Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Birds (1963)

Nowadays we see films based around the theme of ‘nature verses mankind’ as disaster movies such as ‘28 Days Later’ and ‘2012’, but little do most of us know that the original forerunner of such movies and indeed almost the entirety of the ‘revenge of nature’ genre spurned from a movie with a most peculiar idea of nature unleashing its wrath on humanity. ‘The Birds’ (1963) by Alfred Hitchcock is a somewhat stranger film, a different genre from the director’s psycho-thrillers. This film was one of the seeds that made disaster movies popular today.
The film opens up with our icy-blonde main character, Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, who meets with a young lawyer, Mitch Brenner, played by Rod Taylor, apparently looking for a pair of lovebirds for his daughter for her birthday. He asks her where he can find a pair, pretending to mistake her for a staff member in the shop. After an argument, she buys a pair of lovebirds to give to his daughter herself out of spite. After sneaking away from his home in a boat after delivering the birds, she is attacked by a gull, one of the first attacks to happen throughout the movie. She then meets Mitch’s mother who is clinging to her son’s company, lest she be left on her lonesome. In a way, this is almost the intended opposite of how birds take care of their young; as soon as they can fly, they’re fit to leave the nest and fend for themselves. This may be the film’s way of telling us how different we are from nature; a direct contrast of nature verses nurture. Like with most of Hitchcock’s films, he doesn’t present the concept of family and homely places in a friendly light. Instead, it’s an awkward, skewed vision of what we perceive them to be. summarizes this is their review of the film:

“The birds attack the most ordinary institution (school), but also most sacred ones (Cathy’s birthday party) Moreover, the Brenners become imprisoned in their own house. The house, a symbol of shelter and protection, becomes the birds’ target. The traditional meaning of other symbols is shattered and/or reversed.” (, <no date>)
The bird attacks continue as a flock of gulls attacks the children at Mitch’s daughter’s birthday party and a gull commits martyrdom, killing itself upon impact upon the door of the school teacher, Annie, where Melanie stays for the night. An enormous flock of sparrows swarm down the chimney of the Brenner’s residence and invade their home. Throughout the film, these birds seem to symbolize the wrath of women: most of these bird attacks happen when Melanie is around or when the main victim or spectator is a woman. The constant theme of women’s red fingernails can be compared to the blood-stained beaks of birds and both can be used as ‘weapons’ of sorts by vicious women and birds to leave scars.
                                                                                   Fig 1
Later, Mitch’s mother visits a friend, only to find that he has been savagely and brutally murdered by another flock of birds, his eyes pecked out, leaving two bloody eye-sockets. This amount of shocking body horror within a film of its time caused quite a stir. Additionally, the theme of harm coming to the eyes is shown throughout the film. When the birds attack, there are constant shots of them attempting to go for the victim’s eyes and in the scene when Melanie encounters a flock in the upstairs bedroom, there are many shots of only her eyes being seen through the forest of frenzied, fluttering feathers. Perhaps this is taking a stab at the suggested voyeurism of the audience and our natural fear of harm coming to our eyes.
                                        Fig 2
In the next few scenes, an attack happens on the school by a swarm of angry crows as they try to harm the children. Preceding this is one of the most iconic scenes of the movie that has been parodied many times in modern media: hundreds of crows perch on the school’s playground jungle frame, ready to attack and looming over the school like vultures. The fact that they even wait to attack despite they overwhelming numbers provides a sense of classic Hitchcock suspension. Before and after a large attack on the town, a crowd of people form in the diner who discuss what could have provoked the birds into attacking. This scene is our only form of speculative explanation as to why exactly the birds are doing this; the film never tells us why throughout its entirety, leaving the audience to take sides with any of the explanations given. Crowther states in his review, posted online:
                                                                                  Fig 3
“There may be no explanation for it (except that symbolic one, perhaps), but the fierceness and frightfulness of it are sufficient to cause shocks and chills. And that is, no doubt, what Mr. Hitchcock primarily intends.” (Crowther, 1963)

What this quote tells us is that even the safest place, according to Hitchcock, can be a place of danger and death, that we are never safe in this world even from nature We could fall down a hill and scrape our knee, get bitten by small mammals and injure ourselves on rock formations. This film personifies that a hundredfold in the form of living, breathing mother nature incarnate within swarms of angry, bloodthirsty birds.

After the attack, we see the villagers cowering in a secluded hallway as Melanie approaches them to see their horrified and frightened faces. Their piercing, hostile stares towards her indicate that they know that she is the cause.
After the final confrontation at the Brenner estate, now boarded up by windows and make-shift barricades, the family escapes, wading through a sea of subsided birds waiting to attack again to get to their car. The ending gives us no closure as they drive off over the hill, leaving the swarms of birds behind. This lack of closure unnerves the audience, keeping us at the edge of our seats.
Hitchcock uses a number of frightful and innovative narratives to make this film not only a flick about the revenge of nature, but also about what hostilities lurk within our everyday lives.



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