The Heroine’s Journey in “The Birds”

Here is a film that provides no answers and no escape. Chaos reigns from top to tail. Might this be the essential Hitchcock?

The crows alight, one by one, in the schoolyard above Bodega Bay. They are summoned by the nursery rhyme sung by the children, or drawn by the green glow of Tippi Hedren’s matching skirt and jacket, or maybe lured by the pungent scent of her lit cigarette. By the time she turns her head, the climbing frame is thick with them. “She combs her hair but once a year,” sing the oblivious children inside their classroom. “Nickety-nackety now, now, now!”

Actually I have no idea what draws the birds and turns them bad and it seems that nobody else does either. “I don’t know why,” says harried Melanie Daniels (Hedren). “Wish I could say,” blurts bemused Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Everyone is confused, ruffled, on the brink of flight. Here is a film that provides no answers and no escape. Chaos reigns from top to tail.Advertisement

Adapted (very loosely) from a Daphne du Maurier short story, it’s the tale of a pristine city woman who comes undone in a rustic seaside town. Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay to play a prank on a smart-ass lawyer, only to have her immaculate hairdo knocked into her face by a passing gull, which serves her right and takes her down a peg or two. Before long, however, the birds are everywhere. They dive-bomb the window panes and peck at the door while the town drunk quotes Ezekiel from his perch at the bar. “It’s the end of the world,” he says.

When teasing out the meaning of The Birds, many critics take their lead from the hysterical woman who links the attacks to Daniels’ arrival (“I think you’re the cause of all of this”). This implies that the birds are a manifestation of sex, some galvanic hormonal storm that whisks sleepy Bodega Bay into a great communal lather.

Alternatively, they might be viewed as an eruption of rage. The film’s first act, after all, is an uncomfortable buildup of tension (both sexual and social), an ongoing joust of loaded glances and teasing evasions. Its characters are so guarded, so gamey, so disconnected from their own emotions, that something’s got to give. The moment when Daniels has her hair knocked over her eyes is the moment when the mask slips and the pressure cooker explodes. When the pie is opened, the birds begin to sing. Except that in this case they don’t sing so much as scream.

The Birds is generally regarded as the last great Hitchcock movie (it was shot in 1963, when the director’s reputation was at its peak). Might it also stand as the essential Hitchcock movie, the purest and most confident, a brilliant distillation of the themes that had fuelled him ever since he sent the lodger creeping to his upstairs room? Every time I watch it, I find myself more impressed with its daring, audacity and command of its material.

For all that, what stirs me the most about The Birds is not what it puts in but what it leaves out. At the age of 63, Hitchcock was secure enough to dispense with the grinding gears of narrative logic. The beautiful, bruised Notorious had its plot MacGuffin in the form of its wine bottles filled with iron ore. Electrifying, insurrectionist Psycho still felt the need to wheel on a psychiatrist to explain Norman Bates to the audience. But The Birds floats free. There is no motor driving it, no music to tether it, and nothing to hold it aloft apart from that up-draft of sensual atmosphere and existential dread. Hitchcock reportedly worried at length over how to wrap things up. He eventually ditched the scripted final scene in favour of a non-resolution, an open ending – the perfect closing image that leaves the world in the balance and its mysteries all intact.