Whilst The Birds is often lauded for its technical feats and set pieces involving flocks of winged assailants, underneath all this Hitchcock offers another complex character study, this time of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a San Francisco socialite who undergoes a monumental journey over the course of the film.
We see her begin as a spontaneous and impulsive woman who holds power in her interactions, but this cool façade slowly falls away when, in pursuit of love interest Mitch (Rod Taylor), she arrives at Bodega Bay, a town which is besieged by seemingly unprovoked bird attacks. Hitchcock often elected to tell his stories through the perspective of a central male character, but in The Birds (based on a short story by legendary author Daphne du Maurier) we instead see events through Melanie’s eyes. By the same token, whereas in films such as Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955) and Vertigo (1958) the director builds up to the reveal of his central female characters, here he purposely devotes a significant portion of time to Melanie, who with her prankster nature and quick comebacks positively dazzles, bringing a magnificent mixture of ice and fire to the screen.
A Fight for Freedom: Releasing the Caged Bird
From the opening shot, Hitchcock ensures that there is a close association between his leading actress and birds as Melanie walks through the streets of San Francisco while flocks fly overhead. In following her and plaguing Bodega Bay, the birds could be said to represent a trauma that Melanie is carrying and cannot shake off. At the pet shop it is Melanie who releases the canary, gesturing towards her own desires to remain free. This links with her fluttering and easy-going San Francisco social status. In response, Mitch traps the bird under his hat and – in catching the creature – he restricts it before putting it in a cage. Such a gesture acts as a reflection of him attracting Melanie and her being in the cage of Bodega Bay where she will be viewed as a spectacle by outsiders. The notion of Melanie as a bird and Mitch as a captor will reoccur in a later scene at The Tides Restaurant, when he tells her that he is a criminal lawyer and she responds by asking ‘Is that why you want to see everyone behind bars?’
When he asks Melanie for the lovebirds Mitch warns that they should not be ‘too demonstrative, nor too aloof’, an encapsulation of Hitchcock’s ideal woman. The practical joke which Mitch remembers Melanie for involved her smashing through a plate glass window, indicative of her breaking free from restraints, just like a trapped bird. This also offers a precursory image to the birds smashing through the glass windows of the phone box which Melanie will retreat inside once a full attack is launched on Bodega Bay. Additionally the phone box also signifies a throwback to her city life, which points to the reason why she chooses this as a place of safety, but it also represents her being enclosed and entrapped, like a literal bird in a cage.
Dressing Melanie: Decoding Costume
As a director who dealt primarily in aesthetics, costume plays a significant role in Hitchcock’s works and can always be examined or decoded for deeper meaning. Unlike the multiple changes of Grace Kelly in the earlier Rear Window (1954) and To Catch A Thief (1955), there is only one full outfit change in The Birds. In the early scenes which take place in San Francisco Melanie wears a sleek, black suit reflecting not only her city-slicker lifestyle but – with its specific colour and fit – she is constructed in the form of a crow or raven, linking her immediately and directly to birds. To accessorize, she carries an oversized clutch, symbolic of the vaginal and a reoccurring motif in Hitchcock’s next film Marnie (1964, also starring Hedren) which remains clasped firmly shut, indicating her coolness and unavailability.
Much has been spoken of Hitchcock’s obsession with dressing his females in grey suits, but here Hedren’s costume (of which six copies were made in order to preserve continuity and appearance) is a clear echo of a similar design donned previously by Grace Kelly in Rear Window. The pale green suit, which is worn for the remainder of the film, links her with birds again, but this time specifically with the lovebirds she purchases. Just as Melanie flutters about unrestrictedly in the city the lovebirds are shown flying freely in the pet shop (albeit accidentally). They will also remain caged for the duration of their time in Bodega Bay, a place which eventually renders Melanie catatonic.
The green colouration of the suit also signifies a closeness to nature; when she and Mitch are seen talking in the sand dunes, Melanie blends in perfectly with the greenness of the grass and hills beyond. The fur coat which she is swaddled in also provides us with information about her class, her outsider status from Bodega Bay and furthermore suggests an animalistic quality to her character. In one brief scene at the Brenner’s, Melanie emerges in a heavy, floor-length nightgown. With its high collared design and old-fashioned floral print, this costume speaks to issues of intimacy and (as she buys this from the local chemist) highlights the contrast to her high fashion lifestyle with the more homely Bodega Bay community.
Branded a Witch: The Power and the Pain of Being an Outsider
In the familiar surroundings of the city Melanie is confident and resourceful: when she realises that Mitch was in fact aware that she doesn’t work as a pet shop assistant, she provides his license plate to contacts at her father’ newspaper in order to find out more about him. To an extent, she transfers this skill to Bodega Bay where she stops at the hardware store to extract further information on Mitch. When Melanie decides to drive to Bodega Bay to deliver the lovebirds, there is a sense of her being free, independent and without care as she cruises through the picturesque roads with ease. However, the noisy, speedy nature of her vehicle pierces the serenity and quietness of the town, and this disruption of the peace signifies her position as an outsider coming into the hushed and small community. When she does arrive it is noticeable that people stop and stare at her; she dresses differently, she carries herself with an air of haughtiness and therefore she represents an otherness.
As Melanie undertakes what could be described as an odyssey of foreplay (traveling from Mitch’s apartment; to Bodega Bay; to the Brenner house) we see an inversion of the male / female dynamic. It is the female who stalks the male from San Francisco to his family home, gathering information about him without his knowledge and observing him secretly from the boat she has hired. Once Mitch spots her he views her not through the naked eye but a pair of binoculars – a phallic symbol if ever there was one – confirming that the chase is on. While he travels by land she makes her way to the jetty by water, indicating that he is more grounded while Melanie (as the archetypal Hitchcockian woman of mystery) embodies etherealness. Whenever she travels, either via land in her car or across the water to the Brenner house, she can be seen gliding with confidence, a nod to her independent spirit which also ties in with the notion of her flying like a bird. When she meets Mitch at the jetty, just as she is tipping her head and looking coyly at him, the first bird attack takes place, signalling towards a punishment for her flirtatiousness and indicating that she is not welcome. Furthermore, when at the birthday party of Mitch’s younger sister Kathy (Veronica Cartwright), both school-teacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) agree that she makes them feel tense and nervous.
As the bird attacks persist the locals discuss why this might be happening at The Tides Restaurant. Melanie is both doubted and disbelieved as she recounts the incident at the school, advising that ultimately the birds are chaotic and there is no deeper motive to be found. Interestingly the only person to speak up in support of Melanie is another woman who also happens to be a mother of two children. As the attacks escalate and the community witness the horrors first-hand they look to Melanie for blame, and the same mother who supported her earlier statements turns on her in a vicious verbal outburst. Claiming the visitor to be a witch-like incarnation she shrieks uncontrollably at her ‘You’re evil! Evil! Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you are the cause of all this.’ As she whips the crowd into a witch-trial-style fever all eyes are fixed accusingly on Melanie, now branded as a witch, solidifying her outsider status.
Bringing the Birds
As noted above, in the opening shots of the city we see a flock of birds hovering forebodingly over Melanie. In this respect the birds do not just mysteriously arrive at Bodega Bay, but it could be argued that Melanie brings the creatures with her. This reading can be supported by noting that the birds often appear after scenes of tension or unease, such as when she enquires about the room at Annie’s house or following her post-dinner altercation with Mitch. By appearing during these key moments the birds point towards being a manifestation of something unsettled in Melanie, an anger at being misunderstood or a representation of unresolved trauma in her life. The bird attack on Kathy’s party takes place immediately after Melanie displays a fragility when talking about her mother with Mitch, a conversation in which we see signs of her inner turmoil. And when she visits the school to collect Kathy she sits outside smoking, tense and worried: as her anxiety increases so too do the number of birds, who act as an outward reflection of her inner unease and (through concern for Kathy) her inner child.
While Melanie might be a prankster and prone to the odd white lie, she is often misunderstood throughout the film by those around her. The news and gossip that is reported about her is foggy at best and at worst completely false; in many ways Melanie is in for a struggle before she even arrives, her reputation preceding her. In a private conversation with Mitch his mother Lydia demonstrates an unfounded, judgemental attitude towards a tale of her falling naked into a fountain in Rome when, according to Melanie, she was pushed in with all her clothes on. Here, rather than choosing to believe a woman whom she spent time with over dinner, she prefers to trust the lies spouted about her in the press. When Mitch learns of this he teases Melanie: ‘Perhaps we can go swimming, I hear you like swimming’. However Melanie is not the empty-headed, emotionally vacant woman she has been cast as both by the media and the Bodega Bay community. At one point he calls her ‘fun’, minimising her status as a person or any deeper feelings that she might have. He scoffs at her when she tells him she works, asking incredulously ‘You have a job? What do you?’. When she talks of Rome, a place that obviously holds a great deal of personal history for her, she faces away from him: ‘It was easy to get lost there’ she confides before trailing off. It would seem that getting lost is a coping mechanism for Melanie, whom notably we never see with friends or family members.
Rebecca will return with Part II of her analysis of Melanie in The Birds next month.