scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.
For a movie about random apocalypse, The Birds devotes an awful lot of screen-time to a household drama. Normally, killer seagulls dropping from the sky would completely overshadow such a storyline. However, the character relationships eerily echo the avian conquest; the story projects human psychology onto larger, frequently murderous forces (much as Jimmy Stewart’s neighborhood transforms into an endless parable of romantic insecurity in Rear Window). Yet The Birds doesn’t neatly resolve a bachelor’s fear of intimacy with a simple murder. Full of fleeting parallels and muddy analogies, this film is the antithesis of the overly logical Psycho. Moments before the final shot of thousands of birds roosting over their new kingdom, the human storyline reaches an equally disturbing crescendo in one interaction, less than twenty seconds long.
After the birds nearly murder Melanie, the film’s heroine, she retreats into a stupor (further exacerbating the inscrutability of Tippi Hedren’s performance). Her new boyfriend, Mitch, decides to take her to a doctor, but to do so, Mitch and his family must brave a sea of birds stretching as far as the eye can see. The shell-shocked Melanie enters a getaway car with Lydia, Mitch’s mother. The older woman looks down protectively and Melanie gazes lovingly into Lydia’s eyes before drifting off to sleep. Hardly threatening on the surface, the scene bristles with nasty implications.
Although never ostentatious, this moment is visually striking in many ways. Hitchcock’s tightly choreographed editing loosens, using slight overlaps from shot to shot—an unusual choice for a simple shot/reverse-shot series (as opposed to, say, the gas station explosion). First, the film cuts to a disorienting close-up of Melanie’s blood-red fingernails (hidden in every other shot). Lydia turns to face Melanie, but in the cut back to the girl, Lydia sits motionless as Melanie seamlessly reverses Lydia’s movement across the screen. Placed at an odd overhead angle, the camera completely obscures Lydia’s face behind an imposing bun; the formless figure looms over the girl. The next shot views Lydia from a traditional angle (but Melanie’s position never changes). As the film cuts back to a medium close-up to show Mitch climbing into the car, a very slight jump cut depicts Lydia already sitting back in her seat, highlighting the subtle surrealism of the moment.
Even before this scene, Melanie is marked for destruction as an independent, sexually commanding female in a Hitchcock film. In the beginning of the movie, invisible birds squawk as Melanie struts across the street. A man catcalls; the woman turns and smiles receptively. Cut to a shot of the circling birds. Melanie’s vitality invites turmoil and judgment wherever she goes (at one point, a hysterical woman literalizes this subtext by randomly accusing Melanie of causing the bird attacks). In the culminating attack, Melanie ventures alone into the attic, where the overpowering birds figuratively rape her (listen for the sexualized moaning in lieu of screams).
During the aftermath, the once-vibrant woman lies ravaged. Melanie is quiet, but remains on the verge of panic. Meanwhile, the birds are calm, but could attack at any moment. For now, The Birds implies, Melanie’s dangerous sexuality has been subdued. As Melanie looks at Lydia, vulnerable and broken, the mother smiles for the first time. Throughout the entire film, the woman keeps her distance from the camera, revealing only a frosty, aquiline profile. Yet here, she grins like a grandma (this scene alone highlights actress Jessica Tandy’s comfortingly knobby nose). Nevertheless, Lydia’s sudden benevolence is no bright note in an otherwise despairing finale. An overprotective woman who has driven away many of Mitch’s lovers, Lydia doesn’t care about her children’s happiness; she only fears abandonment. Unsurprisingly, this bitter woman accepts Melanie as her own only as the girl cringes upon Lydia’s shoulder, brutally assimilated into the proper family model. Lydia should smile. Her competition has been neutralized with the help of misogynistic retribution from the sky. Now there’s a happy ending!