Masterpieces of American Cinema: The Birds A
The second masterpiece Alfred Hitchcock contributed to the genre of small-town movies (the first was “Shadow of a Doubt,” in 1943) was “The Birds,” a film that’s still underestimated for its brilliant structure and technical execution. Indeed, the stature of ”The Birds,” which is rich in ideas as well as stylistic virtuosity, grows with each viewing.
The narrative follows closely the three unities of place, time, and action. Unfolding over a period of three days, most of the story takes place at Bodega Bay, California. Structurally, the plot consists of three parts. The first, beginning in a pet shop in San Francisco and up to the heroine’s arrival in town, is a typical Hitchcock romantic comedy of manners (in the tradition of British theater). The second describes the attack of the birds on the town and the town’s reaction. And the third part shows the attack of the birds on the Brenner household and their departure from town. In each of these parts, the second and third are equal in time, different ideas are stressed and different aspects of the protagonists are revealed.
The action begins in the City, San Francisco, when Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a rich socialite, sleekly groomed and exquisitely dressed, meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a young handsome lawyer, at a birds store. Pretending she works there, Melanie walks with the quick sureness of the city dweller, a mischievous grin on her face and a sense of purposefulness in her stride. Mitch is there to get lovebirds for the birthday of his much younger sister. He projects the image of his ideal woman by describing the birds he would like to buy for his sister: “not too demonstrative, but not aloof either, a pair that is just ‘friendly.’”
It turns out they have met in court, when one of her practical jokes resulted in “the smashing of a plate glass window.” Committed to “the law,” Mitch is not “too keen on practical jokes.” Mitch puts Melanie in her place so that she can see “what it felt like to be on the other end of a gag.” A loose woman with no focus in her life, Melanie needs to be restrained. Their first encounter is marked by double entendres that are later developed.
Melanie decides to deliver the birds incognito to Mitch’s house in Bodega Bay, a small, attractive town, surrounded by water and green land. But it’s not a famous town–Melanie has never heard of it before. On Saturday morning, the town is booming with inhabitants: fishermen are crossing the road, old ladies carry shopping begs, women are seen with hair in curlers. The Brenner family is not well integrated in town: Geographically isolated, their house is on the other side of the bay. The residents don’t even know their names. The town’s postal clerk is sure the little girl’s name is Alice (another man believes it is Lois), but her name is Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). There is no longer intimacy and knowledge of people’s names, as was the case in small towns (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) of previous decades. Which is one reason why the mail never gets delivered to the right place. The Brenners belong to the upper middle class. Mitch is a successful (criminal) lawyer in San Francisco, but he spends his weekends in town, which makes him an insider-outsider.
Annie Haywroth (Susanne Pleshette), the town’s schoolteacher and Mitch’s old flame, is also an outsider. She first visited Bodega Bay when Mitch invited her for a weekend. But because of his attachment to his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and her demands on him (and lack of passion on his part), their relationship dissolved. Still in love with him, Annie decided to live there permanently, long after their relationship ended, because she did not want to give up his friendship.
Annie is bitter, disillusioned about the prospect of living a fulfilling life in Bodega Bay, which explains her ambivalence toward Melanie’s growing involvement with Mitch. ”I guess that’s where everyone meets Mitch,” she says, upon learning that they had met in San Francisco. On the verge of entering middle-age, she is a woman who is willing to compromise.
“I’m an open book,” Annie says, but then contradicts herself, “or rather a closed one.” Annie is actually both open and closed book. She’s a committed teacher, a bit idealistic. One reason she left San Francisco was boredom with her job, teaching at a private school “little girls in brown beanies.” By contrast, the kids at Bodega Bay are thirsty for knowledge. ”I haven’t got very much, but I’ll give them every ounce of it,” says Annie, ”It makes me want to stay alive for a long long time.” She is responsible to maintaining order, in and outside the classroom. Annie loses her life while protecting Cathy from the birds. Overall, Annie is not the stereotypical schoolteacher–a permanent staple of small town films. But she had to die, because her very presence is a reminder, if not threat, to Mitch’s problem of being single-mindedly committed to one woman. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in his long interview-book that her character was “doomed from the beginning.”
Annie provides the most interesting comments about the town. She’s first introduced working on her garden; her hair deranged, she is wearing earth-stained gloves. Next to her, Melanie looks completely out of place. ”This tilling of the soil can become compulsive?” she tells Melanie, explaining she had no time to smoke. ”It’s a pretty garden,” remarks Melanie. ”It’s something to do in your spare time,” says Annie, “there’s a lot of spare time in Bodega Bay.” Annie thinks the town doesn’t offer much to the casual visitor, “Unless you’re thrilled by a collection of shacks on a hillside. It takes a while to get used to.”
The town’s local hangout is “The Tides,” a small neighborhood restaurant, where women hang in their housedresses and curlers, and the TV set always shows an old Western film. The other crucial information about the town and its residents is revealed in the middle section of the film, during which the birds attack sacred (the school) and strategic (the gas station) institutions. The various reactions to the birds’ attack indicate different perspectives–and solutions–to dealing with the problem.
One view, held by the ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy, an old woman, dressed bizarrely, is that: “Birds are not aggressive creatures. They bring beauty into the world. It’s mankind who makes it difficult.” She doesn’t believe birds possess “sufficient intelligence” to do such thing. She obviously has some knowledge about birds, correcting Melanie about the kinds of birds, which attacked, and providing statistics about their numbers. The other extreme view is held by Jason, a drunk, unshaven, shabby-looking man, a religious fanatic who believes in apocalypse. ”It’s the end of the world,” he screams, quoting from the book of Ezekiel: “In all your dwelling places, the cities shall be laid waste.” His opinion is so extreme that nobody takes him seriously.
The third position, voiced by a well-dressed man who appears to be a traveling salesman, is the most extreme, propagating the use of physical force, violence. Most birds are scavengers, he claims, “If you ask me, we should wipe them all out. World would be better off without them. All they do is make a mess of everything. Who needs them?” Hitchcock later makes sure that he himself is punished with a violent death–his car explodes.
But there are other, more moderate, opinions. Al Malone, the deputy sheriff, represents the legal authority’s approach, based on limited commonsensical knowledge and experience. A plain man, he was used to giving out speeding tickets and warning drunks. Of limited intelligence, he asks if they had a light burning, “cause sometimes birds are attracted by light.” ”Birds just don’t go around attacking people without no reason.” Malone, and the Santa Rosa police, is not trustworthy. The police hold that the murder of farmer San was a felony, by a burglar who broke in.” When Mitch suggests to make fog with smoke, because Mrs. Bundy claims that seagulls get lost in a fog, all Malone can do is cite the regulations: “There’s an ordinance against burning anything in this town.” ”Sure is peculiar,” he concludes.
There is also the hysterical woman, who accuses Melanie of being a witch. ”You’re evil,” she charges, reasoning that, after all, it all began with Melanie’s arrival in town. Irrational and susceptible (mob behavior) this woman is the type of dangerous individuals who spread vicious rumors and ignite the masses’ worst instincts. Melanie slaps her hard to calm her down. Lydia, Mitch’s mother, also bursts into hysterics when she realizes the birds now surround their house.
At first, Mitch and Melanie apply their rational, logical faculties to the birds’ attack. However, they gradually realize–as the viewers do–that some issues defy logical analysis, which is a major message conveyed by the film. ”It’s an uprising of birds,” Melanie says, “birds of the world unite.” “Why should humans rule?” the birds ask themselves. ?
Two images feature prominently in “The Birds,” both imbued with symbolic meanings: The cage and the glass. The cage serves as a consistent metaphor throughout the film. Early on in the birds’ store, Melanie opens a cage and a bird flies out. It’s Mitch who catches the bird and puts it back in the cage, saying, “Back to your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” Melanie’s careless lifestyle and complacency have insulated her from “real” life; she has been in her own insular cage. The glass suggests the fragility of stability and the social order and the precariousness of human life. At the Brenners’ house, the teacups shake in Lydia’s hands, and she later drops a cup in her kitchen. The broken pieces of the Lydia’s tea-set during the birds’ attack signify the shattering of a protected, sheltered life (see Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” 1955)
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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