If there's one film director who has been studied, analysed and interpreted more than another then it must be Hitchcock. Fifty two films, so much quality, so many masterpieces. But slowly working through his amazing catalogue with my eldest daughter, I was recently struck by how thoroughly brilliant The Birds is and as it occupied my thoughts in the subsequent days just wanted to write something about it.. It's a film I'd previously and ignorantly dismissed as lesser Hitchcock. Before we sat down to watch it, I only recalled that while I'd enjoyed the film for its many striking moments, I'd been unsatisfied by what I'd decided was a lack of cohesion in the two halves of the story. I'd thought that what the first half was building up to was cut short by the arrival of the birds and that while the terror they brought to the story worked as an effective scare-fest, it left the drama unresolved. How wrong that was.
Nominally based on Daphne Du Maurier's short story and also inspired by a real-life event at Monterey Bay in 1961, Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter effectively crafted a wholly original screenplay centred on the wilful, impulsive, determined and ultimately steely character of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a wealthy socialite with a reputation for frivolity, practical jokes and irresponsibility. The few days she spends pursuing the thoroughly alpha male Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and entering into a quadrangle of tension between Mitch, his fearful and possessive mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his bitter but faithful ex-lover Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), slowly turns from a playful wrangle of suppressed emotion into an experience of terror, death and preternatural retribution.
Usually disaster or monster movies don't need to give a reason why the earthquake/dinosaur/shark is causing such chaos, but the expectation of an explanation is raised in The Birds, partly because it is so out of character for them to attack in such a vicious and organised way and also because the question is constantly discussed in the film. But the question is a classic Hitchcock distraction. We are led to think an explanation might be coming but at the end are left wondering. Such an explanation could have only ever weakened the story. But from a storytelling viewpoint we still want a reason, we need a reason to make those two halves fit together. So, why do the birds attack?
In looking to what others have already said about this, the idea that the women surrounding Brenner (including his excitable little sister Cathy) and their simmering and sometimes explosive neuroses are supernaturally realised in the bird's attack has been presented. I can see how that works on some levels (especially as part of the fairly shallow but popular modern idea that Hitchcock somehow hated women). But that isn't what I got from my re-watching of the film. While Mitch's mother is neurotic, both Annie and Melanie (Mel-annie - she is theoretically replacing Annie so that's clever, just noticed it) are much cooler about everything. They are emotionally in control, they understand what they feel and they express it to each other in a very mature way. It is actually Mitch who is less mature as he continues to play games with Melanie whenever she tries to get past her reputation, express herself to him and become more real as a person. What works better, I think, is the idea of the birds as a judgement on Melanie.
Firstly the film revolves around her. She is in almost every scene and every character in the film is primarily defined by their relationship with her. If the film has any focus it is Melanie Daniels. We learn later, during her picnic conversation with Mitch that at the starting point of the film, she is at a crossroads in her life. So we first meet her at a time when she is thinking of doing something more meaningful, becoming a more significant person than the reckless party girl she has been, and as she enters the bird shop, the birds are waiting for her, flocking over the San Francisco sky, watching to see what she will do. Inside the shop she encounters Mitch and faced with an obstacle, with a consequence of her past, she reverts to type. While we sense she is a person of both intellect and depth, she acts on impulsion and decides to take revenge on Mitch's deliberate attempt to embarrass her. From this point on, the tension is building.
She comes to Bodega Bay and every encounter she has causes a stir. She is not rejected, she is even somewhat admired but she is not wholly welcome. Then, after she has played her trick on Mitch, the first act of violence from the birds comes - at her. A single gull strikes Melanie while she rows the boat back to shore. This could be a last warning from the birds before they unleash their full-blown assault but Melanie continues in her old ways, lying to Mitch about knowing Annie Hayworth, playing games about why she is at the Bay. The game continues until, as mentioned earlier, the picnic where Melanie tells Mitch something of her confusion and intentions. But at this last potential turning point the two still do not connect, barbs are traded and so the first big attack comes.
Everything after is survival - survival in the face of an unrelenting, merciless and unnatural phenomenon. And while others are attacked, terrified and sometimes killed, Melanie's actions during the assaults are comparatively and strikingly cool. Yes she is disturbed and does everything she can to help and protect, and persuade others, but she does not panic. As much as she is in it, she is an observer, taking in the consequences to others of the calamity she has unleashed. When Lydia (quite understandably) loses control after discovering the horrific corpse of the farmer, it is Melanie who calms her. During the attack on the town centre, Melanie is trapped in the phone box, protected from harm while all the chaos outside swirls into madness and destruction.
So, what do the birds want? Melanie's distance reveals her inner thoughts. Conscious or not, part of her starts to understand. And so, as she and the Brenners wait out in the house, sealed up against the coming invasion, the intensity of the birds seems almost unstoppable. But they don't break through. Are they safe? Can it be over? Melanie knows it can't be. Because this is and always has been about her. She climbs to the top of the house and investigating a noise, steps into the attic where the birds have broken through the roof. This is her moment of sacrifice. And the attack on her is brutal, worse than any other we have seen. But crucially, Melanie is not killed. Because the purpose of the birds violence was all along to amplify and explode the chaos - as a grand representation of the lesser chaos caused by Melanie's irresponsibility, therefore they do not want her to die, only to suffer. Mitch pulls her away and while it might seem that Mitch's subsequent bravery in bringing the car from the garage and shepherding the women to safety is significant, it only matters that the birds do not respond. There is the odd peck, but they allow Mitch through and as the car drives away between thousands of silent and still birds, it is clear, the birds are finally satisfied.