Day 10: The Birds (1963)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Veronica Cartwright, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleschette, Jessica Tandy, Rod Taylor

Runtime: 119 minutes

Another Hitchcock classic, more squarely in the horror genre than most of his other work, besides Psycho, The Birds still remains one of the scariest films. It is perhaps even less dated than Psycho, since its suspense value does not lie so much in knowing plot elements that are well known to most filmgoers. Instead, the suspense is built through anticipation, and the horror comes from the seemingly chaotic and random onslaught of avian menace.

Camille Paglia offers an interesting interpretation of the film: Mitch’s character (Rod Taylor) is predicated on relationships with females (with his mother, sister, and ex-lover), disrupted by his attraction to Melanie (Tippi Hedren). The bird attacks, then, can be seen as a manifestation of the frustrated female dynamics, and of a feminized Mother Nature defiled by humans.

Taylor & Hedren

Don’t cry. It was only a little bird. Now, Marion–uh, I mean, Melanie–have you met my mother?

As intriguing as that is, I think that part of the terror lies in the fact that there is no clear cause for the attacks. I think that’s the way it was meant to be. Certainly there are suggestions, and people will speculate—but at the end, we have to accept that sometimes random violence happens; and if there is a reason for it, it’s not always a human one.

Some people don’t carry for either Rod Taylor or Tippi Hedren in this film. Personally, I like Hedren better than some of Hitch’s other leading blondes (Kim Novak or Grace Kelly, for example). She’s not as icy and snobbish. Although Melanie is upper class, she is vulnerable and not as completely invested in appearance and status as, say, Grace Kelly’s character Lisa Freemont in Rear Window. I think that Hedren gives a warm, nuanced performance for an actress in her first feature film.

Rod Taylor’s character is less dynamic. As Paglia points out, he seems defined by his relationships to females. Although he displays a mixture of gruffness and tenderness, there doesn’t seem to be much for his character to do. The females really seem to be the focus of the film.

The other characters, then, are important: Jessica Tandy as Mitch’s overprotective mother, Veronica Cartwright as his sweet younger (much, much younger!) sister, and Suzanne Pleschette as his ex-lover. Each role is important in the unfolding of events, and each seems to be more nuanced than Mitch. While Pleschette’s character moved to the island in pursuit of Mitch, she claims to be over him. Despite this, her conversation with Melanie is fraught with tension—Pleschette does a good job in portraying the ambiguity, in her alternate coldness and affection. Mitch’s mother, too, although she hates Melanie at first, comes to sympathize with her. And his sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), although perhaps less dynamic, seems to have lost some of the innocence she had at the beginning of the film. Although, at the end, she insists on taking the lovebirds with them—as she says, they haven’t hurt anyone (perhaps because they are “pets” rather than wild birds?).

The bird attacks are pretty frightening. By itself, birds are not that scary to most people, although Hitchcock seemed obsessed with them, and associated them with violence and repressed fury that inevitably got unleashed (as in Psycho). They first attack at Cathy’s birthday party, later at Cathy’s school, and several other times. Although many critics suggest a link between Melanie and the bird attacks—paralleled by a hysterical mother after a scene in which birds attack outside a diner—the birds seem particularly focused on attacking children. It’s just as likely that Cathy is linked to the bird attacks as Melanie is. That diner scene, by the way, is one of the greatest in the movie. We see all the chaos that the birds can cause, not just in their ability to damage people, but in the destruction that results as human inventions begin to work against them—a gas station blows up as the result of careless human behavior. And then we get the famous “bird’s eye view shot,” with the feathery villains flying god-like over the scene of carnage. Unsettling stuff!

The effects, done with a sodium vapor process (“yellow screen”) is much more convincing than the “blue screen” process. The details of this are described in a “making of” included on a Special Edition of the DVD. I think they still hold up today. The lack of music and the use of silence also works to good effect. It contrasts well to the loud and unnerving squawks and rasps of the birds. (The sound when shown in a theater is almost deafening—it’s not quite the same watching it at home.) The sounds are not natural recordings, but synthesized sounds made on a Trautonium. Not sure why this was done or what it means—perhaps it allowed them to more easily manipulate the recordings.

To sum up: the best of the “nature gone amok” films, which usually use some cheesy explanation (in Day of the Animals, it was increased ultraviolet radiation) of the animal attacks. We’re not always going to understand the violence in our lives, certainly not it’s coming from the nonhuman world.

bird's eye view

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4 Responses to Day 10: The Birds (1963)

  1. duplexofthedamned says:

    I agree that although Paglia’s interpretation of The Birds is intriguing, it doesn’t explain what is left inexplicable. The complicated human relationships centering on the deliberately weak Mitch–who in some ways does symbolize man’s helplessness when confronted by nature, whether female or avian–serve as a counterpoint to the feathered menace, keeping the viewer’s attention on the actors in the moments when it is not distracted by the sinister clusterings and terrifying coordinated attacks of the birds.

    Hitchcock’s use of a synthesized soundtrack (harsh and overwhelming in the theater, as mentioned, when not unnervingly silent) is far more effective than real birdsong–or dramatic music–in conveying the horror of this movie. Even the small “natural” sounds synthesized and inserted into the soundtrack–tires on gravel, for example–make the viewer jump. This distortion in sound matches the distortion in worldview taking place in the seemingly idyllic coastal village (a real town, not a movie set, in another clever touch).

    The birds are both an instrument of chaos and a catalyst for change in the lives of the human characters–forcing responsibility on the careless Mitch, helplessness on the controlled Melanie, compassion on Mitch’s fierce mother, maturity on the overly childish Cathy–and death on the powerful if frustrated Annie (Mitch’s ex-lover and Cathy’s teacher) in an act of self-sacrifice.

    But the birds…the birds…after seeing this film, I never have watched birds gathering anywhere without a chill of premonition.

  2. staringatangels says:

    “This distortion in sound matches the distortion in worldview taking place in the seemingly idyllic coastal village….”
    I like that. Good comments on the use of sound and the changes in the characters. If I ever write a more extended piece about the movie, I’ll likely draw from your statements.

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