The Birds (1963): Nature vs Humanity, and the Unresolved Resolution
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 begins as an innocuous, flirtatious game of one-upmanship and turns 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 cozy hamlet of Bodega Bay, in northern California. Why these mild-mannered creatures would suddenly erupt into such violence is never really explained; however, their unexpected aggression does help to put a few things into perspective, which, I believe, is Hitchcock's point.
The first major assault does not come until fifty minutes into the picture. Sprinkled throughout the first half are mild hints of foreboding: 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 intimations of discord, what else is taking place during the first hour to hold our interest?
Much ado over personal demons
Many of the characters are unsettled in some way, leading lives of quiet, or overt, desperation. There is Melanie (Tippi Hedren), an aimless, spoiled socialite who hates her mother and whose antics, which always seem to end up in the tabloids, appear to be a cry for attention, or validation. 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 Brenner (Jessica Tandy), a widow who disapproves of every woman who shows an interest in her adult son because she is deathly afraid of being abandoned.
These demons weigh heavily on their psyches and are a dictating influence in their lives. Until, that is, Nature steps in. And suddenly the freight of their obsessions pales compared to the terror they now face. In the sequence when the birds unleash hell on the town, utter chaos reigns at ground level when, without warning or explication, Hitch cuts to a shot of the birds flying overhead, way up high, looking down on the besieged hamlet. From the lofty perspective of these winged aggressors, the sound and fury below is so far removed, the gravity of all things human is rendered negligible, making it all the more disturbing as we are forced to consider our own insignificance.
All that strutting and fretting
A great visual stylist, Hitchcock also understood the importance of sound in cinema. In one scene, a cinematic tour-de-force, he combines image and sound to again convey the insignificance of the human spectacle when set against the overwhelming landscape of Nature. After Lydia discovers the gruesome aftermath of a bird attack on a friend, she runs from the dead man’s house, jumps into her pickup and tears away from the scene. Stricken with horror, she is unable to scream. Her mute outcry is made vocal by the accelerating rumble of the truck’s engine. Only, in that moment, Hitch cuts to a very long shot, so the truck itself is dwarfed by the enormous, placid countryside; and the engine, which would sound like a roar if we were in the cab with Lydia, is muffled by the surrounding stillness--the pain of her cries falling on the dispassionate ears of an indifferent universe.
To tie or not to tie up the loose ends
I was eight or nine years old when I saw The Birds for the first time, at a drive-in with my family. When the words “The End” came up on the screen I felt as if my world had capsized; the solid footing normally provided by the satisfactory conclusion of a story was distressingly absent (I had a similar reaction, years later, when I saw Vertigo for the first time, but that’s another story). No one could provide an explanation for the birds’ unprovoked rampage and it left me shaken. I did not realize it at the time, but I had just been introduced to one of life’s uncomfortable lessons: there is no pat explanation for everything that occurs in this world. And when faced with the inexplicable, we either strive to fill in the blanks or we try to come to terms with the empty spaces.
In my case, I came to appreciate the unresolved ending as a resolution of a different sort, one that lays bare all that is unsettled and wanting within me and the world I occupy. When young Antoine, in The 400 Blows, escapes the juvenile center and runs away, he runs and runs and keeps running until he reaches the shoreline. He wades restlessly about the incoming tide until the shot freezes on him, his gaze staring right into the camera--he’s gone as far as he can go, and it isn’t far enough. His agitation, his inability to find a moment of inner peace, speaks to all that is unresolved, quavering beneath the surface of modern life.
At the end of Alan Rudolph’s Equinox, Matthew Modine’s character, his life upended as everything he thought he knew about himself is shattered, stands on a precipice overlooking the Grand Canyon as he faces the enormous abyss of identity and consciousness. This stunning visual metaphor (it is a breathtaking shot) takes to the extreme those moments when you might be staring into a mirror and find yourself asking, “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” “What is all this about?”
Even poor Robert Redford finds himself stuck in limbo in the final scene of Three Days of the Condor. The film closes on a satisfying, dissonant note when he realizes there is no one on the planet he can trust. His predicament captures a zeitgeist moment--the political paranoia people were experiencing in the 1970’s.
The plight of each character remains unresolved by story’s end, yet the unsettled state in which they are suspended strikes a familiar chord in anyone who has loved, lost, questioned, doubted, strove, swore revenge, wished upon a star, or yearned for that indefinite spot over the rainbow. A story that taps into the shortfalls of human endeavor can still arouse a sense of exhilaration the moment we recognize that same turbulence stirring within ourselves. “Yes!” we cry. “I am not alone.”
(This concept is not unique to film, of course. Other art forms have adopted unresolved or fragmentary approaches that reflect a modern sensibility, where resolution can be achieved in the midst of seeming chaos or disrupted expectations. For example, it can be an invigorating experience to find coherence in the slapdash strokes and drips of a Jackson Pollock action painting, or in the chordal experiments of a Thelonious Monk composition.)
And what of The Birds? What insight can be gleaned from its unnerving denouement? The Brenners and Melanie inch their way down the porch steps and squeeze themselves into the tiny sports car. As they drive away the car recedes into the background, growing ever smaller, and the birds remain, looming over every part of the frame: one final, devastating image of a world we impotent humans have no control over.
There is one moment that offers a sliver of hope: a tender, wordless reconciliation between Lydia and Melanie. This confrontation with the birds, having shattered their complacency, has forced them to look beyond their self-absorbed egos and discover what might be truly important in life--recognizing and appreciating the humanity of another person, for instance. But, all things considered, is that brief exchange of empathy enough to negate the crushing realization that we are up against an enormous, uncaring universe?
The method behind Hitch’s madness
More often than not, Hitchcock gave us thrillers that provided a more gratifying conclusion (boy and girl wind up together; the bad guys are captured or killed, etc.). Among his dicier films, those I found most satisfying teased me with underlying tensions, some of which remained unresolved by the final fade out (the previously mentioned Vertigo; a confused and shaken Teresa Wright at the end of Shadow of a Doubt; the marital discord between James Stewart and Doris Day hinted at toward the beginning of The Man Who Knew Too Much). Whenever Hitch tried to tie every loose end into a tidy knot, it came off as inauthentic. I’m thinking of the Freudian-like epiphany that leads to Gregory Peck’s breakthrough in Spellbound; or the psychiatrist’s long-winded interpretation of Norman Bates’s actions in Psycho; or the film, Marnie, which from start to finish feels like one long session on an analyst’s couch.
Emily Dickinson did not pull any punches in her definition of art: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Art can confront and challenge. It can shake us to our core, often leaving us with more questions than answers as it strives to shed light on the restive nature of the human heart. And that little alcove of confusion and doubt is where the perverse, insidious talent of Alfred Hitchcock really shines.
The Birds airs on TCM, Thursday, July 30, at 7:45pm PDT.