June Butler flew along to the 60th Anniversary Screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds with New Live Score at the National Concert Hall.
In 1961, a mass bird attack was reported by residents in the sleepy seaside town of Capitola, California. The people of the town woke to a terrifying scene where hordes of coastal birds crashed into their homes, dive-bombed cars, and deposited partially digested fish on their lawns. In later years, it became apparent that the creatures had ingested toxic algae but at the time, nothing was known about the poisonous qualities of the seaweed and the event entered folklore as being the stuff of inexplicable horror. In Hitchcock’s film The Birds, a reference is made to the incident, but the name of the town is switched from Capitola to Santa Cruz – which made sense. Santa Cruz was marginally nearer to the location of The Birds at Bodega Bay, and seemed to be more well known than Capitola – the entire presage of making a horror film is to bring the danger ominously close to the safety of your hometown.
Wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) visits a San Francisco pet store to purchase a Myna bird for her aunt when lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) enters the shop armed with the excuse of buying his sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), lovebirds for her upcoming birthday. Brenner appears to know that Melanie is not a shop assistant but decides to play a prank by asking if she works at the store (Daniels confirms that she does). Mitch goes on to feign interest in several different types of birds, asking in-depth questions about the creatures. Melanie tries to bluff her way through the interrogation but is finally exposed by Mitch as he announces that he recognised Melanie from a court appearance. “Don’t you remember one of your practical jokes that resulted in the smashing of a plate glass window?” he queries. “I didn’t break that window” Melanie retorts. “Ah but your little prank did” Mitch counters. Humiliated and angry, Melanie asks Mitch why he thought to feign ignorance about her employment status. Brenner responds by saying he wanted Melanie to know how it feels to be at the receiving end of a gag and then exits the shop. Melanie runs after him and takes down the registration number of his car. She traces the plate and uses the information to find out where he lives.
Piqued by Mitch’s apparent indifference to her beauty, Melanie buys two lovebirds and tracks Mitch to Bodega Bay where she hires a small boat and motors across the bay to leave the birds at the Brenner family farmhouse. Melanie quickly deposits her gift and returns to the main dock across the bay. Mitch sees her from afar and drives to intercept Melanie as she comes towards the jetty. Just at that moment, a seagull attacks Melanie and drives its beak into her forehead, drawing blood. Mitch takes Melanie to the local diner where they encounter Lydia (Jessica Tandy), Mitch’s mother. Cold and domineering, Lydia looks askance at Mitch when he invites Melanie to dinner that same evening. While dining with the Brenners, Melanie is invited by Mitch to his sister’s birthday party the following day. Melanie decides to stay in the area overnight and finds that local teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) has a room to rent. Annie is initially reluctant to let the room out, but Melanie manages to persuade her otherwise. It soon transpires that Annie was a previous girlfriend of Mitch’s with Annie going on to say she came to visit Bodega Bay for a weekend and never left. The relationship Annie avers, ended due to Lydia’s controlling jealousy.
Dressed entirely in green for the duration of the film, Melanie becomes the focal point for Lydia’s all-consuming possessive rage. The lovebirds too, are hued with a similar green. The discordant Oedipal elements of the Brenner family are set to be rent asunder with the arrival of Melanie. Lydia sees the younger and infinitely more alluring Daniels, as a threat to her continuing dominance of Mitch and is aware that Melanie can offer Mitch romantic love – something that she is unable to do. She tries to warn Mitch off Melanie by gossiping about Melanie’s wayward reputation, reminding Mitch that Melanie was photographed naked frolicking in a Roman fountain but Mitch is unconcerned and states that he can ‘handle Melanie Daniels’ himself. Cathy, meanwhile, tells Melanie about a criminal case in which Mitch defended a client who murdered his wife by shooting her six times. When Melanie asks Mitch why the man shot his wife, Mitch responds by saying that the wife changed the channel when her husband was watching a ball game.
Shame is a primary driver in The Birds, and it is almost entirely directed at women – Annie for loving too much; Lydia for trying to hold sway over her son to the point of eliminating any likelihood of Mitch ever leaving her for another woman; Melanie for refusing to kowtow to social requirements by meekly knowing her place. The cool self-possession of this beautiful interloper plays havoc with an otherwise carefully metred state of being in Bodega Bay – in one scene at the diner, after a particularly vicious bird attack, a local woman becomes hysterical and gesticulating wildly, shrieks that all problems relating to the birds, stems from the time Melanie arrived in the area. Shocked, Melanie slaps her across the face, which seems to bring the woman to her senses. But it is worth noting that male presence in this scene, the diner owner (Mitch Zanich), and Mitch, remain passive and do not intervene.
Early in the narrative, when Mitch first meets Melanie, she is shamed for essentially no good reason and the passing opprobrium sets the tone for later events. Being ridiculed (and held accountable) for pretending to be someone other than who she is at the pet-store, is not equivalent to an act of vandalism where no person was harmed. Mitch tries to place one alongside the other when they are incomparable. In later scenes, after Melanie’s dinner date at the Brenner farm, Mitch slyly refers to an incident in Rome where Melanie supposedly swam naked in a Roman fountain. Her photograph was taken and printed in the newspapers. The question should therefore be asked – who did Melanie harm when she took her clothes off? She was with a male friend – why was he not treated as equally responsible? Or was the implied offensiveness of the incident referred to, less funny and more dark – could it have been a male gaze to unabashed joy, an innocent moment of abandon, freedom of expression, was this the source of condemnatory anger? Mitch openly holds Melanie, a woman, to account, yet it was men who were the image takers, male photographers who captured her allure in Rome and used her nakedness to make money. The collective outrage stemmed more from how Melanie made others feel rather than how she should have felt. It was the look of longing from the gazers that triggered the ensuing vitriol.
The shame continues when at Cathy’s birthday party the following day, Melanie confides in Mitch by telling him her mother absconded when she was eleven. “I don’t know where she is,” Melanie sadly reveals. Once again, dishonour is brought upon women for not appearing to understand their place in the greater scheme of things. If a man leaves a marriage there is far less condemnation of such an act than when a woman does the same thing. A woman is behaving contrary to her nature when she flees. A man is being true to his and therefore excused. When Cathy tells Melanie about Mitch’s client shooting his wife and Mitch explains that his client did so because his wife changed a TV channel, to an extent the casual humour of being killed over something so trivial, is justified by the heinous act of a woman disturbing the status quo. The sentence alone would have caused a degree of merriment among viewers of the original screening, but the ramifications are deadly and serious. Stepping out of line and not following what the masses insist is a way of being, a path that must be followed to the letter, can be final and murderous. Melanie too, is fetishised and bound by her clothes – high heels, a pencil skirt and restrictive clothing is not optimum ‘fleeing’ garb. Societal confines between the sexes, continue to play out using indirect avenues, and other, infinitely less subtle ways. The Birds is less about transitory, fleeting horror and more connected to existing collective viewpoints that are entrenched in bias.
With that being said, The Birds is a masterclass in tension – but the true fear arises from a slavish adherence to what others think and see. Melanie is the sole shining light in a sea of arbitrary bitterness – people caught up in a twisting tableau of brutality, held together by the opinions of strangers, a cage of their own choosing. It remains to be seen whether Melanie succeeds or fails in her unwitting efforts to set herself free.
For the 60th anniversary screening at the National Concert Hall, Matthew Nolan (electric guitar/synths/electronics), in collaboration with Sean Mac Erlaine (percussion/synths/electronics), Sharon Phelan (field recordings/vocals/electronics), and Eivind Aarset (electric guitar) lent their considerable musical talents towards providing a mesmerising and haunting soundtrack to the film. Stealthy and ominous, the sounds peaked and troughed at critical moments in perfect cadence with the story. It was both moving and unique. A masterful touch to one of the greatest film classics of all time.
The 60th Anniversary Screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds with New Live Score at the National Concert Hall took place on Tuesday, 7th November 2023.