“I am neither poor nor innocent”—Melanie Daniels, protagonist of Hitchcock’s The Birds
From the time I was thirteen or so, I had fallen deeply in love with movies. I did not actually grow up watching a lot of TV shows, but I certainly loved renting movies and enjoying them in the comfort of my house, especially when my parents were out playing Bridge or doing something similar with their friends.
For me—then and now—the more intense the movie, the better, though I also loved stupid, slapstick comedies. Several of my high school friends appreciated and understood the actual art of cinema far more than I did, and I learned a great deal from them about directors, cuts, camera angles, actors, lighting. Even to this day, I can’t watch anything other than comedy without analyzing every aspect of the film.
College didn’t give me much time for movies, but two events in graduate school not only re-awoke my passion but increased it exponentially. The first, and less important of the two, was the attending of a film studies class on the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Everything my friends in high school had taught me was sharpened to a finely and intellectually honed blade of finest steel as the professor explained how to study a film, scene by scene—the method similar to the examination of a novel, but with a different kind of depth. I was, to put it colloquially, rather blown away.
Hitchcock, His Women, and Me
Additionally, while in graduate school, two friends really shaped my view on films. The first was Craig, an apartment-mate as well as office buddy. As it turned out, Craig knew British film really well. I’d never appreciated it or PBS before, but he gave me that love of both. Second, I found out that another close friend was also an Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) fanatic. Tamzen (my great friend to this day) and I spent many hours watching and analyzing Hitchcock. These moments with Craig and Tamzen are ones I still treasure.
Like Tamzen, I considered myself a Hitchcock fanatic as well, preferring a Hitchcock film even to a science fiction one. I especially loved, in order, Rope, Vertigo, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. I also watched other Hitchcock films, such as Topaz, Marnie, Frenzy, The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I generally considered these films relatively normal as opposed to Rope and the aforementioned.
In each of these, whether of the highest caliber or merely of the good caliber, Hitchcock masterfully demonstrated his genius. In each, he picked exactly the right actors, the right stories, and the right actors for the stories, and the right stories for the actors. He took his time and lingered—over a shot or a conversation—where needed, and he added drama where needed. Almost all his films revolved around some sin, some guilt, and some penance. His films are truly Catholic theology on the silver screen. His Jesuit education comes across in every frame of film.
The Puzzle of The Birds
One movie that has intrigued more than any other, however, is The Birds. By “intrigued,” I mean that I find watching it a true intellectual challenge, a puzzle to be solved, rather than a work of art to enjoy. As far as I can tell, it does not possess the intellectual depth of Rope or the psychological dread of Vertigo or the confessional aspect of Psycho. Yet it intrigues me.
For the longest time, I was convinced that the film best represents the very Roman Catholic Alfred Hitchcock’s views on feminism. The women of the film, after all, are fascinating. They are powerful and cunning (Tippi Hedren), insecure and frightened (Jessica Tandy), or cool and resigned (Suzanne Pleshette). The leading man (Rod Taylor) is a smart aleck and, more or less, heroic, but he is rather uninspiring. Whether this is because he wasn’t a great actor or Hitchcock wanted him to be this way, I have no idea. Frankly, he’s just not that interesting.
But the women? Absolutely interesting. They make the movie in every possible way.
Is The Birds about feminism? I don’t know, and I’m less convinced of this now than I was a decade ago. Hitchcock’s film is, however, about femininity. It is also, at some level, a commentary on nature: nature as nature; nature as revenge; nature as law superior to human contrivance; nature, red in tooth and claw.
The film begins in a pristine-looking San Francisco, wealthy people moving about their business. Filmed only a half-decade before the drug culture would thrive in the city, this San Francisco seems a million miles away from our time. This is most assuredly not the San Francisco of Dirty Harry or of the 1978 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. No grit here. Only wealth and confidence.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), graced with perfect looks and class, walks into a pet shop, specializing in birds. She has ordered an exotic bird that has yet to arrive in the shop. As she waits, a dashing man, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) presumes she works there and asks a question about love birds. She attempts to bluff her way through the conversation but fails. After a bit of repartee, she concedes defeat.
The following day, after getting his personal information from his license plate, she decides to drive to Bodega Bay with the love birds, hoping to surprise him. She succeeds in this, and the two begin a flirtatious game, clearly attracted to one another while pretending not to be. Daniels encounters two women almost immediately: Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), Taylor’s overly protective and suspicious mom; and his cool but resigned ex-girlfriend, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Headstrong, selfish, and spoiled, Daniels works her way into the lives of each.
As Daniels and Hayworth talk over brandy, they realize that Mitch has drawn them each there, but his mother has repelled them both as well. Still, Hayworth admits to like Mitch so much, she’s willing to stay in Bodega Bay, simply to be Mitch’s friend.
As Daniels continues navigating her way into Brenner’s family, birds of a variety of different species begin to attack individuals and then groups in Bodega Bay, normally an idyllic spot on the Pacific Coast. Daniels is the first to be attacked, but soon school children and then the general population come under attack.
Despite making and releasing the movie in 1963, Hitchcock creates some truly terrifying and brutal scenes. When the birds attack, blood often flies freely, eyes get gouged out, and corpses litter the ground. None of it is gratuitous, but it is graphic. Hayworth’s body is particularly gruesome.
For some reason that the protagonists cannot fathom, the birds—though of different species—offer concentrated and coordinated attacks.
The finale of the movie revolves around the boarding up of a nice home (the home of Brenner, his younger sister, and his mom) and the attempt to hold off the concerted avian onslaught.
In one memorable and deeply troubling scene, birds break into the attic just as Daniels is there, trying to secure the house. They ravage her. The filming was so intense that Hedren had to spend a week in a local hospital recovering from the trauma and exhaustion.
Just as quickly at the birds became violent, they become quiescent, as their night of violence draws to a close. Neither Hitchcock nor his film ever explains the behavior of the birds. Instead, we see only the reaction of the humans. That Hitchcock leaves the motives totally unexplained makes the movie only creepier. The movie concludes with Brenner, Daniels, and Brenner’s mom and sister walking through hordes of birds, all quiet now, and leaving Bodega Bay by car. Daniels has been so traumatized by the events of the day that she is catatonic. Brenner’s mother, having been suspicious of Daniels from the beginning, now accepts her, cradling her as though her daughter.
The movie ends, with no music, as the four drive into the sunrise, the birds cawing but staying put. The viewer is left with really nothing. With no music queues and a flat shot of the car departing the fields of birds, the audience has no way of knowing if Brenner and company drive into death or into safety.
The movie just ends.
Whether the movie is about existentialism, about the bombings of London in World War II, about feminism, or about the sovereignty of nature, I have no idea. Well, lots of ideas, but no certainties. Yet, with all Hitchcock movies, it continues to fascinate and to titillate.
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