Popular culture often taps into desires or fears that we hold, or urges which we have not considered before but can be brought to desire or fear. Bad art does this unconsciously, good art does it consciously. Or perhaps good art does a little of both.
Alfred Hitchcock’s films strode the line between art and entertainment. They had something to appeal to the elitist film lover and also to the audience seeking pleasure. Between 1959 and 1963, the director made three movies that had an enormous influence on the direction of cinema.
This was not always a good influence since many of the imitators lacked the craftsmanship of the auteur director. However the fact that these films played an important part in influencing several new sub-genres of film is a sign that Hitchcock had tapped into part of the psyche of moviemakers and audiences.
The first of these was North by Northwest. With its plot based around secret agents, the movie foreshadowed the James Bond films and its many weaker imitations. Here the movies appealed to a sense of wish fulfilment in cinema goers. For men living mundane lives, there was a thrill in the idea of enjoying a luxurious lifestyle, having the attention of younger attractive women, and having an exciting and dangerous (not too dangerous). For women, there was the fantasy of an attractive agent who could be relied on to protect them.
With Psycho, Hitchcock set the scene for a very different kind of film. It led to many more films about psychotic killers, including the slasher movie sub-genre. If North by Northwest appealed to audience desires, Psycho voiced their fears – the nightmarish sense that our ordinary lives are precarious and can be taken from us at any time.
This brings us to The Birds, and this is a film that paved the way for many trashy nature-gone-mad films that pitted humans against wildlife. Of course there had been monster movies before, but this time it was no longer the giant ants of Them! or an oversized Tarantula. It was ordinary, seemingly harmless animals who were turning against us.
However much we try to justify our conquest of nature, the killing of animals and the destruction of their habitats, there is a fear lingering in the back of the mind that one day we may be made to pay for the harm we have done. That nature is not as pliable as we think it is, and that it will one day fight back and destroy us. That is one of the reasons why The Birds has a haunting appeal.
On this occasion, there is no perceived reason for the bird attacks. They are not the result of atomic energy, or pesticides, or humans breeding animals for war as in many sci-fi movies. We are simply not told what made the birds aggressive.
There are a few examples of human behaviour towards birds. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) buys caged love birds. Mrs Brenner (Jessica Tandy) own hens. The customers at the diner are eating food, including chicken, when the birds strike. It is as if the birds are showing us that they are no longer the instruments of our desires. We are at the mercy of them if they choose.
An ornithologist explains to the customers there are 100 billion birds are alive in the world, and we would be doomed if they worked together against us. “If that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance,” she explains. The other customers veer between fear and scepticism while one drunk quotes Bible verse to argue that it’s the end of the world.
Human control of the planet is a more fragile thing that we complacently imagine. Even the ending of the film is left open. The birds stop attacking, but we have been told that attacks come in waves. Is the problem over, or are there more attacks to come?
The birds then appeal to hidden fears in us, but do they perhaps appeal to hidden urges too? It is possible to view the bird attacks as similar to the monster attacks in the old sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet. On that occasion, the monster was a psychic creature created from out of the id of a scientist.
We could view the birds as monsters of the id, or at least wishful projections of fantasies based around jealousy and fear. The interest in Hitchcock movies is less about what happens to his characters but about how his characters react – their interactions with one another, and the way in which they deal with problems. It is not too fanciful to imagine a connection between the bird attacks and the complex relationships in the story.
The story centres on two lovebirds, Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). The wheels that move the story is the budding romance between them, and the bird attacks coincide with the moments when this coupling is disapproved of by other characters.
Indeed the meeting and progression of the two lovers is facilitated by actual lovebirds. Melanie Daniels is a rich girl who gets her name in the paper for supposedly wild antics, and the strait-laced Mitch decides to teach her a lesson by pretending to mistake her for a pet shop owner, and asking her for lovebirds for his sister.
Mitch thinks she is a bird in a gilded cage, and she is affronted by his smug disapproval of her lifestyle. She decides to buy lovebirds in earnest to pay him back for his trick, and to give them to his sister. The lovebirds reflect the nature of their relationship at this point – tame, romantic and inoffensive.
Needless to say, for all their verbal sparring, the two are attracted to each other, and this is only a romantic prelude. She pursues him down to Bodega Bay, the place where he lives when he is not at work. It is here that their romance becomes more complicated, and birds cease to be harmless.
Melanie’s pursuit of Mitch stirs up jealousy in two quarters. She decides to stay with the local teacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). She soon realises that Annie is an ex-girlfriend of Mitch’s, who also followed him to Bodega Bay. Annie in turn quickly perceives that Melanie is following the same path that she once trod.
For Annie, the relationship between her and Mitch is a ‘closed book’, yet she is still living close to him. She encourages Melanie, but warns her that there is a second threat that Melanie must overcome, and this is Mitch’s mother, Mrs Brenner. Annie has scathing words for her, not all of which are borne out by the rest of the story, but we can surmise that Mrs Brenner wishes to prevent Mitch from marrying and leaving her, as she fears being abandoned.
Indeed the meeting with Mrs Brenner does not go well either. Mrs Brenner is also quick to realise Melanie’s intentions and greets her without a smile. She is unenthusiastic when Mitch invites Melanie over, and is quick to bring up Melanie’s wild past. Melanie defends her past to Mitch and points to a few responsible acts that she now performs.
The opening of the movie is deceptive. Here are the ingredients of a comedy – a wild rich woman courting a man and facing disapproval from his mother. However it is at this point that the movie turns to terror, and a good deal of terror is concentrated around Melanie Daniels herself.
The first bird attack that we witness is against Melanie, and it provides evidence for those who consider Hitchcock to be a misogynist. She has used a boat to travel across the bay and surreptitiously drop the lovebirds off in the Brenner house. As she returns by boat, Mitch drives around the bay to meet her.
This is Melanie’s hour of triumph. She has won the latest round with Mitch, and she is proud and confident as she prepares to arrive in the bay. It is at this moment that a gull swoops and attacks her. Instead of disembarking from a strong position ready for another round of flirting with Mitch, she is instead led shocked and bleeding into a nearby café.
It seems that Mitch is not the only person who wishes to teach our immaculate heroine a lesson. The director does too. Indeed there are a number of stories concerning Hitchcock’s complicated relationship with Tippi Hedren, many of them told by Hedren herself. Some of them seem dubious. Did Hitchcock deliberately arrange for a prop of mechanical bird on a wire to descend on Hedren and cause her an injury? How would he even do that?
However if even a fraction of the stories are true, they paint a picture of a man with an occasionally disturbing attitude towards his female stars. As time went on, Hitchcock favoured the aloof and perfect blonde and elevated them to an ethereal status in his films, yet he also punished them. Two of his blonde heroines die, and Hedren’s character is brought low in both her collaborations with the director.
Other attacks begin to centre on Melanie, and these worsen as she becomes known to Mrs Brenner. Birds attack a children’s party and force the guests inside. Later sparrows descend from the chimney and damage the room.
Whether or not we view these attacks as being linked to Mrs Brenner’s darker desires, they do provide a chance for Melanie to show her inner strength, and try to win over the Brenner family. She helps the children escape from the first bird attack, and she assists Mrs Brenner in leaving the room when the sparrows descend. She is also protective towards Mitch’s younger sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright).
This help continues the next day when Mrs Brenner visits a neighbouring farmer and finds that he has been killed by birds. It is left to Melanie to tend to the shocked woman, and Mrs Brenner is revealed as a weak woman who has not got over her husband’s death. She had depended on her husband for strength, and now relies on her son.
She admits that she is not sure how she feels about her son falling in love with Melanie, or whether she even likes Melanie. However she does wish to get to know her better. A limited understanding develops between the two women, and Melanie agrees to collect Cathy from school, as Mrs Brenner is worried that the large windows at the school make it vulnerable to bird attack. For the first time, Mrs Brenner calls Melanie by her first name.
Sure enough the birds descend on the school. Was Mrs Brenner unconsciously setting Melanie up for the attack, or shall we see this as another trial that Melanie has to pass to win over Mitch’s mother? Another attack follows quickly on a petrol station, and a woman accuses Melanie of being responsible for the bird attacks, saying she thinks she is evil.
Annie is killed by the birds protecting Cathy. Melanie and the Brenners retreat to their house where Mitch has the chance to prove that he is as much of a man as his father by boarding up the house to keep the birds out, and reassure his family. Melanie plays a part in this too, but that is about to change when she is subjected to a particularly nasty attack.
Investigating a noise in the attic, Melanie discovers that the birds have entered through a hole in the roof, but she is attacked before she can alert the others. While she is rescued, she slips into a state of shock for the rest of the movie. While a strong Melanie has produced mixed feelings in Mrs Brenner, an injured Melanie finally inspires her pity.
At this point the attacks stop long enough for the Brenners and Melanie to escape in a car. As they drive away, Melanie leans against Mrs Brenner, who tightens her affectionate grip on the injured woman. Have the attacks stopped because Mrs Brenner has finally learned to accept Melanie?
We may also ask what this climax says about Hitchcock. His heroine gains acceptance, but she has to be hurt and humbled first. It is as if the director has an attraction to strong women but also feelings of anger against them. I do not know if this counts as misogyny, but it does indicate a confused relationship with women.
Famously the attic scene was filmed using real birds, and Tippi Hedren’s poise was similarly reduced by the director. It does not help that the attack goes on for a considerable length of time, leaving the audience in agony. It took several days to film and Hedren was fortunate not to lose an eye.
I have posed the idea that the birds are a psychological projection of Mrs Brenner’s feelings of hostility against Melanie, but we should hold this idea lightly. There are reasons against applying this theory too tightly. We are told that there have been other bird attacks against seaman. The neighbouring farmer and Annie Hayworth did not pose a threat to Mrs Brenner, but they were killed. Even Mrs Brenner’s daughter is attacked on more than one occasion.
It might be said that the birds are the McGuffin of this movie – they are the device that allows Hitchcock to explore the relations between his central characters, and when those relationships have reached a point of resolution, there is no longer a need for the birds, and the attacks stop.
However even this is to simplify matters. The bird attacks are not merely a side issue in the personal affairs of the characters. They are at the heart of the story itself, and there is a good reason to view the film as primarily a shocking thriller with the human interest added and related to the bird attacks to give the audience someone with whom to identify.
The Birds works perfectly well when regarded as a simple thriller. Using a mixture of matte paintings, special effects, and mechanical and real birds, Hitchcock produced an ambitious action movie of a different kind to anything he had done before, and which differed from other nature-gone-mad films of that period.
The suspense is built up in a number of methods. The film has no music score, but the bird sounds (rendered artificial and electronic) were orchestrated by the composer Bernard Herrmann so that they sometimes play lightly into the background and sometimes build up into a crescendo of noise. Indeed the bird attacks are like a musical score – they rise to a violent climax, only to retreat and die down for long periods.
Sometimes the terror is hidden from view. When the Brenners fortify themselves in their home, the suspense comes from the cries of the birds outside and the sight of their beaks pecking into the wood. Hitchcock realised the terror that could be induced from having his characters besieged in a house that they cannot escape.
Other moviemakers have followed his example. The characters in George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead also barricade themselves in. Like the Brenners they listen to radio reports concerning the rising problem, their electricity goes out, they try to escape in a car, and the apparent heroine enters a catatonic state reminiscent of Melanie Daniels at the end.
The thrills in The Birds are not all off-screen and suggestive. Hitchcock takes the risk of visually showing us many attacks. While many movies of the time produced awful special effects, the ones used here were fairly persuasive, though they may look primitive by today’s standards.
The appeal of Hitchcock has always lain less in effects and in action, and more in the dark ideas that he expresses, and the craftsmanship with which he portrays them. The Birds is frightening because the thought of such an event is alarming, and nobody is spared. Children are attacked on two occasions, at Cathy’s party and at the school. The viewer is forced to watch as kids are knocked to the floor and birds climb on their shoulders and peck at them.
Birds come down chimneys, or break through windows, so the home is no longer a shelter. They attack a service station, so it is no longer safe in the middle of built-up areas surrounded by other people. Humans are trapped in confined areas, such as a phone booth. A man has his eyes pecked out.
Two scenes stand out. One is the famous school attack. Melanie is waiting outside the school for classes to finish, and enjoying a cigarette. Behind her we see a crow hop onto the climbing frame in the playground. It is joined by three more…another…two more. Hitchcock then concentrates the camera on Melanie for a minute or so leaving the audience in suspense about what is happening.
Finally Melanie looks up and sees a crow overhead. We watch her follow its gaze as it lands on the climbing frame. The entire climbing frame is covered in crows, and as the camera moves we see that the whole playground is too. We have been led to expect to see only a handful, so this reveal gives the viewer a jolt. It is an image that no viewer is likely to forget.
The other memorable scene is the end of the movie. Mitch decides to try to get to his car so that he can take Melanie to a hospital. As he steps outside, the entire area is covered in birds, and he is forced to walk very slowly through this massive congregation of birds risking the possibility of attack at any minute.
Whether or not The Birds has a psychological subtext, it works perfectly well as a thrilling horror movie. It frightened audiences at the time, and it continues to shock people today. Its power lies in uncertainty – we do not know why the birds are turning on people, and we do not know if the assaults are going to stop.
Notably the film does not finish with the words ‘The End’ or ‘Fin’ but closes on an image of the birds surrounding the Brenner household, and the sound of them getting louder and louder.
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