Hitchmania: The Birds (1963)
Attempting to find an explanation for The Birds is a lot like being one of the inhabitants of Bodega Bay. There’s a lot to consider about the downy blitzkrieg featured in this 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie and there are a lot of possibilities, from the logical explanation to the suggestion that the ornithological onslaught is related to the End of Days.
The film is based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name, which appeared in a 1952 collection. Hitch took liberties with the tale, of course, and transported its Cornwall locale into the aforementioned inlet on the coast of Northern California. The Evan Hunter screenplay made more changes, including the addition of “screwball comedy” to build to an almost intolerable level of tension.
The Birds begins in San Francisco with socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meeting Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop. They flirt bizarrely, with Mitch wanting to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister (Veronica Cartwright). The confrontation leads to Melanie delivering the birds to Mitch’s address in Bodega Bay, which is roughly 60 miles away from the city.
Once there, Melanie tries to set the scene be sneaking the birds inside Mitch’s house. She’s discovered and invited for dinner, but not before a cagey gull swoops down from the sky and attacks her. This is but a sign of things to come, as the sleepy fishing town is taken over by more brazen bird attacks. The children are targeted and these feathery terrors know no boundaries.
There are plenty of interesting elements at play in The Birds. Mother figures once again play a key role, with Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy) doubtful about his involvement with the cavorting Melanie. She arrives in Bodega Bay with a reputation earned in the tabloid pages, like an era-appropriate Paris Hilton, so it stands to reason that a mother would watch out for her son.
But this also presents a unique opportunity for Melanie to address her own mother issues. She isn’t even sure where her mom is, a point she reveals to Mitch at a children’s party. This grounds the character and earns her some much-needed sympathy. Prior to this revelation, she is often dismissed as a smug blonde too confident for her own good.
Of course, she’s not. Hedren’s Melanie is a character others are prone to dislike (or at least gossip madly about), so she comes by her attitude honestly. What happens to her – and by extension to Bodega Bay – is seen by one character as the direct result of her entering town, somewhat like a curse. But what’s really going on is far less significant.
Indeed, the rush of fowl is little more than an accident of nature. Hitchcock was very interested in the idea that catastrophe could strike anyone and everyone at any and every moment. Even the most idyllic of circumstances could be intruded on by some force or some diabolical Will, whether from the glinting knife of a psychotic killer or the inexorable jabbing of birds of a feather.
In cinematic terms, The Birds is a lesson in tension and in manipulating the audience. A clear instance of Hitchcock having his way with the viewer takes place in the schoolyard as Melanie smokes a cigarette. Crows are gathering on the jungle gym and a roundelay-type song is sung by the kids inside the schoolhouse. The tune carries on and on, never ending where it should.
In this way, Hitchcock turns the tension up. He teases release. He coaxes one more stanza. He adds one more bird. He splashes this instance of an organic bit of melody against the film’s music-less façade and, of course, adds one more bird. The director’s cutting doubles the strain, showing a patchwork of images that plays all the right chords.
From the “electronic silence” of the closing scene of The Birds to the waves of menace forcing Hedren’s Melanie to the floor in the attic, this is a masterwork of Hitchcock’s cinematic toolkit. He even improvises a little, something he suggests as an “emotional siege.” This adds another layer of ingenuity, which in turn adds another reason this motion picture is still effective and still distressing today.