A keen bit of course scheduling meant that I had the opportunity to watch both Vertigo and The Birds last week. Students in my Critical Theory class seemed to enjoy Vertigo a great deal, not least because it offered them something to hang onto as we collectively gazed into the Lacanian abyss. But, as much as it is heretical to say so, I think I enjoyed watching The Birds more this time around. It may be the lesser film in terms of its narrative construction and philosophical complexities, but it does offer some real pleasures on the level of minor detail. There are a few things in particular that really jumped out at me this time round. These may be exceedingly obvious to those sharper viewers out there, but they are things that hit me with their full force only on my most recent viewing:
1. In the opening scene, high above the square in the background as we watch Melanie Daniels cross the street to get to the pet shop, there are a series of billboards advertising airlines: TWA, BOAC, Air France. So, straight from the beginning, there is the suggestion that we, humans, have invaded the birds’ territory, the skies. Of course, Melanie later reveals that one of the things that she does during the week to keep herself busy is volunteer at the San Francisco airport, greeting travelers as they arrive. Melanie’s convertible, Mitch’s truck, and the rented outboard motor boat all play greater roles in the film in terms of transportation, but jet travel somehow forms the unseen but nevertheless still present background for the war with the birds, a sign of humanity’s transgression against them.
2. Throughout the film, Melanie Daniels is excessively bird-like in her mannerisms and movements. Part of this is achieved through styling and dress: the green outfit she wears the entire weekend is a similar hue to the feathers of the lovebirds she buys for Cathy. She has a swan-like neck that is emphasized by the way she wears her hair. And, most strikingly, both her nails and heels are thoroughly talon-like. In the opening scene in the pet store, she tilts her head several times in an avian way, aligning her with the caged birds that populate the shop. The clincher comes in the rumour that dogs Melanie, which she claims is untrue, a lie that has been maliciously spread by enemies of her father, the powerful publisher of a San Francisco newspaper. The rumour is that she cavorted naked in a fountain in Rome. She claims she was dressed and was pushed, but Mitch (Rod Taylor) seems unconvinced by her claims. I always ask my students why the rumour needs to be this specifically, why a fountain. The answer, of course, is simple. It is a birdbath, and this incident further affiliates Melanie with the birds that will subsequent attack her.
3. Cages are a predictable visual motif throughout the film, but I only saw this time exactly how pervasive an image it is. The pet store is filled with caged birds and in what is probably the most iconic scene in the film, Melanie is caged in a phone booth as birds crash into the glass all around her. There is also the film’s finale, as Melanie, Mitch, Lydia, and Cathy cage themselves in the house, boards nailed wire-like across most windows and doors, in the hope of surviving the latest bird attack. But even beyond these notable examples, there are others: the postmaster from whom Melanie gets Mitch’s Bodega Bay address is caged in behind the local shop counter, there are dozens of crab or lobster traps stacked up on the docks in Bodega Bay, and even the play structure that the crows eerily land on while Melanie waits outside Bodega Bay School repeats the visual image. When the Brenner family drives away with the traumatized Melanie at the film’s end, Mitch lifts the cover to enclose Melanie’s sporty convertible for the first time, thereby forming another cage.
These are all minor details, but not insignificant ones. They add to the power of the film and its unsettling violence: there’s no real shock or gore here, at least not in comparison to horror films that come after or are made today, but there is a real violence in what happens to Melanie and something tremendously disturbing about the film’s (admittedly rather abrupt) end.