I mentioned watching this film to my colleague a few days ago and said it was “quite frightening” and he went, “But it’s just birds, isn’t it?”
Yes, it most certainly is. Which just makes the film a whole lot more thrilling.
The Birds (1963) begins with something akin to a screwball comedy. – a tactic which has been used in countless amounts of horror films till today (but probably to its best effect in Takashi Miike’s Audition, easily the most disturbing thing I’ve ever watched). Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) goes to extreme lengths to pull a prank on Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), by traveling all the way to the seaside town Bodega Bay. In today’s context, leaving a “surprise” gift at my crush’s doorstep might lead to a restraining order, but I suppose in the 60s, it appears to be rather endearing and Daniels simply enjoys going out of her way just to play a joke.
Hitchcock’s fixation with peroxide blondes is at its most heightened in Vertigo, but Hedren’s portrayal of Melanie Daniels certainly fits the bill. Hedren embodies a sense of effortless chic, in a pastel green suit and flawless hair (for a bit of fun, here’s Lisa Eldrige attempting to replicate Hedren’s look). Her look is certainly very Grace Kelly, but Daniels’ character is quite perplexing. On one hand, she could be the film’s leading heroine, but she appears more as an unfortunate victim of circumstances, rather than having an active role in the events that play out. Her so-called “pranking” comes of as being misguided and her decision to stay on at Bodega Bay would eventually prove to be a terrible one. Her flaws, however, are quickly dismissed as the film quickly introduces the attack of the birds.
Brenner’s close relationship with his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), certainly borders on Oedipus complex/Norman Bates’ territory, as she appears highly suspicious about Daniels. Their complex history with Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) is quite strange too. For such a predominantly female cast, including Brenner’s young sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), their conversation and lives seem to largely revolve around Mitch (failing the Bechdel test, surely). This is swiftly pushed aside too, with those damn birds.
The most chilling scene in The Birds occurs when Daniels is waiting at the school yard and the voices of children gaily sing, “Nickety nackety, now-now-now!” sets a rather foreboding atmosphere. The crows gradually land and crowd the climbing frame at the school yard, and behold, birds! The buildup and suspense heavily relies on the eerie silence of the birds alighting on the climbing frame, and Daniels’ unawareness of it all till the very end. She smokes her cigarette, very much unnerved from the past bird attacks. The audience is allowed glimpses of the climbing frame, although the number of birds are still low. Daniels impatiently peers towards the classroom window several times, until finally, she spots a lone crow flying and she follows it to see where it lands – at the playground behind her, where the threatening flock of still crows provides a shocking and threatening image.
How does Hitchcock make birds so very menacing? They are creatures we see everyday, but don’t take much notice of. Pooping pigeons, sweeping sparrows and gawking seagulls aren’t terribly scary. Yet, the sight of a flock of birds suddenly attacking children or leading a bizarre chain of events that result in an unexpected explosion comes off as pretty thrilling. It’s not the same kind of horror involved in slasher flicks or supernatural movies, but The Birds‘ deliberately omission of any reasoning makes it weirder, and more frightening.
The resident bird expert in the diner plays the role of devil’s advocate. “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss,” she tells Daniels. “They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather, who insist upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.” Her explanation is undoubtedly wrong, their erratic behaviour does not belong to any ornithology book of birds. Sure enough, we soon witness vicious seagulls and chaotic consequences of a nearby explosion.
Later on, back in the diner, a hysterical mother cries out to Daniels, “Why are they doing this? They said that when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! EVIL!” This lament is an interesting idea, but still highly unsatisfactory. Ultimately, The Birds presents no answers to the birds’ behaviour – why or how or even, when. As pointed out by Xan Brooks of The Guardian, The Birds “float[s] free”. Pyscho reveals the reason behind Norman Bates’ deranged behaviour, and Rear Window, too, offers a crystal clear explanation behind the neighbour’s strange doings as well. However, nothing anchors the “sensual atmosphere and existential dread” in The Birds. The audience is confronted with this disjointed reality, and like the protagonists, try to find a way through the terror of it all.
One of my favourite moments of The Birds is in the film’s penultimate scene, where Brenner has to leave the house and start the car. He quietly, nearly tiptoes to reach the garage, as though navigating his way through a minefield, or in this case, a bird-field of sorts. After a terrible night of relentless bird attacks and fresh from rescuing Daniels from another bird assault, Brenner is slightly bruised and shaken, and every small flicker from the birds agitates him even more.
Unlike the anxious scrambling of answers in the conclusion of North by Northwest, the ambiguous ending of The Birds leaves many questions unanswered. Will Daniels and co. be safe? Are the birds in Bodega Bay the only ones affected or has this condition reached the birds in the entire California region? And what about Cathy’s damn lovebirds that she is so insistent on keeping? Why aren’t they acting up yet? The Birds tells us so very little, which makes it all the more enticing.
The Birds has easily become one of my favourite Hitchcock films (my personal favourite is still the often overlooked Strangers On A Train). The Birds bears the trademark Hitchcock signature of suspense, right till the very end.