Hitchcock’s The Birds

I’m not a fan of the cinema in general, but there are certain directors I like, and one of those is Alfred Hitchcock. I think his work is clever, and I also think it’s what film ought to be. Hitchcock said that the audience ought to be able to understand what is happening in a film if the sound was turned off, and I think that’s the key to great cinema. The plot ought to be transferred to the visual domain and the dialogue can then dance and weave around it. But I really don’t know much about movies and that part of my critical brain is a bit addled. I tend to choose easy, candyfloss movies to watch, and I like the old ones, when it was about great acting and a witty, snappy script rather than special effects.

Anyhow, this weekend we watched The Birds and I was stunned by it. It’s a horrible movie, profoundly frightening in a queasy, menacing way. I realized half way through that it deserved to be situated in the horror genre and that it was, therefore, the first true horror movie I had ever sat through. Or sat almost all the way through. The last half hour or so builds to such intolerable tension that I found myself going to make cups of tea, and considering blogging, just to get away from the screen. It’s the simplest of stories; birds begin to attack people in a small coastal resort north of San Francisco. At first the attacks are brief and intermittent, but quickly the numbers of birds involved in each escalates until the town is inundated with these murderous marauders. The film eschews all possible reasons for this phenomenon, choosing instead to scare us all witless by the absence of comforting explanations. Horror is what happens when reason goes absent without leave, I think. The more desperately reason is required and the more its reassurance is withheld, the closer we get to the experience of the horrific.

So, caught up in these attacks are Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who begin a relationship whilst the terror takes hold. Melanie has met Mitch in a pet store (and they spar over a pair of lovebirds, symbolically enough), and coming off the worst, Melanie buys the birds, finds out where Mitch lives, and ‘delivers’ them secretly to his home. It’s an attention-getting ploy that works, and she is quickly welcomed into the family – although not by Mitch’s mother, the supremely and brilliantly neurotic Jessica Tandy, who has never recovered from the loss of her husband and is excessively possessive of her son. Mitch has a younger sister, Cathy, and he has an ex-lover who has yet to get over him (Annie). So the film starts in a way that promises to play out these emotionally-laden relationships, but then veers off into a desperate struggle for survival against a vicious, persistent and determined enemy. Now, being a literary type, I thought it intriguing that these interpersonal plot lines should all fade away, but I figured that their abandonment was meant to indicate that these subtle, nuanced relationship issues are only open to us when we’re not fighting for our lives. It’s what we do when survival isn’t an issue. And I suppose I thought it might also be about the battle man v. nature, which man is always destined to lose, despite his so-called superior consciousness. It’s not much use to him when faced with a flock of birds all determined to peck his eyes out. But then trawling around the internet to see what other people thought, a very different picture emerged, summed up by this critic:

It is about three needy women (literally ‘birds’) – and a fourth from a younger generation – each flocking around and vying for varying degrees of affection and attention from the sole, emotionally-cold male lead, and the fragile tensions, anxieties and unpredictable relations between them. The attacks are mysteriously related to the mother and son relationship in the film – anger (and fears of abandonment or being left lonely) of the jealous, initially hostile mother surface when her bachelor son brings home an attractive young woman. […] On an allegorical level, the birds in the film are the physical embodiment and exteriorization of unleashed, disturbing, shattering forces that threaten all of humanity (those threatened in the film include schoolchildren, a defenseless farmer, bystanders, a schoolteacher, etc.) when relationships have become insubstantial, unsupportive, or hurtful.

When I first read this I had the feeling I wonder whether other people have when they read my literary criticism. I thought, blimey, is that for real? Did we both see the same film? Anyway, I thought about it some more, and I can see that the disjunction between the two halves of the film, the first inter-family relationship part, and the second horrific, attacking birds part, is what gets all the critics going. It’s crying out for explanation, and inevitably the viewer wonders how it is that Melanie’s arrival in the town seems to trigger the murderous behaviour of the birds. There’s a scene in the local café when the inhabitants are all trying out possible explanations for the attacks and none seem particularly plausible. The birds attack again and then one hysterical mother points her finger at Melanie and screams that it’s all her fault. And yet I still hold to my instinctual feeling that narrative is particularly frightening when it refuses to explain itself, and so it’s more frightening to wonder whether it would be possible to be the cause of some terrible catastrophe than to know for sure, one way or the other. Maybe it’s Melanie and her rather appropriative passion for Mitch, but maybe it isn’t. Watching a film is all about identification, I think, slipping into the characters skins because it’s so easy to do, sitting in the darkness of the cinema. And horror is about identifying with the victim in a very uneasy way, feeling the ghastly flutter of the birds wings about your face, it’s claws dragging at the nape of your neck, its beak pecking aggressively at your vulnerable skin. So as a woman I watched this (though laced fingers in parts) and identified with being thrown into a life-threatening situation that might be the result of bad karma but might just have happened in the cussed way that life does, as I was getting to know a nice man, despite his nightmare of a mother.

At the end of all this, I found myself left with a conundrum, which can be expressed as: do the critical interpretations of this film try too hard? And is that why literary and film analysis get bad names for themselves, because they seek always to go beyond the obvious, which is arguably not the best idea? I thought the complex explanations were fun, but they didn’t touch me. I didn’t read them saying: oh, of course that’s what it meant! The overriding experience of the movie for me was just to come away eyeing the pigeons in the garden with a wary and deferential respect. But I’m a child when it comes to films, so I’m quite ready to believe that I have it all wrong.

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35 thoughts on “Hitchcock’s The Birds

  1. I like this analysis: “these subtle, nuanced relationship issues are only open to us when we’re not fighting for our lives. It’s what we do when survival isn’t an issue.” However, the rest of your piece does cause one to wonder if the entire meaning of the film is scaring the heck out of you. Filmsite might think the film is about the neediness of three women, and identify an allegorical level, and that could just be what they understand, not necessarily what it is meant. Do all writers have a meaning behind their work, an encoded message to the reader, or, in this case, the filmgoer? Do other creators–sculptors, musicians, painters, architects–also hide meanings in their works?

  2. I think The Birds even freaked out my poor puppy Pickles. For a few days after we watched he would cower when there were a lot of birds overhead.

    I was completely blown away by Rear Window, and I developed a total girl crush on Grace Kelly!

  3. Quillhill, now what you say is very interesting to me. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think that authors do not always have a meaning, and they might sometimes have a meaning we don’t necessarily decode. But, the best authors and filmmakers just tap into that buried layer of the human mind where we feel things and react to things and find them totally perplexing. They have their finger on the pulse of our desires and anxieties. So I think that critics can unpick why we might find things frightening, and they might explore the reasons why we rehearse being frightened, but to explain the fright within the context of the movie seems less motivated to me. BUT, that is only my opinion, and I’m more than prepared to accept that it’s an incomplete and imperfect one.

  4. I watched this long ago, but I can’t remember much but the swirling, calling, devilish birds (and that may be a distortion of what I saw). I think I prefer the simple explanation. I wonder what the original story suggests? It does make me think about how far criticism is legitimate. Can anything be said about a film, text, art work providing some theory can be referred to in support, given that the theory is only a theory to begin with?

  5. I love Hitchcock, too. You probably already knew that The Birds is from a short story by Daphne Du Maurier–I wonder how the story reads. I wonder quite often too, what did the author intend? Did s/he intentionally put all these varied layers of meaning, or did it all just turn out that way–and the book/movie has been so picked apart that the meanings come from the outside? It has been ages since I have seen this movie (I certainly didn’t have the response the critic did–but then I can’t say I try and look too deeply at movies–I definitely go for the entertainment value)–I should give it another watch now!

  6. I saw this movie on the late show when I was about 15. My mom said I’d have nightmares. I did. Even creepier was watching it at age 20, in German, playing in a storefront window, after having sampled too much of the local Swiss brew. Now that was nighmare-inducing. I don’t think I’ve seen it since, so I could be wrong, but I just thought it was a great horror movie, nothing more. Read recently (don’t remember where) that DuMaurier hated the film version and it is nothing like her original story.

  7. Hello jmfausti! your poor dog! Although I can quite understand how he feels. And yes, I love Rear Window too, and think Grace Kelly is extraordinarily beautiful in it! Bookboxed – I think it all depends on how you state the interpretation whether it’s legitimate or not. It’s why English teachers always tell you strictly to back up your argument with evidence from the book! We can only ever manage interpretations, not definitive readings. If we could finally say something about a book or film that would last forever then I’d be out of a job (or at least I’d be a historian), but it does seem frustrating never to know once and for all and for sure. Danielle – it’s just as well we never really know what the author intended or else we’d be stuck with only reading things one way. And some authors, like Zola, wrote whole books detailing their intentions, only to sneakily do something slightly different! I read that Du Maurier short story years ago and cannot remember a word about it now – I should go back! Cam – I’m glad I’m not the only one to find it hugely disturbing! That’s so interesting what you say about Du Maurier. I really must find that story out now.

  8. Kudos on sitting through the whole thing, Litlove!

    The Birds has always had a special vicarious reasonance for me because apparently my parents were at a screening of it when they heard Kennedy had been shot. But, apart from that, despite having watched and enjoyed and even written about his films when I did some film studies at University I now can’t watch Hitchcock films anymore. I find them disturbing, scary and misogynistic and the fantastic technique just isn’t enough to make me voluntarily spend time in his world. It’s probably very shallow of me…oh well.

  9. I’m a big Hitchcock fan and the Birds made me queasy also. It’s fascinating how something as familiar and commonplace as a pigeon can turn into an object of terror. From memory, in the Du Maurier story, the Melanie Daniels character doesn’t exist, the focus is on how one family deals with the catastrophe of the attacking birds.

  10. Your post reminds me of an Paris review interview I read of Shirley Hazzard — the interview time and again would take a particular scene in her book, suggest its deep symbolism, Hazzard would bring him/her (I forgot the gender) up short and said “don’t forget it has a real and immediate significance”. I find criticism of Hitchcock films typically over-the-top a lot of the time.

  11. Far too many “Critics” and “Literary Analysts” go over the top. They forget the viscereal reactions of the average reader and develop some esoteric theories for the success of the story (film/painting/sculpture/etc). This is an outcome of the purpose of the criticism or analysis. That purpose is not to educate the reader but to enhance the standing of the critic.

    “The Birds” is simply a great horror movie. Explain fantasy and you have technology, explain horror and you have normal life. One person I know delights in telling of coming out of the theatre, after watching “The Birds” snd looking up to see a row of pigeons on the wires above – - -

  12. Like Ms Make Tea, I am less and less able to watch horror movies, despite having studied the film horror genre at university and having watched them quite avidly as a teenager. I recently had to watch “Psycho” for a magazine article I was writing on Janet Leigh and the only way I could bear it was by watching it in daylight, with the sound turned right down.

    I think what Hitchcock does so terrifyingly well is to tap into our primal fears – birds en masse with their wings and claws, the vulnerability of the shower, the dark and lonely house on the hill. I think some film critics, like some literary critics, feel they have to earn their stripes by over-extrapolating so that what you read appears to have no bearing on the film or book you’ve enjoyed. My delight is to choose – is this a book/film that I’m going to allow to wash over me in all its narrative glory, or is it one I am going to enjoy picking apart to separate the layers of meaning?

  13. “do the critical interpretations of [films] try too hard?”: do you remember the ending of Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” (2001)? It was allegedly a non sequitur twist, but it got so many people raving about the hows and the whys, trying to find explanations for something that had none.

    I often find that viewing the deleted scenes in a DVD (or reading the book if it was an adaptation) explains many mysteries that otherwise would get me wondering for days on end on the ‘(unconscious) intentions’ of the author. But then, when it is too complex, I just remember that it is a work of fiction: the author is God and God’s ways are mysterious.

    That’s how I watched Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”: I knew that the plot was at least unconventional, and decided I’d watch it as it came, without trying to understand. If there was an unconscious message, be sure it was received unconsciously, because I had relinquished all hopes of rational interpretation. And I just loved it.

  14. I would have had my hands over my eyes too — I don’t watch much horror, although Hitchcock is an exception. It strikes me that if you don’t experience an “aha!” moment when reading criticism that perhaps it does go too far? I like the idea that the horror comes from there being no real explanation — a story that refuses to explain itself.

  15. I love The Birds! I have always just thought of it as a great horror movie. I connect the cause of the bird problem with something people did–an overstepping of bounds and nature reminding the people of their place in things–manv nature like you said. I suppose film analysis goes overboard just like literary analysis can.

  16. I saw this movie at a VERY impressionable age and I could just barely get through your post about it because it’s just so, so scary. What made it even worse is my dad kept telling me how “this could really happen” since we have no control over birds.
    That said, I agree with stephanie…this is just a good horror movie, and the idea of nature exerting some power. But mostly it’s just freaking scary.
    I never found myself interested in film study courses, but just like literary criticism, while MOST of it is engaging and credible, there is some that will always be too much. I think this is the case with this reviewer.

  17. I didn’t get this movie when I first saw it as a child, but it’s one of those films you see over and over to puzzle it out.

    One “klew” to its success, from a filmmaking standpoint, I think, is that the bird attacks coincide with a rise in the “emotional stakes,” or emotional tension in the story. Very subtle, acts on a subliminal level, which is such a hallmark of Hitchcock (a true auteur).

    Have you ever read Donald Spoto’s bio on Hitch? It’s really interesting.

  18. Whenever films and books are deeply analysed, I always wonder if that is what the director/author really meant and if too much is being read into it. I cannot really comment on the various interpretations as I saw this film a long time ago and have no intention of ever watching it again. It scared me witless and if a bird swoops towards me at all I instinctively duck and cover my face. I managed to watch the entire film but barely, and as for Pyscho, his other great scary movie, I have never got beyond half way and do not intend to try again!!

  19. Oh people, I’ve just written long, detailed responses to all your comments, only to have wordpress eat them all! I promise I’ll do it all again in the morning. For now, thank you so much for your fascinating and intriguing comments. I appreciated them all.

  20. Remedy no 1: never write within WordPress. I use a text editor, and then copy/paste.
    Remedy no 2: always hit ctrl-a then ctrl-c (select all, copy) before clicking any button that results in a server request (e.g. submit, publish, save, preview, you name it). In case something bad happens, the clipboard can save the day.

  21. I dunno i only watched this movie recently, for film study in my english class. We also read the short story. None of it appealed to me or any other of my classmates. I am not sure if it is because we teenagers nowdays are used to the gore in thriller movies that the concept of birds suddenly attacking humans feels childish. None of us found the movie that great either. the movie made the female lead relationship with the male lead feel so coincidental and empty.

  22. My daughter informed me that “old” movies in black and white cannot be scary. So I promptly rented “The Birds” and she changed her mind.

    You ever seen “The Yellow Wallpaper???”

  23. You’ll notice in the film, that each bird attack brings the lonely and needy characters closer together. In the end, Melanie finds acceptance as Lydia (Mitch’s mother) looks at her maternally. After each attack, the characters start to bond. Mitch and Melanie’s relationship has bloomed. The love birds bring Cathy and Melanie closer together as well, as they were an appreciated and wanted gift. The birds (gulls) also remove rebuffed competition, Annie. In the end, the birds do let the car drive through their mob. Inside the car is the family, with the love birds unharmed. The characters’ void and need for love is beginning to be filled. The birds helped all of their relationships mess, beginning at the pet shop.

    • The birds represent nature’s life cycle (death). They also represent love (love birds). In the end, that’s all there is (Love). Nature (death-gulls) bring the characters closer and closer together to fill the void in their brief lives against eternity.

  24. Hitchcock said the film is about complacency. Birds often have the meaning of higher goals and aspirations. The characters in the movie are letting petty emotional problems stagnate their lives.
    Mitch worries about pleasing Mom too much to take a girlfriend/wife, Mom can’t forget husband, school teacher moved to the bay to be near Mitch, Melanie has problems with parents etc etc. The love birds come to the bay and upset the balance of things and the birds take their revenge for the lost time these characters have wasted.

  25. THE BIRDS is one of hitchcocks best movies and one very scary movies for the facts that birds and the advantage of flight and agility

  26. This movie is considered a classic and not just by horror standards. The time that this movie is filmed is pertinent to the nature of these relationships. Nowadays, women acting like this and getting treated like this is unheard of. The dismissal of opinion. The mocking of women in certain incidents.
    A lot of women don’t allow this to happen to them in today’s society. This mentality has also transcended to films of today as well.
    In today’s horror films, they are usual “final girl” films where the girl or the woman is the last person to survive the horrific acts that are being displayed in the film. The reason why I think Hitchcock is such a genius in writing his books and films such as this is because he has a delicate way of letting the personalities of the characters dance with each other in such a way that you wonder who is the victim and who is the villain. Even at the time this film was made, if you pay attention closely, Melanie is not the damsel in distress that other movies portray women as being around this same time. Don’t have an example right now of course because I need it. (I can look it up, if someone asks.) She is very confident and sometimes over confident in her demeanor towards how she treats people. She is sort of a trouble maker by having to go to court for her antics and even Mitch calls her on on it in the bird shop by the fact that she was able to get out of it. She is very determined with specific things to have them her way such as the myna bird that she asks the bird store clerk for that she doesn’t have for her right away. A more timid and passive woman, as we are debating on in this movie, would probably have not been so combative in her response to the store clerk or to Mitch for that matter. If the birds aren’t there, then they aren’t there. There really isn’t much more that the store clerk can do except expedite the delivery. She asks Melanie several times if she could wait and Melanie doesn’t want that option. Again, a display of a more independent, even though difficult to satisfy woman, which to me doesn’t sound like a submissive woman that we may think is portrayed in this movie. I don’t think Melanie is needy at all. Curious, but not needy. Intrigued, but not needy.
    Annie doesn’t seem needy to me either. She is a woman in love. She is not hanging on Mitch’s arm every chance she gets. She is not following him around like Melanie is. She is teaching. She inquires about him when Melanie comes around looking for him. She seems very independent living by herself and from what we can see taking care of herself.
    We can also consider that it looks like a small town. I know a lot of people from small towns. Sometimes small towns can create lonely people, which may make them seem needy. But not just women, people.
    I am an English major and a lover of horror movies. Don’t consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but just to give a little background about me.

    Your Quote:
    Now, being a literary type, I thought it intriguing that these interpersonal plot lines should all fade away, but I figured that their abandonment was meant to indicate that these subtle, nuanced relationship issues are only open to us when we’re not fighting for our lives. It’s what we do when survival isn’t an issue.

    My Opinion (Just Because I Want to Give It, Not Because Anyone Needs It.)
    I do like when you say this because this is why I love Hitchcock. I can’t even comment on this statement any further because I think you said it beautifully. I love your man vs nature philosophy that to me says that there is nothing that we as hu-”man”s can do about nature. It happens and we deal. It makes it easier for us to deal with because technically we cannot deal with it. It deals with us and we survive it.

  27. Melanie is searching for love, Annie for a lost relationship, Mitch for a romantic relationship & his sister for the inicent love, Lydia for control over her fear of being alone. The love birds represent the love or bonds that develop among the characters with the background of an unpredicatable and indifferent universe. That’s what is found with each other, and at the end of life is all we really have to give or take with us is love. Notice that the love birds (love) is unharmed as the characters travel away with each other against nature.

  28. Sometimes in life really, really bad stuff happens to us …and we demand to know “WHY?!”…and we fight it, trying desperately to control it…to stop it.

    But sometimes…there IS no “why”… and no way to stop it.

    In those moments – not until we can accept that there is no “why,” and we stop fighting it and trying to fix it, can we TRULY put it behind us and find PEACE.

  29. I’m totally 100% new here, but that’s what the internet is for anyways, isn’t it?
    I just want to add my 2 pence. It is ABSOLUTELY true that in many instances, critics or readers will seek meaning where none was intended. It is also ABSOLUTELY true that in many instances, especially in modern film, the intent of the project is simply to bring the viewer (or reader, as the case may be) on an emotional roller coaster of one kind or another. Frankly, some of those stories are my favorite; I’m always impressed when the author of any work is able to make me feel something I would not have otherwise.
    However, I don’t believe this is the case for Hitchcock’s The Birds. While it does have the power to take you through a fearful event and emerge scarred but victorious on the other side (in that beautiful way that few but Hitchcock can), it does have deeper meanings. Hitchcock was one of the great pioneers of using film as a legitimate art medium (rather than just a few guys bumbling around slipping on oil slicks or grisly murder scenes that prickle your spine). His films generally have several strong themes and undertones throughout, and he often leaves these so opaque that the average viewer will not notice them, and most of us that do recognize that they exist but scratch our heads as to why they are there.
    Many comments above give ideas and opinions on how to interpret, and I won’t pretend to offer something new. However, I feel that just the presence of the love birds signifies that he wasn’t just looking for a few squeals. Again, I have my own opinions on what these mean, but I believe one of the beauties of Hitchcock is to find your own meanings in each film. Anyways, the love birds are present through the entire film, coming to the town just as the wild birds begin their attacks. It could be argued that the love birds aren’t even real birds, as having left the sky, they have lost the ability to truly know what they are or could be. Throughout the final attacks, the characters constantly check the lovebirds and seem shocked at their serenity. In fact, the love birds are the only characters (human or otherwise) that don’t go crazy at some point throughout the film. The love birds just sit there, looking out at the world, at peace and harmony with the chaos around them. Finally, in the end, as the family escapes and the wild birds pretty much just watch them go, the last thing to get loaded into the car is the pair of love birds. In fact, the last lines of the movie are “Can I bring the lovebirds, Mitch? they haven’t harmed anyone.” “oh, all right. Bring them.” Frankly, I don’t much care how you choose to interpret this, but I feel that arguing that there are no deeper meanings to be had is allowing your fear to cloud your vision of what other things they film is trying to say.
    Of course, there are other symbols seen throughout the film; the lovebirds represent only one. The use of the crow, the gasoline explosion, and the ornithologist (heck, every archetypal character in the diner) name just a few, but I feel that the love birds were so blatant that it almost shocks me that anyone should think otherwise.
    Oh, and at the risk of sounding extremely rude, I also noticed one other part of your analysis that I disagree with. I can understand where you are coming from when you say that the love story and relationships were kind of lost in the mad scramble for survival. However, I saw this in a much different way. Obviously, the characters were mostly focused on living, but I thought it almost seemed like Hitchcock played on the fact that they still had petty issues and problems with each other, even as they faced imminent doom. For example, the two girls (Melanie and Annie) seemed to have a bit of a thing between them, even as they run all of the children home. The mother is still disapproving of her sons choice in a woman and worries that he’ll leave her alone, wishing for her husbands return, even as she lies sick having just seen a dead body and worrying about her daughter at school. This social fear is brought back later, as she subtly accuses her son of not living up to his potential when she starts to say “If only your father were…”, EVEN AS the house is literally falling down around her. This same mother really only shows affection to her son’s new lover on 2 occasions: first when Melanie pours her soup, but not again until she is holding Melanie’s limp, possibly fatally damaged body in her arms. While it may not have the same emotional build up as a romantic dramedy, I personally felt like the level of judgement from one character to the others was a way Hitchcock played on how petty our social mores really are in the grand scheme of life. The fact that characters couldn’t let go of the most petty emotions even when faced with the basest of desires (run for your life) seemed beautiful to me.

  30. I watched this movie as a child. I watch it over and over as an adult, thinking that I will have answer to the “meaning. There is none. It’s a classic movie , and gets better with age. Hitchcock is the master of movie making. The Birds is exemplary film.

  31. Who’s not a fan of the.cinema……definitely the birds is an interesting watch as true to cinema as Hitchcock gets…to have watched with nervous tension, and between tea breaks, you gave a healthy full description…….I can only imagine how frayed your.nerves would be if you viewed the movie Halloween.

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