by Ashley Jane McClosky
This was difficult. Unsettling, even. I was cooped up in a claustrophobic cage for five days; a cage known as the Cinema Immersion Tank (here’s looking at you, Matt Sloan), with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. As a huge Hitchcock fan, this was the only one I so easily dismissed (not including Frenzy, which is ew) only seeing it once previously some 20 years ago. It was the one after Psycho with the unknown bodacious blonde babe, the lead dude who isn’t even remotely cute who wears cargo pants and an ascot (?), and the ending that explains nothing.
On the surface, The Birds shows that any control we think we have over nature is merely an illusion. There is nowhere to go to be safe from the birds. They are maniacs, unleashing chaos on the sleepy town of Bodega Bay. I found the scariest part is when those bastards are breaking through the wooden doors! Damn! How many blows did it take with an axe in The Phantom Carriage or The Shining? These birds are badass! Okay, we get that, but what else is The Birds about? What does it really mean? Of course, if you really think about it, there are many ways you can ascribe a deeper meaning to the film. Is it sexual? Religious? Apocalyptic? Freudian? All of the above? I dunno. It depends on your outlook. Hitchcock doesn’t explain it.
It’s actually refreshing for everything not to be explained. I feel like in this film, Hitchcock is finally telling us that we are smart enough to figure it out without him. It is quite a departure from Psycho. Everyone complains about the psychiatrist scene at the end where he explains the whole movie for the audience – well there is none of that here. He doesn’t even use music to dictate tension, but in fact we just hear the birds. I didn’t even notice this until my second viewing. It’s creepy (my man, Bernard Herrmann, is credited as “sound consultant”). It’s almost as if Hitchcock was more confident in himself and in his audience that he felt like he didn’t need to help us along. The more times I watched it, the more I appreciated it. He still guides us, to be sure, but here he’s more like the guy you do your driving test with – you know, the one with the clip board – rather than your uptight parent who teaches you how to drive.
Speaking of parents, what is with Hitchcock and mothers? I mean, at least this one isn’t a bag of bones in the fruit cellar, but she is about one second away from losing it the whole movie. Jessica Tandy is great in her role as Lydia, even though I cannot stand her character. She is cold, overbearing, and that magic blend of passive aggressive that drives me to drink. She got me for a second though. There is one scene where I actually start to feel bad for her. It’s when she is in bed after finding the dead farmer and Melanie brings her tea. She keeps complaining that she’s worried about her daughter Cathy at school (obviously just trying to guilt Melanie into going to the school for her – classic passive aggressive move – also HOW does she have a child that young?). Then when Melanie goes to leave…
“No, don’t go…”
(Aww, she finally likes her! )
“I feel like I don’t understand you at all and I want so much to understand…”
“…Because my son seems very fond of you and I don’t quite know how I feel about it. I don’t know if I like you or not.”
(Oh, THERE she is!)
Another winning scene is when the birds swarm in through the fireplace and the mom cowers in the corner by herself while Melanie, who they literally just met, protects Lydia’s terrified 12 year-old daughter. YOU SUCK, MOM. So yeah, Lydia? Can’t care. I’m sorry you lost your husband, but now you need to step up and be two parents, lady, not none! (I take this all personally, if you haven’t deduced.)
To top off her endearing character arc, we have the ending where Melanie is totally screwed up, broken, and bleeding from the bird attacks and they are escaping in the car. Melanie squeezes Lydia’s arm, desperately searching for the nurturing mother figure she has been lacking since she was a child and Lydia finally looks at Melanie tenderly…but we just know she’s thinking “finally my voodoo bird tricks broke you, you son-stealing Jezebel!” Bitch.
To continue, let me make a list of characters in this film in order of ones I dislike to ones I like, and explain:
DISLIKE -----> ----> LIKE
Lydia Mitch Melanie Annie
Next on our list of characters is Mitch, played by Rod Taylor, who is the blandest bowl of soupy oatmeal leading man I’ve ever seen in a Hitchcock film (where is Farley Granger when you need him?). Basically, he’s a cocky lawyer who still lives with his mom (lame), whom he calls “dear” and “darling” (weirdo). Nope.
Right in the middle of the list of characters is Melanie (Tippi Hedren). She is the only character who changes my mind as the film progresses. She starts out as Creeper McGee – really, think about it. She meets Oatmeal McMommasboy (that’s just what we’re calling Mitch from now on) at a pet shop and wants to see him again. How do you go about doing that? Here are Melanie’s foolproof steps to nab a man:
1) Look up his license plate number and call your police friend to find out his address.
2) Order in birds for his sister’s birthday party.
3) Pick up the birds and bring them to his apartment (only to find out he’s away for the weekend).
4) Drive two hours to where his mother lives.
5) Track down a school teacher to find out the name of his sister.
6) Rent an outboard motor boat and head over in your fur coat and heels to the back door so they don’t see you coming.
7) Just open that door and leave the birds in the house.
8) Go back to your boat and hide and watch like a stalker.
Wow. That’s somethin’.
A turning point for me occurs when the first bird swoops down and cuts Melanie’s forehead. Up until then she has been this self-assured and confident woman, but for the first time, I see her as this fragile creature and I begin to soften. As the movie goes on and she cares for Cathy, I like her more and more (Hitchcock is very adept at playing to my own puppy-like emotional immaturity that moves me to gravitate toward any woman older than me who pays attention). Then there is a scene at Cathy’s birthday party where she is speaking with Oatmeal, and we get a glimpse into what it’s really like to be Melanie Daniels. She reveals her mother left when she was 12 and starts to cry. Then she says, embarrassed, “maybe I ought to join the other children.” On day three, I started bawling at this part. Ohhhh, I get you, Melanie! I get you. This is a whole other topic for a psychiatrist someday.
At that moment, I felt for Melanie what I felt for Annie all along. Annie, played by Suzanne Pleshette, is easily my favorite character in the film. She is a single woman supporting herself, taking care of her own home. This was in 1963. Melanie is single too, but she has a rich daddy who takes care of everything. Almost 55 years later, it’s still refreshing to see a character like Annie (which is pretty sad). But of course, we learn that Annie has a broken heart. She used to be with Oatmeal. She left San Francisco to move to Bodega Bay and work at the local school just to be near him. Stone Cold Lydia Austin whined to him that she needed his attention and so he dropped her. He chose his mother. When Annie tells all this to Melanie, Melanie asks why she’s still here. She doesn’t want to lose her friendship with Mitch. Poor Annie. Also, seriously? Mitch? Anyway…she is kind and opens her home to Melanie, who is a total stranger and is trying to scoop up some of those sweet exotic Quaker Oats for herself. I found myself re-watching the scene where the two talk in Annie’s house quite a few times, just looking at the set. Her house is full of modern art, books, and records. She’s the kind of gal I would want to be friends with. The scene where Mitch calls is heartbreaking. We can hear the hope in Annie’s voice, until she finds out the call is actually for Melanie. Just watch her as Melanie talks on the phone. Oh, Annie…seriously guys…I just want to make everything better for her. Thankfully things do get better. Wait, sorry I forgot, she is actually killed by the psychotic birds by putting the safety of Mitch’s sister ahead of her – her final and most powerfully selfless act. Yes, Cathy is optimism and innocence characterized, and Annie literally dies protecting her. I love you, Annie.
So, what did I learn in the Cinema Immersion Tank? My view of The Birds changed. I no longer dismiss it. I find it’s a very unique and interesting addition to Hitchcock’s filmography. Most of all, I won’t soon forget the characters I spent so much time with. Except for Oatmeal what’s his face. I guess this one is all about the ladies, the birds (if you're British and it's the 1960s). For me, a movie plot can be simple or complicated, it doesn’t matter, I will enjoy it as long as I care about the characters. Watch it for Annie. And for those badass birds.