“What if the birds’ extreme proximity to human beings and, particularly to Melanie, bespeaks not conflict but fascination, admiration, and – I shall just go ahead and say it – love?”
The Birds has always smelled fishy to me. A plot in which an exquisite blonde gets a right pecking for no discernible reason smacks, at worst, of a bullying churlishness, and at best, of poor taste. My discomfort also stems from the fact that Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is, in my view, the apotheosis of all the exquisite blondes in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. She epitomizes the tantalizing elegance of Lisa (Rear Window), the offhand confidence of Eve (North by Northwest), and the extravagant speed of Frances (To Catch a Thief), and she has a nice way of holding a cigarette too. But where Lisa, Eve, and Frances are given reasonably cozy destinies (in a Manhattan apartment, an upper berth in a luxury train, and a villa in the south of France with a spectacular view), Melanie has to make do with a cramped car ride in the company of the Brenners and a journey that portends a destination no more glamorous than a hospital.
A bit mean. A tad bit unfair (especially when one thinks of the villa in the south of France).
And what about the peculiarly vicious jabs Melanie is made to endure throughout the film? The winged creatures trying to get at her beautiful suit and her flawless skin, lunging and prodding and dismantling her poise – and all because our heroine is rich and leads the sort of life that might include jumping naked into a Roman fountain? Since when did birds get so petty? For that matter, when did we, the audience, become so sanctimonious as to read their behavior as a form of punishment for la dolce vita that Melanie is a part of? A basic contradiction emerges here, for if the birds assault that sort of vita via (the, let’s face it, über-dolce) Melanie, then they also, simultaneously, attack one of Hitch’s fundamental requirements of his heroines: good taste. If Melanie stands for the mindless excesses of the “aristocracy,” as some viewers and critics contend, then she also possesses aristocratic taste in abundance as is evident from her clothes, shoes, jewelry, car, and cigarettes. Watching The Birds, thus, often feels to me like an exercise in witnessing the destruction of a vintage bottle of Chateau-Lafitte, and I’m willing to wager that Hitch too would have disapproved of such an act.
Why then would he, of all the people, make a film that celebrates attacks on the fastidious? Furthermore, why would he use a plot so devoid of the subtle undercurrents that animate his other features? The brooding melodrama of Vertigo, the quicksilver twists of North by Northwest, the magnificent insouciance of Strangers on a Train; where do we find even a glimmer of these quintessentially Hitchcockian elements in The Birds? Instead, we are confronted with lofty moral messages if we are to go by standard interpretations of the film. These are variations on the following: a parable about the forces of nature overthrowing man; a castigation of the overpowering trivialities that occupy the rich and bored; a warning about the unexpected malevolence intrinsic to even the most tranquil of species, implying that if they can perform such acts, then nothing under the sun is safe. No explanations are given as to why the birds behave so oddly, although people (in the film and outside it) speculate. They usually return to one of the points mentioned above: an allegorical reading imbued with a dour lesson on what happens when one dresses well, drives fast, and cavorts in foreign waters. But is there no other interpretation the film can tease out of us? Must we hover over the same themes (nature versus man, the cosmic versus the trivial, and so forth) like a flock of crows picking over the same, tired collection of bones?
Not if we see the birds – and The Birds – as perpetrating something other than an attack as we have been accustomed to imagine. What if the birds enact something completely different? What if the birds’ extreme proximity to human beings and, particularly to Melanie, bespeaks not conflict but fascination, admiration, and – I shall just go ahead and say it – love?
This is not as outlandish a thesis as it might appear. It happens all the time among us rational, orderly members of homo sapiens too. Indeed, it occurs often in precisely those situations where a physical distance is deemed necessary, such as in the encounters between a beloved performer and an audience. If one tears the birds and The Birds out of the suffocating net of violent conflict into which they are habitually forced, then one can see these winged creatures as an audience gradually gone berserk, pitched to the point of frenzied longing until they batter through the invisible barrier that separates them from their adored heroine, inflicting damage on other hapless people along the way. Just so do adoring fans kick and overturn barricades and trample over each other for a glimpse of their idols.
This analogy occurred to me when I saw the storyboard of the film. Scene 417C shows a lone bird, perched atop a monkey bar in the playground. Scene 417E shows five birds, each sitting sedately, waiting for the show to begin. (Waiting for their cue?) In scene 417G we find ten crows. Inscribed below are the ominous words: 5 more crows – total of 10. Some of them look to the left, some to the right. They’re probably wondering where the snack vendors are? Scene 418 features a bird flying down at an angle (an arrow indicates the direction). Scene 420 shows the bird – or maybe another bird – come hurtling down over the roof. Scene 422 shows a regular bevy of birds on the bars. There’s no place left, yet two more come sweeping in from the side. Evidently there’ll be some pushing and shoving. This is a regular rock concert. It could even be the “standing room only” section of the Vienna State Opera House. In scene 424 we find the two late-comers perched on a side bar (taking up space in the aisles, those fanatics)! The next few scenes reveal how every inch of space on the bars is slowly occupied by the birds. They remain, for all their numbers, eerily faceless. Each one is cut to a template: beak, body, tail. They resemble a group of suited, if not booted, gentlemen. They might be the streamlined version of Alfred Hitchcock himself. So serene and well-groomed are they that it’s hard to imagine them as anything other than a polite, waiting audience.
In the film, Melanie remains unaware of the feathered crowd gathering behind her until the last few frames. Just so do pickpockets and assassins stalk their prey. Just so do the paparazzi hunt down celebrities, stealthily, softly. And just so do fans behold their chosen stars, in worshipful reverence. Interestingly, the birds do nothing when Melanie moves to the schoolhouse; they just sit, enjoying the view. When the children come out, they finally, and dramatically, give chase. But it is Melanie they’re really after; the children are, in a sense, her unfortunate bodyguards. In one still she runs, head held high, her jacket stylishly opening on one side as she moves. Were it not for the anguished faces of the children flanking her and the birds swooping above, it might have been the high-fashion version of The Sound of Music. Melanie stands (or rather, runs) tall and straight, her expression admirably controlled. There is a nobility in the image, an aura of cool, stylish resignation. Wouldn’t an ordinary mortal have cowered, put her hands across her head, or at least dropped her bag mid-flight?
Not Miss Daniels, as she is not ordinary. No, if she were, the birds – those formerly well-behaved models of stillness – would hardly have run amok.
The Birds was inspired from a short story by Daphne du Maurier. The theme of a suppressed but simmering fascination with a person that explodes in violence resembles the preoccupations of “I” de Winter in du Maurier’s Rebecca. Where she (that is, “I”) violates the sanctity of Rebecca’s bedroom, prying into her drawers and touching her intimate possessions in an attempt to grasp the woman they belonged to, the birds try their damnedest to do the same. Their Rebecca is Melanie Daniels. The gull that comes flying out of nowhere and pecks Melanie’s forehead is but a sign of the fervent desire this species evinces for the protagonist of the film. The famous telephone box scene can be read as an exaggerated parallel to what the Mona Lisa faces every day, locked behind her glass case in the Louvre, watched and scrutinized, if not touched, by hordes of reverent viewers.
But I believe there might be yet another source The Birds drew from, and one that isn’t too far removed from the running theme of du Maurier’s works. Consider the year 1963 (when, according to Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began” and The Birds “came out,” as it were). That was also the year when the phenomenon known as Beatlemania crystallized into its most deranged avatar. By the end of the year, the Fab Four had firmly taken their place in the firmament of the eternally famous. One vignette attributed to Paul McCartney is revealing. “We found girls hiding in the ceiling at Abbey Road. We were recording and we heard some sort of noise. They eventually found out that high up in the ceiling there’s maintenance ducts and there was a few fans who’d managed to get in there who were getting a bird’s eye view of the session. So that was like, Oh boy.”1
Those fans might have taken lessons from the birds and vice-versa. Outside, inside, under the floorboards, in the ceiling, in maintenance ducts. Birds, birds everywhere, and not an unruffled brow left in the bargain.
Hitchcock was certainly not unaware of Beatlemania. In the introduction to one of the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he appeared in a wig behind a set of drums, asking that the “three young men with electric guitars” return forthwith from wherever they’d wandered off to. (Perhaps they’d been abducted by unscrupulous fans? Or birds?)
But the Beatles could sing. They could play the guitar and drums. They could even screech, on occasion. What exactly does Melanie possess to make her such an irresistible target? Not much it seems, apart from, well, her taste. And her looks. Roderick Heath’s fine essay on the film denounces Melanie as an embodiment of “everything wrong in the human world.”2. But is this really so? Let’s go back to the beginning and reconsider this heroine.
She has a sense of humor. (Some viewers feel that that is part of her overall “wrongness,” but I beg to differ). She can carry a plan through with some energy and determination. How many of us would drive all the way out to Bodega Bay just to deliver a punchline? (And to those who argue that her real objective was Mitch (Rod Taylor), I’d respond that she could meet a dozen men like him in ‘Frisco itself.) She’s amazingly indifferent to her possessions, not hesitating a moment before whipping off her jacket – that magnificent piece of tailoring – to beat off a bird attacking a child. Melanie revels in what she owns (her skilful manoevring of the Aston Martin is proof enough of the fact), but she also has the superb nonchalance of the very, very rich toward the trappings of her gilded life. She is brave under fire and displays a surprising and protective empathy for children – not, I imagine, a crowd she usually hangs out with.
But what does this laundry list of Melanie’s positive attributes matter? In the end, a star is a star is a star, be she brave or cowardly, funny or dull, even – such are the vagaries of humans – beautiful or ugly. It just so happens that Melanie is brave, funny, beautiful, and yes, a bit bored and aloof and loaded. My point is that the birds seem to love her because of, and even in spite of, all that she is. The Birds is not (only) an apocalyptic tale about the dissolute world of mankind shattered by the avenging fury of larks and crows. It is a story about the passions an individual can unleash on a multitude, a kind of love that is no less fraught than the feelings Scottie harbors for Madeline-cum-Judy, or Jeff for Lisa. This, I believe, is where Hitchcock’s genius lies; in taking a story that might well have been a doomsday prophecy and concocting from it a drama about a one-sided love affair between a gaggle of warm-blooded, winged creatures and a warm-blooded, yet enchantingly ice-cold, woman.