Sunday, October 28, 2007

Allegorical Construct in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963), Part 3



It might perhaps be useful to now look at particular scenes within the film. As the main character, we naturally try to identify with Melanie as much as we can. As has been looked into previously, this is something Hitchcock does not ask of us to do in the same way most films do. The most accessible moments for empathy, then, are in attack sequences, where her bewilderment is similarly ours, and there is a turning point in spirit of this, at which we suddenly become all too aware of what extent a senseless and vicious upset to life has beset Melanie. This is the moment of Melanie's literal “entrapment” in the spectacular town attack sequence, in which the film inexplicably has Melanie retreat into the safety/danger of a glass phone booth. This short sequence is especially striking in its structural placement within the whole scene. Out of nowhere, Melanie decides it is a good idea to retreat from the Restaurant, likely with the intention to go assist Mitch in some faculty. How quickly she aborts that idea of going to him, though, and instead flees inside a phone booth, with the apparent desire to assist by staring out helplessly from behind glass at the chaos around her. What brought her in there to just look, witness to but separate and protected from the death and destruction going on outside? Nothing less than, again, the whims of Hitchcock the director, who launches kamikaze gulls into the glass in a premature attempt to tear down Melanie into that final state she will finally reach in the fateful attic attack. This moment in the phone booth is jarring in its perfunctory nature, her experience inside the booth merely peripheral to the real battle with the birds and the fire that Mitch and the other men are preoccupied with. When Mitch finally comes to her rescue and her brief stint within the glass cage is forgotten in the characters’ minds, the barrage of stimuli that had just occurred - the 360 degree view of destruction, the sound of shattering glass, the 3-D images of suicidal birds causing sparkles of glass to shower like painful glitter, all this occurring within no more than 10 seconds - still lingers within the viewer in its aggrandized intimacy. Throughout it all, we were in that booth with her, as Hitchcock’s camera, internalizing for ourselves the sense of the walls entrapping her. During this sequence, the camera never pulls back wide from Melanie and never leaves the phone booth. The camera is stationed with her throughout, either giving the viewer close-up of her face or a glimpse of what she sees from inside the booth. One shot is an overhead of her (thus in the confines of the booth still), angling straight down on Melanie as she spins around in dismay. This rigid formal insistence creates the true effectiveness of this scene. Here the film further comes into its own as Hitchcock’s personal machine meant to process and break down this character in an allegorical calculator, devoted to her and piecing together her existential development. This brief interlude with Melanie in the phone booth strikes a rhythm that encapsulates Melanie’s character in a most compact way: cursorily she is exposed to pain, to passion, but instead she finds sanctuary within a glass cage of emotional suppression, complacency, or, in this case, plain, overwhelmed uncomprehending. In this brief minute, Hitchcock makes manifest the terror of existence Melanie is living with, whether as a person or meaningless automaton. It is the nature that this moment lasts but a glancing moment that emphasizes preoccupation with allegorical, poetical performative instead of narrative, and the magnitude in which the film works, pure, ballet-like, and bullet-like, in symbolic allegory. The aesthetic as well as emotional vividness of this moment makes it probably one of the film's most convincing analogies to a poem's stanza - her experience in the booth is a moment of pure evocation, not of development.

Hitchcock is not preoccupied with realism – he is invested in artifice in film and the observing camera, for, like Peter Wollen says, “For Hitchcock it is not the problem of loyalty or allegiance which is uppermost, but the mechanisms of spying and pursuit of themselves” (Elsaesser, 3). This perfectly describes Hitchcock’s approach to directing in any of his films, and in the case of The Birds, it is almost literally true in its study of self-realizations through external observation. The camera in The Birds functions mostly in two ways: observing the characters and observing what the characters themselves observe. Hitchcock finds much insight in the character’s gaze, for it is always in the face that the “pursuit of themselves” ultimately manifests. Following the film’s sparrow attack on the living room, there is a scene consisting of Mitch speaking to the town sheriff while Melanie and his family surround them. Throughout their conversation, Melanie silently observes Lydia as she wanders around straightening up the sparrow-strewn living room. This small scene is particularly noteworthy in its aesthetic-thematic collusion. The scene opens with a striking shot of Melanie from her back, her figure large in the foreground and lighted in a way such as to separate her with shadow from this broken family and their broken home that she has suddenly interloped into. In a series of reaction and point-of-view shots, we follow Melanie’s eye-line as she observes a weary Lydia trying to salvage the broken order of her house. Melanie watches with an impenetrably blank gaze as Lydia picks up broken teacups, frets about where to put it, and in the most affecting moment, tries to straighten the portrait of her dead husband that presides over the living area, only for a dead sparrow to fall in front of her and startle her. Melanie’s troubled gaze seems to intimate a dawning understanding of this woman’s precarious grasp on meaning in the face of deep self-weakening and an increasingly empty life. The scene intercuts continuously between Lydia’s movements and Melanie’s gaze, and while Melanie's expression reveals very little, the very issue of her troubled fascination with this sad woman’s futile gestures is of course a reflection upon herself. In this way, this scene is Melanie continuing the emotional realizations the film forces upon her and a strikingly subtle presentation of characters’ “pursuit of themselves.” Robin Wood sees Melanie’s gaze at Lydia as “the clearest possible visual communication of the unspoken questions: ‘Has life any purpose? Has this woman’s life any purpose? Has my life any purpose?’” (Wood, 138). Wood gets down into the nitty-gritty of the film’s existential evocations, seeing the film’s portrayal of transitory relationships and the destructive recurrence of abandonment as corroboration of the “futility” (as Thomas Leitch calls it) (Smith, 127) of life, or the “triviality” and “habitual play-acting” that is life (according to Wood) (Wood, 129).

An endless “pursuit” is communicated rather deftly by the film’s use of dissolve as a transition. The film is literally made up of dissolves. The film consistently moves from sequence to sequence with a cross-fade. Other than being constructive in emphasizing the film’s directionless narrative, ceaselessly periodic repetition of attacks, and perpetual muting of catharsis, there are numerous times the film fades out on a character staring blankly in a moment of troubled, eternally unresolved discontent. From the fade-out on Annie, vividly placed behind her deep red mailbox, as she stares off at Melanie driving away, to the one on Lydia’s sad gaze after Mitch tells her, “I know exactly what I want” in their kitchen, these tentative expressions, aided by the pure sensuousness of the mise en scene and vivid Technicolor, are stirring examples of characters in pursuit of themselves, united in a strong associative sense by this dissolve. Lydia's selfish need for her son is a pathology that will never ever allow her the complete contentment of a stronger woman who, perhaps, happens to value her son for who he is instead of what he brings her. Annie will never be with Mitch yet she's out to live her whole life staring off into space while a melancholy fade-out happens in her head. These transitional dissolves on a gaze are very effective in establishing the film’s limbo world of characters unaware of or hopelessly stagnant in their emotional ruts.

Wollen also says of cinematic mastery: “[It is to] speak a rhetoric which is none other than the rhetoric of the unconscious” (Elsaesser, 4). The Birds is essentially that, a movie about movie characters given unconscious existential quandaries that they never explicitly address, only to allow those quandaries to manifest themselves in the film’s mastered allegorical construct and rhetoric of meaning, and the camera subjectivity (in which the camera eye occasionally jumps into a character’s consciousness and point-of-view), bringing to light the characters’ unconscious just as Wollen says it should. This sort of meta-layered back-bending exemplifies the film’s disciplined allegorical construction. In the end, The Birds is a singular, challenging, wholly profound emprise by Hitchcock into modernist humanism. Hitchcock has made his reputation being a commercial filmmaker whose formalism effectively blurs him into the arthouse realm. The Birds, I find, is his first and only through-and-through arthouse film, a film that is not concerned with narrative but with structure, and a poetic and allegorical one.


Durgnat, Raymond. The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock: or, The Plain Man’s Hitchcock. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “The Dandy in Hitchcock,” in Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, ed. Richard Allen & S. Ishii-Gonzalez, pg. 3-14 (London: BFI Publishing, 1999).

Hare, William. Hitchcock and the Methods of Suspense. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007.

Orr, John. Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema. London: Wallflower Press, 2005.

Smith, Susan. Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour, and Tone. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.

Toles, George. “‘If Thine Eye Offend Thee…’: Psycho and the Art of Infection,” in Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, ed. Richard Allen & S. Ishii-Gonzalez, pg. 159-178 (London: BFI Publishing, 1999).

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films. London: A. Zwemmer Limited, 1965.

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