I first saw The Birds on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies with my sister in the late 1960s. I remember liking it well enough, though the film just seemed to end with no satisfactory resolution. Over the next two decades, I may have watched The Birds three or four times. But I never developed an affection for it until the early 1990s when, on a whim, I decided to view it again while my wife was out-of-town.
For the first time, I realized that the film functions on two levels for me. It is, of course, a well-done thriller about unexplained bird attacks in a small California seaside community. But it’s also a well-acted 1960s drama about three women and their relationships with the bland, but likable, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch’s mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) fears losing her son to another woman—not because of jealousy, but because she can’t stand the thought of being abandoned. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother.
In the midst of this soap-like plot, Hitchcock injects a series of escalating bird attacks, ranging from a gull that nips Melanie to a explosive strike at a gas station. His direction of these sequences is flawless, as evidenced by two textbook examples of creating suspense. Early in the film, there’s a cute scene in which Melanie (in a boat) races Mitch (in a car) to the other side of the bay. Hitchcock waits patiently until the viewer is involved in the race, then a gull suddenly swoops down to bite Melanie. This abrupt assault results in a sense of uneasiness that permeates the rest of the film.
Knowing that the viewer will now be prepared for more surprise attacks, Hitchcock shifts his strategy with a classic scene outside the schoolhouse. As Melanie waits for Annie and listens to the children singing, the viewer sees a flock of birds filling up the playground bars behind her. Melanie is oblivious to the impending danger until she catches sight of a single bird in flight and watches as it joins the others. It’s a brilliant example of the visual power of cinema.
Now, let's talk about the birds. Are they truly villains? I think not. Miss Bundy, the ornithologist, states in the restaurant after the attack on the children: "Birds are not aggressive creatures...it is mankind that insists in making it difficult for life to exist on this planet." I'm not suggesting that The Birds is an eco-horror film like John Frankenheimer's Prophecy (which I think is pretty entertaining, by the way). Rather, the scene with Miss Bundy is intended to soften our perception of the birds as terrifying creatures.
And why is that? Because Hitchcock doesn't want us to focus too much on the birds. The movie is about the Mitch-Melanie-Mitch's mother triangle. The birds are just catalysts. I still know people who hate the ending. If it frustrates you, think of the film as a drama in which all the conflicts between characters have been resolved. In that sense, The Birds ends when it should.
I realize that Notorious fans can argue the complexities of that Hitchcock classic just as well. But the purpose of this blog is not to explain why Notorious didn't make my top 10 (and, yes, I need to see it again). Rather, my goal is to point out that The Birds is more than just a suspense film and its ability to function effectively on two different levels (thriller and relationship drama) is why I love it.