Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
-from Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
It began an innocuous and flirtatious game of one-upmanship and it turned into a horrific weekend of apocalyptic proportions. Nature runs amok in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, The Birds, when our fine feathered friends wreak havoc on the placid hamlet of Bodega Bay, in northern California. Why these mild-mannered creatures would suddenly erupt into such violence is never really explained, but it does help to put a few things into perspective, which, I believe, is Hitchcock’s point.
The first big attack doesn’t come until fifty minutes into the picture. Before that there are some hints of trouble: birds are seen massing above the San Francisco skyline; a gull swoops down on the head of one of the characters; another gull inexplicably slams into someone’s front door. But other than those inklings of discord, what else is happening in the first half of this movie that keeps us riveted?
Much ado over personal demons
We get glimpses of people leading lives of quiet desperation. Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is a socialite who hates her mother and whose antics always seem to end up in the tabloids. There is Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), who upended her life and moved to Bodega Bay to be closer to a man who does not love her. And there is Lydia (Jessica Tandy), a widow who disapproves of every woman her grown son spends time with because she is deathly afraid of being abandoned.
These demons consume our characters and shape their behavior until, that is, nature steps in and suddenly those problems don’t seem to be important anymore. In the sequence when the birds attack the town, utter chaos reigns at ground level. Hitchcock then cuts to a shot high above, from the point of view of the birds flying overhead. The sound and fury below is so far away that the gravity of all things human are rendered insignificant.
Sight and sound
Hitchcock was at the top of his game when he made The Birds. It is a beautiful reminder that cinema is not just about the visuals. It is both image and sound. When the Brenner home is attacked for the second time we don’t see the massive army of birds outside, but the onslaught of their screeching is a deafening blanket of sound that pushes the people in the house to their breaking point. And in an earlier scene, after Lydia comes across the aftermath of a friend who was murdered by birds, she jumps into her pickup and tears away from the scene. The sound of the truck’s engine rips through the surrounding stillness. Lydia, stricken with horror, is not able to scream. The bellow of her accelerating truck is that scream.
The other unanswered question
There is another mystery that needs to be addressed. It comes up nearly every time I talk to someone about the movie: Why does Melanie go up those stairs? After everything she’s been through, why would someone take that kind of a risk? With the exception of a breakdown in story logic, I don’t really have an answer. This is one mystery old Hitch took with him to the grave.