Continuing our Hitchcock’s Women series, Rebecca McCallum concludes her two-part analysis of Melanie Daniels in The Birds.
The Boy Is Mine: Melanie and Annie
School teacher Annie, whom Melanie both confides in and has conflict with throughout the film, stands in contrast to her character but also serves as a potential forecast of the life to come. As Melanie learns that Annie had an unsuccessful relationship with Mitch, which she attributes to Lydia’s overbearing nature, there is a sense that she is also looking directly into her own future. When we first meet Annie, she immediately appears less polished than the San Franciscan socialite. Furthermore she is also interrupted whilst toiling the soil in her gardening gloves, pointing towards her earthiness. The two share a slightly stilted conversation and a cigarette: a small moment which highlights their class difference, as Annie’s comes from a crumpled carton whilst Melanie picks hers from a high-end cigarette case. When in conversation about Mitch Melanie is not intimidated by Annie but nor is she rude and there is an interesting counterbalance of friendship and tension between the pair. As Melanie leaves Annie’s house after her first visit she puts out her cigarette just ahead of the gateway, a gesture which signifies that she is marking out her territory.
However the affection Melanie feels for Annie becomes apparent after the schoolteacher falls prey to the birds. Upon finding Annie dead Melanie becomes hysterical, the trauma clearly audible in her voice. As she holds Kathy (whom Annie has sacrificed herself for in order to save) Melanie begs Mitch – “Oh don’t leave her there’”- pointing toward her exposed mutilated body. Despite their differences, Melanie still recognises her as a human and as a friend and Annie’s death leaves her completely broken.
The Child Within: Melanie and Kathy
Rather than the traditional romantic interest being the focal point of the film, there is plenty of evidence in The Birds to suggest that the most meaningful relationship is not that of Melanie and Mitch, but of Melanie and the female characters who surround her. In addition to her fraught friendship with Annie, Melanie’s behaviour and interactions with both Mitch’s sister Kathy and mother Lydia are worthy of close attention. When Kathy and Melanie first meet they seem instantly at ease with one another: Kathy’s welcome is non-judgemental and accepting as she opens her arms wide to embrace the visitor. Unlike the inhabitants of Bodega Bay, Kathy never perceives Melanie as an outsider and nor does she allow her opinion to be clouded with misconceptions. In the early stages of the film Melanie is established as a playful, mischievous character and part of her feeling such a solid connection with Kathy is formed as she recognises and is attracted to her youthfulness, freedom, and often sassy quips. When we see her with Kathy, the hard edges of Melanie begin to soften as she calls her “darling” and plays piano while chatting in an easy manner that does not come so freely with others. However Melanie still struggles and is keen to maintain a certain distance, such as when Kathy asks her to attend her birthday party, an invitation which she initially turns down.
When she and Mitch edge towards their most candid discussion in the sand dunes, a still guarded Melanie tells of how her mother left when she was eleven years old. “I don’t know where she is…” she trails off with a detectable tremor in her voice. Mitch eventually persuades Melanie to stay for Kathy’s birthday party, where – coincidentally – she is turning eleven, making her the same age that Melanie was when she was abandoned, another potential reason for their unspoken bond. When the birds launch a further attack at the party, Melanie instinctively rushes to protect the children first and foremost at all costs. Similarly, when the birds swoop down on her during the attack upon the school, she chooses to protect Kathy. In the final scenes of the film at the Brenner house, in a reversal of the caregiver / cared for dynamic Kathy holds Melanie and applies a damp cloth to her forehead, assuming a motherly role.
Meeting the Matriarch: Melanie and Lydia
The distance between Melanie and Lydia reflects the conflict and trauma apparent in the relationship with her own mother. Melanie doesn’t know where her mother is and when Mitch remarks that she needs ‘a mother’s care’ she reacts vehemently: “Not my mothers’, don’t waste your time.” She becomes teary on the subject and closes down the conversation before saying “I ought to go and join the other children”, demonstrating that she sees herself as a child and that in being a child there is a freedom that is appealing to her.
Although cold on the surface, Lydia is able to talk openly about the grief she has experienced in regard to her husband and this touches Melanie who fights back tears whilst no doubt considering the relationship with her own mother. In their heart-to-heart, although Lydia may have reservations about Melanie, there is a warmth to the perceived intruder that enables people to open up to her whilst in her company. Eventually Melanie and Lydia come to terms with one another in a very human way which represents a repairing of a fractured mother / daughter relationship. In the final shot Melanie sits in the arms of Lydia like a child and in their lasting embrace it is as though when Melanie looks up to Lydia longingly, she is imagining this to be her mother.
A Lonely Dark Stairway: The Trauma of Survival
In the final act of the film the lonely, dark stairway of the Brenner house stretches before Melanie and fear awaits her behind the closed door to the attic. Alone and in a state of shock, she doesn’t need to climb the stairs nor open the door, but she chooses to do so and in confronting the birds Melanie is demonstrating that she can face her trauma head on and still survive. During shooting, Hedren questioned her director as to why Melanie would go into the attic when the whole town was under attack, and nothing seems to epitomize the uneven power dynamic in their relationship more than his response: “Because I tell you to.” Melanie may have suffered fictional torment, but actress Tippi Hedren endured real-life trauma during the filming of scenes with the birds at the hand of Hitchcock (as explored in detail in the 2012 drama The Girl), a man whom she remembers in her memoirs as making her full of “admiration, gratitude and utter disgust”1.
When trauma is faced however the prospect of survival does not always mean happy endings, and for Melanie it seems that the future will involve a lengthy and emotional healing process. In these final moments her buoyancy has diminished and it is as though the life and vivacity has drained out of her. In short she appears completely changed and now she is in the care of the Brenner’s who have become her adoptive family. Lying on the couch she swings her arms about deliriously as though regressing to a little girl experiencing nightmares. Tragically, she now has to be assisted into the car which she once drove so freely about the winding roads. Bound in bandages and covered in cuts she is visibly broken and bruised, a shell of her former self. As she nestles into Lydia for comfort this stands in contrast to an earlier scene in which Melanie held Kathy tightly to console her during the bird attack upon the school.
Almost sixty years on The Birds remains a moving portrait of a woman who journeys from mischievousness and independence to selfless and domestic caregiver before finally being reduced to a speechless and incapacitated shell. In truth Melanie’s prankster persona is part of who she is, but it is also an honest cry for love and attention. In the films’ final shots both Melanie and the birds seem to mirror one another once again as she remains frozen and in a state of catatonia, whilst in turn the birds are seen roosting and refrain from attack. While she may have begun the film projecting a stiff and cool exterior the events that unfold allow her to spend time with the Brenner family, and bring to the forefront that her greatest desire is to love, be loved and to belong.
1 Young, C. Hitchcock’s Heroines. 2018
Rebecca will return in a few weeks with another deep-dive as part of our HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN series.