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Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

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Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”
Image credit: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions and Universal Pictures

“The Birds” begins as a light romantic comedy.

A rich girl, Melanie, played by Tippi Hedren (gorgeous woman–was surprised to learn later that she’s Melanie Griffith’s mother), met lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a pet shop, was attacted to him and pretended to be the sales girl.

But, being a socialite who has had her photos plastered on gossip columns, Mitch knew who she was and told her off. She pursued him by buying a pair of love birds that Brenner intended to buy for his sister on her birthday. She found his residence by having an employee from her father’s newspaper trace his license plates through auto registration records.

The pursuit brought her to a fishing village called Bodega Bay where Mitch spent each weekend with his mother and sister.

Melanie hired a small boat and went across the bay to the Brenner house to deliver the birds. On her way back, a seagull swooped down and attacked her. The mood of the film changes at this point. Meanwhile, the attraction between Mitch and Melanie apparently being mutual, Melanie spent the night in Bodega Bay in a rented room in Annie Hayworth’s (Suzanne Pleshette) house. Hayworth would later relate to her that she moved to Bodega Bay to be near Mitch even though their budding romantic relationship had been over years ago because Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), got in the way.

The following day, at the birthday party of Mitch’s young sister Cathy, a flock of birds attacked the children. The day after that, Lydia discovered the body of a friend with his eyes gouged out apparently from a bird attack. The school that Cathy attended was attacked by the birds on the same day. Later, the town’s commercial area would be attacked as well. One customer of the diner commented that the attacks only started after Melanie arrived in Bodega Bay.

Back at the Brenner residence, Mitch boarded up the windows to secure them against bird attacks. The birds came and was able to enter the house through a second floor room. Melanie, unaware that they had gotten inside, went up to investigate and got badly hurt. The film ended as the Brenners drove Melanie to the hospital. The reason for the bird attacks was never explained.

Okay, “The Birds” was made in 1963. Although the “bird attacks” were visually believable, there were obvious technical flaws especially in the car scenes. You know how a scene on the road usually looks in old films. But it wasn’t really the visual effects that “made” the film–it was the mood. It was macabre. But what made the theme so horrific was the message that humans are prey to forces of nature (symbolized by the birds) beyond their control–a truth so glaringly obvious yet the terrifying consequences elude us until we actually become victims.

Reason is not a consideration in the film. The reason for the attacks was never explained. In fact, the attacks were contrary to reason if we go by the known habits of birds. Perhaps, the irony of unreason was meant to drive home the point that there are no reasons when nature wreaks havoc on human lives.

As with most of Hitchcock’s films, the main storyline did not detract from the characterization of the main players. Every aspect of human emotion was explored–the attempt at reformation by a spoiled socialite (Melanie), the inexplicable feeling of weakness by a widow who had always relied on her husband for strength (Lydia), the resigned contentment of a woman to be just near a man she could never have (Annie)… Even the bit players represented significant facets of human character–a fatalistic man who interpreted the bird attacks as the end of the world, a macho whose solution was to shoot all the birds, a woman who was so ready to connect unrelated events (that it was Melanie’s arrival that brought the attacks) for the lack of explanation for the events.

Beautiful film, really. It is films like “The Birds” that justify the categorization of film as art–for it is often not. But Alfred Hitchcock was able to elevate film to art over and beyond its commercial and entertainment value. It would be nice to get a DVD copy of “The Birds”. If I can find one.