If you follow the chronology of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, you can see that he did his best work in the 40s and 50s after he came to America. That’s an argument that you could probably debate for weeks, but I have a feeling that it would end up owing the general consensus. Just look at the 20 year span between 1940 when he made Rebecca, his first film for an American studio and his only film to win Best Picture at the Oscars and 1960 when he made Psycho, his most popular film. In that span of time he made Notorious, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, Suspicion, Saboteur, Rope, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest and Vertigo. These are not little-known pictures and any director would be proud to have such a resume.
Yet, something strange happened to Hitchcock’s work once he got into the 1960s, with the exception of Psycho, his work lost its edge. This was the decade in which the great director moved to television and, with that his film work seemed to suffer. In this decade he only made two films that anyone really remembers – Psycho in 1960 and then The Birds three years later.
Hitchcock’s best films are always exciting to break apart. There are buried levels to the characters and to the stories that are fun to unearth, yet when it comes to The Birds, I always seem to come up a little frustrated. Here is one of his most popular films, yet revisiting the film again recently – thanks to TCM’s one-night-only performance in movie theaters – I find the movie somewhat empty.
Given account of everything that happens in this movie, if you stand back and view it as a whole, you find that it isn’t much more than a simple monster movie. It is well-crafted but it is not exactly deep. It is possible to delve into this story and unearth a deep psychological analysis, but it requires most of the heavy lifting on the viewer’s part.
The problem, I think, begins with the lead character. Hitchcock loved women and his most accomplished characters were his female leads. He was never willing to simply head his films with an empty-headed ninny. The women in his films always seemed to have some sense of depth and complexity and were more effective the more we delved into their damaged past.
That’s why Melanie Daniels is such a baffling case. There’s nothing really wrong with her, and that’s the problem. She’s beautiful, inquisitive and loves birds, but there’s something about her that the movie isn’t telling us and that makes her motivations a little bit muddy. What’s going on in her mind? Where did she come from? Who is this woman? Is she responsible for the plague of killer birds? These are questions that the movie never really answers. In the pantheon of Hitchcock’s favorite blondes, Melanie is not exactly complex. Her motivations are unclear and when we get to the bird attacks, there doesn’t seem to be any connection other than the fact that she is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The story you already know. Wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) drives from San Francisco to the seaside village of Bodega Bay to deliver two lovebirds to a man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) whom she met in a pet shop. Arriving there, she finds herself mixed up in a bizarre phenomenon when flocks of birds begin attacking the town’s populace for reasons that the movie never explains.
The pieces are all there. There is a development of Melanie in relation to the people (mostly women) that she meets in Bodega Bay. The two key supporting players are at odds with Melanie over her possible intentions with Mitch – his former lover Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) and his clinging mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Yet, there is something halting in these relationships and they never seem to come to any real conclusion.
The ending of the movie always has me a little stumped. All of the main players – Melanie, Mitch, Lydia and his daughter Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) – are holed up in Lydia’s house after Mitch has boarded up the windows and doors. After some attacks, in which Mitch has to come to the rescue, the others fall asleep. Melanie hears something upstairs and goes to check it out. Alone, she goes upstairs and finds that the birds have chewed a hole in the ceiling and are perched on the daybed. There they are, waiting for her and she is attacked.
During the making of the film Tippi Hedren expressed concern with this scene. Even she had to ask the questions that we in the audience are asking. Why would she go upstairs by herself based on what has gone on before? Why would she go all the way into the room and close the door? Why wouldn’t she just poke her head in the room? Hedren expressed this to Hitchcock, and the director simply said “Because I tell you to”. That would seem to indicate is that he didn’t understand it either. As the movie draws to a close we are left to wonder what the shell-shocked Melanie has become after all this.
Story-wise the movie may be a little empty, but on a technical level, it is a masterwork. What Hitchcock achieves in this film is mood and atmosphere. This is a film in which sound is the most effective tool. The movie contains no musical score so we are left to the sounds provided by nature. The only thing close to music is an effectively eerie song heard from a children’s choir at the school. The scene is chilling as Melanie walks outside for a cigarette and the bird gather on the monkey bars just behind her.
The sounds of the birds themselves have an unreal quality about them; there is a sort-of squelching sound that sounds closer to pigs then to birds. The special effects are inevitably dated but that crudeness gives the birds a chilling presence.
On that level, the movie works but on the level of story, it comes up short. Perhaps it may have been that Hitchcock was so busy with the technical side that the story fell by the wayside. Perhaps he was too preoccupied with his television work. You are welcome to dig under the psychology of the film all you want in an effort to read between the lines but, for me, the story just doesn’t fly.