Hitchcock Review Essay, Research Paper
The plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 “The Birds,” taken from a Daphne Du Maurier (who wrote the novel “Rebecca”) short story, seems ludicrous. Birds attacking a small town, actually killing people. But in the competent hands of the master of suspense, the movie is frighteningly, well, suspenseful. Evan Hunter (who also writes under the name Ed McBain) wrote the screenplay, and while not all of the characters are well enough developed for the viewer to understand their occasionally awkward behavior, has nonetheless crafted an interesting story that captures and maintains interest.
Birds are flapping about in the opening shots, a forewarning of their sinister activities to come, before we’re introduced to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the daughter of a newspaper owner. As she walks into a pet shop director Hitchcock makes his signature cameo appearance (walking his two real-life dogs). She meets a handsome defense attorney named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and pretends to work at the store when he asks for help finding lovebirds for his little sister’s birthday. He embarrasses her by saying that he remembers her from a court appearance (one of her practical jokes resulted in a broken window), and that he just led her on to give her a taste of her own medicine.
Curious about Mitch and not to be outdone, Melanie buys two lovebirds and tracks him down. She makes a trip to Bodega Bay, where he lives on the weekends with his widowed mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), sneaks into the empty house, and leaves the birds for Cathy. He spots her as she begins leaving in a boat, and drives off to meet her at the dock, when, as she comes closer to it, a gull sweeps down and pecks her head. Mitch takes her to the local diner and takes care of her cut.
Melanie decides to stay in town for the night, and reappears at the home of schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who had given her directions to the Brenner house earlier. She sleeps over at Annie’s house, and the two women talk. Annie’s odd behavior earlier in the day (her presumptuous questions about Melanie’s relationship with Mitch, etc.) is explained when she says that she used to be involved with Mitch. Melanie is about to get ready for bed when the women hear a noise at the door. Annie opens it to find that a bird had flown into it, falling to the porch, dead.
The birds begin more direct attacks on the town, first going after children at Cathy’s birthday party, and then infiltrating the Brenner’s house through the fireplace. The next day, Lydia leaves to drop Cathy off at school and goes over to a farmer’s house to talk about why her chickens aren’t eating, when she discovers the man’s dead body, ravaged by the birds. In a surprisingly graphic shot (for 1963), we see his blood-filled eye sockets. Lydia rushes home, shaken, and when Melanie brings her tea in bed later that morning, the two women have a conversation that sort of clears up the indifferent attitude Lydia had been displaying towards Melanie.
Melanie tells Lydia, who isn’t certain that Cathy is safe at school, that she will go to the school and bring her back. Class is in session, so Melanie goes outside to the playground and, as she lights a cigarette, birds begin gathering quietly behind her. When she becomes aware of them, she goes inside and notifies Miss Hayworth. They give the children instructions as to how to evacuate, hopefully without provoking attack. In one of the many cool scenes where birds are chasing people, the school children are shown being attacked as they are running home.
I don’t want to give away too much more of the story, but I will say that the following things occur: more talk about other weird bird encounters from people who learn of the attack at school, an explosion, another dead body is found, there is another attack, a power outage, and an attack on Melanie that is at times visually reminiscent of Janet Leigh’s shower stabbing in “Psycho.”
One of my favorite things about “The Birds” is the ending. It doesn’t offer an explanation, and it doesn’t offer a way out. Instead, it shows birds covering almost everything in sight. Originally, Hitchcock wanted the last shot to be of the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds, but it didn’t work out. Cleverly, this is the only of his films that don’t end with the words, “The End.” He wanted to suggest endless terror, and indeed the closing shots of the movie are potent.
Tippi Hedren, who starred as a kleptomaniac in Hitchcock’s “Marnie” the year after “The Birds” was released, is very good as Melanie. Rod Taylor does well with his character, one of the few leading men in a Hitchcock film who isn’t given the hero treatment, and Suzanne Pleshette is noteworthy as the fairly mysterious Annie. But I found myself focusing more on Jessica Tandy as Lydia. Her character was the most complex, and she gives the best performance in the film as the mother who wants her son to be happy but is struggling with the unresolved abandonment issues deriving from her husband’s death. Veronica Cartwright is a bit uneven as Cathy, but becomes more believable towards the end.
Many people assumed that a movie about killer birds couldn’t be as satisfying a thriller as such (then) recent Hitchcock fare as “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho.” But quite on the contrary, he makes the danger of the situation palpable from the start, and builds to an even more tense and unresolved ending that is riveting. The script, especially the setting, is most commendable for never making suspension of disbelief necessary, as it would be if reasoning behind the bird’s behavior had been thrown in (such as the end of “Psycho,” where the psychologist’s monologue, which didn’t diminish the film, was still unnecessary). One could argue that if you watch a movie about homicidal birds, you have to suspend your disbelief, but such people have doubtlessly never seen “The Birds,” which has such convincing performances and meticulous direction lending to an atmosphere that never makes it seem odd that such small, harmless looking creatures could unleash such terror.