60 Years Later, The Birds Is a Potent Reminder That We’re Not in Charge
“Why are they doing this?!?”
In 1963, the thought of humanity ever paying for its sins against nature wasn’t on many minds. It certainly wasn’t an idea that felt prescient or inevitable. That didn’t stop Alfred Hitchcock from exploring the chilling possibilities of nature punishing humanity for its hubris. In doing so, he made not only one of the most iconic films of his career but also cinema’s first truly great environmental thriller.
The Birds was an ambitious follow-up to 1960’s Psycho. It remains one of the most important horror films ever made, even if its reputation has been complicated by Hitchcock’s horrendous treatment of its star, Tippi Hedren. As a film, however, it’s not only one of Hitchcock’s most beloved films, but one of his most prescient and influential.
Based on a short story by Rebecca author Daphne du Maurier, The Birds follows Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a San Francisco socialite who decides to escape the city following a mysterious public embarrassment. Along her journey, she meets the handsome but cold Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and decides to follow him to his hometown of Bodega Bay, California. Once there, it isn’t long before Melanie, Mitch, and the rest of Bodega Bay’s citizens find themselves on the receiving end of attacks by the local birds.
Part of The Birds’ brilliance is that its horrifying, near-apocalyptic story starts in a pedestrian manner. The first act sets up an unlikely romance between Melanie and Mitch, two people constantly hampered by their own insecurities. Then the second act burns all these plot threads.
Once the bird attacks begin, Melanie and Mitch’s personal lives don’t matter anymore. None of the film’s human concerns do. They’re dwarfed by the magnitude of the attacks, rendered meaningless and inconsequential in the face of what might be the end of the world.
Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter repeatedly reinforce the film’s themes of human frivolity. Every time an attack takes place, its characters seek shelter from nature’s wrath in manmade structures. But whether it’s a phone booth or a home, the vengeful birds manage to make it inside and tear away humanity’s false sense of security. And when the birds prove more difficult to evade than they’d like, the citizens of Bodega Bay begin to turn on each other.
Seeking explanations, several characters turn to superstition and religion. A drunken sailor is convinced a Biblical Day of Reckoning has arrived, while a terrified mother blames Melanie, calling her evil and proclaiming that she brought death and terror to her family’s doorstep. In both instances, Hitchcock treats these unfulfilling attempts at rationalization with terror and humorous disdain. Behind the camera, the filmmaker knows the danger such superstitious behavior poses, but he also can’t help but laugh at the zealous intensity of it.
The Birds famously doesn’t explain why the birds attack, but it doesn’t need to. All you need to do is look at the self-importance of the human characters to understand why nature decides to punish them. And The Birds does that, over and over again, until its characters have nothing left to do but surrender to mother nature’s might.
For proof, look no further than the evolution of Taylor’s Mitch. At the start of the film, he’s quick to rush into action and fend off the birds to save someone’s life. But at the end, he’s forced to walk quietly through a sea of crows, unable to do anything but hope they don’t attack.
It’s the ultimate cinematic humbling. Not only does The Birds force Taylor — a stereotypical male movie star if there’s ever been one — to put himself at the mercy of nature, but it also forces him to realize just how powerless he is in the face of it. In 2023, the weight of that message is even heavier.