Never has a film better managed to escape the underlying absurdity of its central premise than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror classic The Birds, which focuses on a small, seaside California town that finds itself at the sudden mercy of a crazed flock of killer birds.
Were it made today, The Birds would surely be shot in 3-D and center around a bevy of hot and horny spring breakers getting mutilated abroad, avian-style. But what has always fascinated about Hitchcock’s gonzo classic, and what continues to stun and polarize modern audiences, is just how little rational meaning these savage titular creatures actually hold within the basic scope of the picture.
Although they are inescapable, neither Hitchcock nor screenwriter Evan Hunter (working loosely off of Daphne du Maurier's novelette of the same name) ever fully explains the birds' abrupt arrival or prolonged presence within the world of the story. Instead, these frightful, feathered friends are used as a gateway into the profuse and frequently gendered perversions that begin to pronounce themselves domestically, sexually, and psychologically upon the entrance of the film’s heroine, Melanie Daniels, embodied by Tippi Hedren (see below) as a lusciously enshrined paragon of Old Hollywood glamour come undone.
In what is perhaps his last truly great film, Hitchcock, who spent the latter act of his career indelibly terrorizing blonde bombshells and notoriously made life hell for the inexperienced Hedren during shooting, blurs the lines between the fetishistic and the fiendish like never before, using his technical mastery to find new and startling ways to victimize, compromise, and ensnare his terrified leading lady through unusual, multi-perspective framing techniques. In The Birds, Hitchock’s mise-en-scène is at once star-centered and star-containing, enabling the film to work as a horror show of both impenetrable avian evil and bleak Freudian curiosities, as well as a running metafilmic commentary on the oppressively objectified roles of women within classic, gender-biased Hollywood studio moviemaking.
It’s clear from The Birds’ very first frames that Hitchcock and recurring cinematographer Robert Burks are visually enamored with the character of Melanie and her attractive embodier Hedren to the point of optical obsession. Both Hitchcock and Burks take active pleasure in the fundamentally degrading process of capturing and viewing the feminine form in the lubricious and male-created context of traditional Hollywood imaging. At the film’s outset, Burks constantly captures Melanie in the softest possible lighting, which perfectly complements Hedren’s almost buttery complexion, while also highlighting the furs and pearls that accessorize her chic, autumn-appropriate daywear. With her pastel, Edith Head-outfitted dress suits and neatly-coiffed blonde bouffant, the impossibly stylish Hedren projects what Laura Mulvey would refer to as supreme “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Hitchcock cannot help but instantly call attention to this scrumptious, object-like quality in the film’s first shot, in which a young boy whistles at Melanie as she crosses a busy San Francisco street. Melanie, who we will quickly learn is a party girl-cum-heiress of dubiously ill repute, takes visible pleasure in this catcall in a way that seems to imply a lifetime of blithely receiving such “compliments,” even from a source as innocuous as an admiring adolescent.
As Pauline Kael once wrote of Julie Christie with indeterminate praise, Hedren “is extraordinary just to look at” and, indeed, it would seem as though this were the actress’ only job, at least at first. But there is ultimately something much more sinister and uncommon when it comes to Hitchcock’s usage of Hedren throughout The Birds. When Melanie eventually leaves San Francisco to play a clever prank on a potential conquest (Rod Taylor’s suave, cocksure lawyer Mitch Brenner) all the way at his family home in the remote California coastal town of Bodega Bay, her polished beauty stands in clear contrast to her barer environmental surroundings, as well as the town’s other, run-of-the-mill female inhabitants. Whenever Hitchcock blocks Hedren next to Jessica Tandy (below, as Mitch’s elder mother, Lydia) or Suzanne Pleshette (below, as his jilted ex-fiancée, Annie), the former’s tight, grey twist and severe make-up job and the close-cropped brown cut and dark, cat-like features of the latter allow each actress to function as operative parts of the mise-en-scène. Their appearances inform the male-oriented dynamics of their characters (i.e. Lydia’s Oedipal jealousy of Melanie and Annie’s spurned passivity) through persistent onscreen juxtapositions of their physically-elaborated differences.
It's clear that Hitchcock and his technical collaborators have posited Hedren (both visually and narratively) as the erotic superior of all three women, but she is also the actress most repeatedly called upon to act less as a flesh-and-blood human being than as another invaluable entity in the film’s grander formal design, more of a “director’s model” than “actress.” Hedren’s performance style, as directed by Hitchcock, projects a calm and somewhat creepy placidity all her own, but whose external serenity seems increasingly incongruous in light of the film’s murderous raising of stakes. Hedren’s sculpted expressions and struck poses all radiate a poised watchfulness that is somehow one of the most unsettling facets in a movie full of more obvious frights. And yet, Hedren's stillness seems totally in keeping with a character who herself skirts “emptiness” on more than a few occasions.
As the number of bird-attacks rise, leaving Melanie stranded in both Bodega Bay and that same green dress suit, Hedren’s composure begins to dissolve into pure, reprised expressions of fraught panic and physical desperation, in addition to the character’s evident costume and cosmetic undoing, though not a total undoing. Melanie escapes a surprise assault on a children's birthday party with nary a hair our of place. She flees from a bloody scene outside a schoolhouse into the safety of a closed car, her face unscratched and unsullied. That Hedren’s appearance remains almost comically flattering amid all this mayhem is a choice that risks discontinuity while providing a sly commentary on the expectations of women within these movies to serve as both objects of beauty and objects of torture, even when one seems bizarrely out of place with the other. Like Doris Day, Grace Kelly, and Eva Marie Saint before her, Hedren is transformed by Hitchcock into a figure of succulent, couture-clad victimhood.
It is Melanie’s unraveling from self-possession to unrelenting petrification that functions as the film’s long arc, a narrative through-line which Hitchcock, Burks, and their fellow collaborators trace with subtly telling escalations in the mise-en-scène. Hitchcock and production designer Robert F. Boyle are united in envisioning and assembling tense, claustrophobic spaces in which to confine Melanie during each of the film’s set-piece attack sequences: the cramped tightness of a fully-occupied car’s front row, as birds swarm the outside from all angles; the narrowly jammed space of a telephone stand, in which Hedren helplessly wriggles around during one of the film’s most iconically grisly sequences.
Each of these spaces offers Melanie some form of protection, precarious though they may be, and yet the smallness of their spatial proportions evokes an equal if not greater sense of fear than the onslaughts that occur in more open environments. This is likely due to the way in which these horrific incidents are often staged in either roomy, unassuming living spaces with well-balanced lighting and homey décor (like the Brenners’ living room) or else outdoors and in broad daylight, amid the dreamy blue of a treeless sky, as the birds slash across clean vistas in jagged, black shapes, as in the schoolhouse chase or the explosive bedlam that occurs outside the town diner. Even Melanie’s climactic attack, in which she is nearly pecked to death in the Brenners’ attic, feels like an acceleration of the film’s horror precisely because she is unable to move any further than the room’s entryway, trapped by the birds against the attic door in the darkest, most ominously-lit scene in the entire film. Hitchcock combines distressing spatial constriction with dense darkness, whose sudden emergence in a film previously flooded with light effectively sets the stage for Melanie’s critical moment of life-or-death.
The cumulative effect of these scenes certainly gives off the impression that these (predominantly male) filmmakers actively want to see Melanie/Tippi struggle for her life, and are catering to a (predominantly male) audience nursing the same desire. However, the telling, scene-by-scene adjustments of lighting and structural composition, the purposely uneven choices in hair and makeup, the very indelibility of that over-worn green dress suit, and Hedren’s prop-like performance all force us to question and re-evaluate what we are seeing and why we are seeing it in this particular story, which seems only to exist to render Melanie/Tippi helpless. Such specific choices in mise-en-scène remain crucial in drawing our attention to the filmmakers’ treatment of Melanie as more of a figure than a complete person, or, more specifically, a classic horror staple whose highly-particular brand of glamorously feminized suffering is an unavoidable trope in films of this genre and era.
Although Melanie is undoubtedly The Birds’ technically centralized figure, there is a notable difference between the limited agency of a continually jeopardized and importantly female protagonist like Melanie and the free will that is so commonly possessed by male protagonists. Indeed, Melanie is rarely allowed to command, much less articulate, the action of the story because she has been placed in a film that works to undermine her at every stop within its narrative progression, but also, and much more cinematically, within its creatively constraining framing styles with which Hitchcock cunningly plays around with shifting, and at times unexpected, questions of perspective.
Hitchcock’s selective framings consistently work toward the same goal of either estranging Melanie from those around her or else ceding her control of the movie elsewhere. In one quick, character-summarizing shot, the camera pans across Mitch and Melanie coming down a hill together at a birthday party for Mitch's doll-sized kid sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) before settling on a saddened Annie as she watches them, and then budges a few more inches in order to include Lydia as she enters the frame from the background and reacts peevishly at the same sight. Just as memorable in its encapsulation of Melanie is the static frame that captures a hysterical diner patron/banshee as she blames the interloping Melanie for all the bird-related ruckus, filling up the frame as she approaches the camera, adopting Melanie's POV, with bug-eyed, “Evil!”-crying grotesquery. And then there is, of course, that famously bizarre overhead shot that frames the mayhem being waged on the town from a literal bird's-eye view, as if the birds themselves have assumed control of the picture’s visual scheme.
By routinely privileging points of view other than Melanie’s, Hitchcock provides a visual emphasis to his heroine’s loss of control, but not without flexibly indulging Melanie’s own perspective, which is featured elliptically throughout the film, as in an early key sequence in which Melanie, having driven all the way to Bodega Bay to play a retaliatory prank on Mitch, breaks into his family home to mysteriously deposit a pair of caged love birds.
The act itself is illicit in a humorously larkish way, but Hitchcock punctuates the sequence — from Melanie’s sailing over to the Brenners’ secluded pocket of land to her stealthy surveillance of the family as they depart and leave Mitch behind in an outdoor shed to the quiet docking of her sailboat and her hurried breaking and entering into the house — with jittery, point-of-view, right-to-left tracking shots of Melanie in the titillating process of pranking, i.e. practical jokiness as foreplay. As Melanie runs down the berth, the camera adopts her POV by focusing on the shed that Mitch has disappeared to, but it also adopts her energy and movement. The frame trails and twitches with restless determination down the landing stage as Melanie, effectively placing her in control of both the sequence and, momentarily, of the film. Later, when Melanie leaves after successfully dropping off the birds, the camera again assumes her perspective, tracking backwards and reiterating her voyeuristic upper-hand by complementing the quivering motion of the earlier tracking shot as Hedren bolts back down the dock to swiftly make her escape. Rather than allow us to merely observe Melanie in action, Hitchcock blatantly embraces the female gaze, if only for a couple of brief, keyed-up shots, by further allowing us to actively observe as Melanie.
When Mitch finally re-enters the sequence, we see his actions in extreme long shot as though entirely from Melanie’s POV as she sits out on the open water, sneakily waiting for him make the discovery. Meanwhile, the camera (as Melanie) lingers on the exterior of the Brenner estate, as opposed to filming Mitch’s activity from the inside. Hitchcock also captures Hedren as she crouches down in her sailboat, taking eager, undiluted pleasure in the simple act of gazing. We watch as Mitch, still seen only in long shot, runs out of the house, having presumably found the lovebirds, and finally spots Melanie out on the bay, causing him to run back in and right back out with a pair of binoculars. The distance we, along with Melanie, initially maintain from Mitch allows us to observe a swarm of seagulls descend from the sky at the exact moment that Mitch draws on his own gaze. Having at last been found watching, Melanie failingly tries to start the boat’s motor as Mitch holds up his pair of binoculars to grinningly watch her struggle.
In the following shot, the camera suddenly occupies Mitch’s perspective by masking off the edges of the frame so as to match the view from the binoculars themselves. This operates as an objective lens that simultaneously depicts a subjective POV, in that the lens’ physical manifestation within the frame is nonetheless able to display what Mitch, specifically, sees through them. He sees a helpless woman unable to operate basic machinery places Melanie in a position of exposed inadequacy, as seen explicitly through the gaze of a man who will come to her rescue several times throughout the film.
Melanie eventually manages to start the boat back up but is beat to the other side of the island by Mitch, chasing after her on land with his car. As Mitch waits for her on the dock, Hitchcock captures his figure from Melanie’s perspective, while also showing us repeated close-ups of Hedren, both blithely aware that she is being looked at, while being cheekily absorbed herself in the act of looking at Mitch. The great feminist auteur Jane Campion once posited that “one of the great betrayals of the female is they want to see themselves through male eyes,” an idea that Hitchcock takes even further so as to almost pervert it within The Birds.
The event that directly follows this prolonged moment of gazing—a seagull swoops down from the sky and swats Melanie on the head as she brazenly stares at Mitch—seems to suggest that Melanie has somehow performed an even greater cinematic betrayal than merely soliciting and enjoying Mitch’s scrutiny. She has dared to invoke the female gaze in a male-dominated medium and is swiftly punished for doing so by the film’s physical predators and its invisible makers, each violently and decisively keeping her in check. This extended sequence gives temporary visual prominence to Melanie’s POV in a way that was surely rare even in 1963 and which stands as a crafty rebuke to time-honored Hollywood imaging conventions, even as Hitchcock and his technicians purposely call added attention to these same conventions shortly thereafter.
The heavy reliance on close-ups of Hedren under (bird-related) duress is not at all a rarity in horror films of any decade, but Hitchcock’s usage connotes something larger within the visual language of The Birds. Hitchock’s conventional close-ups, which are used here to capture Hedren looking exquisite despite being mid-peril, infuse a unique manner of eroticism into the film. They titillate the standard male viewer at the expense of breaking cinematic illusion and instead leave the audience with a protagonist who is more of an iconic symbol than a human being deeply rooted in verisimilitude. Hedren’s screen persona has never implied “verisimilitude.” She was famously a fashion model before she turned to acting, and yet Hitchcock strangely continues to travel further and further away from Hedren’s extraordinary face in his close-ups of the actress.
By the point of Melanie’s traumatic attic attack, Hitchcock is framing other parts of the actress’ body in disembodied close-up in increasingly gruesome circumstances: the shorn sleeve of a shielding arm as it slices the air; an unnaturally wobbling pair of bloodied legs; an open, dangling palm being nipped at by a beak. By placing these parts so conspicuously on display, Hitchcock cuts through verisimilitude in typical Hollywood fashion by flagrantly spotlighting an actress’ famous physical assets (think Marlene Dietrich’s slinky legs or the soft contours of Greta Garbo’s famously enigmatic face, or, in this case, Hedren’s svelte frame and fine-boned features) while placing them within a specific visual context of blood and carnage that unsettles us in its brutal distortions of essentially erotic forms of imaging. Hitchcock, then, forces us to question which is truly the more troubling horror: the inexplicable ferocity of the birds or the idea that the dubious role of “woman” in Hollywood is one inextricably rooted in sexually-charged imagery that melds together terror and tantalization through the unremitting exploitation of the ideal yet depersonalized female figure?
The Birds is a perverse and peculiar filmic artifact, a movie unable to escape its divisive gender politics nor the infamously treacherous background of its production history. Excluding Hitchcock and his long-suspect professionalism and in spite of its own creakily presumptive, fashion plate standards of modern womanhood, The Birds has always struck me as a film that chooses to actively, self-reflexively reckon with the misogynistic tendencies of its chosen genre as opposed to thoughtlessly subscribe to them. This wasn’t Hitchcock’s first foray into the terrain of portentously ill-fated womanhood, nor was it his last or, arguably, even his best. And yet The Birds remains a seminal piece of moviemaking for the reality it represents even beneath its most sinister aspects: the hyper-neurotic vibrations of a once-tranquil community run amok and the traumatized schizophrenia of the silk-stocking socialite who is battered into an uncanny state of familial dependency.
Hitchcock is no feminist filmmaker and yet his canon is invaluable to feminist film theorists as pop-cultural documents of period-specific femininity at its most suffocating and often laughably absurd. It’s hard not to chuckle as Hedren unwittingly lets loose with a shrieking, bird-rousing cry upon the discovery of a dead body, or to roll one’s eyes and re-instate an ironic, critical distance from the film each time it cuts to Hedren in strained and strangely mute poses of abject terror, a scream queen eerily without a voice.
The Birds is an easy film to scoff at, but its scares linger longer than anticipated and they aren't always the ones we expect. It drives us to take a long, hard, and often uncomfortable look at what we see onscreen and ask ourselves, What’s she running from anyway — the birds of prey or the warped industry that unleashed them on her in the first place?
The documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut opens in New York City at Film Forum on Wednesday, December 2nd. More info here.