In his seminal study of Alfred Hitchcock, critic Robin Wood focuses on the director’s career-long apprehension that civilization rests precariously on a very thin layer of what we accept as reality, but which covers a foreboding, underlying chaos. Although this theme is present in many of the director’s films, it reaches its fullest fruition in The Birds. Hitchcock once suggested that the film was about the Day of Judgement, and Wood offers that this means that in The Birds, “it is the value of life itself that is on trial,” and “that life is a matter of beating off the birds,”—as Tippi Hedren does.
In his The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, a fascinating study of the location settings of Hitchcock’s films, Steven Jacobs refers to the Brenner house inhabited by Mitch (Rod Taylor) and his mother (Jessica Tandy) with the chapter title “Life in a Cage.” Using this metaphor for incarcerated birds implicates the deceased family patriarch, whose portrait dominates the living room and still governs the lives of the Brenner family. In a sense, although Taylor rescues Hedren from the birds, the relationship between him and Hedren rescues him from his family.
There are, of course, parallels between Hedren’s ascent on the staircase, to where we know the birds await her en masse, and Martin Balsam’s fatal climb to meet Mrs. Bates in Psycho. Hitchcock, the self-styled “Master of Suspense,” loved teasing the audience’s expectations of what horrors he had lurking for them. This sardonic playfulness (encouraged by his personal appearances), however, masked the underlying seriousness of his mature films. In The Birds, nothing is fully resolved, and we are left dangling, not knowing whether the feathered ones will let the protagonists (and us) escape, or whether Armageddon is at hand.
Hitchcock was probably the most experimental of all the major auteurs, and he was assisted in making his ornithological masterpiece by Ub Iwerks and Albert J. Whitlock. The former was a major Disney animator (the Alice in Wonderland series, Steamboat Willie) who briefly created some very clever cartoons on his own in the early 1930s and won two Oscars for his special effects expertise. Whitlock, who gave a great lecture here at MoMA, began a long career at Universal (High Anxiety, Earthquake, The Hindenburg) with The Birds. He worked with Hitchcock again on four later films.
Two recent movies have dealt with the strange relationship during shooting between Hitchcock and his leading ladies, and one dealt specifically with his infatuation with Hedren. I don’t know (or much care) about this, but it is worth noting that the pair worked together again on Marnie, and that most of the rest of her career is pretty forgettable. Her birdlike performance in this film is not. Similarly, Taylor never quite made it as a major figure in Hollywood, but his Sean O’Casey in Jack Cardiff’s Young Cassidy (a film started by John Ford) is noteworthy. Jessica Tandy was mostly a stage actress—the original Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire—though much later she won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy.
Daphne du Maurier’s first two novels had been filmed by Hitchcock—Jamaica Inn and Rebecca (the latter of which we will be showing in April as part of the exhibition The Aesthetics of Shadow, Part 2). Du Maurier was pleased with Rebecca, but less so by what he did with her short story “The Birds.” Hitchcock opened The Birds up and transposed it from Cornwall to California. Psycho had been, in many ways, revolutionary, and the director was now confronted with the near-impossible task of meeting audience expectations. The Birds came closer than any of his post-Psycho films to meeting the high standards he had set for himself.