Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Birds--A Matter of Misdirection

Alfred Hitchcock’s most divisive thriller finds the Master of Suspense in magician mode. On the surface, The Birds is a traditionally-structured horror film, in which the bird attacks build progressively to three of Hitchcock’s most intense sequences. However, this is just Hitchcock performing a little playful sleight of hand with the audience. Our feathered friends play a strictly peripheral part in moving the plot along. In actuality, The Birds is a relationship movie about another memorable Hitchcock mother, her adult son, and the women who threaten to come between the two—a theme explored by Hitchcock earlier in Notorious and Psycho.

In The Birds, the son is 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 (Tippi Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother.

Mitch's mother places herself between the lovebirds,
turning her back to ignore Melanie.
These characters come together when Melanie follows Mitch to his home in Bodega Bay after a flirtatious exchange in a pet store. Melanie’s arrival coincides with the beginning of the bird attacks. It’s almost as if the birds arrive to prevent any potential love between Mitch and Melanie, perhaps an extension of Mitch’s mother’s anger at having to defeat another rival for her son’s love. (Taken to the extreme, there could a parallel between the birds and the creature created by Morbius in Forbidden Planet).

However, although the birds initially come between Mitch and Melanie, they eventually have a very different impact. They allow Melanie, who first appears spoiled and shallow, to show her courage and vulnerability. In the end, Mitch’s mother no longer sees Melanie as a threat, but as a woman worthy of her son. Once the friction between those two characters is resolved, the bird attacks stop and the movie ends. Hitchcock’s conclusion—often criticized as ambiguous—is perfectly logical.

Hitchcock goes to great lengths to misdirect his audience by disguising The Birds as a conventional thriller. Always concerned with audience expectations, the Master of Suspense told French director/film critic Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock, a brilliant collection of interviews: “I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story….” For that reason, the first bird attack comes at twenty-five minutes into the film and occurs toward the end of a playful scene in which Melanie races her boat while Mitch drives along the lake road trying to beat her to the dock.

Mitch, with all the women in his life, looks
concerned after the birthday party bird attack.
From that point on, the birds become progres-sively more menacing and their appear-ances more frequent: Mitch sees them on the power lines after Melanie visits for dinner; a bird crashes into Annie’s front door and dies; birds swoop down to break up a children’s birthday party; they fly through the open flue into Mitch’s house; and Mitch’s mother finds the first human victim in a farmhouse. (I love how Hitchcock uses broken teacups in this scene to foreshadow the impending horror. Earlier, he shows Mitch’s mom picking up broken teacups after the birds-in-the-flue incident. Then, when she visits the apparently empty farmhouse, she sees broken teacups hanging on their hooks—just before discovering the bloody, eyeless body.)

Melanie trapped in the phone booth, a metaphor for
her previously sheltered, empty life.
The remainder of the film consists of the three major set pieces: the bird attack outside the school-house; the attack after the gas station blows up; and Melanie’s struggle with the birds in the attic. Again, following the classic horror film structure, Hitchcock separates each sequence with a transition scene that allows the audience to relax and catch its breath. The scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist is one of Hitch’s rare missteps in The Birds; as Truffaut points out, it goes on too long without contributing to the narrative structure. I won’t dissect the birds’ attack on the school children—it’s an iconic sequence—but I strongly recommend that Hitchcock fans seek out Dan Auiler’s Hitchcock’s Notebooks, which includes the director’s hand-drawn storyboard and notes.

Though less famous, the burning gas station sequence is no less impressive. In the midst of the terrifying chaos, Hitchcock shows Melanie protected—and trapped—inside a phone booth. This “glass cage” is a marvelous metaphor for her previously sheltered life (also symbolized by the lovebirds in the birdcage) from which she is rescued by Mitch (literally…when he pulls her from the phone booth).

The three years between Psycho and The Birds (1963) comprised the longest gap between Hitchcock films up to that point. Much of that time was spent dealing with the technical difficulties in bringing Daphne du Maurier’s short story to the screen. In Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock admits that he discovered narrative weakness in The Birds as he was shooting it. A compulsive pre-planner, who storyboarded every shot in every film, Hitchcock began to improvise during the shooting of The Birds: “The emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me.”

That creative genius is captured for all to see in The Birds. From its use of bird sounds in lieu of music to its disturbing closing shot, The Birds is an atypical Hitchcock film which finds the director in a mischievous mood. He gives us a classic chiller, but then reveals that it’s all wrapping paper and that’s what inside is a relationship drama. It’s an unexpected gift and, hey, Hitchcock even includes a birthday party for us—although it’s disrupted by those darn birds!

There's nothing ambigious about the ending--the real
conflict has been resolved.

31 comments:

  1. Hitchcock has made many wonderful films and The Birds, certainly is one of them. Hitchcock, knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat. I can not even imagine Hitchcock never becoming a director, but luckily for us.. he did.

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  2. Rick,

    It would be interesting to see what AH would have done with this film if it were made today withe the special effects capabilities of modern cinema.

    While I always liked this film, for me, it is not top rate Hitchcock. One of the reasons is the cast. I was never a fan of Rod Taylor always finding him a bit stiff and Tippi Hedren leaves me cold. I certainly agree with you about Jessica Tandy's performance, the finest in the film.

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  3. I didn't know that Hitchcock had to improvise during the filming of this movie. As you pointed, he said that the most boring part was the actual shooting, because all the creative work was already done. The Birds is, of course, one of my favorites, even when I really don't care about the main relationship.
    Great review. I haven't read the book by Dan Aulier you mentioned, sounds great.

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  4. A fine review of a great favorite of mine. When I first saw this as a kid, I thought it was too slow and didn't care about the relationships between the characters. Now I think the bird attacks are a backdrop to these really interesting characters and their interactions with each other.

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  5. Great review! Although I love Tippi and preferred here in Marnie this was still visually appealing. However I'm terrified of birds and I even had an incident where a bird flew down a flue towards me while at a friends and one that got trapped in my home while I was away on vacation! Who knew birds could do so much damage. One day when I've had proper therapy perhaps I can sit down and re-watch The Birds and get more enjoyment from the master of suspense. Ha Ha!
    Page at MyLoveOfOldHollywood

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  6. This is really one of your best, Rick. Your insights about the story, Hitchcock's sleight of hand approach are right on. The teacups always scared me too -- what a wonderful visual.

    I do have to disagree with Truffaut, though, about the scene with the ornithologist - that is actually one of my favorite scenes! The actress playing the old woman, the background noises, the waitress calling out orders, and the woman confidently pontificating about her knowledge of birds. When she talks about how many birds there are in the world, she says "We wouldn't have a chance!" Then later, after the bird attack outside the cafe, Melanie and Mitch return to find everyone huddled in primordial type fear, including the old woman, whose confidence has disappeared.

    I love The Birds, and I am really impressed with your review, Rick!

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  7. Rick, you have provided a truly thought-provoking analysis of "The Birds." Bravo! I also enjoyed Aulier's book. It helped to show how meticulously Hitchcock planned his films, determining each shot before the footage ever reached an editor's hands. This must have made his work much more cost effective than many directors.

    I really enjoyed reading your perspective on the birds entrance and exit being driven by the establishing of the relationship dreaded by and finally accepted by Mitch's mother. The photo you posted of the mother between her son and Melanie spoke volumes. For me, the weakest performance in the film is Rod Taylor's. I think Tippi Hedren's "coolness" is in keeping with her character development.

    For an interesting note, I looked up the significance of the following names:
    Mitchell = Who is like God?
    Brenner = Burner
    Melanie = Dark
    Daniel = God is my judge

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  8. Taking the "glass cage" metaphor one step further, it always struck me as interesting that the female characters in this movie tend to "flock" around Mitch--Melanie, Annie, Lydia, even his younger sister Cathy--much like the titular birds. The imagery and language of birds has long been associated with women on a metaphorical level--we call women "chicks" or "birds" and refer to a gathering of women as a "hen party," among other things. It gives new meaning to the title of the film when you realize the care Hitchcock takes in crafting the male-female relationships in the movie!

    Excellent post--I love reading reviews and analysis that touch on interpersonal and feminist themes!

    Brandie
    True Classics
    http://trueclassics.wordpress.com

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  9. I think John kind of sums up my feelings about The Birds--from a technical standpoint, it's a brilliant and inventive piece of work but because Hitchcock always maintained that his films were primarily about relationships the film fails miserably in that respect. When you get down to the meat of things, I just don't really care whether Mitch and Melanie get together or not...which is why I've always preferred the other Hitchcock-Hedren collaboration, Marnie.

    My feelings for the film aside, this is a first-rate review.

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  10. I have never cared much for THE BIRDS, but I did enjoy your review, which I found insightful and interesting. I still much prefer the actual short story by du Maurier, which I found to be much more suspenseful and attention-holding. If I try the film again in the future, however, I will read your review again just before I watch it.

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  11. Hi! Good description, I like the way you phrase the whole concept of the movie. I never really thought about it that way, but you are right. I like this movie, I saw it awhile back.

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  12. Decades now after THE BIRDS have come out, the movie still scares the daylights out of me. I haven't watched this movie in awhile, but reading this great blog entry made me want to be scared all over again!

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  13. Very comprehensive review, Rick, extremely well done. I am personally ambivalent on "The Birds"...I think there are fine technical arguments to be made on its behalf and I do find it entertaining, but it has never engaged me beyond that level. I always find your posts most enjoyable and worthwhile, regardless of my own opinion on the subject! And btw, Rick, thank you so much for organizing this amazing blogathon...

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  14. Great post as always. Right before Halloween 2009, Tippi Hedren was in town with a screening of "The Birds." Two things struck me about seeing the movie on the big screen: 1) the plotting was too much; I understand what's happening in the Tippi/Rod/Jessica power struggle, but there's too much backstory (Tippi in a Rome fountain?) 2) The famous bird sounds are terrifying when heard through a movie theater sound system. Every time the birds attacked, that sound was oppressive. Unless you have that kind of a sound system at home, you miss out. And it's super effective. I also love the cafe scene with the know-it-all ornithologist, because her reaction after the attack shows that even experts don't know what's happening, and if she's frightened, everyone else should be too. Despite my criticisms, I do like this film a lot, because the staging of the bird attacks -- both when and how they occur, as well as how Hitchcock treats them -- is magnificent.

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  15. I think a lot of people consider this to be the closest Hitchcock came to a true "horror" film, which is why they don't like it. But you demonstrate that, like all of Hitchcock's films, it is really about hidden desires, control, and interpersonal relationships. Great review!

    -Caroline

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  16. Rick, I was ambivalent about "The Birds" when I first saw it years ago. Then a couple of years ago I watched it again by chance and had a much warmer response. Another viewing a couple of weeks later confirmed that this is one of those films destined to grow on me with repeated viewing, and at that point it nearly cracked my top 10 Hitchcocks!

    Your post is really well written and very thoughtful. I especially like the interpretation of it really being about the rivalry for Taylor's affections, and your methodical structural examination of the narrative organization of the film was impressively executed. Like some others, I also like the scene in the cafe with the ornithologist. She's almost like those psychiatrists in some of Hitchcock's movies who interpret for the audience what's happening, only more colorful in her slight pomposity and more entertaining in her eccentricity. Aside from the leads (it's crying out for Cary Grant--I know he was too old, but movies are about suspension of disbelief!--and Grace Kelly), the biggest weakness for me is the flat ending, almost a duplicate of Hitckcock's other flattest and most disappointing ending, the one in "Suspicion" (although we know the reason for that one).

    On the plus side, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette (was she ever better?) and the wonderful child (later adult) actress Veronica Cartwright all give great performances. I wonder if anyone has seen the "Alfred Hitckcock Presents" episode called "The Schartz-Metterklume Method." My recollection is that both Veronica Cartwright and her sister Angela (Danny Thomas's TV daughter) were in this episode, yet IMDb lists only Angela in the cast. Can anyone tell me if I misremembered this?

    One of my most prized possessions is a piece of promotional material from the original release, what looks like a small newspaper printed on real newsprint with the headline "'The Birds' Is Coming!" that was given away in theaters just before the movie opened.

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  17. This is my favorite Hitchcock film. It is an amazing use of effects and brains. Tippi Hendren is fantastic. I believe Alfred Hitchcock is the best filmmaker of all time. Check out my "Strangers on a Train" review at citizenkemp.blogspot.com

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  18. Thanks, everyone, for the great comments! I know Tippi Hedron has her detractors, but I think her cool blonde persona works very well in THE BIRDS and even better in MARNIE. Brandie, I loved your different interpretation of the title--sounds like a film essay to me. Toto, the origin of the character names is most intriguing, as Hitch left little to happenstance and he used very little of Daphne du Maurier's short story. RDF, on Veronica Cartwright's web site, she mentions working with sister Angela in that episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

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  19. Rick, thank you for organizing the Blogathon! It was really fun to visit other sites and read about Hitchcock from his best critics: the fans. Great job!

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  20. Rick, a very good review of one of Hitch's best movies. I agree with Kevin that I thought it was too slow when I saw it as a kid. When I saw it as an adult, I liked the film much better. I have read the short story by de Maurier which is interesting and different than the movie. Outstanding review and I enjoyed it.

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  21. I've always found The Birds overrated. It's not a bad film, far from it but I don't think it is paced as well as other Hitch films. I certainly wouldn't place it in a Hitch top ten, maybe just outside of it. A interesting review, though.

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  22. Great review, Rick.
    I agree with some of those above who say that the relationships in this film leave me cold. You are very generous calling Hitchcock's treatment a slight of hand; unlike in most other Hitchcock films, the relationships here are a pill in the jam. It must be the casting.

    Thanks for a very informative review.
    -- Java

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  23. Rick, I really enjoyed reading your review. I haven't seen The Birds in a long time--most probably since I studied Hitch in college. Of all his films, I prefer Notorious. Hitch must have really enjoyed the mother/son/female rival angle.

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  24. Rick, I'm glad I had an opportunity to catch up with your review of THE BIRDS, because while I liked the little character bits here and there, as well as the great horror/suspense set pieces, somehow its human angle never resonated with me as strongly as the lion's share of Hitchcock's other movies. Thanks for helping pinpoint what's been bothering me all these years! That said, I feel THE BIRDS is still well worth seeing for thrills and chills alone. Terrific review, Rick!

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  25. At some point, was anyone going to mention Evan Hunter?
    After all, all he did was write the damn thing ...

    Seriously, in 1997, Hunter wrote a brief book titled Me And Hitch, which was (I think) only published in England (my copy was bought second-hand).
    The book covers Hunter's experiences writing the screenplays of The Birds and Marnie.
    As I mentioned, it's twenty years old, most likely out of print, but if you can find it, definitely worth the effort.

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  26. Brilliant, Rick. I saw "The Birds" on the big screen a few months ago, and I wished I read this post beforehand...

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  27. During an interview with Evan Hunter, I asked him about the ending. He said there was a final sequence that was not used. "There was a reason they were in a convertible." But Hitchcock decided to eliminate it. "They (the characters, or perhaps the audience) have been through enough."

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  28. I didn't realize I wasn't supposed to like the Ethel Griffies scene, so here have I all these years getting it wrong. Well, it's too late to change now. Plus, I'm too stubborn.

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  29. There's really no other way to end this - a New Wave ending ala Vertigo.

    Hunter's memoir, and his subsequent firing from Marnie, showed just how important that marital rape scene was to AH.

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  30. One of my favorite Hitchcock films, Rick. Thanks for a really insightful review. Though I'm with Ivan on the relationship angle. I really do not care about Blondie and the guy ending up together. I liked Suzanne Pleshette's character best and shame on the guy for not choosing her. Maybe then the story wouldn't have killed her off. :)

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  31. Yes, I preferred Suzanne's character, too...but apparently she wasn't tough enough to stand up to Mitch's mom!

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