Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Birds

The 1950s and 1960s were decades replete with mostly B- and a few A-list films about monsters and aliens threatening the earth. Examples are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and many others.

There were Godzilla films about giant fire-breathing dinosaurs, there were giant moths, giant crabs, giant rabbits, giant frogs, hordes of bees. We’re still seeing films about ecological catastrophes and threats from extraterrestrial sources—whether meteors or comets or alien invasions. For me the reason for these films lies in the end of the second world war, the atomic bombings in Japan, the dawning of the nuclear age and the Cold War, the revelations about the Holocaust. The world and our place in it as human beings became more difficult and complex and uncertain.

In this context Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds premiered in 1963, though prospects of ecological catastrophe or global apocalypse didn’t much influence how I viewed it as a thirteen-year-old boy.

I first saw The Birds in 1963 at the East Point theatre, in East Point, GA, just south of Atlanta. Every Saturday I would board the bus where I lived in College Park and ride fifteen minutes to the stop at what was then Russell High School. The East Point theatre was across the street. For 25 cents every Saturday afternoon you could see a double-feature. That is where I saw the film.

In 1963 The Birds was frightening and disturbing and highly satisfying. I find it all these things and more now.

Hitchcock took the idea for The Birds from a 1952 story by Daphne Du Maurier. He had earlier directed adaptations of her novels Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940). The latter won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941. Du Maurier’s set her story on the Cornish coast of England. Hitchcock moved the setting to a small California coastal town named Bodega Bay. The brief invasion of another California town in 1961 by seagulls lost in the fog also influenced this film about birds that inexplicably and viciously attack human beings.

Hitchcock’s film engages in little speculation about why the birds attack. His birds are the same cute, harmless creatures we think of as charming at the seashore or at the feeders in our backyards. They attack hapless individuals without warning, and with increasing ferocity—children, old men, random people, then the entire town. And their central target is the main character Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren)—what does she do to deserve the attacks? Is she just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or is there something more? The absence of explanation is a central part of this film’s artistry.

Here are several ways to think about The Birds:

1. As a science fiction or a monster film—some people regard it as such. I don’t, but it was as I note earlier made in that Cold War era of science fiction films.

2. As a film about hysteria among individuals and within an entire community. The hysteria is focused on Melanie Daniel. She’s a cosmopolitan, upper-class jet-set type. When she arrives in Bodega Bay looking for a man she hardly knows, Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor), she is an intruder and an outsider. Her big city San Francisco ways clash with those of the people in this small town. Mitch’s widowed mother Lydia (played by Jessica Tandy) is suspicious of her, as is his former flame Annie Hayworth (Susanne Pleshette), as are others. Do their suspicions radiate outwards? Do the attacking birds somehow give them form and force? The film especially reminded me in this regard of Shirley Jackson’s 1948 story “The Lottery” and even of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown.”

3. As an Oedipal melodrama. This is how the quirky but always interesting critic Camille Paglia views it (she claims to enjoy the scenes of birds attacking children, and she believes Hitchcock did as well). Melanie’s powerful and wealthy father is always absent, though she often talks to him on the phone. Lydia’s husband is dead—his portrait looms always in sight in the scenes set in her living room. She is afraid her son will abandon her (he spends every weekend with her); Annie has been abandoned as well. Do tensions and rivalries that result somehow manifest in the swarming birds?

4. As a drama about violence and revenge against women—single young women, outspoken and aggressive women who cross expected bounds of propriety for 1963. Melanie Daniel is such a woman—she’s wealthy, affluent, perhaps sexually aggressive—she’s rumored to have danced naked in a Roman fountain. And she does come looking for Mitch in her fancy car and clothes and immaculate hairdo. If we see her this way, as the object of violence from birds and characters in the film, then she’s also Hitchcock’s victim—both inside and outside the film--what Tippi Hedren endured in the making of The Birds is astounding and legendary. You may recall a similar victim, played by Janet Leigh, in Hitchcock’s 1961 film Psycho.

5. Finally we might see The Birds as an early film about ecological disaster. Hitchcock himself suggested as much in a short and wry film he made to publicize The Birds—it’s an extra on the DVD. The Birds does suggest that the attacks in Bodega Bay are spreading elsewhere, are not isolated. Are the attacking birds taking revenge on humankind for all of its sins, ecological and otherwise? In various subtle ways this is the explanation the film seems to favor, without discounting the others.

The performances in The Birds are remarkable, from Rod Taylor as the leading male character to Susanne Pleshette as the school teacher to Jessica Tandy to Hedren herself. Hedren is the film’s center. This is one of the two truly great performances of her career, the other being Marnie, the 1964 Hitchcock film that followed this one. There’s also a wide cast of minor characters, most of them inhabitants of Bodega Bay—each of them distinctive and fully drawn. It’s unusual to see a cast of secondary characters like this in contemporary films.

There is no music here—only the menacing cries of birds.

There are no digital effects either—there are a few papier-mâché birds, a lot of careful editing and deft film work—but most of the birds you see are real crows, ravens, seagulls, finches. The effects are successful enough, though they are clearly not state of the art by contemporary standards.

In The Birds virtually all the elements of filmmaking—screenplay, directing, acting, editing, sound, cinematography, art design, effects—combine in a terrifying and complexly disturbing work. (It also has its moments of humor too). The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s great films.


Having recently seen The Birds again on my own, and then having watched it with a sizeable audience at the local arts cinema, I wonder whether a film such as The Birds, whether any great film, is doomed to irrelevance by the passage of time. Today’s audiences have seen far more gruesome and terrifying films (many of which borrowed from The Birds). Does the way in which Hitchcock builds suspense and portrays his characters strike modern viewers as formulaic and clichéd? Does Melanie Daniels herself come across as the sexy and independent woman she is supposed to be, or do modern viewers see her as a kind of overdressed joke from the early 60s? Hitchcock invites total immersion in the lives and experiences of his characters, especially in Melanie Daniel’s experience. But do the cultural and historical markers that identify this film as a product of the early 1960s prevent modern audiences from appreciating it? I lived through the 50s and 60s, and it is easy for me to be caught up in The Birds without worrying about the historically marked ways in which characters dress and talk and act. Is the same possible for viewers born in 1970 or 1980 or 1990? Some viewers can suspend their sensibilities and give themselves up to the film. But some viewers in the audience with me at the recent screening laughed in places where laughter was not what I expected. Either I was failing to recognize the humor they saw, or they were reacting to what they regarded as archaic elements in the film. For them, The Birds may not have offered the immediacy of experience that great art should provide.

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