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The Great Movies: The Birds

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In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock followed up his classic thriller Psycho (1960) with The Birds, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier. In The Birds, the small seaside town of Bodega Bay inexplicably comes under attack by flocks of hostile birds, following the arrival of socialite Tippi Hedren (Melanie Daniels), who has come to the town to deliver a present to a man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), after meeting Brenner in a San Francisco pet shop.

(Spoilers below)

In The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock is employing a theme we see throughout his work: the idea that no one is innocent, including children; all are guilty of sin, and divine retribution can come at any time, in unexpected ways.

Also, Hitchcock brings the menace of the attacking birds into what should be safe environments, a home and a school. In the world according to Alfred Hitchcock, there are no safe locations, and the comforts of home prove only to be an illusion.

The film contains many classic Hitchcock moments. One scene occurs during the last half of the film. Tippi Hedren, at Bodega Bay, is outside, sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette. Behind her is a playground to the Bodega Bay School.

As she smokes, a few birds arrive, coming to roost on the playground equipment. We, the audience, know what is happening. Hedren does not.

As she smokes and relaxes, presumably enjoying the sea air (or the singing of the children, heard in the background), while increasing numbers of birds silently land and perch on the playground equipment. Hedren is oblivious to the gathering menace behind her. The voice of the school children is the only sound heard in the background; the birds are quiet.

In a few minutes, seemingly hundreds of birds have landed. Hedren finally becomes aware of what is happening; only by then it’s too late as the birds attack.

There are no easy answers in The Birds. In fact, Hitchcock does not provide any reason why the birds are attacking. We, the audience, are left to wonder what provoked the birds into becoming hostile towards humans.

One clue given is the fact that the attacks begin when Tippi Hedren arrives at Bodega Bay. Hedren’s character is a bit of a mystery, and we as an audience do not learn much about her. What we do know is that she’s the daughter of a newspaper publisher. That’s about it. She seems to be very wealthy.

Since we do not know much about Hedren’s past, I don’t think Hitchcock is using divine retribution to punish sinners. As far as we know, no one has done anything to warrant the punishment of death.

Rather, I think the birds are a manifestation of Hedren’s repressed sexuality. After all, she’s followed Mitch Brenner all the way to Bodega Bay. We do learn in the beginning of the film that Hedren knew who Brenner was and possibly had her eye on him even then.

Once at Bodega Bay, Tippi’s presence has an affect on virtually every person she encounters, most of the encounters being with men. She obviously is provoking some sort of emotion from the citizens of Bodega Bay. Especially in Mitch Brenner’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who may or may not be threatened by Tippi (Lydia has a close relationship with her son Mitch). Even Mitch’s young sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) takes an instant liking to Tippi.

Is Tippi a temptress? Hitchcock seems to be saying she is. Perhaps Tippi’s past isn’t so innocent, although we do not know for certain what that past might be.

I think it would be too easy to suggest the film is nothing more than nature rebelling against mankind. After all, the birds seen in the beginning of the film –when Tippi first encounters Mitch at a pet store – are not screeching to be freed from their cages.

Perhaps the message is that society is threatened by a woman like Tippi Hedren – or, at least, 1960s society. Threatened by her beauty and her wealth. And in that context, Tippi affects the small-town mores of Bodega Bay, bringing to life the birds to attack those who might not conform to the societal norms of a small town.

In the end, we are not only not given any answers, but we do not know what the future holds for the characters as they escape from Bodega Bay. We do know that the birds remain in Bodega Bay, perhaps left there to uphold the morals and values of that community, and to prevent anyone that does not belong from exposing the community to outside influences.

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About scottcsmith

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    I’ve seen this one countless times, and never really went deeper than “birds are pissed at man.” You make some interesting arguments to say the least, and you’re either digging way too deep and it’s just a creature feature or you’ve nailed it.

    Great read.

  • Dave D

    It’s Alfred Hitchcock. It’s never a creature feature with him.

  • Xander

    Yo peepz! Da birds is so flippin sweet! I like da movie Too bad it’s rated G!

  • Xander

    Yo peepz! Da birds is so flippin sweet! I like da movie Too bad it’s rated G!