The Birds (1963)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy

I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.

A lovely young woman named Melanie (Hedren) – all lovely young women are named Melanie – is a flirt, a prankster, a teaser. She has the sort of verve for mischief that one usually associates with bored and drunk college students. She pretends to be an employee at a pet shop (though the man she’s playing the joke on knows recognizes her and knows she’s not an employee anywhere), buys a stranger’s sister two lovebirds for her birthday, wheedles her way into discovering his address, takes a boat to his house, breaks in, leaves the birds, and very nearly gets away without him seeing. All this takes upwards of twenty minutes of film time, over the course of two days. Melanie and Mitch (Taylor) – all hunky, secretly tough fellas in this time are named Mitch – flirtatiously boomerang around one another, with little incidents marring their courtship. As Mitch meets Melanie at the dock, a seagull dive-bombs her. Seagulls are unusually aggressive at Cathy’s (Veronica Cartwright) birthday party; young Cathy, perhaps instinctually understanding the pull of a Melanie, had begged her to stay. The intimidation grows over time. The movie, sadly, gets worse from there. One understands that “the birds” are the draw – I even thought that the sight of the birds pecking through the Brenners’ front door was a pretty great look – but gosh, they are just less interesting than the one-step-forward-two-steps-back relationship that Melanie and Mitch are having. We see in them the fight for dominance that Hitchcock’s later movies always return to, and one even assumes that in normal times, without kamikaze seagulls, that dominance would belong to Mitch over his tricky little blonde mark. Yet Melanie is a better match for Mitch than, say, Judy is for Scottie. There seems to be more possibility that even if she is not triumphant, she may well be less of a pushover than what we’re used to.

At the height of the bird-related terror, a woman with two children overhears a conversation principally between Melanie and Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffiths), who appears to have evolved concurrently with birds and thus has a comically massive store of information on them. Melanie has just come from the school, where, famously, a great murder of crows has formed on the jungle gym and the other playground equipment and waited, ominously, for the children to leave the building. (This scene is famous for the way that birds rise up en masse to peck at the fleeing, helpless elementary schoolers. I found it, after the massing of crows, to be a flop; what kind of teacher, understanding the bird-related danger, decides to put the kids in their flight path? If the birds hadn’t killed Suzanne Pleshette later in the movie, heaven knows someone should have sued her.) Repeatedly she calls to the other townspeople in the diner to lower their voices, for her children’s sake. They’re frightened, she says, frightened half to death. It becomes clear, as she repeats herself over and over again, that it’s not really the children who are scared: it’s her. In one moment, slavering with terror and with her eyes wide like she’s been possessed, she slouches up to Melanie and blames her for the birds. Somehow, she screams, this is all the fault of the new woman in Bodega Bay. I half-expected a “Burn her!” to follow. I was also a little surprised that someone in the movie made that connection between the birds and Melanie’s sudden appearance; mentally I was telling myself that if Melanie had just brought another different-colored suit to change into, then this avian plague would be over and done.

In 1975, Jaws ushered in a new type of thriller-horror in which what we imagine is significantly scarier than the shark. And in 1982, The Thing, without very many people noticing, created a scarier movie built on the same principle but increased monstrous presence. The Birds – though it predates Night of the Living Dead by five years – is one of the last movies of its kind. It is willing to show you the monsters, and while the monsters are pedestrian (which is what makes them scary in the first place), there’s a limit to what you can imagine the birds doing. That limit is reached when Lydia (Tandy) sees a farmer pecked to death in his pajamas, his eye sockets replaced entirely by circles of drying blood. It’s the film’s creepiest single shot, because our imagination can’t quite leave us alone as we think about what might have happened to get him to that point. When Melanie wanders upstairs during the night when the birds storm the metaphorical castle keep and discovers they have punched a hole through the roof, she is very nearly pecked to death and is only saved when Mitch goes looking for her. That scene is stunning for the endless waves of birds, for the brilliant “oh no” moment of seeing the patch of light through the roof, and for the swift cuts which emphasize the rapidity of the attack. But it’s not half as scary as the dead farmer. This is why I was disappointed with the bird attacks. They are impressive, and this sort of home invasion against which all you can do is fortify the house, bundle up, and hope for the best is more interesting than the kind where you could theoretically shoot your way out. What the birds struggle to convey is the eerie. That’s why the best scene of the film is the one where the crows come, first alone and then in vast numbers, to sit on the jungle gym. That’s why the sparrows rushing through the fireplace are creepy, even if they cause no real harm to anyone; most of the property damage is actually done by Mitch in an effort to fight them off. Melanie’s presence and the birds’ takeover are linked by correlation but not by causation. While I’m not sure a causational link between Melanie’s appearance in Bodega Bay and the entire avian population of the city becoming psychotic would make this a better movie – in fact I’m pretty sure the opposite is true – I think that the strangeness could remain without the histrionics. Imagine a dead gull outside Annie’s door, a seagull swooping down to strike Melanie in the boat, a murder of crows swelling up behind her as she cluelessly smokes a cigarette. But the birds are no longer the incidental causes of a gas station going up in flames, or a long night where innocent families weather a storm of relentless, motivated, winged killers. They are simply omens as opposed to the proof the omens came true.

Certainly the film dabbles in this line for some time. Lydia is, as Annie tells Melanie in the most hard-boiled way she can screw up, notoriously rough on Mitch’s girlfriends. Annie is something of a horror story in herself, who came to Bodega Bay from San Francisco four years ago and whiffed with Lydia and ergo with Mitch. (What chance does an Annie have against a Melanie?) Mitch has a fairly strict routine which hasn’t been interrupted in years, despite what sound like concentrated efforts to the contrary. He spends the week in San Francisco, and then comes home to his mother and his weirdly young sister on the weekends. Another woman in the mix is a disruption, a strangeness, very nearly an insult to the solidity of the family, and Lydia’s reaction to Melanie’s presence is a little menacing. Her eyes flash and her jaw sets in a way that is typically reserved for war movies or westerns, not romances. She is reminiscent of figures like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca or Madame Sebastian in Notorious, other unexpectedly grim, dangerous figures in Hitchcock’s domestic dramas. Melanie’s disruptions in the Brenner family are covered with some specificity, but they are radically altered by the birds; I found myself disappointed – knowing what was coming, perhaps “pre-disappointed” is the right term – to lose what was proving to be an unusual experience.

One of the most repeated questions in the film, asked by adults and children alike, is also unanswerable: why are the birds attacking? It’s not a question which can be explained (or explained away), like “Why did we go to war in Korea?” or “What have we got against the Russkies anyway?” Birds are incapable of explaining what’s happened in their chemistry which has led to their savage, sporadic attacks on human populations in northern California not merely because we don’t speak the same language but because the impulse could be beyond their own abilities to comprehend it. Like Jaws or, more directly, Planet of the ApesThe Birds recognizes humanity’s tenuous grip on the planet. There’s a distinct anxiety about nature which the characters feel – the sight of a bird creates mindbending fear in more than one character over the course of the film – and which even transmits to the viewer. Every time someone went outside, I was aghast: it’s not safe out there. Silent Spring had just been published about six months before The Birds premiered (though du Maurier’s short story, of course, was written in the 1950s). It’s very possible to read our anxiety about the way we’ve treated nature in The Birds in the same way that we might be anxious about having bullied on a boy who then grew four inches and gained thirty pounds of muscle over the summer and is lookin’ for payback. I find this the most interesting angle of the Birds Attack! subplot, one which expresses human discomfort with any loss in their tyranny over nature and yet recognizes the silliness of fighting back against a superior force. Mitch catches part of a radio report about the military coming to Bodega Bay, but Mrs. Bundy has already expressed the sobering facts at the diner: there are more than eight billion birds in the United States alone, and there can be no victory against such an enemy which, at the time, had an advantage of forty-four to one. The sole, unusual exceptions to the violent rule of the birds are Cathy’s lovebirds. The first birds of the film who are given serious screen time are the lovebirds Melanie purchases for Cathy, and who share a ride with her up the California coast. In a forgotten, hilarious scene, the lovebirds lean together in the direction of the car whenever Melanie pushes it too fast around a curve. Of all the birds in Bodega Bay, only the lovebirds remain gentle; Cathy will insist on bringing them with her when the Brenners and Melanie leave Bodega Bay, and Mitch, for whatever reason, does not refuse her. Perhaps he is swayed by her totally factual argument: the lovebirds haven’t hurt anyone. In short, this is an argument about docility in domesticity. Trapped in their cage, the lovebirds are totally harmless and even disinterested in escaping or pecking at their caretaker’s hands. Birds who go out, from Lydia’s chickens with no appetite to the roving seagulls, appear dissatisfied with the state of affairs. When kept safe and secure inside a little box, the threat is totally mitigated. If one is to draw a connection between Melanie and the birds supported by what the film is as opposed to what it might have been, it’s here. Melanie caged in – in San Francisco, reliant on her father for income, within her sphere of society and social class – is essentially an image of safety, of inertia. Even if she bangs her wings against the bars of her cage every now and then, she is still mostly harmless; no calamity worse than being pushed into a Roman fountain comes upon anyone. Yet when she begins to act in an unseemly way – chasing down a man, baldly flirting with him, disrupting a quiet maritime community with her big city plans – the punishment falls on the whole town. One wonders how the lovebirds would react to being let out of their cage, then, when the frenzy strikes its fellows.

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