The Birds is widely considered to be Hitchcock’s last great movie, and like Psycho, it’s a movie which has been endlessly unpicked since its release in 1963. It’s a movie which has fascinated critics and influenced movie-makers for numerous decades, with iconography well established within pop culture; even people who haven’t seen The Birds will feel like they have. Based extremely loosely on Daphne Du Maurier’s novella of the same name – the movie retains the base concept but changes the plot and characters – The Birds remains a very interesting movie, particularly in its treatment of narrative structure and plot convention, and stands as one of Hitchcock’s finest suspense pieces. Yes, it’s a movie which has been discussed to death over the years, but the reason for its infamy is clear – The Birds is a striking, unusual little film, and one worth talking about. The film opens with Mitch (Rod Taylor) looking for love birds for his sister – a young Veronica Cartwright – in a San Francisco bird shop. There, he runs into rich socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and the two attempt to fool one another, with Melanie pretending to work in the shop and Mitch pretending to believe her. The love birds however aren’t in stock and Mitch returns home to Bodega Bay, a small Californian coastal town. Melanie tracks him down, bringing the gift (and excuse) of love birds with her, and the two begin a flirtatious relationship beneath the watchful eyes of Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his friend and ex, schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), neither of whom quite seem to approve of the situation. Whilst this is going on, birds throughout the movie begin to act strangely, until full-out attacks start to occur and panic ensues.If that seems like a strange set-up that’s because it is. The Birds is unusual because it begins as a romantic comedy – the plot is entirely focused on Melanie and Mitch and their flirtatious arguments; the bird attacks creep in slowly, becoming more and more severe, until they completely take over the plot, leaving the film in an apocalyptic state by the end. Director Eli Roth summed the situation up nicely:
‘One of the things that people forget about The Birds is that it’s actually a real movie, you’re watching a real story: It’s Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor and there’s this drama going on, and then a bird attacks. And the birds slowly interrupt the story, until the story becomes about the birds attacking.’
The twist of genres midway through, highly unusual for the 60s audiences and hugely influential on modern filmmakers, is really an extension of what Hitchcock did with Psycho‘s bait-and-switch, though here, on a greater scale. Essentially this works two-fold – those who know nothing about the movie are surprised when the birds begin attacking, and those who know about the attacks (from trailers and promotional material) are kept in suspense waiting for the movie to begin. It was very uncommon for movies at this time to play with genre and audience expectations like this.That’s not to say the film hangs on a gimmick – it’s a very well made movie, even when the birds aren’t about. The opening rom-com section is set beneath a crisp Californian mountain backdrop, and this, combined with the fact that the 60s have aged pretty stylishly, means that the movie looks beautiful. The cast are iconic and do a great job with what they’ve got, but really, the movie isn’t about the acting. The bird scenes were highly advanced at the time – with Hitchcock employing numerous means of cinematic trickery; real birds, machines, green-screen – to make the attacks seem real. These days, they’re of course dated on a technical level, but the bird moments retain their sense of random horror and violence; the attacks literally fall from the sky and come out of nowhere, and there’s a great senselessness to them. Even after all these years, the birds still feel heavy and threatening. The birds slowly pervade the movie, with each attack more extreme than the last, and there’s a sense that people aren’t safe anywhere; the birds will get inside. The movie also has no soundtrack as such; all of the ‘music’ is made up of incidental bird noises, which when multiplied during the attack scenes, become a frightening and alien din. The film makes great use of silence too. Hitchcock of course knows how to work suspense – the scene in the schoolyard is a masterpiece of the genre and one of cinema’s most iconic scenes. Hitchcock was fond of saying if there’s a bomb ticking beneath a table, the audience have to see it but the characters can never know – and so Melanie doesn’t see the first crow, or the fifth, but we do, and by the time our heroine notices, it’s too late. This is a stunning scene and the best of the the movie’s bird moments, with the subsequent attack on the children particularly shocking for contemporary audiences. The diner scene later in the movie is also noteworthy as a great, dialogue-driven moment of small-town paranoia – the influence on Jaws in particular is clear – and the film also possesses a brave and tense climatic scene.The horror in The Birds comes from its lack of explanation, or rationality. Hitchcock was aware that the unclear was scary – it’s why Norman Bates manages to be so unsettling; what people don’t understand and can’t comprehend is frightening to them. But even Psycho added a psychiatrist to clear things up; here, Hitchcock has moved beyond that, and so in The Birds, there is no explanation. Occasionally a writer is allowed to say ‘this happened because it did’ and The Birds is a great example of that; there’s no rhyme or reason, no Soviet-chemical based cause – birds just start attacking people, with the movie working on the fantastic uncanny notion of taking an everyday occurrence and turning it nasty. Hitchcock wasn’t interested in reasons at this point in his career and it’s this randomness which creates the horror and strengthens the plot; the lack of motive elevates the movie above its B-Movie roots and turns it into something greater. The ‘why?’ isn’t important to the narrative structure – primarily because the characters are well-drawn and likeable, we’re interested in what’s happening to them, and we’re seeing it from their point of view. The Birds works better as allegory and over the years, numerous critics have discussed what the birds represent:The birds can be interpreted in various ways; firstly, the birds represent sexual tension. Mitch and Melanie circle each other, in scorn and lust, but without revealing their true emotions. The first attack comes with the relief of dropping off the love birds and as the two get closer, the attacks get worse. A second interpretation is that the birds represent the small-town anger over the appearance of sexy-city girl Melanie – the extension of this being that the birds represent Mitch’s women. Throughout the movie, we see three different women – Lydia, Annie, and Melanie, vying for Mitch’s love; Lydia is the mother who doesn’t want to lose him, Annie the ex who still loves him, and Melanie the new girl who wants him. The three flock around him and the bird attacks, in this case, represent their anger and jealously of one another. Hitchcock makes it clear that the women do not like one another throughout and this Freudian interpretation is the easiest to take away from the film; note how the only on-screen attacks come when Melanie’s around (the idea that if she hadn’t visited the school, would the birds have attacked it?) and how it’s only after Melanie sacrifices herself to the birds at the end that Lydia is able to accept her as a daughter. This idea is reinforced by Hitchcock literally putting Melanie in a cage (the telephone box) in one of the movie’s most remembered moments. A final interesting interpretation is that the birds represent the randomness of tragedy and death; the complacent happiness of the romantic opening and the sudden strangeness of the attacks illustrates this – death appears, goes, and makes no sense; it interrupts life in the most horrific of ways. It’s likely all of the above are valid, and possibly more too. The Birds remains a fascinating and surprisingly complex movie – what seems like a standard B-flick on the surface is actually an interesting insight into narrative structure, genre convention, and cinematic interpretation. It’s an iconic and influential movie and one of Hitchcock’s best, remaining strong after all these years.