“Consider the birds of the air,” Christ tells us. The birds neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, yet our heavenly Father feeds them, and so the birds remind us to depend on God, in faith, for our provision. Man is good at finding ways to provide for himself, though. Faith is something of a gamble, but farming – sowing, reaping, gathering into barns – seems pretty reliable, pretty straightforward. If we invite God into our lives, there is no telling what He may do with them, but if we are content to scrape by on our own efforts, we can order our lives how we like, at least for a while.
In a compelling essay, Joshua Gibbs names sexual perversity as the battery that powers Alfred Hitchcock’s three best films (Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds). For Gibbs, all three films are variations on the mythical paradox of Tristan and Iseult: Tristan loves both a chaste woman (Iseult of the White Hands) and a promiscuous woman (Iseult the Fair), but the horrific secret of the myth is that the two Iseults are the same woman, and so it turns out to be a parable about the way the contradictions of erotic love compel men and women to tear each other apart. It is this same paradox that underwrites Vertigo’s status as one of the greatest cinematic investigations of the sin of lust. Psycho adds another layer of sexual queasiness by dealing incest into the mix, courtesy of Oedipus the King. Gibbs has a point. All the same, I do not think he gets The Birds quite right.
About a third of the way into the film, The Birds’ two Iseults – Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) – discuss their Tristan, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and his relationship with his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). A record album of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde occupies the background of the scene, Oedipus’ name comes up in the conversation, and for the viewer who remembers that The Birds (1963) is coming right off the heels of Psycho (1960), the suggestion of an intense attachment between mother and son cannot fail to raise an eyebrow. Nevertheless, Annie definitively disclaims a sexual motive in the relationship between Mitch and Lydia, and while Hitchcock is perfectly capable of saying one thing and doing another (he spent much of his career diligently smuggling innuendoes under the nose of the Hays Code), the film offers little reason to question Annie’s claims. The motif from Oedipus that resonates most strongly with The Birds is not incest, but blindness.
The first major bird attack occurs when Mitch’s sister Cathy is blindfolded at her birthday party. When the crows descend on the children outside the schoolhouse, a place of learning, Hitchcock inserts a shot of a pair of eyeglasses lying broken and trampled on the ground. The most pointed of the film’s references to Oedipus is the sight of the birds’ first onscreen victim, a farmer whose eyes have been pecked out, leaving only bloody, empty sockets. Oedipus is not blind because his eyes simply do not function properly; by the end of the play, he has gouged them out altogether. Per Gibbs:The Enlightened, progressive West understands the future as a place we enter into walking forward, everything in full view, and the past nothing more than a blackness behind us. A less Enlightened East imagines the future as a place we enter into walking backwards. Nothing is known. All the good stuff is out of reach by the time we see it. Oedipus finally gouges out his eyes because he knows they are worthless, that vision is nothing but mockery and taunt.
“You don’t know!” Lydia berates her son when they are cooped up in their house, listening to the birds pounding on the windows. “You don’t know! When will you know? When we’re all dead?” Such is the anxious refrain of The Birds. Will everything be all right? No one knows. When will it all be over? No one knows. Why are the birds even attacking in the first place? No one knows – or, as the news broadcast helpfully puts it, “The reason for this does not seem clear as yet.” Hitchcock’s film never offers an explanation for the birds’ behavior. Neither does the Daphne du Maurier short story on which it is based. There is no explanation that would satisfy. Oedipus knows this well.
A good hour (of the film’s two-hour runtime) elapses before the birds start attacking in earnest, and though we can guess from the title and opening credits that an avian onslaught is imminent, this first half is oddly light on buildup or foreshadowing. Hitchcock sprinkles in a few ominous portents, but whereas Spielberg spent the first half of Jaws doggedly hinting at the shark lurking offscreen, with an invaluable assist from John Williams, Hitchcock does not even use a musical score to keep tensions high. This seeming disconnect between the two halves of The Birds makes an enigma of the film. What connects them? Why do the birds intrude on this story in particular? I am not sure there is any answer that really satisfies, but here is a stab at one.
Christ tells us to consider the birds because, although they neither sow nor reap, God feeds them. However, The Birds presents us with a community of sowers and reapers; as Annie puts it, “This tilling of the soil can become compulsive.” Christ admonishes us to give no thought to what we will wear, what we will drink, what we will eat, but the people in The Birds seem to think about little else. Lydia is preoccupied with her livestock, Annie with her garden. Bodega Bay is a town full of people who do not “consider the birds” as they ought.
The film’s heroine, however, is at odds with all of this. The people of Bodega Bay – typified by Mitch, a lawyer, who “believes in the law” – are concerned with rules, order, certainty. Melanie, on the other hand, likes a good joke. The denizens of this small town seem to prize austerity and self-sufficiency, but Melanie is a wealthy socialite who comes from the big city and depends on her (earthly) father for her provision. Hitchcock primes us to see Melanie as callow, frivolous, wanton, which is exactly how everyone in Bodega Bay sees her, yet she turns out to be the least petty and materialistic person in the film.
Melanie’s arrival, then, threatens to plunge a carefully calibrated and circumscribed community into chaos. For Lydia and Annie, she is a rival for Mitch’s affections; they treat her with chilly politeness and hope she will go away. The townspeople at large are friendly enough when she is only a tourist, but the longer she stays around, the more they act like the projections that patrol Christopher Nolan’s Inception dreamscapes: their eyes begin to follow her with silent suspicion and hostility. Melanie’s presence is a challenge to their way of life – a challenge writ large in the incomprehensible violence of the birds. “They said when you got here, the whole thing started,” one woman accuses. “I think you’re the cause of all this.” The Birds’ treatment of Oedipus, then, is less Freud, more René Girard: Melanie is an unwitting scapegoat who takes the blame for the community’s ills.
The film’s interpersonal conflicts all play out through passive aggression first and bird attacks second. When Melanie talks to her father on the telephone, she raises the ire of the townsfolk and is subsequently attacked in a phone booth. The birds kill Annie, Mitch’s previous lover, because Melanie’s arrival puts a definitive end to their romance, but they also try to kill Melanie because Lydia does not want her son to abandon her and cleave to a wife. The birds are representative of the way Melanie disrupts the complacency of Bodega Bay and the Brenner family, but they also represent the violence with which town and family respond to her intrusion. This is how the two halves of the film connect: every buried conflict from the first half explodes in the second, given shape by the birds.
Lydia, who is hobbled by grief over the death of her late husband, responds to the fear of further bereavement by clinging to her children. Though there is no sexual undertone to their relationship, Lydia, like Jocasta the mother of Oedipus, joins herself to her son to ward off crisis – and, like Jocasta, her blindness is at least partly self-imposed. For her, the home is an insular world into which she can retreat and find safety, but this safety proves an illusion – an illusion that is just as dangerous as the truths it seeks to deny. “We don’t know what’s outside,” Lydia protests, but the birds attack Melanie inside, and Mitch knows that if she is to survive, the family must abandon the home and the false sense of security it provides. It is, as the town drunk says, “The end of the world” – not the entire world, but the world that Lydia has tried to create for herself.
Consider The Birds. Remember how little we really know, how little control we really have. Remember the end that awaits all the safe little worlds we try to make for ourselves.