Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at 60
For years, Alfred Hitchcock had taken advantage of our natural distrust for one another, playing upon fears that other people, be they close acquaintances or complete strangers, may secretly have malicious intentions towards us. And as the years went on, the circle of mistrust widened. In his first American films, Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), wives find they can’t trust their husbands. A few short years later, a niece can’t trust her beloved uncle in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). By the time he made Rear Window (1954), neighbors couldn’t trust one another, and in both Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), he turned inwards, with characters unable to trust their own senses or sanity. Where could Hitchcock go after that?
The Birds (1963) was the chilling answer to that question. Hitchcock expanded the circle of mistrust beyond interpersonal relations and into the natural world, ultimately calling into question our ability to trust our own humanity. His sole excursion into “fantastic” cinema, Hitchcock himself refused to call it science fiction, not because of any objection to the genre (screenwriter Evan Hunter was an established science fiction scribe and Hitchcock at one point optioned Frederic Brown’s SF novel The Mind Thing, which bears some resemblance to The Birds screenplay), but that the absence of a rational explanation for the bird attacks meant it stood outside the genre. I think Hitchcock was correct to an extent; the movie it reminds me of most is not one of its many imitators but rather Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which there is similarly no definite answer, natural or supernatural, for the strange events at the center of the story. Consequently, The Birds remains hors des genres despite repeated attempts to (I’m very, very sorry) pigeonhole it in one or another.
Along with Psycho, The Birds is regarded as one of only two true horror films directed by Hitchcock, even though his entire oeuvre has had a massive influence on the genre. Yet once again, it doesn’t easily fit within that particular categorical straitjacket. The Birds does not become a true horror film until more than an hour’s time has lapsed. That’s when in perhaps the most gruesome moment in any Hitchcock film, Jessica Tandy stumbles upon the body of a local farmer, his eyes torn out and the rest of his body covered in peck wounds. This is shortly followed by the scariest sequence in the film, one that begins with the crows flocking behind Tippi Hedren in the schoolyard, and then bloodily attacking the children. Up until this point, the film has been structured much more like a mystery (the genre Hunter excelled in) and it remains one until the very end, with no definitive explanation ever given for the avian attacks. This frustrated many viewers and critics upon its initial release, but as Hitchcock demonstrated with Vertigo (which ceases to be a mystery once Kim Novak reveals her secret to us while continuing to hide it from James Stewart), a good mystery does not necessarily need a successful or satisfactory resolution. In both films, the relevance of the mystery to the characters is much more important than any answers provided to the audience.
Just as Psycho was about characters in “traps” they couldn’t get out of, the characters in The Birds are similarly trapped in metaphoric cages they can’t unlock no matter how hard they rattle them. Not that they initially put any effort into doing so, or seem even aware of their psychological encasings. This is telegraphed from the opening, when socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) visits the pet store, filled with animals in cages, all under the roof of a single, larger glass encasing, and has her meet-cute with lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). “Doesn’t it make you feel awful?” asks Taylor, “ having all these poor, innocent creatures caged up like this?” “It’s to protect the species,” Hedren replies, feigning to be an employee explaining why they need separate confinements. They’re talking about birds, but might as well be talking about people. Taylor shortly afterwards helps to capture an escape canary, sarcastically remarking to the golden-topped bird, “back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” Hitchcock was usually more subtle, but by the early Sixties, he was no doubt aware that audiences that had taken to reading his films as much as viewing them, and this time spelled things out carefully for them.
It turns out Melanie has in part constructed her gilded exterior of a spoiled socialite herself to hide her pain and insecurities. Still hurt by her mother’s abandonment as a child, she engages in headline-pursuing behavior that contradicts her true self, an intelligent person with a burgeoning sense of social responsibility (she takes night classes at the University of California and helps sponsor a young boy in South Korea). In her pursuit of Mitch to Bodega Bay, she’ll soon find herself with others who have similarly “caged up” their vulnerabilities to protect themselves from each other. Mitch’s mother (the great Jessica Tandy) is another in the long line of domineering Hitchcock parents, still traumatized by the death of her husband. Her son has fortunately not turned out like Norman Bates or Bruno Anthony, but his flippant attitude nonetheless suggests he’s hiding something. It’s implied that he practices law in San Francisco and exhibits a playboy demeanor to get away from all family responsibilities, not just the controlling arms of his mother. Even Mitch’s much younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, already a scene-stealer) seems to be hiding something underneath her playful, proto-bobby soxer demeanor.
Melanie also befriends local schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), who turns out in many ways to be the most interesting character in the film. She initially behaves with seeming hostility towards this competition for Mitch’s affections, but two women quickly bond with one another. A native San Franciscan, Annie would be a perfect match for Mitch considering she’s one of the few other erudite locals (in addition to being the local schoolteacher, she has modern art paintings and a copy of Tristan and Isolde prominently on display at her home), but they were forced to drop their romance because of his mother’s domineering ways. Being not just “caged” but living in relative isolation has left her introverted and neurotic; although the brunette Pleshette may have been cast as the opposite of platinum blonde Hedren, Annie is also what will happen to Melanie if the latter leaves her frustrations “cooped up.”
Once the birds start their attacks, the human cages no longer provide adequate protection. It turns out Hedren was very much right: when “uncaged,” people go after one another out of fear, especially in a moment of crisis. This analogy between the behavior of birds and people alike was foreshadowed by Melanie and Cathy’s discussion of Mitch’s job as a defense lawyer, whose clients young Cathy demonizes as “mostly hoods.” As if that were not enough, she gleefully brings up his latest case, a man who shot his wife in the head six times. When Melanie, with a disbelieving half-laugh in her voice, asks Mitch why, he responds with a slight smirk that she simply changed the channel while he was watching television.
This exchange is often forgotten by critics and audiences alike, as is much of the first third of the film, yet it in many ways it’s one of the movie’s most shocking scenes. How could these seemingly nice people, including an eleven-year-old girl, be so insensitive and even joking in the face of genuine tragedy and human cruelty? Very easily, the film quickly answers. About an hour later into the film, the diner patrons start acting like characters in a Rod Serling teleplay, allowing fear and hysteria to take over basic decency. Even the wise ornithologist behaves in a snappish, irrational fashion, despite being seemingly reasonable (and she turns out to be wrong about many things, not just about the intelligence of crows). When the birds finally attack the diner, it’s even more violent and brutal than their school ambush. Yet the chaotic behavior of the adults involved, even the firefighters, contrasts strongly with the orderly running of the children (who earlier sang in harmony and spoke in unison). Somehow, as terrifying as the birds themselves are, we humans ourselves, with our foolish delusions of being above flock behavior because of our civilized veneer, are even scarier.
The birds, therefore, function much the same way as the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet (1956), a physical manifestation of the repressed emotions and psychosis of the main characters. In that film, an entire alien civilization was wiped out by their inner demons made real; will a similar fate await the human civilization in The Birds? Possibly. But not necessarily. Even though they have also laid bare our worst human traits, the avian antagonists have led the main characters to not just shake their cages but to pry them open. Mitch finally accepts his adult responsibilities as defender of the house, and even finally stands up to his mother. Melanie on the other hand, learns to embrace Mrs. Brenner as a surrogate mother and help take care of Cathy, who is now allowing all her emotions to be exposed. Annie herself overcomes her self-pity and introversion to save Cathy’s life at the expense of her own. Although her death is heartbreaking, we realize that she also died heroically, a role model for the other characters. There is hope. Maybe.
Unlike Psycho, which had an immediate and lasting impact on the horror genre, the influence of The Birds would not be apparent until many years later. The first important film to really take inspiration from it would be George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Both films are about ordinary people under siege in their home while the main monsters-formerly familiar and friendly figures turned malevolent-attack them without reason. Romero also borrowed stylistically from Hitchcock’s film as well; several of the shots of the catatonic heroine played by Judith O’Dea call direct attention to similar close-ups of Tippi Hedren’s Melanie as she tries to process the unreality of what is happening to her and to those around her. Additionally, like Hitchcock, Romero made a direct parallel between the monsters outside and the human occupants, our supposed heroes, trapped within their domestic confine, only this time there is no chance of survival for anyone at all.
But it was after Willard (1971) became a surprise hit that a whole slew of “animal attack” films were released, and most of them took their inspiration from The Birds than the killer rat film that led to their being greenlighted in the first place. My personal favorites of these were the killer-worm film Squirm (1976) and the guilty pleasure Frogs (1973), featuring an excellent performance by a young and clean-shaven Sam Elliot. The massive success of Jaws (1975) ensured the trend’s continuation, but many of the subsequent rip-off films continued to take their cues from Hitchcock instead of Spielberg. The terror from Jaws comes from the fact that the shark is behaving no differently than we (wrongly) assume they do in the wild, but in such films as William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977), the animals have gone berserk and behave abnormally, as they did in The Birds. Even Larry Cohen’s killer baby film It’s Alive (1974) is in many ways a variation on Hitchcock’s film, not just in the way it finds horror in the irony of the seemingly most innocent forms of life turning malevolent, but focusing more on the people involved and how they react to nature in revolt. Today’s filmmakers are still using The Birds as a template for terror, with A Quiet Place (2018) owing much to it in both technique and approach.
A commercial success but critically drubbed upon its initial release, The Birds, like Vertigo, has seen its reputation improve dramatically, to the point where many consider it Hitchcock’s last truly great film. Although I think Frenzy (1971) at least comes close to greatness, The Birds was certainly Hitchcock’s last great collaboration with the core technical team behind his postwar classics. After Marnie (1964) received even worse critical notices and flopped at the box office, the always-rocky relationship between Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann finally reached its limit, leading to the director firing his long-time composer. By the end of that year, editor George Tomasini, who beginning with Rear Window (1954) helped developed the unique grammar of Hitchcock’s suspense cinema, was dead at just fifty-five, the victim of a massive heart attack. Most tragic of all is the case of cinematographer, Robert Burks, who along with his wife died in a house fire in 1968. Burks had shot nearly all of Hitchcock’s films from Strangers on a Train (1951) onward, with the notable exceptions of Psycho and Torn Curtain (1966), and his death reportedly left the director heartbroken.
The Birds was an appropriate penultimate collaboration for this quartet of cinematic artists. There is neither a happy ending, nor an unhappy one. There is no explanation or resolution to the events that have unfolded on screen. There isn’t even a title card to signify this is the end. Sean Connery doesn’t rescue Tippi Hedren or restore her sanity. Simon Oakland doesn’t provide an ornithological psychoanalysis to reassure us. No one, not even a seagull, much less Kim Novak, falls from a bell tower to signal that the universe has been put back in balance. What will happen to the characters we have grown to care about it, flaws and all, and the world they live in? We are kept suspended ourselves, forever in suspense, always in fear. This is precisely the state Hitchcock and his collaborators kept us in throughout their careers, the state they wanted us to remain in. Good night.