Last week I had a second look at Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s ageless classic. It was like meeting an old friend. Warm, clean and courteous. Those were the times when men went about rescuing women and smoking was still not sin. And of course you could rest your eyes on the image and SEE! Dealing with modern Hollywood is like facing a smart aleck who could pick your pocket at a moment’s lapse of attention.
Just to freshen up memory, here is the plot of the film.
Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner meet in a bird shop in San Francisco where Mitch plays a prank on her. Piqued, Melanie decides to play out a return prank, carrying to deliver a pair of lovebirds to the picturesque Bodega Bay house of his mother, where Mitch goes to spend his weekends. Once in town, she leaves her white convertible and hires a small boat to first drive and when close, row across to the house. She manages to slip in unseen and leave the cage in the middle of the living room. But Mitch spots her as she is escaping and drives round the lake reaching ahead to meet her at the jetty. That’s when the first bird-attack of the film takes place. A seagull swoops upon Melanie’s head just as she is about to disembark.
Hereafter the two join forces against more and varied avian attacks. She delays her return to SFO, then postpones it. We meet more characters: Mitch’s suspicious mother, his school going sister for whom the lovebirds were brought as gift, a nosey teacher who having fallen in love with Mitch has come to live and work near his house. There is the village pub where the strange behavior of birds is variously discussed. Then there’s the classroom full of children where Melanie and the schoolteacher join to fend off a major assault by crows. Panic spreads as a casual motorist stops to fill and unaware of the spillage at the fuel station—and seen by horrified onlookers—lights up, sending the entire neighborhood in flames.
The climax of the film plays out in Mitch’s house over night. The attack—entirely off-screen—comes and goes. Against all kinds of preparations, the family barely scrapes through. Later woken up by a noise, Melanie goes to the attic and is suddenly overwhelmed by a vicious attack of gulls, ravens and crows trapped inside. She passes out and is rescued by Mitch. Finally they decide to leave for SFO. Clusters of birds stand herded blocking the way as Mitch opens the garage and rolls out Melanie’s convertible. Last thing they take before leaving is the lovebirds’ cage.
Day is breaking over a landscape of dulled out birds as the car whirrs to life and gently makes its way towards the horizon.
Shorn of hype and production dazzle, The Birds would simply be a love story where the mysterious attacks serve as obstacles bringing the two lovers closer. And since the attacks are obliged to grow in variety, intensity and horror, the film takes a running start from an innocent stage just before, at a bird store where the lovers are first brought together. And what are they fussing about? Why, purchase of a pair of love birds! The film could equally be seen as a story of this pair of lovebirds that are taken right through the ordeal caused by their brethren and brought back safely among the members of this very human family. Birds are not enemies. Not all birds. Not yet.
This is the only time in Hitchcock where the ‘danger’ is birds rather than one or the other kind of psychopath killers. Also there is no scene trying to explain the mystery beyond the pub scene where everybody chips in but only to further heighten the mystery. Even Psycho was obliged to have a scene where Norman’s behavior was finally lectured upon in a courtroom.
To me the masterstroke of the film is the shrewd decision to set the action in the pristine laid back surroundings of a small town blessed with bounties of nature. It’s just one aberrant part of that nature that causes the havoc. The mise-en-scene misses no opportunity to play on the painterly picturesque quality of the landscape, starting right from the lovely drive along the wavy road to that destination. Bodega Bay, by the way, is a popular Californian resort.
Interestingly, another film made around the same time—but half a world away, in India—has a similar take on the birds’ behavior. This would be Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjunga (1962), released a year before The Birds. Since Hitchcock’s film was in the making for three years after his runaway success Psycho (1960), it is possible Ray was inspired to write a bird-watcher character for Kanchenjunga. Binoculars hanging around his neck, this is 60-year-old Jagadish exploring the hills looking for a rare bird as others of his sister’s family follow more mundane pursuits. In a scene of awesome beauty afterwards, Jagadish tells a youngster of his worst fears. That with rampant nuclear tests going on around the world, migratory birds might one day lose their fascinating navigational skills and go awry.
Growing up in north India of the mid-50s, I once remember the sky turning suddenly overcast as though by one large cloud. This was a swarm of locusts, a whole sky full of them, blocking the evening sun. Next morning they lay scattered over the landscape, with all foliage, including leaves of the inedible calotropis, eaten away.
When I joined the FTII, a strange phenomenon once struck the campus community in the 70s. After attending the evening screening of one or the other world classic as you walked back engrossed towards the hostel, you suddenly received a solid whack on the head. Thinking it was somebody’s boorish prank you turned around to take action but found nobody. Reactions of others then told you that you had been the victim of a cranky owl that had come to settle on a bald dead tree nearby! All through the day you could see the owl sitting saint-like on that branch but would come alive as soon as the night fell and attacked passersby over that 50 meter stretch on the road to the hostel! Soon everybody began to go waving a hanky over the head and that did the trick. But if ever you forgot, you were invariably rewarded with a whack!
And now for a bit of trivia.
Curious about Tippi Hedren’s career apart from Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie, I stumbled upon a recent New York Times interview—as recent as October 5, 2012—with the star who is now in her eighties. The occasion? Release of a film The Girl based on a novel inspired by Tippi’s revelations about her relations with Hitchcock. The revelations? That she rebuffed his sexual advances and he destroyed her career. “Career, not life!” asserts the wronged woman.
Et tu Sir Alfred!!!!????