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The Birds
Or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Coronavirus (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock & Heidegger), Part One

5,805 words

I watched Hitchcock’s The Birds the other night, for the first time in years. Alone in my apartment, isolated for weeks now due to Coronavirus, I had a sudden hankering to watch the film. Some little. . . um. . . bird was telling me this was what I needed to see, right now. See it I did, and I have carried away what it has to teach us about the current crisis and, strangely enough, how Heidegger is the key to understanding this enigmatic film, which has haunted me for years.

The Birds is the fifty-third feature film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Released in 1963, it is loosely based on a 1952 short story by Daphne Du Maurier (whose Jamaica Inn and Rebecca Hitchcock had filmed in, respectively, 1939 and 1940). Instead of using an established actress, Hitchcock cast an unknown, Tippi Hedren, in the lead role. At the time, Hedren was a successful fashion model who had appeared on the covers of major magazines, but had no previous acting experience. Her collaboration with Hitchcock has acquired a certain amount of notoriety in the intervening years, since Hedren has claimed that Hitchcock sexually harassed her during the making of their second film together (Marnie, 1964).

The Birds depicts a series of savage and inexplicable bird attacks on Bodega Bay, a sleepy little California fishing village. Significantly, the attacks coincide with the arrival in town of Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels, a spoiled socialite. In what follows, I will take the reader through the major events of the film. The secondary reason for this is to make my commentary intelligible to those who haven’t seen the film, or haven’t seen it in a long time. The primary reason is to present my commentary, which I do throughout. I would therefore ask those who are quite familiar with the film to read on anyway, given that I believe my commentary will contain a few surprises. I can promise those readers that Heidegger will definitely come to meet us by the end, though what he has to say — about The Birds and about the Corona crisis — will only be intelligible if you’ve followed me the whole way.

As the opening credits roll, the first thing we notice that is unusual about The Birds, and slightly disturbing, is that it has no musical score. Music occurs only twice in the film, always as played or sung by characters (the first piece is one of Debussy’s Deux arabesques, played by Melanie on a piano, and a song, “Risseldy Rosseldy,” sung by some schoolchildren in one of the film’s most memorable scenes). To my knowledge, this is the first film by Hitchcock to feature no music score, or theme music, since his days in silent cinema. This was certainly a bold decision, but the truth is that the film features no conventional score. The music is, in fact, provided by the birds themselves.

Some of the bird noises in the film are genuine, but most were produced electronically by Remi Gassmann and Oskar Sala, who are credited with “Sound Production and Composition.” Gassmann and Sala created the bird calls using a device called a Trautonium, which was an early electronic instrument. The Trautonium was invented in 1929 by Friedrich Trautwein in Berlin at the Rundfunkversuchstelle, the Musikhochschule’s music and radio laboratory. The basic mechanism involves a resistor wire stretched over a metal plate which is pressed in order to produce sounds. The instrument was not marketed until the early days of the Third Reich, when a small series was produced with the inevitable name “Volkstrautonium.” It had been heard in films before The Birds, notably in Arnold Fanck’s 1930 mountain film Storm Over Mont Blanc (which I discuss here), where it provided sound effects and also features in the score by Paul Dessau. Oskar Sala had been heavily involved in the development of the Trautonium after being introduced to Trautwein by Paul Hindemith, who would later write several short trios for three trautoniums.

That the bird calls in the film were seen by Hitchcock as music is underscored (if you will pardon the pun) by the fact that the director engaged his longtime collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, as “Sound Consultant.” Certainly, the music “the birds” provide is far from melodic; these are not, for the most part, the sweet sounds of tweeting birdies. They are harsh and threatening — much like modern, avant-garde concert music, in fact. Although Gassman and Sala’s sound effects are convincing enough as bird noises, they are just ever-so-slightly fake. As I will discuss later on, the film’s photographic effects have been criticized as artificial, but there is actually a quality of artificiality that pervades the entire film. From the process shots to the bright-red fake blood to the strange mixture of accents in Bodega Bay, nothing seems real except the terror conveyed by the actors, and the real sense of unease the film produces in the audience. At a subliminal level, the electronic “score” conveys this artificiality. Generally speaking, Hitchcock was uninterested in realism (Marnie is even less realistic in its effects, featuring obviously fake painted backdrops and bad process shots). In The Birds, however, this lack of realism seems like it may be deliberate.

The film opens with the very beautiful Miss Hedren (a typically Nordic “Hitchcock blonde”) crossing the street near Union Square in San Francisco, wearing one of the two simple but elegant outfits Edith Head designed for this film. (Hedren will spend almost the entire story wearing the second outfit, a green suit.) There is a seamless transition as the camera cuts from the location shot to a studio set — the exterior of a pet shop. Just as Melanie enters, Hitchcock exits with two terriers on leashes, the director’s own beloved pets. (Hitchcock liked to get his cameos out of the way early in his films, so that they wouldn’t distract the audience’s attention later on.) Melanie has arrived to pick up a myna bird she ordered some days prior. Only later in the film do we learn that she intends to give the bird to her Aunt Tessa, but only after teaching it a large vocabulary of dirty words. Melanie, you see, is a spoiled little rich girl (her father is part owner of a fictitious local paper), and spends much of her time planning elaborate practical jokes.

It turns out that the myna bird hasn’t arrived yet, but Melanie soon finds another way to amuse herself. When the saleswoman steps out for a moment, in walks Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a tall, dark, and handsome local attorney. He appears to mistake the mischievous Melanie for a shop employee and she plays along, enjoying her deception and quite obviously attracted to Mitch. He tells Melanie that he wants to buy a pair of lovebirds as a birthday gift for his younger sister, who is about to turn eleven. The scene that unfolds is quite amusing, as it becomes apparent to Mitch, and the audience, that Melanie not only has no idea what lovebirds look like, she has no knowledge of birds at all. The tone of the scene stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film, and if one knew nothing about what was to come, one might assume that this is a screwball comedy.

In the end, Mitch reveals that he knows exactly who Melanie is and that it is really he who has been pranking her. He had seen Melanie in court, when she answered a summons having to do with a practical joke that resulted in the smashing of a plate glass window. “I thought you might like to know what it felt like to be on the other end of a gag,” he says, and walks out. Melanie is incensed and, in the peculiar logic of the female mind, now more attracted to him than ever. “Do you have any lovebirds?” she asks the saleslady, the wheels turning in her gorgeous, crafty head.

Melanie manages to track Mitch down and shows up at his apartment building carrying two lovebirds in a cage, looking very pleased with herself. She places the cage outside Mitch’s door, along with a snarky note. But just as she is about to make her getaway, a neighbor appears and tells her that Mitch has left town for the weekend. “Where did he go?” she asks. “Bodega Bay. He goes up there every weekend,” replies the neighbor (played by Richard Deacon, familiar to American audiences from The Dick Van Dyke Show). Realizing she can’t leave the birds out in the hallway for two days, Melanie decides to do something quite impetuous, and that will have far-reaching consequences: she sets off in her silver convertible Aston Martin DB2/4 to make the sixty-mile journey up the coast highway to Bodega Bay.

I should mention that I myself have made the same trip. In 2003, I and two friends made a pilgrimage to Bodega Bay to visit sites from The Birds. I’ll have more to say about how the town was utilized in the film, and how it has changed over the years, in just a moment. The footage cinematographer Robert Burks takes of Melanie driving up the coast highway is breathtaking. In one particular shot, northern California looks positively like Switzerland. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the United States, and the only part of California where one can still enjoy something of an escape from the multicultural hell that is the rest of the state. These scenes continue the whimsical, lighthearted tone established at the beginning of the film, as the lovebirds (clearly fake in these shots) sway gently from side to side as Melanie’s car screeches along the winding highway at breakneck speed.

The Bodega Bay depicted in the film is actually an amalgamation of locations from the village of Bodega Bay and the nearby town of Bodega. Some of the film’s most iconic settings are really in Bodega, including the schoolhouse. A little later, a matte painting (by the great Albert Whitlock) of Hitchcock’s “Bodega Bay” is utilized, giving the audience a complete picture of the director’s imaginary consolidation of sites from the two towns. When Melanie arrives, her first task is to find out where Mitch lives, and what his sister’s name is, since she wants to leave a birthday card along with the lovebirds. The proprietor of the local general store (who, oddly enough, speaks with a Maine accent) is able to provide the address, but can’t remember the little girl’s name. The intrepid Melanie thus sets off to find the local schoolteacher, who is sure to know.

The schoolteacher, whose name is Annie Hayworth, is played by Suzanne Pleshette (best known to American audiences as Emily on The Bob Newhart Show, which came some years later). Melanie drops by Annie’s home, next to the large, late-nineteenth-century schoolhouse, just as the young woman is digging in her garden. Pleshette is pretty and conveys great intelligence, but in her gardening clothes and dirty fingers, she contrasts sharply with Hedren, who wears a mink coat over her green, Chanel-style suit. Annie is able to confirm that the name of the little Brenner girl is Cathy, and she also quickly intuits that Melanie has really come to see Mitch. It’s clear from her manner and her insistent questions that she has an interest in Mitch herself.

It turns out that the Brenner home is a large farmhouse across the bay, where Mitch lives (on weekends, at least) with his little sister and widowed mother, Lydia. Rather than approach the house by the road, Melanie decides to rent a motorboat and cut directly across the bay. She is an odd sight, clambering into the motorboat with her mink coat and birdcage, and she’s asked if she knows how to handle the thing. “Of course,” she responds, and seems to mean it. Melanie skillfully maneuvers the boat across the bay toward the house then cuts the motor and watches from a safe distance to see if anyone is around. The front door opens and Lydia and Cathy appear (both of them will be properly introduced a little later). They speak to Mitch, who is hovering near the barn, then drive away in a pickup truck. When Mitch enters the barn, Melanie sees her chance. She rows the boat to the dock, ties it up, and then swiftly enters the house, birdcage dangling from one gloved hand.

For those who have experienced the film before, seeing the first appearance of the home’s interior again is curiously unsettling. Here it is empty and quiet, but we know that later it will be filled with horror and violence. Melanie leaves the lovebirds in a prominent place along with a note for Cathy, then makes her escape. She rows the boat some distance from the house, and then waits and watches. Mitch emerges from the barn and enters the house — then rushes outside after finding the lovebirds. He sees the boat. He dashes back in to get a pair of binoculars, then re-emerges. Melanie slumps down in the boat, halfheartedly trying to hide. Mitch sees her through the binoculars and grins.

Were this actually a screwball comedy starring, say, Doris Day and, well, Rod Taylor (see The Glass Bottom Boat), these scenes would be accompanied by unsubtle “funny” music from somebody like Frank De Vol. Without music, however, this sequence of shots is brilliantly suspenseful. Even though we don’t expect anything awful to happen at this point in the film, the very absence of music where we would expect it creates a subtle tone of ominousness. These people and their doings are silly and frivolous. But instead of joining in their fun, vicariously, the heavy silence that surrounds them distances us from them. They seem somehow small, and their lives trivial. Something, we feel, is coming. Something they have completely overlooked and cannot possibly expect. And after it comes, nothing will ever be the same again.

Having spotted Melanie in the motorboat, Mitch gets in his car and sets off on the road to town, which curves around the bay. The chase is on. Melanie starts the motor (with some difficulty) and heads for the pier, watching the progress of Mitch’s car the entire way. As her boat approaches its destination, Melanie sees that Mitch has beaten her: he stands on the pier waiting. At this point, Tippi adopts an exaggeratedly pert, self-satisfied expression of false innocence. She looks like she’s just begging to be slapped — and the slap comes from a seagull that suddenly swoops down and viciously strikes Melanie’s head before flying away.

The first time one sees this, the scene is genuinely shocking. It was shot on a soundstage, as Hitchcock liked to film all his closeups under controlled lighting. This is readily apparent to the viewer, as Hedren is backed up by a process shot, which always looks fake (even to audiences in 1963). A stuffed seagull was sent down a wire so close to Hedren’s head it looks like she’s been hit. Before shooting the scene, a hairdresser had sprayed Hedren’s hair until it was a stiff helmet — all except one large curl, which flips upward just as the gull swoops in. This was accomplished with a jet of compressed air from a tube hidden under her hair. The whole shot is quite effective, and even though the audience knows it was faked, somehow it always provokes a “how did they do that?” response (not unlike the famous plane crash scene in Foreign Correspondent).

It is from here on that the tone of the film changes dramatically. The something we felt was going to happen has now happened. Or, at least, we’ve now gotten a glimpse of it. And we know, intuitively, that this is just the beginning.

Melanie touches her gloved hand to her head and realizes that she is bleeding. Mitch is dumbfounded by the gull’s behavior. “That was the damnedest thing I ever saw,” he says and solicitously helps Melanie out of the boat. He is concerned by the wound on her head, and guides her toward the nearby Tides Restaurant in search of first aid. Just as they are about to enter, a fisherman passes them and asks “What happened, Mitch?” “A gull hit her,” Mitch responds. The fisherman is played by Mitch Zanick, the real-life owner of the Tides restaurant. He told Hitchcock that he could use the restaurant in the film if he gave him a cameo, and changed the name of the male protagonist to Mitch! The Tides still exists, though the original building has been replaced with a much larger structure with a bigger dining room and a gift shop selling Birds memorabilia. (After all these years, Bodega Bay is still dining out on The Birds.) I have eaten there, and can recommend the clam chowder.

When Mitch and Melanie enter, the glamorous, wounded girl reduces all the locals to staring silence. They sit at a table and Mitch requests some peroxide from the waitress. (The interior of the restaurant, by the way, was recreated on a soundstage.) As Mitch tends to Melanie’s wound, he continues verbally jousting with her, as he had done in the pet store. Rod Taylor looks a trifle too dandy in these scenes, dressed in a white, cable-knit fisherman’s sweater with a paisley kerchief tied around his neck. He interrogates poor Melanie, drawing on all his lawyerly skill — and Mitch is a criminal lawyer, by the way. He is obviously pleased by Melanie’s interest in him, and amused by her attempts to deny that he is the real reason she drove two hours to Bodega Bay. Melanie claims that she had come up for the weekend to see Annie Hayworth, and that the two of them are old school chums. “I think you came up to see me,” he says cheekily. “I loathe you,” she says, as if she knows she doesn’t mean it, and knows that he knows.

All of a sudden, in walks Mitch’s mother, Lydia, who has seen Mitch’s car parked outside. The screenplay describes her “a woman in her late forties,” which would mean that she must have had Mitch when she was nineteen or twenty, since he is described as “twenty-nine or thirty.” Jessica Tandy, who plays Lydia, was fifty-four at the time of filming, but still looks too young to be Rod Taylor’s mother (Taylor was thirty-three). We cannot help but notice that there is a slight resemblance between Lydia and Melanie, owing mainly to their hairstyles. This resemblance was exploited by the studio’s publicists, who used a drawing of Tandy, hair tangled with birds, in the film poster — though almost everyone who sees the image thinks that it is Hedren.

The screenplay says of Lydia that “there is nothing agrarian-looking about her. She speaks with the quick tempo of the city dweller, and there is lively inquiry in her eyes.” Tandy, who is excellent in the part, fits this description to a tee. She eyes Melanie warily, and we immediately intuit that she sees Melanie as a threat. As we will see, the Brenner family has a rather curious Oedipal dynamic to it. Mitch announces that he has invited Melanie to dinner, and though it’s clear that Lydia wants nothing to do with Melanie, she has no choice but to accept. “After all, you did go to the trouble of bringing me those birds,” Mitch says. Lydia is puzzled by this remark, and when Mitch explains the lovebirds, her manner becomes grave. The script describes her as “understanding completely now.”

This is the second woman we’ve encountered in Bodega Bay who is clearly hostile to Melanie, and possessive towards Mitch. The other, of course, is Annie Hayworth, whose earlier conversation with Melanie included pointed questions about where she met Mitch and how long she plans to stay in town. Indeed, the only female in the film who doesn’t seem to have any designs on Mitch is his sister Cathy. Melanie tentatively accepts Mitch’s invitation to dinner at seven o’clock that evening, but must keep up the pretense of having to check with Annie first to see if she’s got anything planned.

In fact, after parting company with Mitch and Lydia, it’s to Annie’s that Melanie heads, stopping on the way to buy a nightgown at the general store. A sign in Annie’s window advertises a room to let, and Melanie asks her if she can have it for just one night. Annie hesitates, then agrees. She seems to be warming to Melanie, though she cannot contain her curiosity. “Did something unexpected come up?” she asks. “Yes,” Melanie responds, with a tone that suggests she doesn’t think it’s any of her business. Just as they are about to walk into the house, a large flock of birds flies overhead. “Don’t they ever stop migrating?” Annie asks, almost as if she is annoyed by the spectacle. The script describes Melanie as “watching the sky and the birds with a curiously serious expression.”

When Melanie arrives at Mitch’s house, the family is at first nowhere to be seen. After a moment, Mitch, Lydia, and Cathy emerge from behind the chicken sheds and approach her. “We were out back looking at the chickens,” Mitch explains. “Something seems to be wrong with them.” Veronica Cartwright plays Cathy very exuberantly. As soon as she meets Melanie, Cathy flings her arms around her in gratitude for the lovebirds. She is supposed to be just turning eleven in the film, but is obviously older. Cartwright was thirteen at the time (indeed, Hitchcock and cast threw her a thirteenth birthday party on set).

I have already mentioned that Tandy seems too young to be Mitch’s mother — and she also seems too old to be Cathy’s mother. (Had Cartwright been Tandy’s own child, she would have had to have given birth to her when she was thirty-nine or forty.) Then there is the oddity of the roughly nineteen-year age difference between Mitch (supposed to be twenty-nine or thirty) and Cathy (just turning eleven). All of this contributes to giving us the uneasy sense that something is just a little bit “off” about this family.

As soon as they enter the house, Lydia becomes involved in a telephone conversation with the owner of the local general store, who sold her chicken feed. Hitchcock places Tandy in the foreground, and we hear the entire conversation from her end, as Mitch and Cathy bustle about in the background and Melanie gets settled. Here, Tandy teaches a master class in acting a one-sided telephone conversation. She tells the man on the other end (a Mr. Brinkmeyer) that her chickens won’t eat the feed. We learn that another local farmer, Dan Fawcett, has also reported that his chickens won’t eat — only Fawcett bought a different brand of feed. Thoroughly puzzled, Lydia ends the conversation by suggesting that she might pay Mr. Fawcett a visit the following day.

Dinner is not depicted and instead, we transition immediately to its aftermath. Melanie is seated at the piano playing one of Debussy’s Arabesques, exactly as specified in the screenplay (and, as noted earlier, this is one of only two pieces of music heard in the entire film). She is obviously the sort of young woman who, in bygone days, was sent to “finishing school.” Cathy is clearly fascinated by the glamorous Melanie, and excitedly engages her in conversation. She tells Melanie that the people Mitch deals with in his practice as a lawyer in San Francisco are “mostly hoods.” Lydia is appalled at her language and corrects her with a pious speech: “In a democracy, Cathy, everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Your brother’s practice. . .” But her more realistic daughter cuts her off: “Mom, please, I know all that democracy jazz. They’re still hoods.” As the story progresses, we will find that the characters are increasingly forced to abandon their illusions.

The screenplay contains an amusing exchange between Melanie and Cathy which does not make it into the film. Melanie is smoking and Cathy begs her for “a little puff,” while her mother and brother are in the kitchen cleaning up. Surprisingly, Melanie consents and Cathy takes a puff on her cigarette. “Why, it’s just like air, isn’t it?” exclaims Cathy. “When I grow up, I’m gonna smoke like a chimney!” It’s likely that this exchange was eliminated for the obvious reason that it would encourage smoking in children, and there is no evidence it was ever shot. It serves to reinforce our impression that Melanie is irresponsible. And it is precisely her irresponsibility that Mitch and Lydia are meanwhile discussing in the kitchen. “She’s always mentioned in the columns, Mitch,” Lydia says while washing up. “She is the one who jumped into that fountain in Rome last summer, isn’t she? I know it was supposed to be very warm there, Mitch, but. . . well. . . actually. . . the newspaper said she was naked.”

Mitch assures her that he can handle Melanie Daniels and, as the evening draws to a close, he sees the young woman to her car. Cathy has been begging Melanie to stay for her birthday party the following day. It’s supposed to be a surprise, but the cat’s out of the bag, and Cathy has figured out the whole thing. Mitch also tries to persuade Melanie to attend the party, but she insists that she has to return to San Francisco. Their parting conversation quickly turns into another cross-examination, with Mitch playfully interrogating her about the Rome incident, and about her real reason for coming to Bodega Bay. She admits that she doesn’t know Annie Hayworth. Amused, Mitch says he would like to see her again, as it might be “fun.” But his teasing has gone too far. “That might have been good enough for Rome. But it’s not good enough now,” she says angrily, and drives off into the night. As he watches her car disappear down the road, Mitch suddenly looks up at the telephone wires and sees hundreds of crows perched on them, their black feathers shimmering in the moonlight. He seems momentarily unnerved by the sight, then returns to the house.

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Melanie’s remark about Rome is the first real hint of any depth in her; any sense that she may be dissatisfied with her life. Prior to this, she has seemed almost entirely self-satisfied and self-absorbed. In an upcoming scene, we will see her in an even more introspective and self-critical mood. Film critic Andrew Sarris has made some insightful observations about the film’s characters:

The theme [of The Birds] is complacency, as the director has stated on innumerable occasions. When we first meet each of the major characters, their infinite capacity of self-absorption is emphasized. Tippi Hedren’s bored socialite is addicted to elaborately time-consuming practical jokes. Rod Taylor’s self-righteous lawyer flaunts his arrogant sensuality, Suzanne Pleshette, his ex-fiancée, wallows in self-pity, and Jessica Tandy, his possessive mother, cringes from her fear of loneliness. With such complex, unsympathetic characters to contend with, the audience begins to identify with the point of view of the birds, actually the inhuman point of view. [1]

There is a great deal of truth in this. And Hitchcock’s films frequently feature characters who undergo a crisis and achieve a kind of awakening, shocking them out of their complacency and inertia. This is the theme, for example, of North by Northwest (1959). A bored, jaded advertising executive (played by Cary Grant) is accidentally flung into the world of espionage. In order to save his life and that of the first woman he’s ever really cared for, he must learn overnight how to be a man. The film also features an element common to many of Hitchcock’s films, including The Birds: the male protagonist has an unusually close relationship with his mother.

Indeed, Roger Thornhill is set off on his perilous adventures when he hails a bellboy in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel in order to send a telegram to his mother, about whom he is fretting. Just as in The Birds, the actress who plays Cary Grant’s mother (Jessie Royce Landis) seems too young to actually be his mother (and she certainly is: Landis was only eight years older than Grant). The classic example of the Hitchcock mother-son relationship, of course, is Psycho (1960). And, as many have pointed out, that film also prominently features bird images, in the form of the stuffed birds Norman Bates keeps around his home. Of course, the mother on whom he dotes is stuffed as well, though Norman keeps her memory alive (so to speak) by dressing up in her clothes now and then and committing murder. His first victim in the film has the surname Crane.

The “Oedipal” dimension to The Birds is explicitly explored in its next scene, when Melanie returns to Annie’s house. Annie senses that Melanie’s evening has not been all that she’d hoped for, and intuits that Lydia is responsible. Offering Melanie a brandy, she refers to Lydia, asking “did she seem a trifle distant?” Annie now reveals what we already suspected, that she and Mitch had a relationship in the past. Although she doesn’t lay the blame squarely with Lydia, it’s clear that the older woman sabotaged things. Annie struggled to understand what she had done to displease Lydia, and then realized in time she hadn’t done anything at all. “I simply existed. So what was the answer? A jealous woman, right? A clinging, possessive mother? Wrong. With all due respect to Oedipus, I don’t think that was the case at all.”

This is obviously a highly interesting line. It is an example of “postmodern irony”: the screenwriter heads off critics who would inevitably brand the situation “Oedipal” by making the connection himself. But Annie seems too quick to disavow the “Oedipal” label. When Melanie presses her on what’s really going on with Lydia, Annie says that she is “afraid of any woman who’d give Mitch the only thing Lydia can’t give him — love.” Melanie articulates our own skepticism when she responds, “That adds up to a jealous, possessive woman.” But Annie explains: “She’s not afraid of losing her son, you see. She’s only afraid of being abandoned.” In a later scene between Melanie and Lydia, the latter seems to confirm this interpretation of her psychology.

The set for Annie’s living room is dressed to suggest that she graduated from a liberal arts college, possibly a girl’s school. The walls feature original art, tasteful modern furniture, and an LP of Tristan und Isolde sitting atop the stereo cabinet. Annie no doubt learned about the Oedipus complex in Psych 101. But clearly, she didn’t major in the subject, as she’s got her Freud wrong. What is crucial in the Oedipus complex is not the mother’s attitude toward the son, but the reverse. Everything Annie has said about Lydia might be true, but the situation could still be Oedipal. Indeed, if Freud is to be believed, Mitch’s situation is every little boy’s dream, as daddy is finally out of the picture and he has mommy entirely to himself. He is the “man of the house” now, and an unacknowledged father figure to his much younger sister.

Like Roger Thornhill, however, Mitch isn’t actually a man. He’s a boy playing at being a man; playing house with his mother and toying with the affections of women without ever committing in any serious way and starting a life of his own. Poor Annie tells Melanie that their relationship just petered out after a while, as a result of Lydia’s attitude. “I can understand his position. He went through a lot with Lydia after his father died. He didn’t want to risk going through it all over again.” She sees Mitch as noble. Actually, this just makes him seem like a weakling and a momma’s boy. And Annie seems a bit pathetic herself, as she reveals that she relocated to Bodega Bay just to be near Mitch — after the relationship was over. She too is stuck.

In the end, all of the central characters in the film — Melanie, Mitch, Lydia, and Annie — will in one way or another overcome their inertia and grow (though in poor Annie’s case, it comes just at the end). And they will grow through being placed, with apologies to Freud, in a primal scene. The struggle against nature will make a man of Mitch, a mature woman of Melanie, a (healthy) mother of Lydia, and a martyr of Annie. In every case, their eyes are opened — but only as a result of their encounter with something that can be seen but not understood.

Blindness is a recurring motif in the film, as we shall see. And let us not forget that the real point of Oedipus Rex was the title character’s discovery of his own blindness. He imagined that he could see, but comes to realize he could not. In the end, he punishes himself for this blindness by gouging out his own eyes. Humanity, in The Birds, is about to be taught a similar lesson about its own blindness.

As they are talking, Mitch calls the house. Annie’s entire demeanor softens when she picks up the phone and realizes who it is. But Mitch has called to speak to Melanie. In a Bergmanesque shot, Hitchcock places Annie in the foreground, listening resignedly while Melanie talks to Mitch in the background. He has called to apologize, and to try again to persuade her to stay for the birthday party the following day. This time she relents and agrees to attend, saying that of course, she doesn’t want to disappoint Cathy (yet more disingenuousness). Melanie hangs up, after bidding him good night.

Just as Melanie and Annie are about to retire, there is a loud THUMP at the front door. “Who is it?” Annie inquires, surprised to be disturbed so late. When there is no answer, she opens the door and then speaks (as the script specifies) “to the emptiness outside,” asking “is anyone there?”

“Look!” Melanie cries, pointing downward. There is a dead seagull on the doormat. “Oh, the poor thing,” Annie says. “He probably lost his way in the dark.”

“But it isn’t dark, Annie. There’s a full moon,” Melanie responds. The two exchange significant looks and we FADE OUT.

To be continued. . .

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Notes

[1] Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film History and Memory, 1927–1949 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 297.

8 Comments

  1. Randy
    Posted May 8, 2020 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Do you seriously not leave your apartment because the government tells you?

    • Derek Hawthorne
      Posted May 8, 2020 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Is this all you got out of my 5000+ word essay? Or did you just stop after the first paragraph?

      • robert habel
        Posted May 9, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Derek, what I got out of it is…….continue, continue, continue….this is fascinating and the first time I watched the birds was with a grammar school buddy when the movie first aired!!!

  2. Right_On
    Posted May 8, 2020 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed your take as I’ve always been intrigued by “The Birds”.
    In some ways it has to be the most idiotic horror movie ever. Surely all you’d need is a Remington pump to put our feathered friends in their place.
    I’ve always thought of it more as a love letter to “Tippi” Hedren (are the scare quotes obligatory?).
    As in: see how perfectly that sexy Aston Martin suits Tippi . . . see how elegantly Tippi steps into a motorboat . . . see how sophisticated Tippi looks smoking a cigarette . . .
    It has been said of the 19th-century cult of the lady that the problem with putting a woman on a pedestal is that you immediately start wanting to kick it out from under her. Having elevated Tippi it is then essential she be finally humiliated by Mother Nature (who’s been reading her Schopenhauer) and poor Tippi ends the film literally hanging on the arm of the alpha-male hero Rod Taylor. “The Birds” might be the most anti-feminist movie ever!

    • Franz
      Posted May 9, 2020 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      What seemed idiotic, I think, was part of the gag.

      Birds are seen by most humans, really, as sort of overgrown insects. As a terrifying menace they really are idiotic. I’m thinking that Hitchcock knew this, and used whatever techniques were available to him to get the audience to suspend their avian prejudices and feel a bit of fear.

      It was also a product of its time. A few years earlier the masterful first version of “The Village of the Damned” came out of England and dazzled everyone who saw it. The monsters in that picture were everyday kids, about 10 years old. There was an interesting idea there, so far not noticed by any nationalist writer known to me: They LOOK like your ordinary boys and girls. But they were actually the Other, a replacement for actual humans by stealth.

      “The Birds” was part of a trend of taking common, even hokey things and turning them sinister. In the right hands, it often worked.

  3. Jim
    Posted May 8, 2020 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    That was a great review of that movie. I also stumbled on a TV viewing of this movie not too long ago and thought, “gee, I haven’t seen that in a long time … let’s see what I think about it now.”. It’s true what you said about the strange presentation of the movie, and I never realized that there was no score to the movie. For whatever reasons, the techniques employed by the producers and directors of movies during this era seem, to me, to be most exemplified by the Star Trek series, where you would be presented with character positioning and lighting that would help portray the mood that the movie is trying to impress upon you. Thanks again for taking the time to write this movie synopsis, as it were. It was impressive writing on your part and I look forward to the next installment!

  4. Traddles
    Posted May 9, 2020 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    Among the many things I love about films from the Hitchcock era are the glimpses of America in its pre-Multicultural glory. It’s almost unavoidable, even in Film Noir which, like Hitchcock, focused on the dark side of human nature. The community spirit which once really was prevalent can be seen in “The Birds,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo,” and even “Psycho.” And the beautiful downtown cities, tasteful fashions, common courtesy…. It wasn’t a Utopia, and not all women wore Edith Head designs, but compared to now…. I’m old enough to remember much of what we’ve lost in America and Britain. It’s heartbreaking. Hopefully such films along with home movies and documentaries will be preserved for a long time to indicate something of what once existed.

    Thank you so much for this fascinating review. I’m eager to read Part 2!

  5. Dandelion
    Posted May 9, 2020 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Did you guys realize that The Happening is a modernization of the Birds?

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