The Birds

TCM viewers can watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) this upcoming Friday the 13th. I’d also urge anyone that might be reading this who lives near Boulder, Colorado, to come see it on 35mm (March 12th) when it screens as part of the International Film Series. For the latter screening I’ve recruited one of my poker buddies, Paul Gordon, to do a special introduction and Q&A for the film. Gordon teaches a popular “Hitchcock and Freud” class at C.U. Boulder, and is the author of the recent Dial ‘M’ for Mother book. Paul was kind enough to take some time to field some questions that might be of interest to Hitchcock fans.

Before we get into The Birds, I’m curious what films you teach as part of your Hitchcock class. All of them? Only some?

I focus on the so-called “golden age” of H’s 54-64 films: Rear Window through Marnie (the so-called “failure” that has in fact been reclaimed as one of H’s greats), with stops along the way including Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.  A relatively short list given that Hitchcock made over 50, and many, many of them (if not all) deserve to be studied closely.

Okay, let’s get into it with The Birds. Tell me more about the bonus material you’re providing for our screening. You said something about a Sego (a discontinued diet-drink) commercial?

Sego ad

It’s amazing that Hitchcock not only discovered Tippi when he and Alma were watching TV one morning and saw her in this commercial, but, most remarkably, he uses the commercial almost “verbatim” in the opening scene of The Birds, when we (like Hitchcock himself) are introduced to the main character entering the pet shop.  In the film, she is whistled at, is at first annoyed and then smiles when she sees it’s a young boy.  In the commercial, the same thing happens, but the young boy turns out to be her son!  Nothing Freudian there…..

Let’s talk about all those birds: what do they represent, if anything?

It’s remarkable that many of the films critics insist that the birds don’t represent or symbolize anything.  Really?  And Moby Dick is just a whale.  Anyway, they obviously represent “castrating” symbols meant to keep Melanie away from the protective Mother Lydia—just think of the way Norman’s “mother” kills Marion (Crane!) in the film that preceded The Birds by just a year or so.

Do you think there’s a way in which The Birds dovetails off of Psycho?

You betcha.  Recall the moment in Psycho when Norman is cleaning up after Marion Crane’s murder to straighten a picture of some birds, but, most importantly, the story of a young man who is still living with his mother is virtually the same—as is North by Northwest, the film right before Psycho, which also features a very strange, very close mother-son relationship.  Recall, if you will, that that spy-thriller begins when Roger realizes that he forgot to call his mother and raises his hand to ask a waiter for a phone at just the wrong moment.

What are viewers to make between the uncanny physical similarities between Tippi Hedren’s character and the one played by Jessica Tandy?

There is an amazing shot of the two them when they first meet in the diner after Melanie was attacked by the gull in which they both appear in profile.  The hair, the facial features, all virtually the same—Lydia could be Melanie in 30 years.  Now, what could that mean when the woman you do finally choose (as opposed to that slut Annie) looks just like your mother?  Hmmm…….

Melanie and Lydia


At one point, Suzanne Pleshette’s character (Annie) is talking with Hedren (Melanie) about dominating mothers and seems to sluff off Oedipus. What’s your Freudian take on this?

Not just that, in psychoanalytical terms, “denial is not just a river in Egypt,” but if you listen carefully to their dialogue Annie’s denial is directly contradicted by her own description of Lydia’s too-close relationship to her son.

In your class you talk a lot about hairstyles in Hitchcock films, how does that relate to Freudian analysis?

Hair up (up-do) = the respectable mother-surrogate figures, hair down, the not-so respectable other side of Hitchcock’s notorious Madonna/Whore syndrome.  Think of Madeleine Elster versus Judy Barton, or, in The Birds, Melaine versus the dark-haired, ready-to-go-at-it Annie Hayworth.

Similarly, you have a theory about M-Names. What’s that all about?

M = Mother.  H’s mom’s name was Emma—“M” “A” = Ma—get it.  The prevalence of M-names in Hitchcock is truly remarkable—just think of the scene when Marnie goes through a stack of social security cards with different names—all M’s!

Another thing you discuss is “The Double Plot.” What’s the deal with that?

As in North by Northwest and numerous other films, H uses the double to tell two supposedly different stories—here, the one about Mitch and Melanie’s romance (and the family drama in Bodega Bay with Lydia and Cathy), the other about the bird attacks.  Spielberg did a little of this in Jaws in trying to include a story about Brody’s (Scheider’s) family, but it just goes to show how brilliant Hitchcock was—he created the “animal revenge” genre that led to Jaws without really trying—his real interest is always in human interactions.

The last three questions fall into the “spoiler alert” category, as I’ll ask you to address aspects dealing with the end of the film. What can you say about the ending? What sets it apart from traditional endings?

The amazing shot of the sea of birds cackling with delight at the defeated, cowering humans slowly sneak away is not only visually stunning but, to me, sums up Hitchcock’s view of a world where the violent, criminal unconscious prevails—a view he shared with Freud.

Why does Lydia smile at the bloodied, comatose Melanie?

Most critics have argued that this represents a reconciliation between Lydia and her rival.  Really?  The same woman who protested when Mitch said they had to get Melanie to a hospital immediately?  She smiles because she, unlike Melanie, is alive and doing very well, thank you very much.  Bitch.


Why are there are no happy endings in Hitchcock?

Because there are none in life?  Well, who knows, but I can say that Hitchcock’s genius was to eschew the typical Hollywood story lines in looking at things far less idealistically.

end shot

Posted By Bill : February 8, 2015 9:25 pm

Tough to tell if this is parody or not…ATTACK OF THE CASTRATING AVIANS.

Posted By Arthur : February 8, 2015 9:28 pm

Great insights. Seems to be no end to Hitchcock’s symbolism. The film after Psycho was the Birds. Psycho took place in the bird named city, Phoenix. Norman had stuffed birds on the walls of his parlor. Marion Crane took flight from Phoenix with the stolen money.

In the Birds there is a scene with Rod Taylor in a striking white turtleneck with a red handkerchief around his throat looking like nothing more than a powerful male bird with striking plummage and his mother, would be lover and young sister the female birds all vying for his attention.

Posted By Jeff R. : February 9, 2015 2:12 pm

GREAT ARTICLE! Really funny! A good read! Thanks!

Posted By robbushblog : February 9, 2015 5:04 pm

As much as I love that period of Hitchcock, adding additional titles might reap even greater rewards: SHADOW OF A DOUBT and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN come immediately to mind.

Man, I wish I could take this class.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

We regret to inform you that FilmStruck is now closed.  Our last day of service was November 29, 2018.

Please visit tcm.com/help for more information.

We would like to thank our many fans and loyal customers who supported us.  FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.