The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): psychological study of sexual / cultural repression

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Birds” (1963)

Based on a 1952 short story by English writer Daphne du Maurier – one of Hitchcock’s favourite sources for film plots as he also filmed du Maurier’s “Rebecca” decades earlier – “The Birds” initially looks like a suspense / horror flick about a small seaside resort attacked by vicious hordes of birds. It actually ends up a character study that investigates, among other things, relationships within a family that has lost its male leader and tries to replace him with his son and the strains that arise when the son falls in love with a young woman who is not only alien to the family but to the insular community where the family lives. Familiar Hitchcockian themes such as relationships between domineering mothers and weak(ish) sons; the uncertainty of romance, especially for women; the vulnerability of women, especially women without partners, in a society in which men dominate women and women depend on them for identity and validation; and birds as indicators of freedom / repression appear. There is also a wonderfully ironic comment on the relationship of humans to nature – and perhaps by implication the relationship of humans to their sexuality or society – in the narrative’s contrast between caged birds and birds that are free and how the humans deal with both.

Rich socialite girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is “working” in a bird shop when lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) appears and pretends to mistake her for a salesgirl; he asks her for a pair of lovebirds for his baby sister’s 11th birthday. Infuriated by his teasing, Daniels buys the birds herself and hunts down Brenner to Bodega Bay, a seaside holiday place in California. She delivers the birds with a note at his farmhouse but not before she’s attacked by a seagull. The incident introduces Melanie to Mitch properly and to his dependent mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and his ex-girlfriend, school-teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Melanie ends up thoroughly nested in the Brenner family’s affairs; at the same time, a series of bird attacks, each more vicious than the last, starts harassing the little town, first at Cathy’s birthday party, then at her school and then at the town restaurant. Melanie takes refuge with the Brenners in their farmhouse, helping them to board up the windows; but during the night, when all are fast asleep, Melanie wakes and hears a noise upstairs so she goes to investigate …

The first forty minutes pass fairly slowly as a straight romantic drama, establishing the major characters and their foibles and vulnerabilities. Melanie is revealed as a spoilt rich kid who is tiring of her party-girl reputation and wants purpose and direction to her life but isn’t sure (or is restricted by her reputation and past history, and perhaps social expectations of her) about how she should achieve what she desires. Brenner seems happy commuting between Bodega Bay, devoted to his mother and young sister, and San Francisco, devoted to his law career; but one senses he’s just as lacking in direction and purpose as Melanie. Lydia Brenner and Annie Hayworth are trapped in their own half-lives. The birds are a device to bring Melanie and Mitch together and thus change everyone’s lives, for better or for worse; how people fare in the film and whether they might survive the birds’ attacks depends on a combination of luck and on how willingly they embrace change and break out of old patterns of thinking and behaving. The film’s conclusion comes as a surprise: Melanie, willing to change her past behaviour, becomes trapped and Lydia, whom viewers will think least likely to want to change, does so; but the conclusion is so ambiguous that an argument can be presented that Lydia maintains her position as matriarch and accepts Melanie as another “child” she can dominate – so no-one changes after all and the seaside resort will eventually resume its customary life. The birds may be assumed to fade away, having neutralised outsider Melanie and what she represents to the townspeople.

The film is beautifully shot: each scene is carefully set up for the camera to take in exactly what Hitchcock intended the audience to see and each little technical detail seen is symbolic of aspects of the film’s themes or narrative. In an early scene where Melanie is driving to Bodega Bay, the swaying of the little birds in the cage in her coupe symbolises the ups and downs of romantic relationships. In a later scene, Lydia picks up broken china in her home – this is a precursor to the scene when she visits a farmer and sees broken china in his house. The whole movie looks staged (and the actors right down to minor actors playing the local drunk or the pessimist yelling “The end is nigh!” are either well-dressed or at least well-scrubbed) but then the plot – a bunch of birds hounds a small, idyllic tourist town for no reason at all – is really hokey when you think about it. No less than a slightly surreal, dreamy and staged look is appropriate for trying to bulk out the thin plot into a study of small-town and isolated family attitudes towards outsiders and pulling the whole thing off.

Acting is not very remarkable: appearing in nearly every scene save for one scene where the film adopts Lydia’s point of view, Hedren is competent as Melanie but ill at ease in displaying emotion. As a result Melanie’s romance with Mitch seems forced for the purpose of the plot. Melanie’s character would have suited Grace Kelly had she been able to make a film comeback (and indeed Kelly had been Hitch’s first choice for the role but husband Prince Rainier denied her this): beneath the rich-little-girl exterior, Melanie is smart, resourceful and determined with potential to be a heroine. In a period when women were supposed to be content with marriage and motherhood, she wants something more out of life. However, Hollywood movie conventions being what they were in the early 1960s, Melanie has to be put into her place by the birds and this is the film’s real horror: Bodega Bay should be a place of freedom away from big city life and “civilisation” but instead is a compressed metaphor of the way society beats down individual men and women, forcing them to live in stereotyped twilight roles and relationships.

One Reply to “The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): psychological study of sexual / cultural repression”

  1. The film can also be read as an attack on organized religion and it’s relation to the sexual as sinful; the birds avenge a sick repressive society that is anti-nature
    and a world that “needs to end”. Jessica Tandy is the symbol of this sickness,
    and the birds only attack the main lovers when she is present and nested within the nuclear family. The child, who is compassionate towards the “lovebirds” is never touched. The attack on Tippi Hendren is the manifestation of her own sublimation and self-denial; and there is a symbolic pose, like The Pieta, in the arms of Tandy at the end of the picture, a savagely ironic tableaux of Christian
    martyrdom.

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