bird-watching

I watched Hitchcock‘s The Birds last night since I haven’t seen it in many years. I remember reading the original short story by Daphne Du Maurier as a kid after watching the film, and was creeped out by both of them. Evan Hunter adapted the script.

The Birds is interesting because it takes so long before the birds launch their attacks, and most of the opening section is about the flirtation between lawyer Mitch (Rod Taylor) and playgirl Melanie (Tippi Hedren), and Mitch’s family dynamics – especially the relationship between his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), his sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), and his ex-girlfriend, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette).

There is a great deal of fine writing in this script, in particular there are a couple of scenes where no one says what they mean, but the subtext reveals what’s really going on. On a number of occasions at least two conversations were happening at the same time, with one being fore-figured, which added a sense of naturalness to the scene.

Here’s an example of the subtle interrogation that happens between Annie and Melanie when they first meet. It’s a sterling example of trusting the actors to fill in the blanks without the dialogue hitting the audience over the head. I would like to delete the writer’s descriptions in this scene, just to give a proper sense of how it played on the screen, but that would be interfering with the script, which is a no-no.

MELANIE
Miss Hayworth?

ANNIE
Yes?

MELANIE
I’m Melanie Daniels. I’m sorry to
bother you, but…

CLOSE SHOT – ANNIE

She is puzzled by Melanie who, exquisitely dressed and
groomed, seems singularly out of place in Bodega Bay. She
studies her openly.

ANNIE
Yes?

TWO SHOT – MELANIE AND ANNIE

MELANIE
The man at the post office sent me.
He said you’d know the name of the
little Brenner girl.

ANNIE
Cathy?

MELANIE
The one who lives in the white house
across the bay?

ANNIE
That’s the one. Cathy Brenner.

MELANIE
(smiling)
They seemed sure it was either Alice
or Lois.

ANNIE
Which is why the mail in this town
never gets delivered to the right
place.
(She takes out package
of cigarettes, offers
one to Melanie)
Did you want to see Cathy about
something?

CLOSE SHOT – MELANIE

taking cigarette, hesitating.

MELANIE
Well… not exactly.

CLOSE SHOT – ANNIE

studying her, thinking she understands.

ANNIE
Are you a friend of Mitch’s?

MELANIE
No, not really.

TWO SHOT – MELANIE AND ANNIE

There is an awkwardness here. Annie wants to know more. She
puffs on the cigarette, smiles, tries a friendly approach.

ANNIE
I’ve been wanting a cigarette for
the past twenty minutes, but I
couldn’t convince myself to stop.
This ’tilling of the soil’ can get a
little compulsive, you know.

MELANIE
It’s a lovely garden.

ANNIE
Thank you. It gives me something to
do with my spare time.
(pause)
There’s a lot of spare time in Bodega
Bay.
(another pause)
Did you plan on staying long?

MELANIE
No. Just a few hours.

ANNIE
You’re leaving after you see Cathy?

MELANIE
Well… something like that.
(pause)
I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound so
mysterious.

ANNIE
Actually, it’s none of my business.

There is a pause. Melanie, by her silence, affirms that it
is none of Annie’s business.

ANNIE
(putting out cigarette)
I’d better get on my way. Thank you
very much.

ANNIE
Not at all.

They begin walking toward the car.

ANNIE
(still curious)
Did you drive up from San Francisco?

MELANIE
Yes.

ANNIE
It’s a nice drive.
(pause)
Is that where you met Mitch?

MELANIE
(hesitating, then)
Yes.

ANNIE
I guess that’s where everyone meets
him.

CLOSE SHOT – MELANIE

as she gets in behind the wheel. Annie’s remark is not lost
on her, and a quick look of sudden understanding crosses her
face.

MELANIE
Now you sound a bit mysterious, Miss
Hayworth.

TWO SHOT – MELANIE AND ANNIE

as Annie leans over the seat.

ANNIE
Do I?
(she shakes her head,
smiles wistfully)
No, I’m an open book, I’m afraid.
(pause)
Or maybe a closed one.
(she smiles again,
sees the lovebirds)
Pretty. What are they?

MELANIE
Lovebirds.

Taking this as a further indication of Melanie’s relationship
with Mitch:

ANNIE
Mmm.
(pause)
Well, good luck, Miss Daniels.

MELANIE
Thank you.

She nods pleasantly, starts the car, pulls away.

CLOSE SHOT – ANNIE

watching the car, a look of sad resignation on her face.

This is a charged scene in the film, as the two women scope each other out, with the frisson of the past girlfriend eyeing up the new competition. I see a lot of understated dialogue like this in older films when writers were restricted by the mores of the day on what they could say explicitly.

I suspect screenwriters would be better off if we imagined ourselves in such an era and tried to not write dialogue (especially in early interactions), instead of gushing exposition from the lips of actors. Later on Annie and Melanie are candid in their discussion about Mitch, but only after they understand one another.

Even though the birds do not begin their mass attack on the humans until much later in the film Hitchcock places them at the centre of the film right at the beginning, and builds a sense of menace in a skilful fashion.

The single attack on Melanie as she wantonly steers the boat towards Mitch’s house is symbolic of the deeper metaphor that underlies the film about chaotic chthonic forces (sexual of course) that are stirred up by her arrival in Mitch’s life. Like in other Hitchcock films the controlling mother, Lydia, is the key element to the weird happenings, even though the script does justice to her character by allowing her moments of sympathy.

The interplay between Melanie and Lydia is strange and taut at times. In particular, after the gruesome attack on Melanie, the catatonic woman is guided to the car, through the mass of birds, and leans on both Mitch and Lydia. Safely inside Melanie’s car–which Mitch drives–Lydia squeezes Melanie’s hand, and Melanie rests her head upon Lydia’s shoulder – like a daughter. The tactic acceptance by the mother means that the group is released to escape the roosting birds. I liked that Cathy puts the caged lovebirds in the car (“They haven’t harmed anyone.”) before the new family departs from Bogeda Bay. The lovebirds, which started the whole Melanie/Mitch relationship, are safe at the end even if they haven’t escaped their cage.

Yet, the ending fails on a number of counts. It might work on a metaphorical level, but the dramatic confrontation between humans and nature is not tackled. Sure, you could pass it off as an arty d

ownbeat ending, but it doesn’t satisfy. Personally, it strikes me as an ending of someone who didn’t know how he wanted to end the film. Melanie, who had been the strongest protagonist in the film–always moving, always initiating–is relegated to a passive onlooker at the end. Lydia has beaten Melanie into submission (the bird attack in the attic), and Melanie accepts Lydia’s primacy (as mother).

Looking at the final draft online I notice there was a sequence that was excised from the film. I understand why Hitchcock did that, as there is nothing added to the film by its inclusion (apart from more tension and bird-attacks), and the gist of the scene (Lydia’s acceptance of Melanie) is taken care of efficiently by the current ending.

It still doesn’t work, however. I am not an expert on Hitchcock, so I don’t pretend to know the history of the filming, or the reasons that Hitchcock might have given for his choices – I’m judging The Birds on what it displays on the screen, and nothing else.

Despite my reservations about the ending The Birds remains an efficient thriller, that contains scenes of real horror and suspense that continue to work despite the cheesy special effects, and a few moments of hysterical over-acting. Several of the scenes in which the birds attack (the children, Melanie), and the town erupts into chaos are examples of excellent direction and editing. There’s a classic example of Hitchcockian suspense-building when Lydia explores Dan Fawcett’s farmhouse. In a series of snapshots of horror we discover the farmer’s fate – which we knew from the moment Lydia stepped into the house. The anticipation is masterfully sustained, and released.

It’s no wonder that Hitchcock’s films are considered essential viewing by writers and filmmakers. He knew the craft, and how to tell a story.