One of, if not the first Alfred Hitchcock film I ever watched was The Birds. I think it might have been when I was in 8th grade or a freshman in high school when I caught it on TV somewhere.
Watching it at a relatively young age, I was terrified. Perhaps not in the way that most horror films would terrorize a viewer. This classic film wasn’t so much scary as it was eerie and unsettling. The idea of rabid birds swooping in to peck your eyes out was truly a terrifying prospect. I guess, by definition then, a horrific prospect.
Indeed, the one scene from the film that would absolutely haunt me for years was that zoom in to the farmer’s empty eye sockets. Just a horrific, disgusting scene.
But watching it for the first time since then and also having watched a few other Hitchcock classics, I’ve found myself appreciating a lot more of the film. And especially things in it that I may not have caught before as a young boy.
The films itself, made in 1963, obviously doesn’t have the technology of today. But like many Hitchcock films, it isn’t about what you see. Not fancy special effects or jumpscares. It’s what you don’t see. The unknown. The suspense that comes with that unknown. And the deeper meaning hidden beneath the surface of birds pecking at people’s faces.
First of all, in many ways a film like The Birds is more effective than modern-day blockbusters who have technology at its disposal. This is a film that was made in a time when filmmakers needed to be much more creative in sowing tension and eliciting scares.
The lack of musical score and dialogue-heavy scenes lull you into a false sense of security. Carefully-chosen shots building the tension without a single word being uttered.
My favorite scene in the entire film has to be this perfectly atmospheric sequence of shots:
— DryedMangoez (@dryedmangoez) May 4, 2020
It captures the boiling tension of the entire film in that quick moment.
It all makes this idyllic coastal town about an hour away from San Francisco carry a subtly ominous tone throughout the film. And that’s especially effective to keep the viewer’s interest when the first real bird attack doesn’t come until almost halfway into the film.
It also helps that the film has an excellent ensemble cast. The beautiful Tippi Hedren as the strong, independent cheeky heroine Melanie Daniels. Rod Taylor as the dashing playboy leading man Mitch Brenner. The veteran Jessica Tandy as Mitch’s protective and suspicious mother Lydia. And Suzanne Pleshette as the town’s schoolteacher and Mitch’s ex who may or may not still have feelings for him.
But people have analyzed and theorized The Birds over the years. What do the birds symbolize or represent? What learning can we glean from the events of the film?
One idea that I held on to since the first time I watched the film is decidedly simple and straightforward. There’s some malevolent force at work here. Some kind of evil that’s descended onto Bodega Bay.
Approaching the climax of the film, the birds finally attack the townspeople after only bothering our heroine Melanie, the Brenners and the schoolchildren until that point. This is when a mother confronts Melanie, seemingly with the agreement of the rest of the townspeople, about her being not only the harbinger of what’s happened, but the actual “evil” cause of it.
In a straightforward supernatural way, perhaps Melanie did have something to do with it. Were the birds of Bodega Bay well-behaved before she arrived in her fancy Aston Martin? Could she actually be some vessel for an evil force that even she doesn’t know about?
Or what if it’s actually the two lovebirds that are the evil ones. Melanie unwittingly brought two demonic birds to Bodega Bay who then proceeded to rally their feathered-friends to unleash their evil unto the world. One California town after another.
The final scene has Mitch’s sister Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright) asking if she can bring the lovebirds along as they drive Melanie to get medical help. She specifically points out that they haven’t hurt anyone. Yet, maybe it’s those two quiet lovebirds that have been orchestrating this whole thing the entire time. And now after clearing out Bodega Bay, they’re ready to wreak havoc in Santa Rosa where they’re driving off to at the end of the film.
In a way, I almost prefer that purely supernatural explanation since I’m a simple guy that can be satisfied by a story without any deeper meaning.
And for years, that’s what I resigned my understanding of the film to be. But watching it now, I notice and can understand a lot more than I did as a young boy.
There are those who point to an equally straightforward explanation of nature rising up against humanity. The ornithologist in the film joked about the absurdity of birds declaring war on humans. But it’s actually a pretty reasonable idea. And Hitchcock himself has pointed to that idea directly as well over the years.
Almost like the great Hayao Miyazaki presents allegories of humans vs. nature in many of his classic films, so too does Hitchcock here with the birds finally taking it upon themselves to face the “evil” that is actually humanity. Maybe it’s humans that are the evil ones and the birds (and nature as a whole) are exacting their revenge.
Then there’s the idea of the film touching on Cold War tensions. A common theme lurking in films during this era.
But perhaps the most fascinating idea is that of the film touching on feminism and perhaps even being anti-feminist or anti-woman.
We meet Melanie as a strong, independent and clever woman. She can be cheeky, but she asserts herself in a way that shows she doesn’t take crap from anyone, woman or man. That helps immediately endear her to the audience. She is very likeable and charismatic from the start. (Tippi Hedren definitely helps that a lot.)
But her arrival in Bodega Bay pretty much casts her as this outsider. Even an interloper trying to weasel her way into this quiet hamlet, tucked away from the big city sensibilities of San Francisco down south.
On one hand, that outsider status speaks to Cold War tensions and perhaps other geopolitical opinions as well. Outsiders bringing in danger and evil to a previously quiet and sometimes harmonious world.
On another hand, Melanie appears to be much different from the women of Bodega Bay. And her perhaps, more modern femininity is so foreign to the people of this town. That she is upending social norms and she’s only been here a day. She’s inserting herself into a quiet family. She’s stepping in front of an ex-lover. She’s trading barbs with the local bird lady.
Others have pointed out how by the end of the film, after she is attacked in the attic, Melanie becomes a damsel in distress. A victim that needs to be saved by her knight in shining armor (Mitch). The last we see of her is being cradled by mommy Lydia.
Maybe an understanding between the two that has brought them closer together. Or even Melanie slinking back into a submissive position to Mitch’s overprotective and previously threatened mother.
What’s there to say about Melanie’s strong personality getting almost erased by the birds, the seemingly negative force in the film. Even flipping that around, Melanie (who is perceived to be an evil outsider) is knocked down several pegs by the birds who, if one chooses to see them as such, could be the actual protagonists of the film.
Bringing it back to why The Birds is such a fascinating film even after all these years. There’s obviously a lot to poke fun at with the 1960s special effects and the flocks of birds flapping about. But why can a film like this still resonate after all these years?
The Birds is a suspenseful thriller. It’s a horror film with not even a tenth of the blood and gore of modern-day horror movies. The premise is simple: Birds suddenly attack a small California town. And the bird attacks can be legitimately unnerving. But it ends up being more than that. A discussion on humanity’s threat on nature or modern femininity. Or a simple, supernatural good vs. evil play.
The tension and suspense build throughout the film and explode at increasingly volatile levels on our way to the end.
Taut directing and creative choices do what modern special effects cannot. Lengthy, but sharp dialogue drawing the right amount of calm and attention. Whether you look at the film on the surface or choose to go deeper into it, The Birds can offer something for everyone to enjoy and ponder. Or even become the stuff of nightmares for years to come.