In his new book for Applause, author John Kenneth Muir presents HORROR FILMS FAQ, which promises to offer “all that’s left to know about slashers, vampires, zombies, aliens and more.” Under “more” must be animals, judging from the lengthy excerpt below, which is for the birds — Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, THE BIRDS, to be precise.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds opens on a seemingly normal day in the early 1960s with attractive Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) visiting a bird shop in scenic San Francisco. As she enters, a flock of birds is seen in the distance among the skyscrapers: circling and cawing but otherwise nonthreatening. This view is a deliberate foreshadowing of what is to come, a simmering before the inevitable boil.
Once Melanie is in the store, however, things do heat up. She attempts to pull a prank on a handsome man, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), by pretending to be a bird-shop employee. But Mitch, who claims to be there to purchase two “love birds,” is actually pulling a prank of his own and soon gets the better of Melanie.
This game of cat and mouse spurs a veritable obsession in Melanie, and she soon tracks Mitch to his home, sixty miles up the coast in scenic Bodega Bay, a little hamlet described as a “a collection of shacks on a hillside.” Her not-so covert mission is to initiate a sexual relationship with Mitch. Melanie does so under the guise of delivering him his love birds.
Once in town, Melanie also meets the town’s schoolteacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), another woman who once shared an intimate relationship with the apparently promiscuous Mitch. There is a quick rivalry between Annie and Melanie, and some jealousy, too. Meanwhile, as Melanie grows closer to Mitch, she is looked upon with stern disapproval by Mitch’s shrewish, controlling mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Lydia is a cold, emotionally closed off woman, still despondent over the death of her husband years earlier.
While all these tumultuous personal relationships shift and grow, the inexplicable suddenly occurs. Birds of all varieties launch a coordinated attack on Bodega Bay, ambushing the local school, killing Annie, dive-bombing the local diner, and laying merciless siege to Mitch’s family farmhouse, a location reachable primarily by motor boat and therefore isolated…
Today, The Birds has lost little of the searing dramatic punch that captivated audiences four decades ago. The lack of a scientific or rational explanation behind the avian attack lends the film a powerful and undeniably sexual subtext. The bird attacks, one can detect upon close viewing, occur because of turbulent human emotions. In short, this film is all about not just the birds, but the bees.
In The Birds, Hitchcock forges some fascinating connections between the film’s primary love relationship and the bird attacks. The Mitch/Melanie coupling is considered an “unnatural” and “inappropriate” relationship in Lydia’s eyes and thus is the very factor that causes the sudden and alarming upending of Mother Nature. This “stealth” explanation for the bird attack is fascinating, because instead of locating an answer inside science, Hitchcock finds motivation in human behavior; in the way we relate to another; in the things, even, we keep hidden and buried away from one another.
The film’s first bird attack triggers this nearly subconscious connection in a most artful way. Early in the film, Melanie takes a skiff out to Mitch’s isolated farmhouse. She parks the boat, sneaks into his home through an unlocked door, deposits the love birds, and makes good her escape. Right under Mitch’s nose: he’s in the yard, but doesn’t see Melanie approaching. There is no music at all in this sequence, but the suspense grows almost unbearable in the lingering silence as Hitchcock deploys quick cuts and a series of point-of-view receding zooms to depict Melanie’s hasty and illicit retreat from the private property. We then see Mitch discover the intrusion, grab a pair of binoculars, look through them, and—bam—he sees her! She’s been caught!
The two lovers are thus face to face, though across some distance, and both countenancing the revelation that something romantic or sexual joins them. The audience is so obsessed with this flirtation, with this game of cat and mouse, that it is caught totally off guard when a gull swoops into the frame—out of nowhere— and literally takes a plug out of Melanie’s scalp. The vicious and unexpected attack causes blood to run down her forehead, and Mitch tends to her wound, but the overall impression of this bird attack is that it serves as metaphor for being dumbstruck by love (or, more accurately, desire).
Later that night, after Annie and Melanie have shared a discussion about their mutual and sordid romantic histories with Mitch, a bird attacks the local boardinghouse’s front door. The target again, not surprisingly, is Melanie.
The next day, the birds attack once more, this time dive-bombing a group of children. Importantly, the attack follows a very intense, very intimate conversation between Mitch and Melanie on the hillside. Again, the timing is crucial. It’s as if the birds are desperate—insanely desperate—to stop the Mitch/Melanie relationship before it progresses any further.
Later, in Lydia’s presence, the birds attack once more, flying into Mitch’s living room through a chimney. In this scene, the full Oedipal nature of the film exposes itself most fully. Lydia is a possessive old woman, a “clinging, possessive mother” who disapproves of Melanie and her son’s lascivious interest in her. For example, Lydia complains to Mitch how Melanie was featured in the gossip columns the previous year for jumping naked into a fountain in Rome. This brazenly sexual act doesn’t seem to bother the stimulated Mitch, but it certainly bothers the fearful and closed-off Lydia, a widower who fears abandonment.
So the burning question of The Birds becomes: is Lydia subconsciously and psychologically orchestrating the bird attacks on Melanie? The first bird attack near the cottage could have been a general warning to “stay away.” The second attack at Annie’s house was a strike against two of Mitch’s women. And the attack in the living room must have been caused by Lydia’s uncontrollable rage after seeing the lovers circle each other with such blatant and brazen sexual intent.
A later attack supports this thesis. Lydia is sick in bed midway through the film, after witnessing the aftermath of a bird attack on a neighbor, and she pointedly asks Melanie to go to Annie’s school to check on her daughter. Not coincidentally, when Melanie gets there, the birds launch an attack on the school. Not before she arrives. Not after her arrival. While she is there.
So, was this a trap or set-up for Melanie created by Lydia’s “id”?
And when Melanie managed to escape it, remember, it was Annie (the secondary threat for Mitch’s affections) who got offed by the birds. If you’ll forgive the expression, Lydia may have been killing two birds with one stone by sending Melanie to the school where Annie also happened to be.
Hitchcock has toiled in overt Oedipal themes before, notably with Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). In that film, a mother’s love reached from beyond the grave, in a sense, to twist her adult son into a psychotic. In The Birds, Lydia’s desperate desire not to be abandoned, not to see Mitch go off with another woman, precipitates the bird attacks, and it lashes out at those she perceives as threats or dangers to her own emotional safety.
This idea tracks throughout the film, particularly in the climax, which finds Mitch, Lydia, Cathy (Mitch’s sister), and Melanie sequestered in the boarded-up farmhouse as the birds attack in waves. Melanie, hearing a noise, separates herself from the group and goes into an upstairs bedroom. There, in a sequence that evokes the staccato cutting style of the notorious Janet Leigh shower scene in Psycho, the birds relentlessly peck at Melanie, rending and tearing her flesh and clothes.
This sequence, the film’s pièce de résistance in terms of shock editing, essentially eliminates Melanie as a threat to Lydia. Mitch’s prospective lover falls into catatonia and shock for the remainder of the film and is therefore no longer a danger to Lydia’s supremacy as the alpha woman in Mitch’s life. This sexually carnivorous woman has been, essentially, declawed and defanged. Or more aptly, her wings have been clipped.
The last shots of the film thus depict Lydia accepting and nurturing Melanie in the car as the group attempts to escape, caring for as she would for a helpless child. With Melanie’s sexuality all but eliminated, there is no reason Lydia cannot “love” Melanie as she would love a child. In some senses, this is actually a win—win, because the film has defined Melanie as a person who lacked the love of a mother (the motivation, we are led to believe, for her acts of reckless sexuality). Now Lydia can play that role with her.
Another clue about the underlying motivation for the bird attacks arrives in a throwaway line of dialogue. A character comments that in the night sky, the moon is full. In mythology, the moon is often linked with a person’s emotional gestalt, and here’s the kicker: it represents their unconscious emotions. More trenchantly, in mythology the moon is closely associated with the mother, with maternal instincts or the urge to nurture, the home, and the past.
Understanding this connection, one might detect the hidden importance Lydia plays in this Hitchcockian narrative. Her unconscious desire to protect Mitch from a sexually carnivorous woman, to live in the past when she was protected by an alpha male, not unlike Mitch, is cloaked just beneath the surface in the film.
Late in the film, a hysterical woman in a diner looks at Melanie with utter hatred and notes that she is the cause of the unnatural bird behavior. “They said when you got here, the whole thing started.” Well, she’s right, after a fashion. Melanie’s presence is the reason for the attacks, but Melanie is not causing the attacks herself. Lydia has detected her as a threat and managed to rally the birds against her. So The Birds is a story about an overbearing Mother Human subconsciously directing Mother Nature to do her bidding.
There are many reasons why The Birds is a horror-film classic, from the beautiful choreography of the bird attacks, to the surprising wit of the screenplay. But as is the case with all great horror cinema, the real and lasting value of this film rests in what it has to say about humanity and human nature. An old Asian proverb goes: “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” The maddening song of the feathered ones in The Birds is one written by the insecure id of a very frightened woman who can’t cope with time’s passage and her son’s independence. —John Kenneth Muir