Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds', 1963

Fig. 1 The Birds poster.
Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was an opulent example of how Hitchcock can create a terrifying world whether it is in monochrome or brilliant techni colour.  The narrative is loosely based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, in which the town that the characters are in gets mobbed by vicious birds.  Though it sounds fairly thrill-less, through editing and fantastic set pieces Hitchcock really makes an animal that seems so familiar become something to truly fear.

Fig. 2 Birds swarm on children's climbing frame.
One of the reasons the narrative is so effective is because the threat is from something unexpected and uncontrollable.  Martin F. Norden explains that "By disrupting our sense of the world's basic nature, this film creates a powerful sense of dread and horror.  The universe may not conform to human plans or expectations, including the hope for rational explanation of dire events." (Norden, 2007:55)  The unpredictability of the birds is what makes them so scary to the audience.  People trust what is familiar and what is predictable, it makes them feel safe, so for something that is so common and so grand in number to suddenly become sentient and hostile to those around them is a horribly unsettling thought. Norden goes on to express that "The Birds insists on not giving an explanation for what has happened to make the birds attack.  These birds are simply and literally an attacking force of nature, monstrous "proof" of an inexplicable evil." (Norden, 2007:65)  Hitchcock has deliberately shrouded the source of this occurrence in mystery and the audience is left as clueless as the characters they are watching.  There is no obvious reason for the birds to be attacking and so this attack of nature is unavoidable and there is very little that he characters can do to avoid it but board themselves in their homes and hope for the best.  Despite this and the lack of obvious clues as to the source of the birds violent turn, S.T Joshi believes that the birds are a physical manifestation of the bitter feelings from the lead male, Mitch's, female partners.  He divulges that the looks that the negative looks that the women share "anticipate the initial bird attacks, and we realize that the birds are receiving the animosity of Mitch's old flames and acting on it.  It is hard to say whether these women are conscious of what they are doing; the film doesn't dwell on the link between them and the birds" (Joshi, 2007:558).  This interpretation is possible as the birds do start to act up once Melanie has met Annie, Mitch's 'old flame'.  However, to place the trigger of the mass reaction the birds suffer on the rivalry between the women in the film is a little too simple for a Hitchcock film.  He tries to keep things as mysterious as possible and as David Sterritt explains: "What makes the birds more radical than other Hitchcock films is its refusal to return us to normality by means of standard narrative resolutions." (Sterritt, 1999:121)  He refers to the end of the film which is left ambiguous and open to interpretation. This lack of equilibrium leaves the audience feeling a little uneasy still.  The characters seem to get away safely but to what end? All the audience sees is there care leave the house where the birds had massed together and then it cuts to black.  The viewers are left asking themselves if anything positive could come from the reports of the 'disease' spreading to other birds and the town being cordoned off.

Fig. 3 Melanie talking to Mitch.
The end of the film is not the only ambiguous element within the narrative.  Melanie's character is left in a fair amount of mystery as well. Norden believes that "She is too wealthy, beautiful, blonde, and self-confident, too adept at driving cars and boats (both of them very fast).  She goes after Mitch too self-confidently. Yet despite this evidence of her drive and desire, Hedren's Melanie has a strange blankness...she is all wildness with no clear aim." (Norden, 2007:65)  When the audience is introduced to her she appears to be very confident, unafraid of confrontation and also prone to 'practical jokes'.  She is incredibly beautiful and charming and yet the audience is left not entirely knowing what it is that she wants. She chases after Mitch but doesn't explain her feelings or motivations to him and buys a gift for his sister who she has never met before.  He goes on to express that "In conversation, Melanie sometimes simply gazes back at people like a very pretty empty-headed bird, sometimes tilting her head to the side.  Her acting (under Hitchcock's direction, we presume) intensifies the film's strangeness." (Norden, 2007:65)  She has a level of emptiness, sometimes when she looks back at people she does seem a little blank but this could be because she is hiding something more within herself.  Also, to describe her as bird-like in appearance is significant because the audience meet her first when she is buying a bird for herself and she then buys love-birds for Mitch's sister.  Women are often described as bird like in a negative way but perhaps she is just mirroring the animals which she has an affinity to.

Fig. 4 Melanie and Annie.
The way in which all the women are represented in this film is significant, not just Melanie.  Tony Magistrale asked, "Does the terror in Hitchcock reside more in the women who have rejected traditional constructions of feminine behaviour, or in the men who demand that fulfilment of repressed in women?" (Magistrale, 2005:60)  This is interesting because within this narrative the fear comes from Melanie, the unknown,  incredibly charming and beautiful love interest.  She is independent and takes it upon herself to get what she desires, Mitch for example.  She doesn't appear to need a man in the traditional sense and she takes the patriarchal stance of chasing the one she desires. Magistrale goes on to say that "Gender conflicts in Hitchcock are never wholly reconciled in his films until the woman acknowledges and submits to the logic of the patriarchy" (Magistrale, 2005:60) This is seen in the final scene when Melanie has been attacked and is completely beaten down physically and mentally.  She's vulnerable and it is this vulnerability that has lead her to become victim of the patriarchy that is Mitch, his idea to leave the house and try their luck on the roads, and his mother.  The relationship between Mitch's mother, Lydia, and her son is not very normal. He stays with her every weekend and acts as her 'man in the house', taking on the jobs that his late father would have done. Mike King thinks that "The film revolves around Lydia's almost psychotic personality, perhaps the inward image of the external disturbance that manifests outwardly in the birds' frenzied attacks." (King, 2009:79)  Another example of the birds being a physical manifestation, but this time of Lydia's fear of the threat Melanie holds to her.  She doesn't feel safe alone and that is why she keeps her son so close but all the years of pushing his partners away has mounted up and now causes some unwelcome side effects.   However, as previously mentioned, there is not enough evidence to place the blame on Lydia for the birds reaction and the audience couldn't say that the film revolved around her need for her son.

One thing is definitely sure, The Birds is a fantastic example of how stuffed birds and aged special effects can still make the audience feel horribly unnerved, and the mass of birds on the climbing frame is still a chilling image if you have seen the film or not.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. The Birds poster. At: (Accessed: 09.02.2011)

Figure 2.The Birds (1963) Birds swarm on children's climbing frame. At: (Accessed: 09.02.2011)

Figure 3. The Birds (1963) Melanie talking to Mitch At: (Accessed: 09.02.2011)

Figure 4. The Birds (1963)  Melanie and Annie At: (Accessed: 09.02.2011)


Joshi, S. T. (2007) Icons of horror and the supernatural: an encyclopedia of our worst nightmares Volume 2. USA: Greenwood Press.

King, Mike (2009) The American cinema of excess: extremes of the national mind on film. North Carolina: MacFarland & Company, Inc.

Magistrale, Tony (2005) Abject terrors: surveying the modern and postmodern horror film. New York: Peter Land Publishing, Inc.

Norden, Martin F. (2007) The changing face of evil in film and television. New York: Rodolpi B.V

Sterritt, David (1999) The films of Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1 comment:

  1. GREAT, Molly! I share the idea that this is a 'woman's movie' - or a film about a particular view of women (a male's view, that is) - as somehow possessive of more primal, more 'nature-based' energies; for me, The Birds is the classic example of the horror movie working as a metaphor.