Understanding Hitchcock’s The Birds
I have already discussed the triangular nature of desire which characterises novelistic works, and how this structure leads to violence as the subject has to overcome either his mediator or some other stumbling block (like Cohn in The Sun Also Rises) in realising his desire.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds has the same structure as the great literary works. It is little surprise the film is based on a work of fiction, and that as with the great novels there is little consensus about its structure and meaning.
Hitchcock said the film is about nature taking revenge against humans. Camille Paglia suggests it is an ode to female sexuality. Others suggest the birds are a metaphor for the mother’s rage at being replaced by a younger and more attractive arriviste.
Writing in The Australian, David Stratton, Australia’s leading film critic, asks:
Why do the birds attack? The film is peppered with clues. Some people at the time believed it was an allegory for a nuclear holocaust, others suggested that the birds represented the communists who were ever-present in American society, waiting only for the opportunity to take over, while for others the film represents Judgment Day.
All of these theories suppose the film’s meaning is discoverable by first uncovering the motivation of the birds in setting upon the town. But literary works rise or fall in what they reveal about their characters. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “Character is plot; plot is character.”
The birds are relevant to the story, but only insofar as they reveal something about the society they are attacking. This is no small role. They set the scene for a profound revelation. It is in crises (or more accurately, responses to minor crises which become much larger ones) that history is written and human nature is revealed. And plagues are crises par excellence (which is why I am so concerned by over-reaction to the current plague).
Jesus was executed during a political crisis in first century Judea. Salem was riven by disputes and infighting when the witch burnings began in 1692. Examples in Weimar Germany following the economic depression of the early 1930s are not hard to divine.
The structure of crisis -> false accusation -> violence recurs in myths too. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is accused of killing his father during a plague before being excommunicated. In The Iliad, Agamemnon is accused of offering his child as a sacrifice when bad weather descends on the Greeks and killed as a result.
In all cases the society sacrifices an outsider to ventilate its members' unconscious resentment and restore solidarity among its remaining members. The victim is always innocent, a fact which pride prevents the community from ever acknowledging (many in France went to their graves honestly believing Alfred Dreyfus was a treasonous subverter).
In Hitchcock’s film, an urbane outsider arrives in a small town. She is innocent and well-intentioned, but her sophistication and big city airs render her ripe for victimisation among her provincial hosts.
A crisis descends on the town, one which could not possibly have been caused by the outsider any more than Joan of Arc could have been a real witch. As the turmoil reaches its apogee the outsider is finally turned upon.
This is the key moment in the film, the cathartic release to which all of the tension builds. The birds are the crisis, the mob's pretext for destroying the symbol of its unsatisfied desire. The heroine is falsely accused and excommunicated in the hope of things returning to normality.
Somewhat unusually, the heroine is not the subject in the triangle (e.g. Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley) but the mediator (Dickie Greenleaf), the one destined to be victimised. The structure is the same, the perspective merely shifted to the viewpoint of the victim as in Dostoyevsky’s The Eternal Husband.
Rather than revealing the vanity of desiring, the film shows the perils of being desired. It is a classic revelation of the scapegoat mechanism, even if its creator merely intuited and never fully grasped his own work's significance.
What's Good are short reviews of under-appreciated and misunderstood works.