HBO’s recent television film The Girl, which purports to portray the “true” story behind the relationship between Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock, is instead an abysmally twisted recreation of the dynamic between the actress and the legendary director. The movie is based largely on biographer Donald Spoto’s Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (2008), a book for which Hedren contributed–for the first time–tales of her troubles with Hitchcock during the production of her two films with him: 1963’s The Birds, and 1964’s Marnie.
Not having read Spoto’s book, I cannot comment on how faithfully screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes adapted the original material into her teleplay, but if it’s at all close to the source material, I can firmly say I have no interest in reading Spoto’s treatise. The resulting film is shallow, biased, and wholly lacking in veracity and depth (the term “hatchet-job” might be an appropriate one here). From the very start, it is evident that the film has an agenda; the “dirty old man” vibe thrown off by The Girl is unmistakable, with Hitchcock coming off as the wily and dangerous predator to Hedren’s innocent and ultimately helpless victim.
But all of that might be excusable (and provide the same kind of campy fun as other ridiculously superficial biopics, such as 1989’s Great Balls of Fire!) were it the slightest bit entertaining as well. Sadly, an excellent cast is grossly misused here. Toby Jones’ Hitchcock is a doddering and somewhat pathetic shadow of the man himself (even the voice, despite its undeniable similarity to the director’s own, comes off as mere parody here). Sienna Miller, a woman whose limited acting abilities are actually on par with Hedren’s, if truth be told, is slightly more lively than the mechanical birds shown in a couple of scenes–whether she’s trying to ape Hedren’s legendary woodenness or just can’t quite pull off the character as written is anybody’s guess. And when Alma Hitchcock–played by the otherwise excellent Imelda Staunton–is not being shunted aside as a mere secondary character, she is depicted as a jealous, bitter, snide caricature–poor treatment of a woman who was Hitchcock’s most trusted adviser and helpmate throughout the course of his career and life, a woman whom Hedren herself acknowledged as being considerate and thoughtful in advising the upstart actress (at least Staunton gets the most biting comment of the film, telling her husband, “The day she drops her knickers, you’ll run a mile”).
Truly, it boggles the mind how such a film was ever produced. Not only that, it’s absolutely infuriating that viewers who have no background at all about either Hedren or Hitchcock will no doubt base their opinions of these two figures on their portrayal in this film. Neither of them comes off very well at all, and neither of them honestly deserves to be painted this way.
[For more regarding Hitch and Hedren, check out playwright Elisabeth Karlin's recent article "The Art of Accusing Hitchcock," posted on the Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog.]
The single positive thing to come out of watching The Girl this past weekend is that it led me back to The Birds, a movie I had not seen in a couple of years. I doubt many will ever mistake The Birds for being one of Hitchcock’s better works. But it is, perhaps, the most allegorical tale the director ever put to film, and that in itself makes it quite appealing.
One of the universal questions that most viewers of The Birds leave the film asking is: what do the bird attacks mean? Are they a symbol of something? A means of retribution of some kind? Do they have any meaning at all? Hitchcock never answers the question–the attacks are the grand “MacGuffin” of the film, the device that furthers the plot and allows the director to string together his intended narrative. Indeed, Hitchcock really never intended us to question the “why” of The Birds, just as we are not meant to inquire about the “government secrets” driving the plot of North by Northwest (1959), or the aircraft plans in The 39 Steps (1935), or the uranium in Notorious (1948), because those things ultimately have little to do with the story Hitchcock has crafted on the screen. But in regards to The Birds, speculation about the MacGuffin is rather unavoidable, in part because, unlike the previously-mentioned MacGuffin-driven plots, the story of The Birds does not hold together successfully as a tale on its own merits. The bird attacks range from benign to merely serviceable, never fully treading into “horror” territory the way Hitchcock’s previous film, Psycho, did so chillingly. Further, the central romance between Melanie (Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) is not an overly interesting one; aside from small bouts of could-be-wittier banter, the pair lacks a great deal of chemistry, and Mitch’s interest in Melanie is never fully clear (other than, you know, the fact that she looks like Tippi Hedren). And because we lack a better focus in the film, it’s easy to fixate on the birds themselves, to try to understand their behavior.
There’s no dearth of speculation out there about the “meaning” of The Birds. Here are a few of my favorite theories.
A Freudian/Feminist Spin on the Attacks
This viewpoint, which borrows heavily from feminist criticism of the film posited by Camille Paglia, recasts the “birds” of the title as the women in Mitch’s life (“bird” being slang for a female–usually intended to refer to a sexually-attractive girl, but given a generalized feminine definition here). There are three women whose relationships with Mitch are disrupted somewhat by Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay: his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy); his former lover, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette); and, to a much lesser degree, his sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). All three of these women essentially spend their lives “flocking” around Mitch; he is, in a sense, their whole world, the singular male authority figure in all of their lives. When Melanie arrives, boasting a leashed, potent sexuality that threatens to displace their shared “roost” (so to speak), the physical bird attacks can be seen as emanating from the three displaced women’s collective anger and frustration.
Note that the first attack comes after Melanie has entered Lydia and Cathy’s “roost” to leave the lovebirds for Cathy; the seagull’s dive-bombing attack is a warning shot that Melanie ignores. She moves on to Annie’s territory by choosing to board with her for the night; another warning shot arrives as another gull slams itself into Annie’s front door. The first full-fledged attack comes at Cathy’s birthday party, which Melanie attends (note, however, that the link to Cathy is tenuous, at best. Cathy welcomes Melanie and is genuinely pleased with her gift, though a Freudian analysis would speculate that she nonetheless harbors a deep-seated, subconscious fear that Melanie will “replace” her in her brother’s affections). It is after the party that all hell breaks loose and the attacks begin to spread across town, culminating in Annie’s death and accusations from a hysterical woman who superstitiously points at Melanie as the “evil” source of the attacks. The attacks only end when Melanie essentially “sacrifices” herself to an onslaught of birds in the end of the film–her subsequent catatonia and helplessness lead Lydia to take on the role of “mother,” and it can be assumed that it is her implicit acceptance of Melanie (and the regaining of her position as the “head” female character) which precipitates the end of the chaos and the uneasy detente at the conclusion of the film.
Through the Lens of the Cold War
Released in the midst of years-long tensions with the USSR, and a mere five months after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Birds seems at times to reverberate with a bone-deep fear of hostile, outside forces attacking the helpless populace. By extension, the film can be seen as a symbolic representation of the potentially deadly outcome of the Cold War, with the United States (as represented by Bodega Bay) demonstrating a decided inability to respond in kind to an outside threat.
The nuclear arms race during the Cold War was a game of uncertainty. Neither side was ever fully aware of what the other side was cooking up in its labs and military installations. Either side could, for all the other knew, be harboring a weapon of such destructive capabilities that its opponents would have no means of recourse. Looking at The Birds in light of 1960s geopolitics, it stands to reason that the attacks, for which the human victims have no true method of like response, can be viewed allegorically as such a weapon, promising to rain terror on the heads of innocents and promising annihilation.
Are the bird attacks the harbingers of an apocalyptic scenario that will see the end of the world–or, at least, the end of humanity as we know it? In the world of the film, there is no scientific explanation as to why the birds are attacking the human occupants of the town–even the ornithologist (Ethel Griffies) is stymied by what’s going on, even though she initially denies that it’s intentional of the animals’ part (“Birds are not aggressive creatures”). So is there a spiritual or metaphysical cause behind the attacks? An old drunk in the diner thinks so: “It’s the end of the world. Thus sayeth the Lord God unto the mountains and the hills, and the rivers and the valleys. Behold I, even I shall bring a sword upon ya. And I will devastate your high places. Ezekiel, chapter six.”
It certainly feels cataclysmic, watching the destruction of a town from something as relatively benign as a flock of birds. It brings to mind the plagues of Egypt, with feathered fiends standing in for mounds of frogs and sheets of locusts. Hitchcock’s direction even feeds into the apocalyptic notion, with the intermittent camera shots of the burning town from a birds-eye view (in the wake of the gas station explosion): are the birds (representative of the forces of God?) looking down upon the misery they have wrought/the retribution they have meted out, and judging humanity? Or are they just flying above the fray? In any case, those of us watching it on the screen are, at the very least, reminded of our own mortality, of the fragility of human life and the forces of nature that can easily douse it.
Hitchcock was a fan of the chaotic. Just a glance at his filmography shows a distinct fondness for putting characters into barely-controllable situations and watching them navigate their way through utter bedlam. In The Birds, Hitchcock crafts his most anarchic set-up yet: nature itself has turned against humanity, and there is no escape. It’s a role reversal of the most deliciously diabolical kind, per Christopher D. Morris: at the start of the film, it is birds who are caged by humans; by the film’s conclusion, it is the birds who are, in essence, caging mankind (and as if to make absolutely certain that we don’t miss the metaphor, Hitchcock puts Hedren in a telephone booth).
To be sure, Hitchcock’s films seem to take an immense amount of pleasure in ripping away the veneers of civilization and exposing the frailties underneath. There is both a literal and a figurative breakdown of society in this film: the birds physically destroy the things (possessions) that separate animal from human, while at the same time decimating the established way of life and snapping the bonds of various relationships between people and, at large, the world around them. And this film succeeds more than perhaps any other Hitchcock production in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of “civilization” (as a concept) in the face of pandemonium. Homes, schools, businesses are invaded. There is no place any of these people can go to be completely safe from the attacking birds. Repeatedly, we see them infiltrating the inner sanctums of the characters, rendering them helpless. The characters may try to hide or ignore the chaos around them but, as Hitchcock gleefully reminds us time after time, they cannot. Thus the film becomes an allegory of humanity’s tenuous relationship with nature, postulating the theory that, should nature someday turn against us, mankind is (to put it bluntly) utterly fucked. Any illusion that we have any measure of control over nature is just that–an illusion.
Regardless of how you view the film, or how you personally analyze the MacGuffin at its heart, one thing is clear: The Birds is, in many ways, a much deeper film than it is sometimes given credit for. There are sophisticated themes buried beneath the horror and the spectacle; the film is a veritable goldmine of allegorical interpretation. Indeed, the very act of analyzing this film’s MacGuffin is an allegorical construct–we, the film’s audience, attempt to ascribe meaning to an element of the film that, as it is presented to us, has no meaning. We are “reading” the film in a particular way, based on whatever preconceived notions we bring to it, just as the characters in the film try to “read” the birds’ attacks and ascribe meaning to them.
Quite the vicious cycle, is it not?