Re-Viewed – The Birds
These days imprisoning your leading lady in a cage for a whole week, whilst two technicians lob live birds at her, would lead to one hell of a lawsuit. And yet, this is how Alfred Hitchcock prepared Tippi Hedren for the role that would make her name. The Birds is his third adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier story, after Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940), an ecological suspense thriller that sets out its stall as early as the credits – a nightmarish flapping and squawking that would reverberate throughout the scoreless film.
Melanie Daniels, Hedren’s remote heiress, is intrigued by Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) a lawyer shopping for love birds, and pursues him to his Northern California home in Bodega Bay. There, a series of escalating attacks by birds of all breeds, as well as the complicated relationships within Mitch’s circle, force Melanie to come to terms with her gilded life and opening herself up to trust and her own vulnerability. The ingénue, thrust into a foreign place, forced to face indignities and torment before rising to the challenge is of course a motif common to Hitchcock’s films: The young Mrs DeWinter (Joan Fontaine) in Rebecca (1940), or Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright), forced to betray her favourite uncle in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
Hedren’s performance has sometimes been dismissed as cold, but Melanie is a woman still struggling with the abandonment by her mother when she was a child. Hedren’s demeanour comes from the lack of trust she holds for people, and her determination never to be hurt again. It is a performance that would inform her next role in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). In that film, Hedren would exaggerate these vulnerabilities as a woman, terribly damaged by betrayal. Melanie is seen to be trying to connect with other people, with varying levels of success and also sometimes, to her own surprise. Mitch’s ex-lover, Annie, played by a sensual, purring, Suzanna Pleshette, at first seems like her competition, then quickly proves herself to be a friend to Melanie by encouraging her affair with Mitch. Later in the film, Annie again proves herself an example to Melanie, by her courage in protecting Cathy, Mitch’s younger sister (Veronica Cartwright). Melanie, not used to believing in her own sex, starts to thaw, especially towards Cathy.
Her relationship with Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is telling in that they are very similar women. The two women are immediately wary of each other and when, at one point, Lydia tells Melanie “I’m not even sure that I like you”, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking she was talking to herself. Tandy’s performance is so multi-layered, suspicious and judgmental of those both outside and in her family, and yet chastising herself for her inability to love.
Taylor, as her son, is stoic yet playful, especially in the opening scenes where he flirts with Melanie in the bird store. Hitchcock’s sense of humour shines through in this scene and that sense of humour is visible elsewhere in the film, especially when Melanie is negotiating the curves of the northern California coast, the (obviously fake) love birds she has brought along for the ride, sway gently from side to side.
Of course though, it is the titular winged creatures whose presence pervades every scene, whether the docile love birds (“They haven’t harmed anyone.”) to the malevolent crows crowded onto the jungle gym in the school playground. Hitchcock revels in making the ordinary extraordinary and playing with the viewers sense of equilibrium. After all, it couldn’t really happen. Could it?