The Birds

Tippi Hedren plays Melanie Daniels, who is the heiress to a San Francisco newspaper fortune (that is to say, she’s Patty Hearst, ten years too early).  Melanie lives by her own rules.  She skips and saunters through life, plays tricks on squares, travels the world, has adventures, aggresively pursues men and drives a fast car.

She meets Mitch, who is a lawyer and presumptive model of manhood.  Mitch disapproves of Melanie, whom he sees as an annoying menace who deserves to be taken down a notch.

Melanie decides to pursue Mitch, for reasons that remain unclear.  Is she interested in him sexually?  Does she want to “teach him a lesson” somehow, reassert her upper-class authority?  In any case, she decides to play a mild trick on him and is willing to traipse out to his mother’s house in Bodega Bay to do it.

Bodega Bay is, in the world of this movie, “the sticks,” and Melanie is clearly out of her element there.  The nicest reaction she gets from showing up in her fur, her silver sports car and her French roll is that the elderly storekeeper is befuddled and amused by her.  Everyone else clearly hates her.  Annie the schoolteacher is plainly jealous of her (she was once Mitch’s girlfriend and has followed him to Bodega Bay herself, abandoning city life, her boho background and sexual fulfillment in order to, literally, take care of his little sister) and Mitch’s mother acts as though she’d like to pound nails into the back of Melanie’s head.

Mitch doesn’t approve of her, Annie doesn’t approve of her, Mom doesn’t approve of her, the whole town doesn’t approve of her.  In the local restaurant, even the old lesbian ornithologist and the crusty old fisherman, two marginal characters who you would think would have had their share of disapproval from locals over the years, don’t approve of her.  The middle-aged mother trying to protect her kids strongly disapproves of her, even though she’s in a housecoat, in a restaurant, with her two kids, in the middle of the afternoon, on a school day (what was she doing in the restaurant?  Was she running away, taking the kids away from a drunken, abusive father?  That would at least explain her high-strung personality).  Apparently, no matter who you are and what your background is, everyone agrees that the worst thing in the world is a carefree monied blonde.

Why does everyone store up their resentment for Melanie?  Mitch’s mom Lydia, a real piece of work, is a controlling, overprotective, emasculating bitch but no one resents her.  Mitch defends gangsters and strings the simmering, resentful Annie along for years but no one resents him (Annie literally dies protecting Mitch’s little sister and Mitch doesn’t even think to drag her body in from the street). 

About halfway through the movie, birds start attacking.  It’s almost like the town’s resentment and fury against Melanie, the “bad vibes” she causes, reaches a point where the vibes themselves drive the birds insane.  And if the birds attacked Melanie and only Melanie, you get the feeling that would suit everyone fine.  But they don’t, they attack everyone equally.  The storm of resentment breaks and everyone gets caught in it.

I’m watching this movie and Tippi Hedren keeps reminding me of different people.  “The Hitchcock Blonde” is such a cliche at this point it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who she reminds me of.  She looks like Grace Kelly, which makes sense, and she looks like Melanie Griffith, which also makes sense (as she’s her mother, after all).  (Brian DePalma, of course, cast Melanie Griffith as a kind of gutter-version of the Hitchcock Blonde in Body Double.)  She looks like Sharon Stone, who was the definitive post-Hitchcock Hitchcock Blonde in Basic Instinct, she looks like Naomi Watts, who played a version of the part in Mulholland Drive, and she looks like Anne Heche, who played the Hitchcock Blonde part in the remake of Psycho

Then it all snaps into focus: Tippi Hedren is a dead ringer for Paris Hilton.  Suddenly the movie makes sense.  Thirty years before the fact, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie about the world-wide hatred of Paris Hilton.  You might say that, since Paris Hilton did not yet exist, Hitchcock had to invent her.  Substitute “jumping into that fountain in Rome naked” with “having sex on video on the internet” and the parallel becomes complete.

The Birds is about the destruction of the Hitchcock Blonde.  Everyone hates her, so she must be destroyed.  So we watch as Melanie is turned from  a sassy, carefree gadabout to a quivering, crippled catatonic.  Along the way, we see her turned into a compliant girlfriend, a handy housewife, damsel-in-distress and caring mother-figure.  Finally she is attacked, alone and directly, and reduced to nothingness, a victim, a thing to be rescued by man-man Mitch, without personality or point-of-view.

Many complain that the movie ends too abruptly, but if you look at the narrative this way, it ends exactly where it should; the Blonde is destroyed, the narrative is complete.  After the birds violently attack Melanie in the bedroom (!), they don’t do a thing to Mitch (apart from a few warning pecks) as he walks to the garage and gets out the car.  The birds have what they want; they’ve destroyed the Hitchcock Blonde and they’re willing to sit by and patiently watch as she gets driven out of town.  Melanie has a small cut on her forehead but Mom Lydia wraps her entire head in gauze, covering up her blonde hair and making her look more like a cripple.  As a final symbolic act, the sportscar she came to town in, representing her wealth and independence, is commandeered by Mitch, new head of the family, to drive her away.

(And Tippi Hedren named her daughter after this character!)

Note to Universal: this movie is sorely in need of restoration.  The DVD transfer is substandard by today’s measure and the extensive special-effects work has aged terribly.  There’s nothing to be done about the occasional phony-baloney painted backdrops, but not only does the traveling matte look work look awful, the bird-attack scenes with their multiple film-element layers have deteriorated to a disastrous degree.
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28 Responses to “The Birds”
  1. laminator_x says:

    What I love about this movie, what makes it so damn freaky, is that they never explain a damn thing.

    No aliens, no witch-doctor, no mad-scientist; just the everyday world turning against you and you see just how helpless you are in the face of something so innocuous as a flock of seagulls.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    Are you accusing Hitchcock of being misogynist?? Well, I never!

    I always wondered what was going on this movie. It’s one of those where I’m not even sure that I’ve seen it all the way through in one sitting. (I think I have, I think I have.) I like the theory of the town’s bottled up resentment spilling forth. In thinking of that, I can’t help but think of “birds” being slang for women, and how that could fit into the theory. I seem to recall wondering why she got her whole head wrapped in gauze, too. Of course, I also wondered why she didn’t leave the bedroom once they started attacking her.

    Monster post still in progress and lengthening, but I’ve got a meeting tonight and company coming over tomorrow — I must prepare.

    • Todd says:

      I have, of course, read many things about Hitchcock’s problems with women in general and blondes in particular, including his behavior toward Tippi Hedron during production of The Birds, but I was trying to take the movie on its own terms.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Fair enough.

        There’s a great big poster for The Birds in our breakroom introducing ‘Tippi’ Hedron as “A fascinating new personality” which always catch my attention, probably because it seems so far from anything anyone would say to promote a new star these days.

        • Todd says:

          And, to say the least, “Tippy” appears to be anything besides a “fascinating new personality.” If anything, she appears to be exactly what she is: a model being molded by a master director into a “movie star.” Unsuccessfully.

          • craigjclark says:

            From what I’ve read, Hitchcock’s treatment of Hedren on the set of The Birds is nothing compared to what happened during the making of Marnie (which is, inexplicably, one of my mother’s favorite Hitchcock films).

          • ghostgecko says:

            She may not be a great actress, but she’s done a lot of good with her Shambala Preserve. That’s a hell of a lot of work for much more ephermal returns. I admire that.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Re: the transfer

    I believe the version that was released in Universal’s big Hitchcock box set was remastered, but the single disc version has not been upgraded. This is an oversight that I hope they correct, since to my knowledge Psycho is in the same boat.

  4. Anonymous says:


    You have Hedron instead of Hedren in paragraphs 8 & 9.

    Good piece nonetheless.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hitchcock or Warhol or Bunuel

    “The Birds” is a Hitch/Mitch fantasy as point-of-view as the film, different in that the audience comes to a realisation that it isn’t about Hitch’s blondes at this point, but about “doing her”. The primal fantasy sequences is set to autodrive.

    It’s as if Mitch/Hitch is sitting around at home, this frustrating Melanie is on his mind, he starts thinking, “yeah..what if YOU came to my town, here’s what could happen”. In his fantasy nothing harms him, just aggro to pose and show off being a man. She is the point upon which all the building, raging furies are going to be directed. They start off calm and in realistic scale, and start enlisting more and more allies from outside the probabilities, i.e. fantasy.

    He starts with re-routing her drive. For no (good) reason she is entering into his town. He’s outfitted her with visually-obvious signs, with sportscar and style for “the city”, so that she gets dressed-down by the looks and comments from the squares, the moral community, even the outsiders ( look – even the queers don’t like her, ha ha ).

    Then it’s the women in his life, whom he believes are all instrumentalized as characters to HIS story anyway – his mother, his ex-girlfriend, his sister. Finally the twisted Romanticism, enlisting the forces of nature itself to prove his points. First the flows of birds begin as a method to shape her pilgrim’s progress through “his town”. But he/they get impatient and ugly, go into attack modes which in cinematic-voyeurist isolation of her body and those birds, functions like suddenly building cosmic ejaculations that just naturally occur mostly on Melanie. The harm to his ex-girlfriend and so on, it’s a fantasy and he knows it isn’t necessary to waste precious time and energy on her anyway, she’s a character.

    His birds have Melanie dragged and shoved through his world, shows off all his domains, until she must comes to terms and realize just who HE is, and thus what she should be doing for him (hint: bandaged/bondaged head indeed). Its his fantasy, so she learns its possible in the end, to sit in a convertible sportscar, but be protected. In the name of balance, end like beginning, there is some lame excuse to get into the flimsy convertable auto and start driving – to where? – Mitch leave himself? town/fantasy?. He got the girl/hot car and fantasy ends, movie over.

    “Psycho” is taking the Hitch blonde character, and murdering her onscreen, ridding the film of the character’s body, and having the audience inhabit the protagonist’s disturbed fantasy narrative projection, where the characters mother resides. The “Birds” is getting rid of the blonde-character’s character, essentially she’s just pure agency for the projection of the male which has taken over and created a whole town and society and world for her (Bates had just a hotel), and instead of “in his head”, his mother inhabits this town “in his head” as a kind of psychic governor.

    De Palma’s “Body Double” was a monument to those two critical blond-absenting transformations – the “Psycho” murder, the removal of the character’ corporeal visual presence, and “the Birds”, the reconstruction of the fantasy and fetish alone as the character, the focus on the cinematic apparatus and drives to the point you can’t trust the set-up, which cheats essentially, yet also wish to continue to watch. And of course, his Melanie would have to be inbetween, actress and prostitute.

    As for Paris H. / 15 seconds of fame in home-porn-internet vid clip, its more Warhol cinema than Hitchcock, banal repetition as celebrity, fetish, society and certainly porn in the Warhol cosmos. I guess I feel it’s too flattened out to snapshot codes operating in relation to celebrity, while Hitchock’s figures were still holding onto a semblance of a European worldview, of required, clock-like precision narrative twists and turns in the “blonde” figure’s roles in his movies. As an aside, I read this interview with Hitchcock in relation to Bunuel, whom he had such respect and admiration for, particularly the fact that Bunuel didnt have to concern himself with rationalizing in plot any of his “sexual perversions”. What would have happened to the “blond-female-character” if Hitchock had gotten the chance to team up with Bunuel.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Hitchcock or Warhol or Bunuel

      I am undone. You should start a blog.

      The plain-as-nose “Hitch/Mitch” thing went right past me. I tripped happily along thinking that Melanie was the protagonist. But of course, the whole thing about Mitch becoming the new head of the household, replacing the “dead father” that Lydia keeps holding over his head, Lydia and Cathy and Melanie all being reduced to trembling, helpless dolls that Mitch has to place in their chairs in the living room is all too perfect. To make things complete, he drives her away (from his mother’s house) in her own car.

      In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock calls it a “love story,” and mentions that the lovebirds are included in the getaway car to indicate that “love conquers all.”

      Man, what a sick puppy.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        Re: Hitchcock or Warhol or Bunuel

        I’m not too sure about Mitch being the clear protagonist. My bet is on the birds. What tipped me off was the “god view” or the aerial point of view we get right from the beginning.

        Of course, you might say that Mitch, Hitch and the birds are all one in a single unholy trinity, given that they all support each other to fulfill a common destiny.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Hitchcock or Warhol or Bunuel

      I was telling my wife about your post and what it reveals about Hitchcock’s attitudes toward women. I was struggling to find a word that would adequately describe these attitudes and my wife suggested “…normal?”

      And perhaps she’s right. Perhaps Hitchcock’s demons weren’t demons at all. Perhaps that’s just the way men feel toward women and don’t like to talk about (or are trained to not talk about). Perhaps Hitchcock, like, say, David Lynch, had a direct link to his subconscious that helped him create compelling works of art. (Unlike Lynch, however, Hitchcock also possessed a strong commercial sensibility, allowing his obsessions and neuroses access to a huge international audience.)

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Hitchcock or Warhol or Bunuel

        Hitch’s Tippi after “The Birds” makes some sense as well:

        Bodanovich Interview with Hitchcock

        Bogdanovich: “What will Marnie (in production during interview) be like?”
        Hitchcock: “It is the story of a girl who doesn’t know who she is. She is a psychotic, a compulsive thief, and afraid of sex, and in the end she finds out why.”

        Well, no doubt!

        As for blogs, you and those of some few others (alot of correspondences pass through Venture Bros oddly enough) just make it a challenge to keep up in comment mode, but at least its also pleasurable material.

  6. urbaniak says:

    look – even the queers don’t like her, ha ha

    I think FW just outed Richard Deacon. And I thought it was just me.

    I recommend Camille Paglia’s highly entertaining BFI monograph on the film where she places Hitchcock in both the Colridgean Romantic and modern surrealist traditions with their portrayals of the natural world (and of course human sexuality) as weird, unknowable, seductive and terrifying. She’s also (as I am ) very pro-Tippi Hedren.

    • Todd says:

      I think by “queers” FW is referring to the lesbian ornithologist (haw haw — she likes “birds!” haw haw). On the other hand, Richard Deacon is an (apparently) single man living in a swank apartment house in San Francisco, so…

      • Anonymous says:

        in/out/in -ed

        certain disavowal:
        If it were Mitch’s fantasy, with a multiplying of factors as necessary to spite Melanie, that would probably he ramps up to more than just one solitary lesbian ornithologist – hence queers, not queer. The inner-dialog in parentheses I provided was not authorized script, but hack work, rewrites always worthwhile. That said, Mr. Deacon’s deserved, reknowned, manly reputation is safe here.


      • urbaniak says:

        Well, yes, I suspected FW meant the ornithologist but Mel Cooley is a little weird with her in the hallway. And indeed

        • Todd says:

          Mel Cooley gay! Well I never! I’ll never be able to watch The Dick Van Dyke show the same way again.

          Next you’ll tell me Morey Amsterdam is Jewish.

          • Anonymous says:

            Rose Marie is single

            Why is it these Hitchcock films bring about discussions that always lead to a gay character actor (who saw his niche playing the butler) winding up dead at home? A remainder of some sorts. That said, Rose Marie is still single, or is that going to be debunked too.


  7. sweetlion says:

    As for me I think this is one of her best roles.

  8. teamwak says:

    Very good, thanks

    Liked the Paris Hilton comparison!

    The mysogonistic tendancies of Hitchcock are clear. It certainly destroys his lead in this movie. But is it just her, or all suburban life that he is going at? Tranquil suburbia also is ripped down. As a kid I always remember that Hitchcock never shied from showing children dying in that movie. Community, family, as well as female empowerment/independance all get a good kicking there.


    • Todd says:

      Well, the Bodega Bay in Hitchcock’s film definitely isn’t “suburbia,” it’s very much presented as “small town,” where everyone knows each other and each other’s secrets; gossip is rampant and resentment simmers through decades of poor decisions.

      But Melanie is the antithesis of “small town,” she’s a wealthy urban jet-set socialite. It seems clear that the drama of the movie springs from the clash of small-town vs. wealthy sophisticate.

      Or maybe Hitchcock is just fucking with us. The screenwriter for The Birds mentioned that Hitchcock wanted the first act of the movie to be something completely unexpected, and so he cooked up a kind of 30s screwball-comedy concept, completely incongrous with the rest of the movie. After all, that’s what he’d done with Psycho, give us a first act unrelated to the rest of the movie. Maybe he didn’t really care about any of the class stuff, was just looking for a narrative that would throw the viewer for a loop.

  9. yesdrizella says:

    I know this is about two years too late, but since I found a Hitchcock tag on your journal and then found this entry, I can’t help but comment. I re-watched The Birds last night, and to me it seemed like the birds were a physical manifestation of Lydia’s desire to hang onto her son. Birds tend to attack when others invade their territory, and once Melanie Daniels was in her arms, nearly comatose, she smiled because Melanie was no longer a threat.

    I also enjoyed the bleakness of the ending. It reminded me of the original ending of 28 Days Later, with Selena and Hannah walking out of the hospital, knowing that a zombie army waited for them outside. There were roadblocks set up at the entrance to Bodega Bay, meaning it wasn’t going to be easy for them to get out, but Mitch got in the car and drove anyway.

    If you plan on reviewing any future Hitchcock films, might I suggest Rope? It’s a wonder that film was ever made, the homoerotic subtext practically leaps off the screen.