Posted in: Alfred Hitchcock, by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Horror

Caliban in Bodega Bay

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

The birds have really made a mess of Bodega Bay. Smoke from a gasoline fire hangs heavy over the city; bodies lie in the streets: abandoned automobiles, smashed windows, and ripped woodwork are grim evidence that the human beings have not won this battle. With Mitch Brenner’s help, Melanie Daniels has escaped the glass cage of a telephone booth and made her way to the relative safety of the town’s central meeting place, a small café.

At first, the place appears empty; but, exploring further, Mitch and Melanie discover, cringing in a back hallway, a frightened group of townspeople and visitors. As Mitch leads Melanie into this refuge, a woman comes forward. We have met her earlier: a distressed mother whose concern for the safety of her two children has prompted her to demand that the café’s patrons not discuss the inexplicable violence of the birds within the range of juvenile ears. Her escape from Bodega Bay has been thwarted by the birds’ massive assault on the town, and the violent death of the traveling salesman who was to guide her to the freeway.

Gazing at Melanie with only slightly controlled hysteria, the woman says, with mounting shrillness: “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Robin Wood points out that these words, spoken as they are to the subjective camera, can constitute an indictment of the audience, whose bloodthirst encourages the brutality of the birds’ attacks. But of course the woman’s outburst is met with a firm defensive slap in the face, also delivered by the subjective camera, and the opposition, though not defeated, is neutralized.

‘The Birds’ – In the diner

Hitchcock and scenarist Evan Hunter may have included this little encounter in anticipation of the likelihood that many critics and viewers would embrace that simplistic suggestion, that Melanie, witch-like, had brought a curse with her to Bodega Bay. That specific notion is dispelled by radio announcements of bird attacks in other areas, and more finally by Melanie’s own victimization by the birds. But the overtone of witchcraft is not to be discarded entirely. We have already learned that the birds’ uprising coincides with the coming of the full moon, a revelation that evokes the darker traditions of folk myth.

And—all other considerations aside—the woman’s hysterical accusation is founded in fact: the bird attacks did start with Melanie’s arrival in the town, and this inevitably gives us a sense of the birds’ significance, even though the inculpation is misdirected.

But there is someone else involved—someone who is physically absent, but whose presence informs the entire encounter. The woman who shouts “evil” is a stamp of Lydia Brenner: she has two children (one of each sex) of whom she is extremely protective; she appears to have no husband; she is of unstable temperament; she admits openly her need to rely on someone else for strength; and she views Melanie as a threat. The woman she accuses is Melanie, who is a competitor with Lydia for Mitch’s attention, and whose own physical resemblance to Lydia is more than coincidental.

If there is a suggestion of witchery involved, then, is it not possible that Lydia Brenner, defending her nest against those who would bring about her abandonment by her children, is the witch, the birds her familiars?

The Sleep of Reason

The birds are Alfred Hitchcock’s most visible MacGuffin. The characters in the film are dreadfully interested in the birds—what’s making them do this, how can they be stopped—whereas the audience, thanks to directorial manipulation, is less interested in explaining the birds than in seeing how their attacks will affect—physically and emotionally—the film’s characters.

The bird attacks, an obvious upset in the natural relationship between humanity and nature, become emblematic of a world in which relationships are unhinged. Hate (between Melanie and Mitch) becomes love; the natural procedure of love and courtship becomes a terrifying threat to the mother of the male lover; mother love itself becomes a counter-threat.

Jessica Tandy as Lydia Brenner

Lydia Brenner is not presented to us as a natural mother. Given the care with which Hitchcock selects players who look and respond properly for the roles as he has conceived them, it is evident that Lydia is intentionally presented as mother to a man too old to be her son and a girl too young to be her daughter. By contrast, the hysterical woman in the café is something of a “normalization” of Lydia: she is the right age to be the mother of her children, and her protective concern for them is expressed outwardly, rather than being turned inward to consume the mother-consciousness with fear and suspicion.

With an awareness of the recurrence of possessive mothers in Hitchcock’s work, from Easy Virtue (1927) right down to Frenzy (1972), it is easy for us to typify Lydia as coming from that mold. But Annie Hayworth, the schoolteacher whose erstwhile courtship of Mitch’s affections was stalemated by Lydia, throws us a curve: “Jealous, possessive mother? With all due respects to Oedipus, I don’t think that was the case … She’s not afraid of losing Mitch—she’s afraid of being abandoned.” Lydia herself confirms this in a later remark to Melanie: “I don’t think I could bear to be left alone.” In this sense, she is even less admirable than the overpossessive mother; for, far from jealously defending her children, she has set her children up as a line of defense against her fear of facing life alone. The end result, of course, still wears the clothing of possessiveness; for if the sanctum sanctorum of her own insecurity is to be safeguarded, any assault on that first line of defense, her children, must be met with retaliation.

We first meet Mrs. Brenner—cool and distant—in the café, just after Melanie’s clandestine invasion of the Brenner house has been answered with the attack of the seagull, which wounds Melanie in the head—a premonition, perhaps, of the more massive head wound she will receive in the film’s climax. Lydia’s guarded civility toward Melanie in this first confrontation between the two already indicates a more-than-normal distrust. Later that night a cordon of birds appears outside the Brenner house, observing the parting dialogue between Melanie and Mitch. After Melanie elects to stay the night at Annie’s house and attend the birthday party next day, another seagull slams into Annie’s door. The first all-out attack of the birds occurs at the birthday party, just after Lydia notices Mitch and Melanie standing away from the others, on a grassy bluff where, as it happens, they have been evaluating the advantages of a mother’s love.

In short, up to the time the actual attacks begin, each aggressive act of the birds may be seen to occur as a counter-threat to some threatening gesture of Melanie’s against Lydia. Once the full-scale offensive begins, it is no longer possible to identify such a pattern. The apparently calculated strikes of the birds have now gone out of control. This escalation coincides with a deterioration of Lydia, symbolized by the smashing of her china and mementoes in the sparrows’ attack through the chimney.

In the broken china scene, we get our most arresting look at a Lydia shaken by the awareness that her defenses are crumbling. Hitchcock: “I decided to show the mother through Melanie’s eyes … Her eyes and gestures indicate an increasing concern over the mother’s strange behavior and for the mother herself … In this scene, which is intended to suggest that Mitch’s mother is cracking up, Melanie represents the public.” It is the public, personified in Melanie, that Lydia is afraid to face, the same public that takes Mitch’s attention away from her, except on weekends, and now threatens to take him away even then, the same public that takes Cathy away to school each day, leaving Lydia abandoned (“Do you think she’s all right at the school?” she repeatedly asks Melanie).

The café scene, which follows the attack on the schoolchildren and precedes the apocalyptic invasion of the town’s center, presents a microcosm of that public in all its confusion, selfrighteousness, decadence, and vulnerability. The scene has been cited by some critics to support the view that the birds constitute moral vengeance on a world gone wrong. But if the birds are to be associated with Lydia’s defense of herself and her children, there is no contradiction here. For Lydia is sharply characterized by her fixed way of life, her resistance to change. She judges Melanie harshly because of her “Jet Set” reputation. She calls Mitch and Cathy “the children” even though the former has long since been old enough to leave the nest. She tells Melanie how bitterly she misses having her husband to rely on “for strength,” and how, even after all this time, she still persuades herself to get out of bed each morning by remembering, “I must get Frank’s breakfast.” The world is changing too fast for Lydia Brenner, and she must strike out against it.

‘The Birds’ – attach on the schoolchildren

The defensive isolation into which she has withdrawn, in a desperate effort to protect her way of life and her dependence upon her children, recalls the defensive posture of another great parent-figure of American cinema, Professor Morbius of Forbidden Planet (Fred McLeod Wilcox, 1954). When an Earth expedition to planer Altair-4 discovers Morbius and his beautiful daughter living there, the only survivors of a scientific mission twenty years past, an invisible monster begins a rampage, disabling the Earthship and killing members of its crew. The monster, it is finally revealed, is an unexpected byproduct of Morbius’s experiments with the sophisticated mind-expanding machinery of the now-extinct Krel civilization. The Krel had discovered a way to transform first their intelligence and finally their physical selves into pure energy, the apotheosis of mind-over-matter. Then, inexplicably, the entire race had been wiped our in a single night. It was the violent energy of the unleashed Subconscious, with its vast store of repressed desires, fears, and aggression, that had torn the Krel to shreds, and that now, in the person of Morbius’s own Id-Monster, assaulted the expedition party. It is clear by the end of the film that Morbius’s destructive Subconscious attacks the ship and its crew because they represent a threat to his introverted egotism, his idyllic lifestyle, and his over-possessive love for his daughter. But as his reason crumbles, Morbius is no longer able to control his Subconscious by the assertion of his Conscious; and, in the end, it is Morbius’s house that becomes the target of the marauding Id-Monster.

Lydia Brenner’s grief over her dead husband, her resultant loneliness, and her obsessive fear of abandonment have made her, in a sense, mad. As the film progresses, her responses (as portrayed by Jessica Tandy) move increasingly toward a state of mental imbalance—which, however, is approached as a limit, and never reached, for reasons to be considered later. To be fair, Lydia handles admirably the many shocks and stresses attendant upon the bird attacks. But so does Morbius handle the anxiety created by the ravaging Id-Monster that he only in the end recognizes as his own Subconscious.

Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos depicts a man who has fallen asleep at a writing desk. In his slumber he is tormented by intruding beasts that even his vigilant cat cannot dissuade. Some are recognizable as owls, others as bats, most are undefined, but all are winged, fluttering horrors with menacing eyes and groping beaks. On the side of the writing desk Goya has inscribed “El sueño de la razon produce monstruos”—”The sleep of reason produces monsters.” To the residents of Santa Mira, California, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Donald Siegel, 1956), sleep means the displacement of the individuality by emotionless impostors born of seed pods. It is while Morbius sleeps in Forbidden Planet that the unrepressed monsters of his Id are unleashed with furious energy. And in The Birds, it is while the Brenners sleep that Melanie Daniels ventures alone into the house’s forbidding attic—of which more later.

Goya’s monstruos remind me of the stuffed birds of prey that adorn the back room of Norman Bates’s motel office in Psycho. In discussing The Birds, one thing that must be remembered is that morbid equation Hitchcock established in his preceding film between birds of prey and domineering mothers: even as Norman stuffed and mounted his birds as a hobby, so did he serve his predatory mother, while translating the violence of her possessiveness into his own schizophrenia.

In regarding the birds as suggestive of the unleashed powers of Lydia Brenner’s vengeful protectiveness, there inevitably arises the question of Annie Hayworth’s death. For that, I confess, I have no easy explanation (though one is hardly necessary, since what I propose is not a point-for-point interpretation of The Birds as psychological allegory, but simply one of the many levels upon which the birds themselves function imagistically, one more way of looking at their significance).

In rejecting the thesis that the birds express the tensions between the characters of the film, Robin Wood stresses that the birds also attack innocent schoolchildren and kill the old farmer, Dan Fawcett. Yet Professor Morbius’s Id-Monster also killed persons who were no threat either to himself or to his love for his daughter. Ultimately, in fact, the Id-Monster destroyed Morbius’s house and the professor himself. The conclusion, of course, is this: The nature of the ld-Monster is that, once unleashed, it can never be brought under control.

Worrying the matter of Annie Hayworth further, it is useful to cite Hitchcock’s explanation of the pragmatic reason for her death, “I felt that in the light of what the birds were doing to the town, she was doomed. Besides, she sacrificed herself to protect the sister of the man she loves. It’s her final gesture. In the original script she was in Mitch’s home until the end of the picture, and she was the one who went up to the attic and was the victim of that last attack. I decided against that because since Tippi Hedren was the chief character, it was she who had to go through the final ordeal.”

Beyond that, it is worthwhile to recall that Annie was once a clear threat to Lydia, having been seriously involved with Mitch some years before. When we meet Annie in the film, she is now “quite good friends” with Lydia, and lives in the same sort of lonely, defensive isolation that Lydia jealously guards, and that the birds seem to protect against intruders. It is when she emerges from this isolation to save Cathy Brenner that Annie Hayworth is killed.

In fact, in one way or another, the birds bring direct, physical injury to all of the principal characters except Lydia. True, they smash the many fragile memories of her life: cups, pictures, knickknacks—but just so does the ld-Monster of Morbius ultimately wreak havoc on the tranquility of his own home.

Tippi Hedren

The Fall of the House of Brenner

“All great, simple images,” says Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, “reveal a psychic state. The house, even more than the landscape, is a ‘psychic state’ and even when reproduced as it appears from the outside, it bespeaks intimacy.” The order of Lydia Brenner’s house attaches an importance not so much to possessions as to tokens. The teacups, for example, are clearly a link with her past, the fragile stability of her ordered memories. After the sparrows attack through the chimney—the first violation of her house by the birds—we watch her move about the room, picking up the shards and confronting for the first time the growing disruption of her tidy but vulnerable lifestyle. As she straightens the painting of her dead husband, a dead bird falls from behind it. Once the Id-Monsters are released, nothing is sacred.

Broken teacups are encountered again the next morning, upon her visit to Dan Fawcett’s house. That night, awaiting the climactic attack, she resolutely removes a tray of china from the livingroom, as if in a desperate effort to preserve some last remaining tokens of order and stability. Bachelard again: “Faced with the bestial hostility of the storm and the hurricane, the house’s virtues of protection and resistance are transposed into human virtues. The house acquires the physical and moral energy of a human body … Such a house as this invites mankind to heroism of cosmic proportions. It is an instrument with which to confront the cosmos … Come what may, the house helps us to say: I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world. The problem is not only one of being, it is also a problem of energy and, consequently, of counter-energy.”

Lydia has all along been identified with her house, and that first violation of its sanctity—Melanie’s delivery of the lovebirds—has, in a sense, precipitated the whole catastrophe. By now, neither Lydia nor her house retains sufficient counter-energy to resist effectively the coming storm. If the birds are Lydia’s Id-Monster, they threaten her and her house as much as they threaten their physical victims, just as Morbius’s Id-Monster turned him from a creative intellectual to a disturbed, obsessive old man, and reduced his invulnerable house to rubble. The thick wooden barricades Mitch Brenner erects to reinforce Lydia’s house are pecked through with relative ease (Wood points out that this is impossible, citing the fact as evidence that “this isn’t just a film about birds”). The vulnerability of those barricades emphasizes the fact that the real threat to Lydia is already inside the house.

When this last attack on the barricaded house finally subsides, the exhausted Brenners fall asleep. Melanie remains awake and, hearing a noise in the upper part of the house, begins her ill-fated climb to the attic, where the birds, having broken completely through the roof of the house, await her. “It is possible, almost without commentary,” says Bachelard, “to oppose the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar. A roof tells its raison d’être right away: it gives mankind shelter from the rain and sun he fears.” What he calls “the rational zone” of the house-image has, in Lydia’s case, been completely taken over by monsters. As in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and in Roderick Usher’s poem “The Haunted Palace,” the collapse of the individual’s reason has its objective correlative in the deterioration of his house.

In the house-as-human image, the attic—traditional storage place of memories—is the most intimate recess of the mind. That awful hole in the roof testifies to the final, utter defeat of both Lydia’s mind and her household. At the same time, however, Melanie’s entry into the attic is the ultimate outrage of her penetration into the ordered intimacy of Lydia’s world, and it is met with the fullest fury of the birds.

Hitchcock: “What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.”‘ Hitchcock’s intention is clear: from the very beginning, Melanie has been the principal intended victim of the birds. That is why, in the words of the woman in the café, “it all started when you came here.” Melanie was never a witch or an agent of evil; yet her presence as a threat to Lydia’s household was the provocation for the bird attacks.

But after Melanie is ravaged by the birds, a remarkable thing happens. In a complex and bizarre transference, the like of which we know to be characteristic of Hitchcock’s themes, Lydia’s instability is shifted to Melanie. We recall that the two resemble each other rather more than coincidentally (summoning up memory of other Hitchcock doppelgängers, like Manny Balestrero and the thief in The Wrong Man, or Bruno and Guy in Strangers on a Train), and this may be one source of their antagonism, since Lydia sees that Mitch has chosen a woman resembling herself to be his love-partner. By the final scene of the film, however, Lydia has become quite calm, seems to have regained her composure, while Melanie has been reduced to a near basket-case by her encounter with the birds. As they drive away from the house, Lydia puts an arm tenderly around Melanie and comforts her. It is significant that this gesture of acceptance can occur only after Lydia’s instability (torn roof) has been transferred to Melanie in the form of a head wound, a metaphoric lobotomy. One recalls that Lydia had also accepted Annie Hayworth as a friend, once Annie was no longer a threat.

Amor Vincit Omnia

The House of Brenner is abandoned, and the four principal characters drive off into a new dawn, in Melanie’s car, bearing with them the two caged lovebirds that were Melanie’s original reason for coming to Bodega Bay. Every Doomsday has its new Adam and Eve.

Dawn at Bodega Bay

Those lovebirds are, throughout the film, an important image in two ways. First, both visually and linguistically, they link Lydia’s overweening love for Mitch with the ferocity of the attacking birds. The legendary inseparability of lovebirds associates them with Lydia’s desperate attachment to her children, her fear of being left alone. The always faithful lovebirds typify the order and solidarity which will not admit the abandonment Lydia so fears.

Ambivalently, the birds are also emblematic of the growing love relationship between Mitch and Melanie, a significance assigned them by Annie, who assumes they are a token of courtship from Melanie to Mitch, and by Melanie, who does not correct Annie’s assumption. As such, the lovebirds represent everything that most threatens Lydia’s security.

This duplicity of significance in the lovebirds exactly corresponds to the duplicity of the attacking birds of the outside world, which simultaneously defend and threaten the order of Lydia’s house. As with Morbius, the force of the released Id-Monster cuts both ways.

Hitchcock: “Love is going to survive the whole ordeal. At the end of the picture the little girl asks, ‘Can I take my lovebirds along?’ That little couple of lovebirds lends an optimistic note to the theme.”

But whose love is it that survives? The flirtatious, threatening love of Melanie and Mitch? Or the fiercely protective love of Lydia for her son, which, according to the director, “dominated all of her other emotions”?

THE BIRDS (1963)
Direction: Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Evan Hunter, after the story by Daphne du Maurier. Cinematography (Technicolor): Robert Burks. Sets: Robert Boyle, George Milo. Special effects: Lawrence A. Hampton; special photographic advisor: Ub Iwerks. Composition and production of electronic sound: Bernard Herrmann. Production: Hitchcock, for Universal.
The Players: Rod Taylor, ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Suzanne Pleshette, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw, Ruth McDevitt, Joe Mantell, Malcolm Atterbury, Karl Swenson, Elizabeth Wilson, Lonny Chapman, Doodles Weaver, John McGovern, Richard Deacon, Doreen Lang, Bill Quinn.

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow