Originally posted to the internet October 4, 2010
We’re officially starting off October with Hitchcock. You can’t get much better than that. I’ve wanted to discuss The Birds for a while because it is a very puzzling movie. What is going on? Horrific flocks of birds kill humans in a sleepy, seaside town. . . .or . . . A budding romance is endangered by man-killing seagulls. . . . or . . . The animal kingdom fights back! Any of these sentences could be the tag line for Birds, but I think Hitchcock had more in mind.
First of all, let us all agree that Hitch never made an unplanned shot. As a director Hitch was a famous control freak. Spontaneity or improvisation on set was anathema to him. Therefore, any shot in Birds, no matter how strange it may be, is intentional and meaningful. If you want to consider this movie only as a horror/shock film, or even only as a slightly sick romance, you will not be able to resolve certain scenes into your thematic view. I propose that Hitch was being much more subtle, and that the underlying theme he wished to convey was a screed against women’s liberation and feminism. Too far afield for you? Consider the title: The Birds. What is an Englishman’s (Hitch’s native land) slang word for a woman? A bird.
Okaaaay! Let’s see if I can support this anti-feminism claim. We’ll examine the movie using the Enneagram storytelling tool, and I’ll try to prove my theory. Unlike previous Enneagram movie reviews, this one will not use film clips. For one reason, I don’t own the movie and I have a (possibly silly) rule that I won’t borrow clips from a rented DVD. Another reason is that gathering the clips is incredibly time-consuming. I will try to write fabulously interesting and concise summaries of the scenes in order to get you into the spirit of the film, instead. Very good. We’re off.
It’s 1963 and our main gal, Melanie Daniels (played by “newcomer” Tippi Hedren), is teh awesome in her four-inch heels and chic black skirted suit as she dashes across a busy San Francisco street. Every man wants Melanie; every woman wants to be Melanie. In close-up Tippi’s dewy round eyes and her pearlescent skin are to die for. You get the picture. Let us all take a moment to bow to Hitch, the master at casting the perfect Everywoman.
Melanie enters a pet shop where she intends to buy . . . a bird. Can Hitch stay on message, or what? In comes hunky dude Mitch Brenner, played by super-chinned actor Rod Taylor, who also wants to buy a bird. Lovebirds, actually. (More on that later.) After a bit of playful romantic banter, Mitch reveals that our Melanie may not be such a great girl after all. She’s rich to the point of being spoiled, and she pulls pranks. No heinous crime is being committed by Melanie. However, she is not modest, not demure and she is shamelessly wild. In our 21st century experience with party toy Paris Hilton, Melanie’s society-girl shenanigans seem tame, but in Hitch’s day this was an improper young lady.
When Mitch leaves the shop without his lovebirds and with the last dig in on Melanie, she decides to get him back. She runs outside to catch his license plate number, calls it in to her father’s newspaper so she can get his name and address, and orders a pair of lovebirds from the pet shop.
With the lovebirds come our trouble. Not that they’re a problem: these two pink-headed dumplings in a gilded cage are the picture of bird happiness. Melanie tries to deliver them to Mitch’s apartment only to find that he’s out of town for the weekend. In a fit of prankishness taken to an extreme, she decides to drive up to Bodega Bay to complete her mission. Left behind is the urban life that makes the modern woman seem normal. Melanie stands out like a sore thumb in the rural environment. Her glossed hair and fur coat look like costumes set against gray Bodega Bay.
Again, our Melanie charms everyone she meets, while managing to seem brass, bordering on offensive, at the same time. The man at the general store obviously doesn’t know what to make of her forwardness, but he orders her an outboard as she requests. Schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (the wickedly subtle Suzanne Pleshette) also likes Melanie, even though she can tell they will be rivals. Meanwhile, in long shots of the waterfront, the fur coat runs errands around town.
Just when you think the fur coat couldn’t look any more ridiculous, it climbs down a ladder into a tiny boat on the bay. Melanie, looking like she’s on her way to a socialite party, motors across a large-sized body of water in an outboard that appears ready to capsize. Our Melanie turns out to be competent, though, and docks the boat, sneaks into the Brenner house to deposit the lovebirds, and returns to the boat unseen. Her little face peering over the lip of the boat edge to watch Mitch’s confusion when he runs from the house looking for the lovebird-delivering Santa Claus is utterly beguiling. We may cluck our tongue at Melanie, but Tippi makes sure that we also think Melanie’s just wonderful. She takes off across the bay and Mitch drives the long way around to meet her at the pier.
Here is when the key moment of the Three happens: a seagull dive-bombs Melanie’s head as she’s about to dock. Our first act of bird violence has occurred. Anyone familiar with Hitchcock will now brace themselves, because it’s all downhill from here on out.
Hitch lays the pipe, as they say about the act of establishing the various story lines. Birds are increasingly menacing. Melanie and Mitch are increasingly attracted to each other. Melanie continues to be an unpredictable liar on the one hand, and an appropriate potential mate on the other hand. The key to revealing Melanie’s nature lies with Mitch’s mom, Lydia (played consummately byJessica Tandy). Mama doesn’t want her boy attracted to a playgirl who swims naked in the fountains of Rome (as the society pages of the newspaper claim). However, Lydia, who fell apart when her husband died four years ago, is an intimidating and simultaneously weak example of womanhood. Only an iron-handed mother could lecture her son about appropriate girlfriends, and Lydia swings into helplessness too often. It’s like she’s forgotten how to be a woman. Her pre-teen daughter Cathy is treated more like a granddaughter. The second-banana whiz who plays Cathy, Veronica Cartwright (who has an admirable adult career, including a role in Alien), is great at making Cathy latch onto Melanie as a sister/mother figure.
Another example of failed womanhood is shown in schoolteacher Annie, with whom Melanie overnights. Annie was, according to her account, an independent woman living in San Francisco who moved to Bodega Bay after she and Mitch broke up in order to just be near him. Excuse me? As the schoolteacher she seems the very model of demure womanhood, yet she lives alone in a house with a room to rent while maybe (or maybe not) fantasizing about the local bachelor who rejected her maybe (or maybe not) because Lydia told him to. As she and Melanie share a late-night brandy and a smoke we get a good look at Annie’s eclectic, art-encrusted living room. Annie still thinks of herself as a liberated woman (according to her decor), yet she lives a desiccated life. She, too, appears to have forgotten how to be a woman.
The Switch comes during a dinner party at Lydia’s house. Melanie still plans to leave Bodega Bay (with Lydia’s encouragement) while Cathy and Mitch argue that she should stay the night. Suddenly, as they all sit around the living room, sparrows in the thousands erupt from the fireplace. The sight of small, cute birds infesting the house like a plague is especially disquieting. When the house is clear again our characters come to the conclusion that the town’s birds, which up to this point had seemed to be just a nuisance or an oddity, are in fact attacking the humans. From now on everyone understands that war has been engaged.
A truce between Lydia and Melanie is tacitly given. Working together against the birds is more important than Lydia’s suspicions. Melanie also becomes more womanly: she behaves as a potential sister-in-law and as a thoughtful daughter-in-law. Literally, Melanie lets her hair down one morning when she sleeps over, wearing the most demure flannel nightgown ever sewn. In true Five fashion, the humans work together better than they did before the Switch. Also, the threat (bird attacks, in this case) becomes more virulent.
A scene that never ages is Melanie waiting outside the school, intensely smoking a cigarette, while crows accumulate on the play equipment behind her. This scare worked in 1963 and will work way past the year 2063. Birds latching on like vampires to the necks of running schoolchildren may have a dated look in terms of the effects, but the horror is forever. Notice that in the world of The Birds, where feminism has caused womanhood to fail, children are the most vulnerable and foremost of victims.
After the attack on the school Melanie goes to the diner. Various characters (with a capital C) agree with her that birds are attacking, or dispute with her. Her main antagonist is the lady ornithologist who insists the birds would never behave this way. Here is another failed woman from a generation even farther back than Lydia’s. This lady is ancient. Hitch has her wearing a beret and a mannish blazer coat that removes all femininity from her. She also is smoking, like the other “liberated” women in the movie. Sometimes you start to wonder if this lady is actually a man in disguise, she is so asexual. Her argument that humans could never defeat the birds because so many billions of birds exist on the planet reminds me that the same could be said of women. We must make our peace with the evil run amok: just killing off the problem is an impossible solution. This woman is so dense to the danger surrounding her that you want to smack her, just like every proto-feminist arguing for equality that never bothered to consider where their policies would lead women in the future. When mere minutes later birds attack the town, ornithologist lady becomes a quivering mass. So much for those highfalutin’ notions!
This bird attack will be our Six. All the men run out of the diner to help those in distress during the attack. Also running out is the only woman, our Melanie. You know the scene. She ends up in the phone booth with seagulls crashing into the glass to try to get to her. This seagull attack is a mirror of the much more innocuous attack on her at the Three. As Enneagrams go I find this one to be workmanlike and dull, just barely serviceable. I will have to try reviewing another Hitchcock movie some day to see if this indicates genius or a pedantic streak. As scenes go, though, this phone booth sequence is another for the ages. It hits claustrophobia and agoraphobia at the same time, if you can believe that’s possible.
Our thematic money moment comes when Mitch rescues Melanie from the phone booth and returns her to the diner. At first glance the diner is deserted. The camera inches forward to peer around a wall and down a hallway leading to the bathrooms. There, lined against the wall like birds on a wire, are all the ladies. We now realize that every other woman let the men rush outside to deal with the birds; everyone but Melanie. Their looks plainly say that Melanie is no woman. The Hysterical Mother accuses Melanie of causing the entire bird attack. Nothing happened in the town until Melanie arrived, she says. This is true in the context of the horror plot, although why her arrival would lead to a bird attack is unexplained. This is also true, I argue, in the context of the theme of womanhood gone wrong. Melanie and her kind of feminism are responsible for everything that is badly skewed with society, exemplified by the events in this micro-town. The accusing women’s eyes in this scene are, shall we say, very birdlike. Blame is dished out, but how many of the women will take responsibility for their share in the dissolution of womanhood? The Hysterical Mother, who seems to have the correct argument, is herself a manless woman who must turn to a drunkard at the diner bar for assistance. Look around the entire movie for an example of right womanhood and you will find none.
After the repercussions from that scene have died away, we’re back to pure plot. Mitch and family decide to weather the next bird attack in their own home. Windows are boarded up and the hatches are battened.
The climax, in all logic, is the be-all and end-all of bird attacks. Mitch is very manly in protecting the women and the house. The family operates quite properly, with Lydia comforting her daughter Cathy. Puppet seagull heads try to break through windows and doors, biting at fingers trying to re-seal the property, but the special effects are still believable. Who can’t imagine a wicked beak taking a chunk out of your hand? Eventually all is calm and the humans, exhausted, rest in the living room. Is that the end of the Eight?
No. A fluttering noise in the attic awakens Melanie’s attention. She looks over at Mitch, who is asleep, and almost calls his name. Almost. Our Melanie still has the vestiges of her feminism, her can-do equality. She grabs a flashlight and heads upstairs all by herself. Of course, we know she’s in for it. She stupidly blocks herself in with her own body and succumbs to the bird attacks. (They broke a hole through the roof and made themselves comfortable, apparently.) Mitch only pushes the door open and hauls her out in the nick of time. Lydia bandages her wounds (which includes applying an utterly embarrassing head wrap) and they dose her with brandy. However, when Melanie opens her eyes she has reverted to an inchoate childhood. She can hardly speak or move.
The birds are now quiescent. Mitch decides to drive the family into the city. He tiptoes through the living birds milling around his yard and porch, managing to coax the car from the garage without setting off an attack. As the family heads for the car Cathy asks if she can bring the lovebirds. “They haven’t done anything wrong.” Indeed, they are still pink-headed dumplings paired up for all eternity in their gilded cage, just like any proper married couple. In their metaphoric way the lovebirds are the only example of a right relationship in the whole movie. Cathy takes them with her into the front seat; Lydia tenderly comforts Melanie in the back seat. Melanie, who has known no mother since she was 11 years old (as she revealed earlier), looks up at Lydia with childlike affection and trust. The car heads off through the bird-infested town while the sun rises in the distance, clouds glowing with beams of light like the finger of God.
As the ending of a horror movie, this scene gives no satisfaction whatsoever. Birds must die! Send in the Marines! Mankind slinks out of town, defeated? I don’t think so! However, I use this ending to drive home my thesis that horror is the least of Hitchcock’s intentions with this movie. This ending suggests a fresh start, a new day. Melanie also has a new start as a young woman. Lydia has a fresh start as a mother. Women (i.e., Lydia) have a chance to raise the next generation (i.e., Melanie) properly so that Melanie can become a woman comfortable with her gender’s strengths. Overseeing it all will be the content, non-threatening lovebirds.
Eh, maybe you think I’ve left the movie behind and squirted off into la-la land. Whatever argument you’d like to raise, I encourage you to always remember that Hitch puts nothing superfluous in his movies. Lay out a thesis that accounts for every frame of this movie and I’ll applaud you, as long as you don’t suggest this is a simple horror movie. The original story by Daphne du Maurier follows a simple horror plot, if you want to see what that would look like. This movie has too much content and intent to be pigeonholed strictly in the horror genre.
Sorry. f you knew how many puns I avoided while writing this you would award me a prize. I hope you enjoyed my foray into sociological commentary.