Hitchcock’s Last Masterpiece, Part Two of Two A
There are different types of outsiders, and different degrees of being outside/or inside the movie and its milieu.
Melanie begins as a complete outsider, literally (physically). Her arrival in town (similar to the arrival of William Holden’s Hal in “Picnic”) changes the lives of its inhabitants. But in the course of the film, she becomes more of an insider, particularly after Mitch’s mother, Lydia, accepts her as a surrogate daughter. (In the last scene, the wounded Melanie rests her head over Lydia’s shoulders).
Another outsider, though to a much lesser extent, is Annie, the schoolteacher. Despite the fact that she resides in Bodega Bay, she is lonely and does not really belong. Born in town, Mitch was an insider, but he no longer resides there; he visits the town only on weekends. Lydia and her daughter Cathy are nominally town’s residents, but they are not well integrated. As a group, however, the Brenners (which at the end includes Melanie) are insiders fighting for their survival and for maintaining their family’s unity against the birds, the outside attackers. According to one convention of the outsiders’ paradigm, an external threat or a menace, here the birds, are capable of bringing out the best in people (the Brenners) and of overcoming class and other barriers (the initial animosity between Lydia and Melanie). Under specific conditions outsiders, such as Melanie, change, turning out to be insiders in their commitment and courage.
In the tradition of small-town works, one-parent families prevail in The Birds. The Brenner family is headed by Lydia, a widow; her husband died four years ago. And Melanie recalls how her mother “ditched us” at the age of eleven. Mitch believes that Melanie “needs a mother care,” and, at the end, she does get such care from Lydia, who helps to band-aid her. The very last image shows Melanie in the arms of Lydia.
There is nothing agrarian or small-town about Lydia; she speaks with the quick tempo of the city dweller. Mitch went through a lot with his mother after his father died, four years ago. Lydia appears to be a possessive and domineering mother, but she is not. More than being afraid of losing her son to another woman, she is afraid of being abandoned. ”It’s odd how you depend on someone for strength, and how suddenly all the strength is gone, and you’re alone.” Lydia lacks her husband’s natural gift with children. ”He really knew the children–he had the knack of being able to enter into their world, of becoming a part of them.” Lydia understands that Mitch “has always done exactly what he wanted to do,” which for her “it’s the mark of a man,” but “I wouldn’t want to be left alone.” Lydia’s fragility and vulnerability is suggested by the shaking teacup she is holding in her hands. A lonely woman, her dependency on her husband was too heavy. “If only your father was here!” says the hysterical Lydai during the attack.
The imagery of the Big City: Cathy believes that most of the people Mitch knows in San Francisco are ‘hoods,” because he spends “half his day in the detention cells at the Hall of Justice. ”In a democracy, everyone is entitled to a fair trial,” says her mother. ”I know all the democracy jazz,” says Cathy, “they’re still hoods.” Mitch told his sister “San Francisco is just an ant hill at the foot of a bridge,” and that it gets “a little hectic at times.”
A society girl, Melanie’s father is a rich publishing tycoon, owning a newspaper. “She’s always mentioned in the columns,” says Lydia, recalling this story of how she jumped into that Fountain in Rome while in the nude. Melanie denies that, claiming she was pushed. The reason why it was mentioned is that “the newspaper that ran the story happened to be a rival of my father’s paper.” Melanie is accused by Mitch of “running with a pretty wild crowd, who didn’t much care for propriety or convention or the opinion of others.” Melanie has no roots, no bonds to commit her to a career or meaningful life. She does “different things on different days,” like working for the Travelers Aid at the airport, twice a week, taking lessons here and there. But she has childish ideas, wanting to buy her 70-year-old aunt a myna bird that’ll talk to her. At the same time, she would be the first to admit that it’s “silly and childish teaching a bird to shock my aunt.” Admittedly, as she says, “I ought to go join the other children.”
As in other small-town films, appearances are deceitful. Lydia seems to be possessive and jealous, but she is not. Melanie appears to be self-assured and arrogant, but she is insecure. A sophisticated urban socialite on the surface, she is an immature child underneath, one who needs to grow up, to mature. The asymmetry in Melanie’s looks as the story progresses signifies process maturation, of awaking up. Note Melanie’s perfect and meticulous appearance in the first scene and her appearance in the last one, bruised, her forehead covered with bandages.
The ideological message of “The Birds,” As Donald Spoto points out, is similar to Shadow of a Doubt: the fragility of our supposedly ordered world. The film views the universe as a place that must always be guarded against imminent disaster; chaos is around the corner, ready to burst in. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Things go crazy from time to time. The world has to be watched very carefully.” The birds represent the unpredictable and arbitrary element of life, the unacknowledged invisible forces of destruction, that cannot be explained or controlled with rational reasoning or commonsense. Hitchcock is intrigued with showing how a peaceful scene or setting can turn into the most horrible and violent. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” the depiction of black smoke to signal the arrival of the villain. In “The Birds,” Hitchcock contrasts Lydia’s arrival into Dan’s farm with her departure, upon discovering his dead body with his eyes missing. Hitchcock put smoke in the truck’s exhaust to make the road dusty, after Lydia discovers the farmer’s body
The birds attack everyone–even innocent children are not spared. Dan, the farmer, is attacked at his farm; Melanie on the boat, Cathy at her birthday party. The birds know no discrimination: chaos could be universal and is potentially everywhere. Unlike other films, Hitchcock does not use the birds’ attack as a form of punishment of those who deserve it most: violators or transgressors of norms.
Innocent (children), complacent (Melanie), hard-working teachers and farmers (Annie, Dan) are all victims of irrational forces. The birds attack the most ordinary institution (school), but also most sacred ones (Cathy’s birthday party) Moreover, the Brenners become imprisoned in their own house. The house, a symbol of shelter and protection, becomes the birds’ target. The traditional meaning of other symbols is shattered and/or reversed. Eye-glasses, a sign of better vision and greater clarity get smashed during the attack.
A lot has been written about the resolution of The Birds. Initially, Hitchcock the ironist considered having a more frightening closure: the Brenners arrive in San Francisco, only to realize that the birds have taken over the Golden Gate Bridge! “It looks clear up ahead,” is Mitch’s last sentence in the film, indicating hopefulness for the future. The last shot shows the car moving fast into the magnificent sunrise over the crest of the hills, while the birds are sitting and waiting. The ending reaffirms the Brenners’ marginal status: leaving town, they become complete outsiders–literally
“The Birds” combines thematic conventions and stylistic devices of various genres. On one level, it is a suspenseful film, but it also has elements of science-fiction (Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in 1956) and horror-action (“Aliens”) films. On another level, it is a melodrama with a number of emotional/romantic triangles: the troubled nuclear family (Lydia, Mitch, and Cathy); the romantic triangle of two women in love with the same man (Mitch, Annie, and Melanie); and the three women, representing three generations, which form meaningful bonds (Lydia, Melanie, and Cathy).
“The Birds” is also a romantic comedy of manner (particularly in the beginning). Hitchcock blends the conventions of these genres masterfully, in a wonderfully paced narrative, making “The Birds” a great small-town feature—and a great film in general.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren)
Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor)
Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy)
Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette)
Cathy Brenner (Vernoica Cartwright)
Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies)
Sebastian Sholes (Charles McGraw)
Mrs. Magruder (Ruth McDevitt)
Waitress at Tides (Elizabeth Wilson)
Released by Universal
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Assistant to Hitchcock: Peggy Robertson
Screenplay: Evan Hunter, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier
Camera: Robert Burks
Special Effects: Lawrence A. Hampton
Special Photographic Advisor: Ub Iwerks
Bird Trainer: Ray Berwick
Set Design: Robert Boyle and George Milo
Sound Consultant: Bernard Herrmann
Electronic Sounds: Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala
Assistant Director: James H. Brown
Credits Sequence: James S. Pollak
Editing: George Tomasini
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