Friday, July 24, 2020

Hitchcock Binge: The Birds (1963)


Dig long and dig deep into the annals of horror cinema history, and you will likely excavate a dozen or more titles traceable directly back to Alfred Hitchcock's seminal "revenge of nature" movie, The Birds (1963). John Carpenter's The Fog (1980), about a small town overcome by a creeping mist appropriates the Marin County location; the "local color" of a small town in jeopardy, and the final siege set-piece. Or take, for example, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), another siege picture with desperate heroes barricading themselves (with hammers and nails...) inside an isolated farmhouse while the menace grows outside -- a concept nearly identical to the last act of The Birds. On and on, you can tally your catalogue. Films from Frogs (1972) to Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) to Day of the Animals (1977) to Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) derive much of their energy, drive and central scenarios from The Birds.

This is so because the film compellingly depicts a crisis (a war with homicidal birds) but finds no empirical solution for the mystery, instead focusing the viewer's search for "answers" as it were, on the vicissitudes of human nature and the human heart. Thus, the technically accomplished film, a horror thriller of the first order, is both enticingly and alarmingly ambiguous at the same time, with no scientific or rational explanation for the birds' attack on mankind in scenic Bodega Bay. The lack of a scientific or rational explanation lends the film a powerful -- and undeniably sexual -- subtext; and that's the element of the piece to focus on. The bird attacks, one can detect upon close viewing, occur because of turbulent human emotions. Yep, it's all about the birds and the bees.


But first some reminders about the storyline. The Birds opens on a seemingly normal day in the early 1960’s with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) happening into a bird shop in scenic San Francisco. As she enters the shop, a flock of birds are seen in the distance amongst the skyscrapers: circling and cawing, but otherwise nonthreatening. This is a foreshadowing of what is to come; a "simmering" before the inevitable boiling.

Once Melanie is in the store, however, things do heat up (as we anticipate). Melanie attempts to pull a prank on a handsome man, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) by pretending to be a bird shop employee. But Mitch -- who claims (critically) to be there to purchase two "love birds" -- is actually pulling a prank of his own, and soon gets the better of Melanie.

This game of cat and mouse spurs a veritable obsession in Melanie, and she soon tracks Mitch down to his home, sixty miles up the coast, in scenic Bodega Bay. a little hamlet described as a "a collection of shacks on a hillside." Her mission: to initiate a sexual relationship with Mitch, still more or less a stranger. Melanie does so under the guise of delivering him his love birds. Once in town, Melanie also meets the town's schoolteacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), another woman who once shared an intimate relationship with the apparently promiscuous Mitch. There is a quick rivalry between Annie and Melanie, and some jealousy there too. Meanwhile, as Melanie grows closer to Mitch, she is looked upon with stern disapproval by Mitch's shrewish, controlling mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Lydia is a cold, emotionally closed off woman, still despondent over the death of her husband years earlier.

And while all these tumultuous personal relationships shift and grow, the inexplicable suddenly occurs: birds of all varieties (sparrows, crows, gulls, etc.) launch a coordinated attack on Bodega Bay, ambushing the local school (killing Annie), dive-bombing the local diner, and laying merciless siege to Mitch's family farm house (reachable primarily by motor boat and therefore somewhat isolated).

In The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock forges fascinating connections between the film's primary love relationship and these bird attacks. In fact, he seems to suggest that the relationship is indeed the very thing manifesting the homicidal rage among our fine feathered friends. Hitchcock's visual storytelling and connections suggest -- albeit in subtle terms -- that the Mitch/Melanie coupling, their perhaps "unnatural" or "inappropriate" relationship (at least in Lydia's eyes...) is the very factor that has caused the sudden and alarming up-ending of Mother Nature, and set off the murderous birds. I find this "stealth" explanation fascinating, because instead of locating an answer inside science (which would inevitably play like techno-babble), Hitchcock finds motivation in us; in the way we relate to another; in the things, even, we keep hidden and buried away from one another.



The film's first bird attack triggers this nearly subconscious connection in a most artful way. Early in the film, Melanie takes a skiff out to Mitch's isolated farmhouse. She parks the boat, sneaks into his home (through an unlocked door...), deposits the love birds and makes good her escape. Right under Mitch's nose: he's in the yard but doesn't see Melanie approaching. There is no music at all in this sequence (as there is no music, actually, in the film), but the suspense grows almost unbearable in the lingering silence as Hitchcock deploys quick cuts, and a series of point-of-view receding zooms to depict Melanie's hasty and illicit retreat from the private property. We then see Mitch discover the intrusion, grab a pair of binoculars, look through them and -- bam -- he sees her! She's been caught!

The two lovers are thus face-to-face (over some distance) for the first time with the revelation that something romantic (something sexual...) joins them. We're so obsessed with this flirtation, with this game of cat and mouse, that we are caught totally off guard when a (huge) gull swoops into the frame -- out of nowhere -- and literally takes a plug out of Melanie's scalp. The vicious and unexpected attack causes blood to run down her forehead, and Mitch tends to her wound, but the overall impression of this bird attack is that it serves as metaphor for being dumbstruck by love (or more accurately, desire). Lust bitch-slaps you when you least expect it.

Later that night, after Annie and Melanie have shared a long discussion about their mutual and sordid histories with Mitch, a bird attacks the boarding house's front door. The target again, not surprisingly, is Melanie. The next day, the birds attack once more: this time dive-bombing a group of children (including Veronica Cartwright, playing Mitch's sister Cathy). Importantly, the attack follows a very intense, very intimate conversation between Mitch and Melanie on the hillside beyond the party. Again, the timing is crucial, as if the birds are desperate -- insanely desperate -- to stop the relationship before it progresses any further.

Later, in Lydia's presence, the birds attack once more, flying into Mitch's living room through a chimney. And it is here that the full Oedipal nature of the film exposes itself most fully. Lydia is a possessive old woman, a "clinging, possessive mother" who disapproves of Melanie and her son's lascivious interest in her. For example, Lydia complains to Mitch how Melanie was featured in the gossip columns the previous year for jumping naked into a fountain in Rome. This brazenly sexual act doesn't seem to bother the stimulated Mitch, but it certainly bothers the fearful and closed-off Lydia, a widower who fears "abandonment." So, the question becomes: is Lydia subconsciously orchestrating the bird attacks on Melanie? The first bird attack (near the cottage) could have been a general warning of "stay away." The second attack (at Annie's house) was a strike against two of Mitch's women, and the attack in the living room may have been a result of Lydia's uncontrollable rage at seeing the two lovers circle each other with such blatant and brazen sexual intent.

A later attack also supports this thesis. Lydia is sick in bed mid-way through the film (after witnessing the aftermath of a bird attack on a neighbor), and she pointedly asks Melanie to go to Annie's school to check on her daughter. Not coincidentally, when Melanie gets there, the birds launch an attack on the school. Not before she arrives. Not after her arrival. While she is there. So, was this a trap for Melanie created by Lydia's "id?" And when Melanie managed to escape it, remember, it was Annie (the secondary threat for Mitch's affections), who got offed by the birds. If you'll forgive the expression, Lydia may have been killing two birds with one stone, by sending Melanie to the school, where Annie also happened to be.

As film aficionados, we recognize that Hitchcock has toiled in overt Oedipal themes before, notably with Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). In that film, a mother's love reached from beyond the grave, in a sense, to twist her adult son into a psychotic. In The Birds, Lydia's desperate desire not to be abandoned, not to see Mitch go off with another woman, somehow precipitates the bird attacks, and lashes out at those she perceives as threats or dangers to her own emotional safety. This idea tracks throughout the film, particularly in the climax.

The film's final act finds Mitch, Lydia, Cathy (the sister) and Melanie sequestered in the boarded-up farmhouse as the birds attack in waves. Melanie, hearing a noise, separates herself from the group, and goes into an upstairs bedroom. There, in a sequence that evokes the cutting-style of the notorious Janet Leigh shower scene in Psycho, the birds relentlessly -- endlessly -- peck at Melanie. Rending and tearing her flesh and clothes. Ripping her apart. Ultimately, she is saved in the nick of time, but is badly wounded and bloodied. This sequence, the film's piece-de-resistance in terms of shock editing, essentially eliminates Melanie as a threat to Lydia, does it not? She falls into catatonia and shock for the remainder of the film (right through the end credits) and is therefore no longer a danger to Lydia's supremacy as the woman in Mitch's life. This sexually carnivorous woman has been, essentially, de-clawed and de-fanged. Or more aptly, her wings have been clipped. 

The last shots of the film thus depict Lydia accepting and nurturing Melanie (in the car), as the group attempts to escape; caring for as she would for a helpless child. With Melanie's sexuality all-but eliminated, there is no reason Lydia cannot "love" Melanie as she would a child. In some senses, this is actually a win-win because the film has defined Melanie as a person who lacked the love of a mother (the motivation, we are led to believe, for her acts of reckless sexuality). Now Lydia can play that role with her. 

Another clue about the underlying (and human-spawned) motivation for the bird attacks comes in a throwaway line of dialogue. A character comments that in the night sky, the moon is full. In mythology, the moon is often linked with a person's emotional gestalt, and here's the kicker: to their unconscious emotions. More trenchantly, in mythology the moon is closely associated with the mother, with -- according to Wikipedia -- "maternal instincts or the urge to nurture, the home, and the past." Understanding this, one might detect the hidden importance Lydia plays in this Hitchcockian narrative. Her unconscious desire to protect Mitch from a sexually carnivorous woman, to live in the past (when she was protected by an alpha male, not unlike Mitch) is cloaked just beneath the surface in the film; and one might argue, the reason why the birds go nuts.

Late in the film, a hysterical woman in a diner looks at Melanie with utter hatred and notes that she is the cause of the unnatural bird behavior. "They said when you got here, the whole thing started," she accuses Melanie. Well, she's right. Melanie's presence is the reason for the attacks, but Melanie is not causing the attacks herself. Lydia has detected her as a threat and managed to rally the birds against her. What we have in The Birds is an example of an overbearing Mother Human subconsciously directing Mother Nature to do her bidding.

Of course, this is all just a theory that happens to track with a close reading of the film, but The Birds is so admirable for the very reason that it leaves itself open to interpretation. No answers are given. Nothing is spoon-fed (unlike the newscast ending of The Happening; or even the talky coda of Psycho, for that matter). The film is littered with clues about the birds and the reasons for their attack, but as an audience, we are asked to interpret; to speculate; to add our own intellect to that of a master filmmaker. There are many reasons why The Birds is a horror classic, from the beautiful choreography of the bird attacks (including one utterly amazing bird's eye view of Bodega Bay as a coordinated assault is launched from the sky) to the surprising wit of the screenplay. But as with all great horror cinema, the real (and lasting) value of this film rests in what it has to say about us; about humanity and human nature.

An old Asian proverb goes: "a bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." The angry, maddening song of the feathered ones in The Birds is written by the insecure id of frightened Lydia; but perhaps more importantly, it is one composed beautifully and artistically by that horror maestro for the ages, Mr. Hitchcock.

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