Analyses of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds have typically tended in two directions. There is the film’s at-the-time innovate use of special effects, which were added by Lewis Hampton and Ub Iwerks, but which required much in the way of planning and shooting: careful storyboarding, trained gulls, numerous camera angles, and then plenty of editing to bring together different shots. And there is the curious and unsettling dynamic which unfolds between Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels, Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner, and Jessica Tandy’s Lydia Brenner, the mother of Mitch: variously described as ‘Oedipal’, more broadly ‘Freudian’, or looser still as ‘neurotic’, while Hitchcock himself agreed with a depiction of The Birds as ‘fantasy’.
Prominent scenes – at the town’s schoolhouse, in Bodega Bay’s restaurant and outside by the gasoline station, and in the film’s climax at the isolated Brenner house – have been repeatedly discussed for their technical and psychological revelations. And the film has attained as much derision as acclaim: perceived as a potboiler by many critics upon its release, today the special effects in The Birds are sometimes mocked and felt outdated; while on the other hand it has been described by the critic David Thomson as Hitchcock’s ‘last unflawed film’.
The Birds certainly remains one of Hitchock’s most compelling works, and it is among the few which I return to most frequently. Yet what stirs me to come back time and time again – more than the bird sequences, the fraught but forceful romance which develops between Melanie and Mitch, and the tense scene at the schoolhouse and the wonderful performance given by Suzanne Pleshette as schoolteacher Annie Hayworth; more even than the captivating foray which Melanie makes by rowboat towards the Brenner house early in the film, or the entertaining diversion replete with drunken eschatologist and elderly ornithologist in the restaurant – is The Birds‘ strange opening.
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‘The opening of The Birds is an attempt to suggest the normal, complacent, everyday life in San Francisco’, Alfred Hitchcock remarked in conversation with François Truffaut. And after the credits, in which crows dart and caw behind the turquoise-azure text, we begin with a shot of a Powell & Hyde cable car moving across screen. We see San Francisco’s Union Square, signs, cars, and citizens, and the square’s Dewey Monument stands at the centre of the composition.
Tippi Hedren, as Melanie Daniels, emerges and crosses the street. She is wearing a skirt suit in dark wool, with a high collar and a white shirt underneath, high heels, and black leather gloves which roll beyond her wrist, holding a long and business-like black leather clutch. An elderly woman in purple glares at her, and as she passes a newsstand – bearing a poster of the Golden Gate Bridge which confirms our location – a young boy wolf-whistles. As Melanie turns with a grin, she notices what has already attracted the attention of an Asian gentleman passing by: the mass of birds swirling above Union Square.
The birds littering the sky are the first brief indication that something may be amiss. Melanie enters Davidson’s Pet Shop – just as Hitchcock himself, making his usual cameo, exits led by two white Scottish terriers. She goes upstairs, and immediately asks of the attending shopkeeper, Mrs MacGruder, ‘Have you ever seen so many gulls? What do you suppose it is?’. Mrs MacGruder responds, ‘Well, there must be a storm at sea, that can drive them inland you know’, before anxiously initiating a dispute over the bird Melanie has come to collect. It is three o’clock, the proper time, but the bird still hasn’t arrived. Making excuses, Mrs MacGruder explains:
‘Mrs MacGruder: They are so difficult to get, really they are. We have to get them from India, when they’re just baby chicks, and then we have to –
Melanie: Well this one won’t be a chick will he?
Mrs MacGruder: Well certainly not! Oh no! Certainly not – this will be a full grown mynah bird, full grown.
Melanie: And he’ll talk?
Mrs MacGruder: Well yes of course he’ll ta – well, no, you’ll have to teach him to talk.’
Melanie intimidates from a distance: she is often shot leaning slightly away from the camera, and in soft focus, but she bears a steely composure, and here fixes MacGruder firmly with her eyes. Wearing a composed smile, there is a vague yet tangible sense of displeasure, as she suggests that the bird be delivered, while Mrs MacGruder begs time to make a phone call.
As Melanie humours the shopkeeper, below Mitch Brenner enters, bowler hat in hand. He strides up the stairs, and seeing Melanie leaning over the counter writing, apparently mistakes her for an attendant. Melanie presses her lips in discreet amusement, but plays along; and she looks inquisitively at Mitch, playing with her pencil, as he blandly begins questioning her on the lovebirds he wishes to procure for his eleven-year-old sister: ‘I wouldn’t want a pair of birds who were too…demonstrative […] at the same time I wouldn’t them to be too aloof either’.
Still as he follows Melanie about the shop, he seems to take a wry pleasure in asking her increasingly complex ornithological questions; greater still when Melanie mistakenly leads him not to lovebirds, but canaries instead. Eventually he coerces her into taking a canary from its cage; it flutters about the shop, evading Melanie and Mrs MacGruder’s outstretched arms, before Mitch smoothly covers it with his hat.
If this sounds so far like nothing more than a light-hearted charade in a fairly conventional city environment, still there is something slightly crooked about this opening scene. The pet shop is a highly specific setting with an unfamiliar store layout: open plan, well furnished, and with dozens of birds filling the space, some housed alone or in pairs in elaborate gold and silver cages, others lined in groups around the walls, perch after perch. Once we are inside the pet shop, we remain there for more than seven minutes: only once cutting back out onto the street, and then only to see the close-up of a car registration number. The birds and the lack of context blur the boundaries between interior and exterior space.
There is little exposition in the conversation between Melanie and Mrs MacGruder: we are offered none of the details of Melanie’s personal or working life, and her motive for buying the mynah is left until later in the film, when she confides to Mitch that the talkative bird is a sort of perverse present for her ‘very prim and straight-laced’ aunt. The shopkeeper herself, whether cowed or embarrassed, seems too easily distressed.
Hitchcock also eschews a standard soundtrack. Indeed, aside from the first of Debussy’s Deux arabesques, played later on the piano by Melanie, and the folk song recited by the schoolchildren, there is no music in The Birds. Instead there are bird noises (generated by the trautonium electronic instrument, with specialists Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman collaborating alongside Hitchcock’s usual composer, Bernard Herrmann), offset by extended and pointed silences, during which all ambient sound is unnaturally omitted.
When Mitch replaces the loose canary, he reveals himself, announcing ‘Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels’. Discussing The Birds with Truffaut, Hitchcock stated regarding this line:
‘I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterization as a wealthy, shallow playgirl. And later on, when the gulls attack the village, Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage. This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery, and it’s also the beginning of her ordeal by fire, so to speak. It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds. Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside.’
Melanie, now with a surly attitude, inquires how Mitch knows her name, and he obliquely recounts their meeting in court. Melanie hastily dismisses him:
‘Melanie: We never met in court or anyplace else.
Mitch: That’s true, I’ll rephrase it – I saw you in court.
Mitch: Don’t you remember one of your practical jokes that resulted in the smashing of a plate glass window?
Melanie: I didn’t break that window.
Mitch: Yes but your little prank did. The judge should have put you behind bars.’
While we come to understand that Melanie is the daughter of a newspaper magnate and herself a prominent socialite, known through popular press photographs which depicted her jumping into a fountain in Rome, this anecdote regarding a court date and a smashed glass window is never developed. Again, it is a suggestive element in this opening scene, meant to tease and provoke the audience’s curiosity.
Mitch goes on, telling Melanie ‘I really wanted the lovebirds […] I just thought you might like to know what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag, what do you think of that?’. ‘I think you’re a louse!’, Melanie retorts, and Mitch departs – vowing with regard to the lovebirds, ‘Oh, I’ll find something else’.
Melanie ponders for a moment, before rushing downstairs to catch his car license plate. She jots down the number, asks for the mynah bird to be delivered, then uses the pet shop’s telephone and her immaterial contact – the ‘Charlie’ she endearingly speaks to is never seen onscreen – to acquire Mitch’s personal details. And thoughtfully – peering off to one side as Mrs MacGruder leans over the banister above – she places an order for two lovebirds, which will arrive come the morning.
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The opening scene reaches its close, and when Melanie discovers that Mitch is out of San Francisco over the weekend, she is soon driving the coastline towards Bodega Bay. Again there is a scene inside a shop: although this sells ‘General Merchandise’ to the locals of a small community, rather than exotic pets to a large city’s upper class, Melanie retains all of her most assertive and most winning characteristics.
Again we get questions and hesitations rather than explanations: Melanie is elusive regarding the purpose of her visit, which is equally unclear to the store owner and to us viewers; and it is a disembodied voice, hidden somewhere behind the dried goods, that offers – incorrectly, as it turns out – the name of Mitch’s young sister. Again when shown conversing, the owner of the general store comes towards the camera, looking almost directly into the lens, his features bulgingly clear; while Melanie leans elegantly away, her face gently diffused.
But the opening scene in the pet shop has already cultivated an atmosphere, enticingly framing the fraught psychological mystery which follows. It does more than this too: the birds which circle Union Square pose a challenge to notions that it is the disturbed dynamic between Melanie, Mitch, and Mitch’s mother which bring about the spate of bird attacks. In fact, an alternate ending which Hitchcock considered for The Birds – but never filmed – would have seen Melanie and the Brenners making their escape from Bodega Bay, witnessing the remains of the dead, and reaching the outskirts of San Francisco only to see the Golden Gate Bridge laden with the malevolent creatures.