Hitchcock’s The Birds 🦅 Revisited

Opening scene 🎬 A beautiful young woman walks across a busy San Francisco street. A boy wolf whistles, she looks up as birds circle overhead. The female protagonist is Melanie Daniels, a sexy socialite. As she enters the pet shop, she passes the film’s director, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch walks out with his own two Sealyham Terriers, named Geoffrey and Stanley. We do not know the dogs’ names. Melanie appears oblivious to Hitchcock. A signal perhaps of the steely relationship to come between Hitchcock and the actress playing Melanie Daniels, Tippi Hedren. This is the opening of Hitchcock’s classic horror film The Birds. It doesn’t prepare you for the carnage to come.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Birds. To call me a fan of The Birds or Hitchcock for that matter, is an understatement. I’m a super fan. However, I understand that decades have passed since Alfred Hitchcock ruled the cinema, and since The Birds was first released in 1963. Filmmaking and attitudes have changed. I agree wholeheartedly with the argument that The Birds feels a little dated. But the appeal of The Birds goes beyond the measure of time. That’s why I decided to revisit Hitchcock’s film classic and see if there’s something new to be found. If you’re a fan of The Birds then read on.

It’s the end of the world 🌎

After the success of Psycho in 1960, Hitchcock hired screenwriter Evan Hunter to adapt The Birds, a 1952 novella by Daphne Du Maurier, as his next film project. Hitch and Hunter ignored the novella completely, much to Du Maurier’s displeasure. Instead, they found inspiration from a story posted on 18th August 1961 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper declaring, “Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes.” The screenplay as written by Hunter for The Birds would eventually be part screwball comedy and part end-of-the-world soap opera. The combination, love it or hate it, stamped The Birds as the first “man-versus-nature” horror movie. Many similar themed movies followed. Films like Willard, Piranha and Empire of the Ants to name a few. But The Birds was the only instant cinema classic of its kind until Stephen Spielberg’s movie Jaws, another “man-versus-nature” themed film, came along a decade later.

Melanie Daniels: I keep telling you, this isn’t a few birds! These are gulls, crows, swifts…!

Revisiting Hitchcock’s The Birds was like having a cup of tea with an old friend. You know what’s going to be said in advance but you’re happy to listen. What struck me immediately this time around was the colour palette of the film, red, green, blue, and an occasional flash of yellow. Red and green are the colours of the lovebirds Melanie Daniels gives to Cathy as a birthday present. Melanie is dressed in a green suit and has painted red lips and golden hair. She perfectly matches Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor) dressed in green pants and cream coloured jumper. They symbolise the lovebirds in human form. The first half hour of The Birds is reminiscent of a Rock Hudson and Doris Day romantic comedy from the 1960s. Hitchcock misleads the audience into believing they are watching a light-hearted rom-com. However, as the bird attacks ramp up in the second half of the film, the colours fade into lifeless sparrow-browns and seagull-muted greys. The exception to this is a brief moment towards the end of the film, as Lydia (Mitch’s mother played by Jessica Tandy) and Melanie Daniels, in a state of shock after a vicious bird attack, lock eyes in the backseat of Melanie’s convertible. At this point, The Birds is suddenly full of hope and light. Melanie’s eyes twinkle in bright Technicolor as she looks up at Lydia as if being lifted out of the chaos of the bird attacks by a spiritual hand. A mother’s love is next to godliness, after all. Melanie cuddles Lydia, Mitch sits with Cathy, still holding the lovebirds, and they drive off into the unknown. They are a family unit at last, and their shared love is their weapon of choice against the inexplicable bird attacks.

Pleshette and Hedren before the school attack

Much has been written as to why the birds are attacking and what the bird attack sequences represent. Perhaps “the birds” are simply a metaphor for the atomic bomb, a topical subject in the 60s. Maybe the bird attacks represent feminine rage? One thing is certain, Melanie’s overt sexuality causes a stir everywhere she goes. It amuses and intrigues Mitch in the pet shop, terrifies Lydia who fears losing her son and being left alone, irritates Annie Hayworth the school teacher (Mitch’s ex-partner played by Suzanne Pleshette) and causes every man and boy in Bodega Bay to stand to attention. Melanie understands it’s a man’s world. Women are simply here for decoration, much like the caged birds in the pet shop. Melanie uses her sexuality to manipulate men in order to get her way. The male characters particularly in the early scenes of The Birds, leer at Melanie with their eyes full of wanton lust. They display an “I Want To Fuck You” kind of attitude. When Melanie attempts to leave the lovebirds outside Mitch’s apartment, a pompous older man promptly follows her suspiciously down the hallway. The man’s sideward glances are especially lecherous. He tells Melanie that Mitch is in Bodega Bay for the weekend, and warns about leaving the lovebirds at his doorstep. She decides to take the lovebirds to Bodega Bay herself but not before the man gives her the “once over.” No matter how sleazy the men behave, Melanie remains at ease, bathing in their desire. She’s a prick tease. Often simply tilting her head to one side and smiling back at them, enjoying their sin-filled gaze.

Mitch Brenner: Aren’t those lovebirds?

I would argue that the central theme of the film is not so much focused on the inexplicable bird attacks but around themes of lust, love and family. Similar themes can be found in TV soap operas like The Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful. The first hour of The Birds, before the horror of the bird attacks, beckons us to examine “love” in all its glory and disappointment. A mother’s love, a brother’s love, a son’s love, unrequited love in Annie Hayworth’s case, and self-love which is clearly represented by the character of Melanie Daniels. Melanie’s self-love and ego are strong. She is often filmed preening herself, and her beauty and confidence stir up mixed emotions wherever she goes from people around her.

Melanie drives to Bodega Bay with lovebirds she intends to give to Mitch Brenner who she met by accident in San Francisco while playing a practical joke. She’s attracted to Mitch but wants to take charge and get him back for calling her out on her “little prank” in the pet shop, where she pretended to be the shop assistant. “Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels,” he declared much to her surprise. But when Melanie finally reaches Brenner’s family home (where his mother Lydia and his sister Cathy live) she has a change of heart, leaving the lovebirds to Cathy instead. Her attraction to Mitch has softened her ego. It’s made her vulnerable to outside threats. She can be hurt from this point on. The first bird attack is almost immediately after she drops the lovebirds off at the Brenner house. In fact, the more vulnerable and besotted Melanie becomes with Mitch, the more aggressive the bird attacks. By the time we get to the second last bird attack in the film, inside the Brenner family home, Melanie has surrendered her independence and her play girl lifestyle. Even buying an old fashioned nightgown from the local store. While Mitch does manly things like barricading the Brenner house in an effort to protect the women from the birds, Melanie retreats on the couch and waits for her man, assisting him at times during the bird attack.

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Jessica Tandy

When the attack is over, and while Lydia, Mitch and Cathy sleep, Melanie hears a light flutter from a room above and decides to investigate. Grabbing a torch she walks up the staircase, alone. For a minute her independence kicks in, but there is a lesson still to learn. Melanie needs to understand that love isn’t at all like a Hollywood romantic comedy. In a Hitchcock movie, as in life, love has consequences and falling in love equals pain. Trapped in the upstairs room, the birds attack Melanie in a fluttering frenzy, almost like a spiritual rape, and the only word she utters during the vicious attack is a softly spoken, “Mitch!” Is Melanie finally achieving the orgasm she’s travelled the world to find? Early on in the film, Mitch accuses Melanie of jumping naked into a fountain in Rome and running around with a wild crowd. Perhaps this final bird attack is the gangbang she never knew she needed or even wanted!

Lydia Brenner: The children were playing a game. Those gulls attacked!

If there is a price to be paid for “loving” in The Birds, then perhaps Annie Hayworth the school teacher pays the ultimate price. Annie learns that “love kills.” Alone in her home with nothing to do but smoke cigarettes and tend the garden, Annie has felt the attraction between Mitch and her dying. This fills her with regret, loneliness and sorrow. She tells Melanie that Lydia’s attitude drove her crazy and that their relationship floundered because of his overbearing mother. A mother’s love for her son is hard to fight. Unable to let go, Annie moved to Bodega Bay to stay close to Mitch. Annie’s bird attack is not shown on screen. Instead, we learn about it from a distressed Cathy as she stumbles into Melanie’s convertible. During the attack, Annie pushes Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright) aside and the birds cover her! Did Annie commit suicide? Surrender to the birds? Did Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay kill any chance of Annie loving Mitch? When Mitch and Melanie discover Annie’s dead body cut and bleeding on the front steps of her home, Melanie screams. It’s the only time in The Birds that Melanie screams. Every other bird attack Melanie remains stoic and silent. Does Melanie feel responsible for Annie’s death? Is Melanie becoming fragile like the women hiding from the birds in Tides Restaurant?

Melanie begs Mitch to “not leave Annie there!” Was he just going to walk off? When love dies is there nothing left? Mitch picks up Annie and carries her dead body inside the house where he discovers Cathy waiting. Annie Hayward had followed her heart to Bodega Bay and received absolutely nothing in return for all her love and devotion. Most people feel like that at the end of a love affair.

Cathy Brenner: He has a client now who shot his wife in the head six times. Six times! Can you imagine it? I mean, even twice would be overdoing it, don’t you think?

The special effects in The Birds hold up well considering the movie is over 60 years old. Hitchcock turned to Walt Disney for help with the effects, and legendary special effects and animation artist Ub Iwerks, co-creator of Mickey Mouse joined the The Birds production team. Iwerks used Disney’s single sodium vapor Technicolor camera for The Birds. With the additional use of mechanical birds, live trained birds for close-up shots, and cardboard cut-out birds for long shots. Hitchcock achieved the impossible, realistic-looking bird attacks on the town of Bodega Bay. The two standout scenes are the attack outside the Tides Restaurant with Melanie trapped inside the telephone box and the attack on the children at Bodega Bay School. Hitchcock handles the bird attacks effortlessly and for most of the film’s running time doesn’t put a foot wrong!

However, one scene I’ve always struggled with is the “hilltop scene” between Melanie and Mitch, it comes just before the bird attack at Cathy’s birthday party. The scene is there to give Melanie extra heart and to let us know she grew up without her mother’s love. The performances are all well and good, but the set is a real problem. It looks horribly fake (like a 60s rom-com or cheap TV series) and it makes the dialogue spoken by the two lead characters seem superficial and irrelevant. When Melanie cries halfway through the scene, Hitchcock strangely directs Tippi Hedren to turn away from the camera lens and this action locks the viewer out. The artificial set leaves the scene emotionally dead and the viewer confused. The scene feels out of place. Evan Hunter the screenwriter confirmed in interviews that he never wrote this scene and it took him by surprise at the first screening of the film. Did Hitchcock write the hilltop scene himself? Is it Hitchcock’s little practical joke? Was he trying to remind us that The Birds is at its core nothing more than a rather elaborate soap opera? Fake and superficial, and not to be taken seriously. The soap opera theory also links to several dramatic end-of-scene tableaus in the film. Where the actors stand frozen, holding their gaze longer than necessary. The two little girls looking skyward after the birds attack the children at Cathy’s party is one such moment. It’s fake and awkward. Annie and Melanie looking at the night sky after a large gull has slammed into the front door is another odd ending. This way of ending dramatic scenes was popular in soap operas and TV productions of the period and is still used as a technique in television productions today. Just think of The Bold and the Beautiful and you’ll understand what I mean. The actors hold on a dramatic pose, usually music plays and we cut to a commercial break. Whatever the reason for the fake set design and Hitchcock’s odd direction, it’s hard not to believe that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing.

Hedren and Hitchcock in happier times!

I can’t revisit The Birds without mentioning Tippi Hedren’s accusations directed at Alfred Hitchcock since his death in 1980. She has said in interviews that Hitchcock became possessive and abusive while making The Birds. All his advances she rejected. This was of course before the “me too” movement. Hitchcock to be spitful refused to release her from her seven-year contract. She missed film opportunities and he ruined her career. In the 1960s, women were treated poorly in Hollywood by powerful rich old men. Why would Hitchcock be any different? He was the most famous director in the world at the time. Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock made one more movie together. The psychosexual thriller Marnie. It is oddly about a man (played by Sean Connery) who is infatuated with a beautiful woman who doesn’t want him. In the film Marnie, the man doesn’t take no for an answer and he rapes her. Is this art imitating life? I guess we’ll never know for sure. Although Tippi’s accusations are backed up by her co-star in The Birds, Rod Taylor. “Don’t touch the girl after I call Cut!” Hitchcock repeatedly told Taylor and the entire film crew.

Littered with good performances, and a compelling cameo by Ethel Griffies who portrays the ornithologist at the Tides Restaurant, plus above-average special effects for the time, as many as the original Star Wars movie…The Birds is a cinematic treat. Like many film lovers, Hitchcock’s The Birds is on my top ten list. It’s classic Hollywood. When I watch The Birds I marvel at the bird attacks and I’m dazzled by its unresolved ending. Like any great soap opera, The Birds leaves the audience hanging at the end. We are left with more questions than when we started as Melanie and the Brenner family drive out of Bodega Bay under the evil glare of the birds. As bird sounds get louder, we ask ourselves, “What’s going to happen next?” And we think, “I can’t wait for the next episode.” But there’s no next episode. The film ends as Hitchcock always planned, on a cliffhanger!

There have been many “man-versus-nature” horror films since The Birds was first released. But only one has been directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. To him, I say…Dear Mister Hitchcock, I think you need these lovebirds after all. They may help your personality. PS. Btw…Job well done Hitch!

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