Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hitch's Terrifying Love Story

After the tremendous success of Psycho in 1960 (this was the most popular Alfred Hitchcock film ever at the box office), the director turned his attention to an equally shocking story, The Birds in 1963. While some critics were openly disappointed with this work, The Birds shows Hitchcock at the power of his storytelling genius and remains in my mind, one of the top ten films he ever made.

By now, everyone must know the basic theme of this film - birds suddenly start attacking humans for seemingly no reason at all. While Hitchcock used Daphne du Maurier's 1952 short story of the same name as the basis for his film, he enlisted Evan Hunter to broaden this tale and add new characters and situations.

While the bird attacks were the primary focus for many in the audience, the film is, in the final analysis, an argument from Hitchcock on the need for love. We are introduced at once to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), an attractive, young socialite living in San Francisco, where her father is an editor for one of the city's daily papers. She enters a pet store to purchase a mynah bird and while waiting, encounters Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a defense attorney who has come to purchase a pair of love birds as a birthday present for his 11-year old sister (nice touch right off the bat of love birds being part of the symbolism that drives the story). Brenner, upon seeing Daniels standing alone at a counter, plays a trick on her, asking her for advice on birds, knowing full well who she is. Daniels, not realizing that he knows she is not a sales clerk, does her best to help him, but fails in her efforts. Upon learning of Brenner's deception, she insults him and instantly imagines getting even with him. As he leaves, she runs outside, sees his license plate number and thanks to her father's connections, learns who he is and where he lives.

As the store did not have any love birds when Brenner arrived, Daniels orders them with the idea of purchasing them for his sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and delivering them herself. She drives up to Bodega Bay, along the Pacific Coast, about an hour north of San Francisco.

Soon after she delivers Cathy's present, the bird attacks start. First, Daniels is hit in the head by a gull who swoops down on her and leaves a small bloody cut. Hitchcock, who begins the film with an ominous title sequence of crows seemingly ripping apart the title credits, is just getting warmed up, as far as shocking sequences are concerned.

But wisely, Hitchcock and Hunter are at the same time, involving us in the developing relationship between Daniels and Brenner. He is physically attracted to this beautiful woman and at the same time charmed that she would go to all the trouble of purchasing the love birds and delivering them to Cathy as a surprise. Brenner asks her to stay in Bodega Bay and have dinner; she accepts, as she is attracted to this young man, who despite his professional success, seems to be in need of attention from someone outside of his immediate family, that being his sister and his anxiety-ridden mother Lydia (beautifully portrayed by Jessica Tandy), whom he lives with in this coastal town.

When Daniels discovers that he is a criminal lawyer, she proclaims, "Is that why you want to see everyone behind bars?" It's a clever line, as the two first met in a pet store, where dozens of birds (and other animals) are kept in cages. Clearly, Daniels believes that Brenner also wants to cage or control her as well. As we learn that she created headlines the previous summer by jumping into a fountain in Rome (she relates to him that she was pushed in), we learn of her aloofness. Perhaps, Hitchcock and Hunter are saying, Daniels is tired of her freedom and wishes to be trapped.

It is their encounter, at first based on deception and ultimately based on their need for true human affection, that is at the heart of this film. Naturally the spectacularly-filmed and very unsettling bird attacks - especially on young children - catch the viewer's attention. But without the human element to this story, the bird attacks would stand out as a gimmick. For years after, this film, thanks to its disturbing theme - animals being unleashed on humans - inspired several other movies with similar subject matters, be it monkeys or lions or even in one instance, killer frogs in the infamous Frogs (1972). The creators of such films were in for a cheap buck, thinking that humans being eaten by animals would be good for some instant thrills as well as a few laughs.

Of course, films such as that are mere footnotes, while The Birds remains deeply etched in the psyche of anyone who has seen it over the years. Who can forget the unforgettable sequence of Daniels driving to the schoolhouse in Bodega Bay - a structure that clearly recalls the Bates residence in Psycho - to check on Cathy as well as her teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who we learn was Brenner's former girlfriend and who still carries a torch for him. In the most famous part of this sequence, Hitchock films Daniels sitting alongside a fence that is next to the school playground. We see one crow behind her sitting on a jungle gym; this is a disconcerting image given the previous bird attacks. We cut back and forth between the shots of Daniels and the playground equipment being populated by more and more birds; we see them, but Daniels is unaware of their presence. Finally, Hitchock uses subjective camera as we see Melanie spot one bird flying alone and follows his path onto the playground, which is now filled with hundreds of birds, who we know, are merely waiting for the right moment to strike. That shot was evidence of Hitchcock's genius in creating suspense - as well as surprise - and it's become one of the most iconic scenes in American films.

Yet Hitchcock even tops that scene a few minutes later in the film, when we see the next bird attack. As several townspeople in the local diner argue over the meaning of the attacks, we follow Melanie as she looks out the window and spots a pair of gulls flying near a gas station. One of them knocks over the attendant, who drops the gas pump, spilling fuel on the ground, which rapidly spreads to the parking lot nearby. One man who has exited his car and is lighting a cigar is unaware of the fuel, but it is too late, as it explodes, killing him and destroying several other cars.

Hitchcock then gives us a literal birds' eye view of the surroundings, as we see first one and then another and then another gull enter the frame, as they stare down at the destruction below. The birds let out a shriek, as though they are having an ironic laugh at humanity. We can control humans so easily, the birds seem to be saying. What a chilling image and moment this is!

The sequence continues as the people in the diner scramble madly to find shelter. Melanie herself runs to the protection of a phone booth, where she believes she will be safe. Hitchcock gives us several memorable overhead shots here, as we see that Melanie is now trapped - trapped like a bird in a cage. One by one, the birds hurtle themselves against the glass, with a few of them shattering it. The sound editing in this sequence - and really throughout the entire film - is brilliant and makes this section of the film that much more terrifying.

There are more attacks and more stunning images from Hitchcock, but it is the moment just before the ending that completes the message of this film. Melanie, who has been seriously injured by birds in the attic of the Daniels' home, has to be taken to the hospital by Mitch, who of course, cannot leave behind Cathy or Lydia. As they start to edge away from the garage, we see that Melanie and Lydia are in the back seat, with Melanie, clearly sapped of her strength due to her injuries, leaning against Lydia's shoulder. Hitchcock cuts to Melanie's hand grabbing Lydia's, followed by an approving smile from Lydia, who knows that Melanie trusts her. For Lydia, who doubted the sincerity of Melanie earlier in the film, she knows now that Melanie is a caring person, one who will be right for her son. This is of course, done with only a few fleeting images and it's evident that Hitchcock's early training in silent films paid off handsomely, as with other scenes - most notably the one late in the film where Lydia and Cathy cannot speak as they must endure another bird attack in their home. It's a marvelous scene, once again chilling for what is not said, as the various characters must embrace and feel the touch of another human if they are to survive the randomness of the bird attacks.

Fortunately, Hitchcock and Hunter never explain why the birds are attacking, even though the patrons at the diner come up with various reasons. "It's the end of the world," mutters the charming drunk at the end of the bar. Any explanation for the behavior of the birds would have been tremendously disappointing, which is why the final shot of the four characters in a car driving away from the home amidst thousands of huddled birds, is perfect. We cannot explain nature, Hitchcock is saying, so in times of chaos, the need for love, our strongest human emotion, is what will save us.


  1. Thanks for directing me to this excellent review of one of my favorite films! I am in the same camp in believing that "The Birds" works principally because the attacks are buttressed by a narrative that we're consistently encouraged to relate to.
    Without belaboring the point, I'm always so dumbfounded that filmmakers and studios misunderstand what feels like Filmmaking:101 - horror is always more frightening when some time has been invested in getting the audience to know, care about, or become invested in the goals and objectives of the characters.
    You stated it well in noting that animal attacks in and of themselves make fairly boring movies if there is not human interest.
    What's great about your essay is citing the film's very effective (and under-appreciated) themes about the need for love, and how loneliness is such a big part of the character's interactions.
    Hitchcock's virtuoso special effects notwithstanding, without such a strong emotional element, I don't think we'd still be talking about it so many years later.

  2. Ken: Thank you very much for your incisive comments on my review of "The Birds."

    I especially like your thoughts regarding horror films being so much scarier if we care about the characters - very true and, as you wrote, really something very basic - Filmmaking 101.

    I agree 100% about the strong emotional element of the film. You are correct - without that, we certainly would not be talking about this film some 50 years after its release.