The Birds

The Birds-Alfred Hitchcock 1963
The Birds-Alfred Hitchcock 1963

Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie The Birds from 1963 is very loosely based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novella of the same name. Hitchcock’s first American film and international success had been an adaption of her Gothic melodrama Rebecca, and later Nicholas Roeg would adapt du Maurier’s eerie story Don’t Look Now, which became a staple on the late-night movie circuit in the 70’s.

du Maurier’s original story is more concerned with the revenge of nature, exemplified by the suddenly hostile birds working in concert to punish humanity for its hubris and arrogance. As such it can be seen as a fore-bearer of a particularly English sub-genre of ecological apocalyptic fiction, John Wyndham, J.G Ballard and Anna Kavan all produced work in this vein.

Hitchcock told the screenwriter Evan Hunter to keep the central premise of unexplained bird assaults but to develop new characters and expand upon the plot. Given the end result it is hard not to see The Birds as a symbolic take on the ungovernable nature of female sexuality, in all its myriad forms.

The Birds centres on the character of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren), a chic and irresponsible socialite who becomes a cuckoo in the nest when she impulsively follows love interest Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to his home in the small coastal town of Bodega Bay, California with a pair of caged lovebirds in tow. Mitch is defined solely in relation to the women in his life; his overbearing and jealous mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and his ex, the local school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Soon after the birds begin to inexplicably attack the residents of the town, massing, with even birds of different species flocking together to launch aerial invasions. At one point a hysterical mother in the diner expressively connects the menacing behaviour of the birds with the arrival of Miss Daniels. Somehow her presence upsets a delicate balance, unleashing all the forces in nature inimical to humanity.

Below is a short clip of the school scene, a masterclass in suspense.

75 thoughts on “The Birds

  1. The Birds is my all time favorite Hitchcock film! (I wrote about it a while back in my tribute to Hitch.) I always thought of it as a stripping down of artifice. But I love your interpretation ” a symbolic take on the ungovernable nature of female sexuality, in all its myriad form.”

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    1. Thank you Christine, it would be my favourite as well (Vertigo would be a very close second). I will look for your post on Hitchcock, I can see the stripping away of artifice. As for my interpretation, not sure it is the correct one. Birds are commonly perceived as feminine, and indeed in slang women were called birds (in England) and chicks, so it just seemed a natural progression that Melanie Daniels in the movie unleashes her destructive sexuality that will also consume her. The way she interacts with the other women I think is important as well. Anyway glad you enjoyed.

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      1. Yours is a brilliant interpretation! Hitch himself was a bit fascinated and puzzled by the sexuality of women — as personified in his famous ‘Hitchcock Blondes’. A woman with a cool exterior, but tiger beneath the surface. Tippi Hedron was perhaps the the most iconic of them all!

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      2. Yes well blondes need only apply! Definitely had that attraction/repulsion thing with them. His blondes were indeed flawless. I always thought that Catherine Deneuve would have made a good Hitchcock blonde, she always seemed to bring out the sadist in her directors in her early days.

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  2. I saw this film when I was rather too young for it! Gave me nightmares for a long time. Nevertheless it’s a wonderfully terrifying film, Tippi is the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, and she named her daughter Melanie didn’t she?

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      1. Ooohhh! Gotcha. The plus is that I love cats, despite my allergy. And birds, they are beautiful, and I admire them. As long as they don’t get close to me. Once, I came home from work early afternoon to find a bird in my kitchen. I proceeded to have a nervous breakdown. The second time it happened, I died.

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  3. Cake, it’s been years since I’ve watched the movie. At the time, I was so enthralled with Hitchcock’s skill at creating suspense, I don’t recall seeing it as “a symbolic take on the ungovernable nature of female sexuality, in all its myriad forms.” I guess I’ll have to take another look at the movie with a more mature vision.

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    1. Hitchcock is brilliant and very very good at the suspense. I have watched it perhaps too much. I do think the suspense is paramount however I do think that my reading isn’t too far of the truth. But I could be wrong, I often am.

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  4. It’s also been years since I have seen this. I’ll have to view again with your filter in place.
    The takeaway for me as I recall was one of profound sadness and alienation, alienation from the natural world, alienation within human relationships and finally within one’s own person.
    I can’t find the reference but someone pointed out that Hitchcock modified the script to insert phrases such as ‘I see’ and ‘You see’ throughout the dialogue and that one of the metaphors embedded in the film is the lack of (in)sight (as the birds peck out the eyes of more than one character). No one really ‘sees’ at all.
    It’s time to re-watch! Thanks for the reminder 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure and thank you for your excellent insights… I will have to re-watch as well. The alienation from the natural world comes through, though I see also a profound fear of female sexuality which is identified with nature as well. It is a brilliantly disturbing movie.

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    1. I will wait for your take on my theory…I do think that Taylor is defined by his relationship with the women in his life and Tippi is undoubtedly the catalyst. In England a slang term for women is ‘birds’.

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      1. I’ve been reading a few Indies that I really love . I recently read ICE and Marienbad, I am expanding my reads to include surrealism. My favorite classic is American Tragedy though. It’s the only book I’ve read where I sympathized with the protagonist ( a murderer) and I found that very disturbing but fascinating.

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      1. Actually I meant to ask if you have a link to a text written for your site on this particular work. I can pull the movie up online. Sorry I wasn’t more specific. 😊
        Thank you Mr. Cake!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. A beautiful narrative, a fine angle.
        The castle is shown but once on the very last page of my copy of Last Year. I was unable to get an original and it turns out the copy that I received is from a library and still has the library card in the back pocket. Thank you for finding this for, I enjoyed reading it once again.

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      1. you absolutely led me to new genres of art and writing by sharing your knowledge at your site, I appreciate that very much. Your writing is beautiful, original, and unique. Envy shouldn’t be an issue at all.

        Liked by 1 person

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