A FINE-FEATHERED FINALE: Hitchcock’s The Birds

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a – caw caw!” 

                                                            (T.S. Eliot, via Woody Woodpecker)

All good things must come to an end, and the end of my ten-week course on the best of Alfred Hitchcock has been . . . apocalyptic. In our final class last night the questions came raining down on our teacher Elliot like finches down a fireplace flue: why did the birds attack? What happened at the end? Why did Hitchcock cast Tippi Hedren and then cast her again? Marnie . . . what the heck?!?

In many ways, The Birds is a direct follow-up to Psycho. Both tap into the horror genre and both utilize a similar structure: a sympathetic woman commits acts of folly in the name of romance and winds up in the middle of a nightmare. And birds are mixed up in the game everywhere! In Psycho, Marion Crane finds herself in a motel surrounded by birds. They’re framed and hung around her room; they’re mounted and stuffed in the office parlor next door. She eats like a bird, and she is “pecked” to death by a woman who is cuckoo, and who has herself suffered the same fate as those stuffed birds. 

Marion’s problem is that she is too desperate for Sam to think straight. Melanie Daniels’ problem in The Birds is that she is not desperate enough. Like so many Hitchcock heroes and villains before her, she has mother issues, and – wouldn’t you know it? – when she finally meets the man of her dreams, he has mother issues, too! And they meet in a birdstore, of all places, where Melanie has gone to buy a mynah bird so that she can pull a nasty little trick on her aunt and Mitch Brenner has gone to look for lovebirds for his little sister’s birthday. Everyone has birds on the brain – a state that is about to become literal!

Poor little rich gull, er, girl

If Psycho begins with a half hour of domestic drama, The Birds is pure romantic comedy all the way up to Bodega Bay. All the nice touches – the casting of Ruth McDevitt as a flustered bird clerk and Richard (The Dick Van Dyke Show) Deacon as a nosy neighbor, the antic hijinks Melanie engages in to show that handsome upstart of a man who’s boss, the image of the lovebirds swaying back and forth in an effort to survive Melanie’s crazy driving – all of this might make you forget the haunting electronics behind the opening credits, the ominous appearance of hundreds of birds over San Francisco’s Union Square, or even the question of why Melanie would go so far, literally and emotionally, for a prank. 

Some people question why it takes so long for the birds to strike, but honestly, I eat up all the stuff before and in-between the bird attacks because The Birds isn’t just an environmental disaster horror movie – it’s a Hitchcock environmental disaster horror movie. And while the bird attacks are terrifically staged, this is a film about the good guys, not the Big Bad, which breaks the rule of most horror films. Like all great Hitchcock movies, this is about the journey a man and/or a woman takes to find maturity and emotional fulfillment. It’s too bad for Melanie and Mitch – and Lydia and Cathy and Annie Heywood – that they find their happy ending in a car heading toward almost certain doom. This is late-50’s/60’s Hitchcock, and he’s gone full dark. 

Even those in my class who were being introduced to the Master of Suspense must come away by now with a familiarity with his bag of tricks: the camera work, the imagery, the thematic elements all reworked like Agatha Christie could reimagine one of her old puzzle plots in ways both comforting and surprising. 

The water that betrayed Marion Crane in Psycho – first as a rainstorm that pushed her toward the Bates Motel, then as a cleansing shower-turned-bloodbath, and finally as a swamp, her final resting place – here becomes a gorgeous California bay, the scene of the first attack. 

The eyeglasses that reflected Miriam’s murder in Strangers on a Train, that were worn by the false witness against Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, that separated Midge from Madeleine in Vertigo – here, they are used poignantly to illustrate an innocent child in jeopardy. 

The staircase that showed us the success of Alicia’s plan in Notorious, that offered danger to Guy Haines and death to Arbogast (in, respectively, Strangers on a Train and Psycho) and that proved morally consequential to Scottie in Vertigoare here a portal to perhaps the most harrowing and sadistic scene of torment of Hitchcock’s career. He had intended to use fake birds for Melanie’s final attack, but it just wouldn’t work. And so for days on end they threw birds at Tippi Hedren, ripping her flesh, endangering her eyesight, and breaking her down to hysterics. It’s a terrific scene, made all the more astounding when you know what it cost the actress.

The theme of doubles, utilized in most Hitchcock films, is doubly used and in fascinating ways. Both Melanie and Mitch are plagued with mother issues: she has been devastated by her mother’s abandonment, while he has been emasculated by his mother’s refusal to let go. Even more . . . what, Oedipal? – is the fact that Melanie bears a strong resemblance to Lydia Brenner (the brilliant Jessica Tandy), right down to the hairstyle. What needs to happen for this trio to become a family is for the women to accept each other and for Lydia to pass her hold on Mitch over to Melanie. It’s going to take about a million crows, gulls, and pigeons to make that happen. 

Family Dynamic: Mitch (Rod Taylor), Melanie and Lydia

The theme of the innocent man falsely accused is also found here in the accusations leveled against Melanie that she started the attacks. The logic behind these charges is as absurd as thinking Cary Grant could have murdered a U.N. ambassador or Bob Cummings could be a Nazi saboteur. But these are the situations Hitchcock puts his heroes in, the only way to bring about their transformation into whole people. 

In another sense, Melanie is a voyeur in that she is the outsider, the observer in Bodega Bay and in life. Things happen to her, but as she explains to Mitch regarding the incident in the Roman fountain, it’s never her fault. More important, it’s Melanie who sees the birds most clearly, first in San Francisco, then at the birthday party, in the schoolyard, and outside the window of the diner. Hitchcock never films an attack without Melanie being there. She notices and understands the danger of each incident before anyone else can grasp it. And even with the evidence she presents, she is not believed, just like Jeff in Rear Window. They both need a helper/love interest, and it is the getting together with that person that is the true point of both Jeff and Melanie’s story. Even though Jeff does prove that Thorwald killed his wife and Melanie does not save the world from the birds, they end up pretty much in the same place: committed to love with another person.  

Five minutes before recess . . .

The biggest difference between The Birds and all the rest is that, for once, the Maguffin (and the birds are the Maguffin, I swear) steals the show. I said I love the stuff in-between the attacks, but most people remember The Birds for that gull swooping down on Melanie in the boat, the balloons popping at Cathy’s birthday party, the hundreds of finches sliding down the Brenner chimney, the broken cups and damaged corpse at the Fawcett farm, the wholly brilliant sequence at the schoolhouse, the full-out attack on the town square (that bird’s eye angle from the sky as the gas station burns while the gulls, amassing for a fresh attack, seem to laugh!), the assault on Melanie in the phone booth, then on the family nailed into their house, and the final confrontation between Melanie and the birds in the attic . . . there is no stinting on technical marvels. The special effects, for their time, are great. The Maguffin IS the star.

The End . . . of Everything

*     *     *     *     *

I would suggest that Marnie is an even more experimental movie than The Birds, and while I risk alienating its fans, I have to say I wish that a flock of birds had attacked Marnie and sent her flying down the stairs and into the water. I would also have been willing to chip in some dough for Hitchcock to have therapy and just maybe spare us yet another Monster Mother who did terrible things to her child. The problem for me is that the path to learning what Mother did is so convoluted and is peopled with such unpleasant people that, by the end, I . . . don’t . . . care . . . 

I think even Hitchcock wondered about this movie . . .

I’ll leave it to smarter and more sympathetic people than me to discuss Marnie at length, but I list here a number of impressions I got this time around: 

  1. The matte work, equally fake in The Birds, did not bother me a jot there but riled me up fiercely here.
  2. The overwrought score by Bernard Herrmann, the one that broke him and Hitchcock up, is really beautiful. 
  3. I forgot Mariette Hartley is in this, playing Patricia Hitchcock in Psycho. She’s great!
  4. I’m no fan of Tippi Hedren’s acting, but I think it’s better here. And if she suffered even half as much under Hitchcock’s obsessive tyranny as she claims, she deserves an award for what she was able to put onscreen. 
  5. That said, I still root for the brunette, always the “other woman” in Hitchcock  (except in Strangers on a Train where she should have been). I loved Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds, and I love Diane Baker here as the awful Lil. 
  6. Is Sean Connery wearing lots and LOTS of eye make-up? No matter, especially when he arises half-dressed from his bed. I don’t believe he raped Marnie, but I think his whole purpose in marrying her is one of the most ponderous plot devices in Hitchcock. 
  7. There’s a cool wide angle long shot at the Rutland’s party where the camera closes in on the front door to reveal Mr. Strutt (Martin Gabel) enter the house. It’s a reminder of a similar, but much more effective use of the camera in Young and Innocent
  8. Other links to The Birds: Hedren in a green suit, children sing-songing something creepy, Hedren and her man driving off at the end toward . . . happiness? Probably not a lot of that wherever they’re going.
  9. The scene where Marnie robs Mark’s office and the cleaning lady comes in – for a moment, that’s pure Hitchcock. 
  10. The principality of Monaco probably did Princess Grace a favor by frowning on her wish to play Marnie. That doesn’t mean I blame Tippi Hedren for my dislike of the picture, although the New York Times review did, saying that the whole affair would have been more enjoyable if Hedren and Connery had been replaced with Kelly and Cary Grant. 
Lil (Diane Baker): She’s a schemer, but I’m on her side

Marnie was followed by two more bad movies: Torn Curtain and Topaz, then by a sordid but effective return to form with Frenzy and an amiable odd duck of a finale in Family Plot. That is often what longevity and a storied career brings: a little crumbling at the end. But I hope that this exploration into my favorite director has brought you even part of the joy it gave me and my classmates. We hated to say goodbye to each other, to Elliot, and to Alfred Hitchcock. I’m already looking forward to the next round of rewatching!

We’ll close out the year with more books. In January, I start the next class: Film Noir of the 1950’s! Elliot has put together over two dozen titles that we will be watching and examining, including a few personal favorites as well as whole boatload of films I have never seen!!! I hope you’ll join me for that new series of posts, an examination of the work of Christianna Brand, a continuation into my Carter Dickson celebration, some great newly translated honkaku, and more Kiddie Krimes. 

And if none of that appeals to you, there’s always Book Club.

You can find me on Twitter now (@ahsweetmystery). 

17 thoughts on “A FINE-FEATHERED FINALE: Hitchcock’s The Birds

    • I never met Diane Baker, but she ran the acting program at San Francisco’s Academy of Art College for a number of years. A friend of mine worked with her, and she evidently was, or became, a very scatterbrained person. But I was as in love with her as a person of my make-up could be when I was younger. I loved her in Strait-Jacket, too, and she was incredible in the first episode of The Invaders. She popped up a lot on TV, and I always melted. For Sean Connery to choose Tippi Hedren over her is pure screenwriting manipulation; in all other ways, it doesn’t make sense!

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      • I think the most recent thing of hers I recall is probably when she played Hugh Laurie’s mom in HOUSE. But yes, in MARNIE she is wittier, warmer and cuter than either Melanie or Marnie! Let’s face it though, Connery probably could have married both and they wouldn’t have complained 😆 And he has an awesome toupée in MARNIE too!

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  1. I agree with you that the first half of THE BIRDS is terrific, a very unexpected screwball romance. I don’t mind ‘Tippi’ too much but my heart is with Suzanne Pleshette. Love her character, her long exit from Mitch’s life is so sad but very well rendered.

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    • Annie and Lydia are my favorite characters. What I like so much about this story is how Hitchcock takes the time to build this series of complex relationships. There is good and bad in every connection: Lydia is not a monster, but she has to let Mitch go. Mitch “does what he wants,” but he’s still tied to his mother out of guilt and love. And yet, the dynamic between Lydia, Mitch, and Cathy is a very positive one, too. Annie does what crazy women have done in movies for decades: she falls for a guy and then gives up everything just to be near him, even though the situation is hopeless. And yet, Annie is NOT crazy, and she does some amazing things before her death that literally/figuratively saves Melanie and Cathy.

      The biggest thing that mars this film for me is some of Hedren’s work. All in all, she’s . . . fine. It’s the stiffness of her line readings, the way she says of her mother, “I don’t know where she is,” or after her final attack cries out, “no, no, no . . . ” that is the mark of an amateur and rubs me the wrong way. I can’t help wondering what a more self-assured actress might have brought to this role and whether it would have tilted my sympathies a different way or simply provided a richer experience. Maybe it would have distracted too much from the birds. Who knows?

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  2. The Birds is excellent. Probably not my favorite Hitchcock, but when you consider this is a monster movie filmed through the Hitchcockian lens, it becomes even more enticing. There are elements of the film that run all the way to Spielberg’s Jaws , probably my favorite film and a movie that wears its indebtedness to the Master of Suspense on its sleeve and is all the better for it. Marnie is a fascinatingly strange film and each time I watch it, I wonder just what Hitchcock was going for. The scene with the cleaning woman is – as you said – something of a minor masterpiece.

    I’m curious what your De Palma bonus film was. You hinted it was probably his best…

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    • It was Blowout, which some do consider his best. Not me. I’m less of a Travolta fan now than I used to be, but the problem for me with Blowout was that as soon as Jack is charged with finding the perfect death scream, I knew EXACTLY where this film was going to end. It’s like correctly reading the big clue in a Christie or Carr – it spoils the surprise and lessens the impact the art has on you.

      Is Jaws really your favorite film? There’s a moment, one of my favorites, when Roy Scheider is trying to relax on the beach and the shark attacks. The camera does a trick like the vertigo reverse zoom that always raises my goosebumps. I’m great with Jaws as long as Bruce the Shark isn’t visible. In all those scenes, it’s freaking brilliant. After the shark becomes a complete character, the film lets me down a little bit.

      Also, a dog gets eaten. That is verboten in my rulebook.

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      • I won’t highjack the comment section of a Hitchcock post to discuss Spielberg and Jaws , but it really is just a perfect film to me; an adventure film that is touchingly brought to life by actors playing very real people. As a kid, I enjoyed the movie for all the shark shenanigans. The older I get, the more engrossed I am by the human story – the scene of Brody’s youngest son copying him at the dinner table; the banter between the out of state fishermen; the absolutely incredible U.S.S. Indianapolis speech delivered by Quint that foretells his own doom. When you add the haunting John Williams score on top of Spielberg’s necessity to keep the shark off screen as much as possible, you get such a perfect lightning in a bottle movie.

        Blow Out is similarly masterful, though I understand that it is much more of an acquired taste. Travolta is excellent, Nancy Allen is great, John Lithgow is chilling. De Palma is simultaneously showy and understated and couples his own disillusioned worldview with the technique of Hitchcock. It’s probably his pinnacle as a filmmaker, but I am a big De Palma defender and find something to love in just about everything.

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  3. Tippi Hedren just couldn’t act. It works in her favour in MARNIE – the characters is after all emotionally and sexually stunted and her weird emotionally distanced performance works. A good actress would have made Marnie seem too normal.

    The matte work, like the rear projection, is part of Hitchcock’s style. Hitchcock’s movies do not take place in reality, they take place in Hitchcock World. The reminder of the artificiality of film is a feature, not a bug. That’s just my take on it. His movies are supposed to look like they take place on a sound stage.

    The most successful imitators of Hitchcock (de Palma in BODY DOUBLE, Verhoeven in BASIC INSTINCT) also go for a slightly artificial look.

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  4. Hi Brad! I have really enjoyed your Hitchcock series over the last couple of months, and been looking forward each week to the next one. I’m definitely no film expert. I have seen a number of Hitchcock films though (helpfully a lot of the ones you’ve been focusing on), and I’ve found it really interesting to read your “behind the curtain” look into how Hitchcock’s films work.

    On the subject of curtains, personally – and perhaps this means I have bad taste! (or just that I have fond memories of where I first saw it) – I like Torn Curtain. The scene where the security officer is killed in the farmhouse has stuck with me: the way they improvise in their desperation, and it all ends up so sordid (is that the right word?) makes it seem shockingly realistic. I think Shadow of a Doubt, which I know you covered earlier, might be my favourite Hitchcock though.

    I look forward to you Noir series!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, Jonny! Thanks for your comment. No disrespect to Torn Curtain. I have little familiarity with it, but the scene you mention is the highlight of that film. I think the general opinion of that film isn’t great, but what do we care? When an artist is that prolific, they’re bound to create works that divide fans.

      See you in January!

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    • Torn Curtain has several excellent Hitchcock visual set-pieces. The scene you mentioned, and the slow-motion bus chase is very clever also. I still the movie is basically a failure but it has its good moments, and those moments are very good.

      One problem is that Hitchcock’s movies were becoming much too long. Compare the running times of early Hitchcock thrillers. The 39 Steps (86 minutes), The Lady Vanishes (96 minutes), Young and Innocent (80 minutes) with Torn Curtain (128 minutes) and Topaz (143 minutes). The problem was already evident in the 50s. North by Northwest is a great movie but at 136 minutes it’s half an hour too long.

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  5. I heard a marvelous anecdote about Tippi Hedren during filming of Marnie. She asked Hitchcock for direction

    TH: Ok, so this woman is supposed to be frigid, right?
    AH: Nods
    TH: (indicating Connery) Have you seen him?
    AH: Yes dear. It’s called “acting.”

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  6. I love De Palma and BLOW OUT, though I wonder if OBSESSION might not have been a more appropriate choice for the class? I know what you mean about the scream, it’s a bit like the geek in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, though for me the beauty in the De Palma is how he is haunted by the sound and not whether he actually uses it or not (I believe he doesn’t in fact).

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  7. Brad
    Thanks so much for a wonderful summary to many things I did not see! Glad you were not ever grading my papers because I don’t deal with “F” very well. Mrs. Hacklander had tunnel vision and knew exactly what the author was thinking and we as students could not deviate!

    Being out of the Bay Area for now, I am frequently visited by the raptors in flocks and it IS scary to maneuver thru them in the street! There’s no escape!
    The birds are the hero’s and they control everything!! They win!! Sooo gross.
    Enjoy your holidays and time to read more!!
    Kay

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    • Thank you, Kay! As a high school teacher (who would have found something to love in your papers), I got to see the power of the birds first-hand every day at lunch. The students ate in a great big courtyard and littered indiscriminately; when the warning bell sounded, the gulls would swoop down to collect the refuse, and the kids would scream in panic as they raced away to class. I can’t help thinking that if the birds had only lifted one kid and carried him away that the courtyard would have been litter-free for the rest of my tenure there!

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