Saturday January 01, 2011
Review: “The Birds” (1963)
This fall I took a class on Alfred Hitchcock at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and for the final session, on “The Birds,” the professor asked a relatively simple question—a question that most of the characters in the movie ask: Why do the birds attack? Then, as he was wont to do, he began to answer his own question.
He talked up the scene in the diner where the mother of two children, a boy and a girl, quickly descends from questions to accusations to Salem Mass.-like pronouncements of witchery. “They said when you got here the whole thing started,” she says to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil! E-vil!”
But what if, the teacher posited, it wasn’t Melanie who was responsible? What if it was someone else? Then he diverged into a 10-minute synopsis of the 1950s sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” and the dark forces we can unknowingly unleash, then referred back to Melanie’s elder-generation doppelganger, Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), mother of Melanie’s love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor), who has a tendency to look severely at any of her son’s girlfriends because she’s afraid of winding up alone. And what if, the teacher continued, the dark forces within Lydia, somehow...? He moved his hands forward, as if to propel his theory forward, but that’s about as far as he got. He admitted his ideas were inchoate.
Others piped in with their own theories—mostly dealing with a kind of cosmic comeuppance. Oh, we treat the birds so poorly. Oh, we put them in cages, and eat them, and use them in our own silly little games of romance. So they finally got fed up. For a moment, my classmates and I reminded me of all of the characters at the diner trying to fathom the unfathomable. We even had a doomsayer who proclaimed, tongue mostly in cheek, “It’s the end of the world!”
I added my own two cents, of course. I said I thought all of our theories were ultimately reductive. I said the brilliance of “The Birds” is that it gives us no explanation for why the birds attack. And since we’re not told why, we’re forced to wonder: Why not? Which is the scariest thought of all.
A cleverer man simply would’ve put a finger to his lips, said “Ssshhh,” and looked warily around.
That’s a key to “The Birds,” isn’t it? The silences. Not just the absence of a soundtrack, which amplifies the sound of the birds, their awful clucking and cooing, but the absence of talk, of human talk, in the face of an attack. Lydia sees Dan Fawcett with his eyes gouged out and speech is strangled from her. Melanie sees the line of fire roaring toward the gas pumps and speech is strangled from her. When the birds attack the house no one says shit, they just try to melt into the walls; and after the attacks, when the birds are still there, hanging out on wires or jungle gyms or trees or garage roofs—wherever they want. really—that’s when we really don’t say shit. Because we don’t want to upset the birds. Because it’s their world now. We survive at their sufferance.
Speech is strangled from us.
In structure, “The Birds” reminds me a bit of “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s previous film. It starts out about one thing but becomes about something else. Something seemingly harmless (a hotel manager, birds) hijacks the story.
Thank God. I love Tippi Hedren here—done up like so many of Hitchcock’s ice-cool blondes, but so much more playful, ready to act on the world rather than wait for the world to act on her—but it’s a slow slog at the beginning. Maybe because we’re waiting for the title characters to take over.
They’re there from the start. On a San Francisco street, Melanie, about to enter a bird shop (which Sir Alfred is about to walk out of), and just whistled at by some boys (she’s a good-looking bird, after all), notices, for a second, the odd activity of birds in the sky. Then she enters a place where birds are caged and humans are not and begins a romance, in classic, opposites-attract Hollywood fashion, with criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner.
The first half hour of the film is her attempt to deliver on a frivolous practical joke. To do this she tracks down Mitch’s home address, then his Bodega Bay address, then buys two lovebirds and drives the hour north of San Francisco, where, among other machinations, she orders up an outboard motorboat, pilots it across Bodega Bay to the Brenner dock, steals inside with the caged lovebirds and a note, makes a getaway by boat, is followed by Mitch, who waits for her on the dock on the other side with a smile in his eyes and a witticism about to burble from his lips when ... bam! A seagull, smacks into Melanie’s forehead, drawing blood. Whatever witticisms he and she were about to engage in are gone.
It turns out Melanie is the second woman that Mitch’s charms have lured to town. The first is the school teacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleschette), who began a relationship with Mitch years earlier but couldn’t get past first base with the mother. Yet she stayed. To be near Mitch. Kinda creepy.
Now I’m not positing this as a reason for the bird attacks, but it is fascinating how most of the characters in the film seem to be frittering away their lives: Annie here, Melanie there. Mitch defends a man who shot his wife in the head six times because she changed the channel on the TV, and everyone jokes less about the kill than the overkill: “I mean, even twice would be overdoing it, don't you think?” An impartial observer might think, from this sample, that human beings don’t deserve dominion over the earth.
That bonk-bonk on the head occurs half an hour into the movie. As the romance heats up, and we learn more about Melanie (she’s a socialite who went all Anita Ekberg in a fountain in Rome but is trying to repair her life), we get some excellent foreshadowing—call it horror foreplay—from Sir Alfred:
- Annie sees a flock of birds fly by and asks, rhetorically, “Don’t they ever stop migrating?”
- The chickens aren’t eating the feed. That’s never happened.
- As Melanie and Mitch argue their way out of a good evening, we hear, in the background, much cluck-clucking. It’s not until Melanie departs in her that we see the culprits: dozens of birds on a telephone wire.
- That same evening, as Melanie and Annie drink brandy and make nice, a bird launches a kamikaze attack on Annie’s door.
Then it all comes fast and furious. The birds attack the children at a party, they fly down the chimney at the Brenner household, they kill Dan Fawcett and gouge out his eyes. Mrs. Brenner, shaken by the incident, worries about her daughter, Cathy (little Veronica Cartwright), at school, which is why Melanie heads over there, and why she’s waiting on the bench behind the jungle gym having a quiet smoke.
This is the “Psycho” shower scene all over again. Entire chapters have been written— deservedly—and here’s my poor addition: While Melanie looks off to the side, and while the children in the schoolhouse sing an Americanized version of a Scottish folk song (“Ristle-tee, rostle-tee/ Now, now, now”), one crow lands on the jungle gym behind her. While she lights a cigarette, here come two more, then four more. Then she gets lost in thought. It doesn’t hurt that Hedren is exquisite to look at. But after about 15 seconds she spots a crow flying in the sky, and, alarmed, follows its flight over, down, and onto the jungle gym ... which is now filled with hundreds of crows. It’s not only a shock to her, who didn’t know about the first crows, it’s a shock to us, who did, but who last saw only seven crows on the bars. Interestingly, her stunned, reaction shot is filmed against one of those fake backdrops Hitchcock liked to employ, even at this late date, because he didn’t like location shooting. Does he use it here on purpose? To add to the unreality of the situation?
More and more of the movie is silent now. Post-gas station attack, Mitch and Melanie find the diner group huddled in a corner, silent, afraid to disturb the birds, with amateur ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (a brilliant Ethel Griffies) so shamed she can’t even turn her face to the camera. On the way to Annie’s, Mitch, for the first time, shushes Melanie as they walk past the schoolhouse. Don’t disturb the birds. When they find Annie dead, his reaction is Cro-Magninian: he picks up a rock. But Melanie, quietly, almost silently, convinces him to put it down. Don’t disturb the birds. This sets us up for the final assault on the house.
Has any filmmaker ended movies more brilliantly than Hitchcock? Here, it’s not just that a stray bird pecks at Mitch as he prepares for evacuation, letting him know that the pecking order, the literal pecking order, has changed. It’s not just that the four humans—Mitch, Melanie, Lydia and Cathy—are crammed into Melanie’s sports car like birds in a cage, while the birds fly and land free. It’s not just that Cathy—idiotically!—brings along her caged lovebirds, letting us know that the whole bloody mess isn’t about the caged lovebirds, since the free birds obviously don’t care about the caged lovebirds.
No, what’s brilliant about the ending of “The Birds” is this: Once Mitch opens the door and sees all the birds, we hope for one thing: that our main characters will get away. And they do. We see them drive off. The car gets smaller and smaller in the distance, and the bird’s noise grows louder and louder, and the movie ends without a “The End,” without credits, without anything, really; and it slowly dawns on us that this ending, which is the ending we wanted, is the most horrifying ending of all. We want Mitch and Melanie to be safe because they matter to us; they’re our main characters, after all. But the reason they get away is because they don’t matter at all. The camera stays behind. With the birds. The viewpoint has shifted and the main characters in the drama have changed. We think that final scene is about Mitch and Melanie getting away but it’s really about the birds driving the humans out. And from above, a light, almost like God’s light, shines down, signaling a brand new day.