THE BIRDS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Criminal attorney Mitch Brenner lives a divided existence between urban and rural California: in San Francisco, where he practices law; in Bodega Bay, where his widowed mother, Lydia, feeling “abandoned” by her spouse, is ever fearful of Mitch’s “abandonment” as well. Therefore, she does her best to tighten the tie between them, even if this means twisting it. Lydia also undermines respect for her son. When pre-teen Cathy confides to her brother’s potential girlfriend, Daddy’s Girl Melanie Daniels, a socialite, that Mitch routinely defends human trash, we realize that she is too young to have arrived at this nasty conclusion on her own. She is mimicking her mother, who affects a polished surface of propriety and supportiveness. Mitch remains torn between a desire for independence and guilt over his life apart from Mother.

Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds, in thunderbursts of ornithological mayhem, is perhaps the most terrifying movie ever made—and yet another work of Hitch’s that’s awfully hard on mothers. A certain English air hovers over the proceedings, but in fact the film keeps little more than the title of Daphne Du Maurier’s story; scenarist Evan Hunter mostly invented his own story. What is causing these vicious bird attacks, some of them massive and apocalyptic? To its credit, the film doesn’t resolve this intriguing, puzzling question, preserving the cosmic mystery.

However, mimicry on the part of the birds, and possibly psychological projection on the part of the ostensible “victims,” human beings, may be involved. Consider this example: It is right after Melanie “invades space” by sneaking into Lydia and Mitch’s Bodega Bay house and leaving a pair of caged love birds for Cathy’s birthday that a gull swoops down and attacks Melanie, invading her space and drawing blood. Is some mysterious causality at work here? Later, Melanie herself is accused of bringing on the bird attacks by visiting Bodega Bay. This strikes us as irrational scapegoating, guided by panic, parochialism, perhaps xenophobia. But is it?

Jealousy also may be motivating the birds in their bloodthirsty rampages. Are they irritated by the affectionate attention that the children in Bodega Bay in particular draw? What about eyes? Hitchcock reiterates the impenetrable coldness of the eyes of the birds; one of the film’s most horrific images shows the corpse of a farmer whose eyes have been bloodily pecked out.

The film is headed for an apocalyptic finish, with color cinematographer Robert Burks assisting Hitchcock in creating massive dark, gloomy poetry of birds having quite taken over. Perhaps this is Nature’s revenge on us. Perhaps it is our own guilt and shame getting back at us. Perhaps . . .

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