Essay, Research Paper: Birds By Hitchcock


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The plot of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 "The Birds," taken from a Daphne
Du Maurier (who wrote the novel "Rebecca") short story, seems
ludicrous. Birds attacking a small town, actually killing people. But in the
competent hands of the master of suspense, the movie is frighteningly, well,
suspenseful. Evan Hunter (who also writes under the name Ed McBain) wrote the
screenplay, and while not all of the characters are well enough developed for
the viewer to understand their occasionally awkward behavior, has nonetheless
crafted an interesting story that captures and maintains interest. Birds are
flapping about in the opening shots, a forewarning of their sinister activities
to come, before we're introduced to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the daughter
of a newspaper owner. As she walks into a pet shop director Hitchcock makes his
signature cameo appearance (walking his two real-life dogs). She meets a
handsome defense attorney named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and pretends to work
at the store when he asks for help finding lovebirds for his little sister's
birthday. He embarrasses her by saying that he remembers her from a court
appearance (one of her practical jokes resulted in a broken window), and that he
just led her on to give her a taste of her own medicine. Curious about Mitch and
not to be outdone, Melanie buys two lovebirds and tracks him down. She makes a
trip to Bodega Bay, where he lives on the weekends with his widowed mother,
Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), sneaks into the
empty house, and leaves the birds for Cathy. He spots her as she begins leaving
in a boat, and drives off to meet her at the dock, when, as she comes closer to
it, a gull sweeps down and pecks her head. Mitch takes her to the local diner
and takes care of her cut. Melanie decides to stay in town for the night, and
reappears at the home of schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who
had given her directions to the Brenner house earlier. She sleeps over at
Annie's house, and the two women talk. Annie's odd behavior earlier in the day
(her presumptuous questions about Melanie's relationship with Mitch, etc.) is
explained when she says that she used to be involved with Mitch. Melanie is
about to get ready for bed when the women hear a noise at the door. Annie opens
it to find that a bird had flown into it, falling to the porch, dead. The birds
begin more direct attacks on the town, first going after children at Cathy's
birthday party, and then infiltrating the Brenner's house through the fireplace.
The next day, Lydia leaves to drop Cathy off at school and goes over to a
farmer's house to talk about why her chickens aren't eating, when she discovers
the man's dead body, ravaged by the birds. In a surprisingly graphic shot (for
1963), we see his blood-filled eye sockets. Lydia rushes home, shaken, and when
Melanie brings her tea in bed later that morning, the two women have a
conversation that sort of clears up the indifferent attitude Lydia had been
displaying towards Melanie. Melanie tells Lydia, who isn't certain that Cathy is
safe at school, that she will go to the school and bring her back. Class is in
session, so Melanie goes outside to the playground and, as she lights a
cigarette, birds begin gathering quietly behind her. When she becomes aware of
them, she goes inside and notifies Miss Hayworth. They give the children
instructions as to how to evacuate, hopefully without provoking attack. In one
of the many cool scenes where birds are chasing people, the school children are
shown being attacked as they are running home. I don't want to give away too
much more of the story, but I will say that the following things occur: more
talk about other weird bird encounters from people who learn of the attack at
school, an explosion, another dead body is found, there is another attack, a
power outage, and an attack on Melanie that is at times visually reminiscent of
Janet Leigh's shower stabbing in "Psycho." One of my favorite things
about "The Birds" is the ending. It doesn't offer an explanation, and
it doesn't offer a way out. Instead, it shows birds covering almost everything
in sight. Originally, Hitchcock wanted the last shot to be of the Golden Gate
Bridge covered in birds, but it didn't work out. Cleverly, this is the only of
his films that don't end with the words, "The End." He wanted to
suggest endless terror, and indeed the closing shots of the movie are potent.
Tippi Hedren, who starred as a kleptomaniac in Hitchcock's "Marnie"
the year after "The Birds" was released, is very good as Melanie. Rod
Taylor does well with his character, one of the few leading men in a Hitchcock
film who isn't given the hero treatment, and Suzanne Pleshette is noteworthy as
the fairly mysterious Annie. But I found myself focusing more on Jessica Tandy
as Lydia. Her character was the most complex, and she gives the best performance
in the film as the mother who wants her son to be happy but is struggling with
the unresolved abandonment issues deriving from her husband's death. Veronica
Cartwright is a bit uneven as Cathy, but becomes more believable towards the
end. Many people assumed that a movie about killer birds couldn't be as
satisfying a thriller as such (then) recent Hitchcock fare as
"Vertigo," "North by Northwest," and "Psycho." But
quite on the contrary, he makes the danger of the situation palpable from the
start, and builds to an even more tense and unresolved ending that is riveting.
The script, especially the setting, is most commendable for never making
suspension of disbelief necessary, as it would be if reasoning behind the bird's
behavior had been thrown in (such as the end of "Psycho," where the
psychologist's monologue, which didn't diminish the film, was still
unnecessary). One could argue that if you watch a movie about homicidal birds,
you have to suspend your disbelief, but such people have doubtlessly never seen
"The Birds," which has such convincing performances and meticulous
direction lending to an atmosphere that never makes it seem odd that such small,
harmless looking creatures could unleash such terror.
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