplified through this couple.
The Birds also highlights Hitchcock’s place as a master of cinema with his crosscutting. Throughout the film, we move between Melanie’s face to her point of view as she observes Bodega Bay and, in particular, Lydia. The older woman is mostly wordless throughout the picture, but her reactions tell us everything. Her relationship with Melanie is one of the most complex in the movie. After a quiet tension that certainly orbits Mitch, there’s a stunning moment in the final act where Lydia cradles Melanie like her own child. Something has changed by the last frame of the picture, and we watch the protagonists drive off into a world that they don’t understand anymore. It’s clearly one of the most unsettling movies ever made by Hitchcock.
Hitchcock has also said the picture is about humanity taking nature for granted. This is another reason that makes this such a strange film in his body of work. Hitch doesn’t really touch on the environment in his career, and I wonder how far he wants the audience to go down that rabbit hole. Many of the bird attacks can be viewed as comedic or horrific, depending on your personal perspective. I found myself laughing but sometimes in total shock at how far the director went with the horror elements. We see schoolchildren getting pecked bloody by crows, and it’s such a strange moment from a picture in the early 1960s. There is a brilliant moment involving a leaking gas pump and a cigarette that seems to be Hitchcock having an incredibly dark laugh.