On the face of it, like most Alfred Hitchcock films, The Birds (1963), too, appears to be a simple point A to point B kind of thriller/horror film. It follows the classic trait of Hitchcockian cinema where ordinary folk find themselves thrust into extraordinary situations and obliquely enough, discover great strength within the deep recesses of their own self to overcome the odds.
But there is more to The Birds than being a thriller where ordinary birds — and not birds of prey — inexplicably attack humans. And while this would be the rare Hitchcock film where the ‘villain’ isn’t man but some unexplained force of nature, it also is among the last few mainstream Hollywood horror films that featured extensive religious and political allegory spread across the narrative.
Released in April 1963 at the height of the Cold War, The Birds was based on the Daphne du Maurier book of the same name and written for the screen by the famous crime writer Ed McBain under his other name, ‘Evan Hunter.’ The film’s story revolves around a rich socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and a lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who hit it off after an accidental meeting in a pet shop. Melanie decides to hand deliver Mitch’s gift for his younger sister Cathy’s (Veronica Cartwright) — a pair of lovebirds — driving all the way to Bodega Bay.
As Melanie takes the boat to Mitch’s house across the waterfront, a bird attacks her but she doesn’t make much of it. Later Mitch invites Melanie to dinner with his sister and mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who despises Melanie from the moment she sees her. Melanie also befriends the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who happens to be Mitch’s former lover. That night they witness a gull flying into the front door and crashing to its death. The next day, at Cathy’s birthday party, a flock of seagulls attacks the guests, sparrows coming thundering down the chimney and soon hundreds and thousands of birds start attacking anyone they find outdoors.
There is no explanation for the avian attack and some townsfolk start accusing Melanie of causing the attacks, as the birds seemed to be fine until she arrived. While Annie meets a gory death at the hands of a crow while trying to save Cathy, Mitch and Melanie manage to save Cathy. In the end, the two are seen taking a catatonic Cathy along with Lydia to a hospital while thousands of birds hover over their car.
Although The Birds might not be rated in the same league as Hitchcock’s other seminal hits like Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959) or Psycho (1960) or it has come to be regarded as the last great film of the master. In addition, it not only enjoys a cult following of its own that could rival any of Hitchcock’s other masterpieces but also (along with another later underrated Hitchcock gem Marnie, 1964), is arguably be one of the most analysed Hitchcock films. It was made in an era when the Cold War was perhaps at its peak and the screenplay brilliantly infuses the time’s paranoia into the film by way of intriguing symbolism. In the shadow of the nuclear tension of the 1960s, the avian attack in The Birds could have been a metaphor for the nuclear attack where a weapon could rain terror on the heads of innocents.
In many ways, The Birds follows the tradition of the cinema of the mid and late 1950s where genre films especially the so-called B-Movie looked like standard fare but their narratives had deep-rooted political, religious and even sexual allegories. Two films that best exemplified this were The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
In The Night of the Hunter a serial killer who also happens to be a fake preacher, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) marries an outlaw’s naïve widow in search of hidden loot. Powell is a misogynist and believes that he is doing god’s good work on earth; he has the words ‘L-O-V-E’ and ‘H-A-T-E’ tattooed on his knuckles and has a penchant for using switchblade knives to make his point clear. The fanatic Powell will leave no stone unturned to make the widow’s children divulge details of where their ‘real’ father hid the $10,000 he stole. The Night of the Hunter’s nearly off-putting sexual and religious context was shocking for a mid-1950s audience but its underlying theme — the conflict between good and evil and religion being used by either force to their advantage — has been continuously rediscovered once the audiences as well as filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Robert Altman, chose to look beyond the stylised content.
Similarly, beneath the veneer of an extraterrestrial invasion that aims to take over humanity by replacing humans with unemotional impostors, Don Seigel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is actually about the fear of a Communist invasion and the threat of a takeover of the American way of life that was at its height in the 1940s and 1950s.
Right from the time of The Lodger (1927), the first film where Hitchcock is said to have found his ‘voice’ and many of his tropes — false suspicion, fetishism, music as character, intricate camera movements, and near-perfect staging — till The Birds, Hitchcock’s films have always had an unmistakable symbolism running through the narrative. The Birds is about a false sense of control that humans seem to revel in and, like a true master of the horror/ thriller genre, Hitchcock undoes that bit by bit by using his favorite tool: putting characters into barely-controllable situations. The film was partially also inspired by a real life incident where thousands of birds flew into houses along the Monterey Bay coastline due to being poisoned by a nerve-damaging toxin that might have reached them through their food, such as anchovies being poisoned by water from leaky septic tanks mixing with ocean water.
But what truly makes The Birds a great film to analyse is the Freudian interpretation bestowed upon it by leading social critics and academics like Camille Paglia. While critiquing The Birds, Paglia recasts the “birds” of the title as the women in Mitch’s life, with “bird” being a slang for woman and how the relationship of the three “birds” or women that Mitch has in his life — mother, sister and former lover/friend — is disrupted by the arrival of Melanie.
The real birds in the film are also allegorical of unknown forces that threaten the end of humanity as we have come to know it. There is no explanation given for the attacks, something that the local ornithologist (Ethel Griffies) confirms but an old drunkard believes it to be the “end of the world” and offers a religious inference by paraphrasing Ezekiel, chapter six from the Bible — Thus sayeth the Lord God unto the mountains and the hills, and the rivers and the valleys. Behold I, even I shall bring a sword upon ya. And I will devastate your high places.
The dip in Hitchcock’s career post-The Birds along with the arrival of the New American directors (Dennis Hopper, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin) moved horror from the mainstream to being more niche. Although Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) could be seen as the genre’s last mainstream hurrah, the film’s abject lack of layer and largely straighter narrative pushed horror to a place where symbolism became almost zero. The Birds is vintage Hitchcock and better because nothing obstructs its flight. There is barely any background music, no tying-it-all-up explanation like in Psycho or Notorious (1946) and the mystery continues to hang in balance even after the climax thanks to Hitchcock ditching a scripted final scene and not offering a resolution by keeping the ending open.
Gautam Chintamani is the author of the best-selling Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins, 2014). He tweets @GChintamani