There is an underlying charm to her sensibility. Unlike the most calculated of Alfred Hitchcock’s notable heroines, Melanie’s core comes from a place of transparent psychology, and there is scarcely a moment when her agendas can be perceived as unhealthy or devious. What they are, in truth, are conduits for sympathetic inklings – on part of her peers, her audience and, hopefully, her would-be suitor, who looks upon the woman’s audacity with fascination intercut with careful attraction. By any stretch, these facets would herald the arrival of an intriguing human experience; in the hands of the greatest of cinematic puppet masters, they become the bed in which we place all of our hopes and projections, because what is about to happen to them all will far exceed all their preconceived notions about the possibilities of nature. With the concern of direction that elevates them to emotional centers, they become much more than disposable vessels in game of bloodcurdling manipulation.
“The Birds,” one of the most celebrated films in the Hitchcock cannon, begins and ends with a challenge that rewrites our expectations of basic horror sensibilities: how does anyone – even the master of suspense – convey all of the fundamental gradations of terror in a premise with no plausible path for it? What a daunting task this must have been, even for the same man who had just come off of completing the very audacious “Psycho.” By comparison with the frontal achievement of his prior film, the studio must have scoffed at the notion of this kind of follow-up; something about birds launching a full-scale attack on the residents of a small coastal town is not exactly the most resonating (or interesting) of premises. But somehow, in the thick of an impeccable narrative that pays deep attention to all those involved, the great filmmaker manages to reach far inside the psychological chasm and find a rich inspiration, and at any point where there may be an indication of wavering dedication, his actors hammer the point home in performances of deadpan sincerity. Had the horror itself never managed to work, the presence of a thoughtful human drama would have more than made up for those shortcomings.
That notion is even more remarkable when one considers the relative freshness of his actors. The film stars Tippi Hedren (then a newcomer) as the fascinating Melanie Daniels, a well-to-do socialite whose privileged existence displaces her from the commonalities of basic interaction. That becomes fairly obvious to Mitch during their initial encounter in a pet store; a lawyer who recently served in a case involving an ill-fated prank that she was criminally charged with, he finds distinct amusement in the prospect that she is so eager to partake in an elaborate ruse, even in relatively simple situations. What does she need it all for? There is a sense within the movie that Ms. Daniels operates by such games because it’s the only thing she has ever been taught, and when she decides to correct a misdeed in the form of yet another joke, we see no point in contemplating the reasons why: this is her, and this is all she ever will be.
The gift of the love birds – meant to be a birthday present for Mitch’s young sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) – is one of the more blatant uses of the “MacGuffin” technique of any Hitchcock picture. What it permits is the arrival of Melanie in a world far removed from her own, a town hugging the ocean line where Mitch spends his weekends, houses dot a rural landscape, and quiet natives are overly forthcoming with private information (“There is a lot of spare time in Bodega Bay”). All of those elements play right into Melanie’s plan, which is to deliver the birds to Mitch’s house while he is outside, and then leave before the inevitable discovery… but only just barely so that he can catch sight of her as the culprit. Such bravado is exactly the kind of spark a man like Mitch seems to need in his life, needless to say; isolated and dedicated to a small family unit that depends on his example, there is a sense that excitement is the missing ingredient of a sleepy existence. And once they come to a common ground and realize the unspoken chemistry in one another, sparks fly with organic swiftness.
Quiet exchanges between characters suggest the presence of emotional traumas and fractured histories. Melanie befriends the town’s schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), a kind but grounded sort who too once had the affections of Mitch, Bodega Bay’s most eligible bachelor. What ceased that prospect? Annie suggests that his mother, the kind but suspicious Lydia (Jessica Tandy), is too traumatized from the loss of her own husband to be accepting of a female companion for her son, especially if it might fuel her own fears of abandonment. Their dialogue is so cautious with these implications that it plays right into the director's immense skill with emotional pitch; there is discomfort in the way Melanie interacts with Annie and Lydia and yet no direct confrontation of it, because it is within piercing gazes and subtle euphemisms that true feelings are made known (and only to fuel the notion that this is a woman who, even in the presence of a man she is attracted to, is a foreign entity in a world unlike her own).
Somehow in the thick of these dynamics, Hitchcock absorbs us in peripheral dread. It comes in the form of randomized bird attacks – swift and gradual, and with no sense of anticipation on part of audiences or characters. The first of them doesn’t even occur until the midway point of the movie, when Melanie is swooped down on by a seagull in the sky; later, after the acknowledgment has been forgotten in a cluster of evolving dialogue exchanges, a group of kids is attacked on the hill during Cathy’s birthday party. Then the central characters are attacked again at dinner in the living room of Lydia’s house, and the following day, another incident occurs off-screen that leads to the horrifying discovery of a dead farmer with his eyes pecked out. What has inspired them to such ferocious heights in the presence of these lowly town observers is unknown, but the lack of a tangible explanation is exactly what heightens the fear of what must come next. Cinematographer Robert Burks does a remarkable balancing act of tones as he stages the scenes with almost suffocating tension, and even in the hindsight of dated special effects, almost all of the moments are conveyed in a precise fashion.
Consider, for example, the precision of a scene in which a flock of crows gather on a playground just outside of the elementary school, and Melanie’s back is turned to the gathering. The sound of school children singing in the backdrop is almost piercing in how it contrasts the slow build of tension in the foreground, and both he and Hitchcock cross the threshold with a brilliant swooping shot that culminates in a moment of shared horror. The last act may very well be one of the most dramatic framings of a climax ever made, and through an endless wave of deadly encounters that inspire this group of people to seek an elusive spot of isolation, the movie plays through them with surmounting detail that becomes almost overpowering in how it holds us on the razor’s edge. The minor point – but a critical one – is that none of these encounters is played past the point of excess; as primitive as the special effects may be, they are captured without overbearing emphasis, and in most of those moments we genuinely believe that these are people who are really fleeing from the threats of avian mobs.
So much of the movie’s gradual pace and structure has become a lost art in the sweep of modern thrillers. Do today’s moviegoers have the patience, for example, to sit back and wait for Norman Bates’ inevitable arrival in the second act of “Psycho?” Do they care anything about Melanie’s intriguing chutzpah when the inevitability of chaos awaits her in Bodega Bay? The genius of Hitchcock’s greatest films is that he never rushes to eclipse the exposition of his characters; when we join them, they are all on journeys of fully realized complexity, and he observes their behaviors with such impeccable detail that it becomes almost jarring to witness them falling into the traps of nightmarish predicaments. Only when we have fully bought into their identities do the hidden horrors that surround them become realized, and it is because they feel almost out of place with the momentum that our hearts are so easily startled by the fallout. “The Birds” can be credited for having the most cornball of those sorts of ideas (is it inherently scary to watch a town be attacked by flocks of little avian rodents?), but it is a premise so flawlessly executed and modulated within that context that we are anchored in his reality with unwavering acceptance. And by the final scene, there is no question that all those who watch on feel the same sense of silent panic as Melanie does while she walks slowly through a yard full of vicious birds, hoping to reach safety before they engage her in yet another devastating attack.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Thriller (US); 1963; Not Rated; Running Time: 119 Minutes
Tippi Hedren: Melanie Daniels
Rod Taylor: Mitch Brenner
Suzanne Pleshette: Annie Hayworth
Jessica Tandy: Lydia Brenner
Veronica Cartwright: Cathy Brenner
Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Written by Evan Hunter; based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier