John Bennett
Dr. Gregory Robinson
FIS 410




The Birds (1963) is a thriller about a series of attacks by birds on the citizens of Bodega Bay, California. The plot concerns Melanie, an immature socialite from San Francisco, driving to Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of lovebirds to Mitch, a lawyer who’s visiting his mother, as a light practical joke. A romantic relationship begins to develop between them, but is interrupted due to a series violent bird attacks. The attacks intensify as the film goes on.

The tone of the film progresses by means of escalation. Screenwriter Evan Hunter described the story as “a screwball comedy . . . [that] gradually turns into stark terror.” (McCombe 67) The earlier scenes are reminiscent of the types of romantic comedies that might have featured Rock Hudson and Doris Day. However, by the end of the film, the tone resembles that of a horror movie, with menacing shadows, flickering light, and low camera angles. Viewing the opening and ending sequences without any gradation in-between might feel like watching two completely separate films that just happen to have the same actors.

Early scenes:

Later scenes:

Meaning of the Birds

The most obvious question that arises from the film is the purpose of the birds themselves. After all, they are the title of the film, and the main hook is the primal thrill of watching people get attacked by them. Yet, the film provides no obvious explanation for their actions, and furthermore, goes out of its way to draw attention to the ambiguity. (Wood 153)

The original short story was an allegory for the Cold War (Dick 242), but the film is not so clear-cut. Some people feel that the birds are a representation of a mother figure. (Buchanan 106) They have also been interpreted as an “external manifestation” of what the characters were feeling towards each other. (Dick 243) Yet others have come to the conclusion that there simply is no direct explanation for the birds’ behavior (McCombe 70), or that they are this film’s version of a MacGuffin. (Morris 251)

A more cynical reading of the film, however, could interpret the birds as part of a role reversal with the human characters. That is, the birds begin to represent humans, and the humans take on the role of birds.

As such, the birds adopt a random, violent nature, attacking those that are different from them for no obvious reason. The birds are not just attacking humans, but also other animals, as they are also seen going after some horses during the attack on the gas station. Their targets have no pattern, nor do their reasons for attacking. Sometimes they seem to be mildly disturbed by noise, but other times, they act on their own initiative, so perhaps it’s for their own sport and entertainment.

The humans, then, become the weaker species, having to group together for safety, or confine themselves to small enclosures. After the attack on the gas station, a group of people are lined up inside a hallway, somewhat resembling a flock of birds. The children running away from the school are also like a flock of birds fleeing from a predator. And many of the over casualties happen when one of the characters wanders away from the flock, as towards the end of the film when Melanie wanders upstairs alone and is attacked when she discovers the birds have broken through the roof.


Additionally, the Brenner house is like a metaphor for a nest. Although Mitch is a successful lawyer working in San Francisco, he still returns home on a regular basis. In other words, he never completely left the nest. Also, after Lydia discovers Dan’s dead body, the film goes out of its way to show her running back to her truck and driving home to safety before ending the scene. And of course, they are later cooped up (so to speak) inside the house during the final part of the film.

From this perspective, the title of the film not only refers literally to the birds, but also metaphorically to the human characters.

Common Themes with Other Hitchcock Films

One theme apparent in The Birds that is also prominent in many other Hitchcock films is the antagonistic mother figure. In fact, this element plays a strong role in both the preceding and proceeding films, //Psycho// and Marnie. (Dick 238-9) In The Birds, it takes the form of Lydia, Mitch’s mother, who initially expresses disapproval towards Melanie. It is also established that she had previously obstructed a relationship between Mitch and Annie. However, Lydia does seem to come to accept Melanie by the end of the film.

It is also argued that the birds themselves constitute as Hitchcock’s MacGuffin plot device. (Morris 251) That is, it doesn’t matter why the birds attack, they’re simply a thing that motivates the plot. This perspective seems to be validated by Bernard F. Dick of Fairleigh Dickinson University who stated, “The Birds is a film of such incredible density that it admits of an indeterminate number of interpretations, all of which can be right, or at least plausible.” (243) Although the topic is not dwelled upon throughout the entire film, there is a scene in which various characters discuss the birds’ behavior. No definitive explanation is ever delivered, but they are a MacGuffin, any explanation would be irrelevant anyway.


Scene Analysis 1

In this scene, Lydia makes a phone call to complain about some chicken feed she was sold. Her chickens haven’t been eating, and she thinks the food must have been bad.

The whole scene is a single take with an Orson Wells-style depth-of-field view. Lydia is in the foreground, but there is also a clear view of Mitch, Melanie and Cathy behind her. Although Lydia’s conversation on the phone is prominent, it is also possible to hear the exchanges between Mitch and Melanie in the background. Mitch offers Melanie a drink, and Melanie later asks Mitch about a picture.

As the scene starts off, Mitch implies that bad chicken feed isn’t really Fred’s responsibility, stating, “Let the buyer beware.” Lydia replies, “Whose side are you one?” This exemplifies her tendency to be antagonistic. It has already been established that she got in the way of Mitch’s relationship with Annie, and has also shown disapproval towards Melanie.

As the scene continues, the camera view shows Melanie and Mitch in the background with Lydia between them. Lydia prominently fills the frame, dividing Mitch and Melanie behind her. This indicates that she is the main obstacle that would keep Mitch and Melanie apart. However, Mitch soon moves back to the left side of the frame, joining Melanie, as if he has decided to be with her. They both sip from their glasses and lower them at the same time, establishing a link between them through synchronicity.

Another purpose the scene serves, however, is to emphasize the shift in the film’s plot. The earlier scenes in the film focus primarily on the relationship between Mitch and Melanie. But towards the end of the film, the focus is placed heavily on the birds. This particular scene demonstrates that as Mitch and Melanie are left in the background while Lydia begins to realize that the chickens’ strange behavior is not due to the feed. This also distracts the viewer from the relationship and directs his/her attention towards the birds instead.

Scene Analysis 2

This scene takes place just after the attack on the gas station, and Mitch and Melanie return into the restaurant to find the other people hiding in the hallway.

Following the idea that the humans are becoming more like birds, the first glimpse of them is across some indoor foliage. As Mitch and Melanie get closer, the inhabitants are shown lining up against both walls, resembling a lineup of perched birds on telephone wires or tree branches. More foliage is in the hallway, continuing to provide a bird-like habitat for the people. As Mitch and Melanie further approach, Mitch almost makes a “shh” motion with his mouth, as if not to frighten them.

The camera then switches between shots of Mitch and Melanie, and the various people hiding in the hallway. It’s a shot/reverse-shot rhythm that seems to imply some silent conversation. The expressions on the people’s faces seem accusatory. The exception is Mrs. Bundy, the Ornithologist who previously denied any possibility that birds would have the capacity to be organized or aggressive enough to launch an attack on humans. She faces away from the camera, as if either embarrassed, disturbed, or even both.

Up to this point, the birds could be heard squawking and screeching in the background, but gradually being faded out. They only completely disappear at this point when someone finally speaks.

Here, the mother of the two children begins her accusatory rant against Melanie. Shots of both women are seen from subjective POV shots: the mother directing her accusations into the camera, and Melanie speechlessly reacting to the camera’s gaze. One quick shot shows Mitch glancing over at Melanie, emphasizing that the verbal attack is, indeed, aimed directly at her. Robin Wood interpreted this sequence as also being aimed at the audience. (167) Interestingly, the two women do not appear in the same shot together except for when Melanie’s hand slices into the frame to slap the mother, thus ending her rant. Melanie follows up by putting her hand to her own neck, as if she had just been strangled.

Finally, another man runs into the restaurant and says, “I think they’re going,” indicating the end of the bird attack. Mitch and Melanie leave as the people in the hallway disperse, followed by a shot of the birds also dispersing. The bird noises also fade back in. The parallels between these actions, as well Melanie being attacked by both by the birds while in the phone booth in the preceding scene and the mother in the hallway further reinforces the interpretation of the similarities between the people and the birds.

Example of Cultural Impact

Since its release, The Birds has penetrated pop culture, as demonstrated in this humorous TV commercial from 1998.

Works Cited

Buchanan, Ian. "Schizoanalysis and Hitchcock: Deleuze and The Birds." Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture & Politics 15.1 (2002): 105-118. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 5 Apr. 2011.

Dick, Bernard F. "Hitchcock's Terrible Mothers." Literature Film Quarterly 28.4 (2000): 238. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 5 Apr. 2011.

McCombe, John P. "Oh, I See.... ": The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock's Hyper-Romantic Vision." Cinema Journal 44.3 (2005): 64-80. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 5 Apr. 2011.

Morris, Christopher D. "Reading the Birds and "The Birds.." Literature Film Quarterly 28.4 (2000): 250. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 5 Apr. 2011.

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. Revised ed. New York: Columbia, 2002. Print.