It starts as a cute romantic comedy and ends with a vision of the coming apocalypse. This is part of Alfred Hitchcock’s genius, that he can address vast existential themes in films that seem to deal with trivia.
[Warning: Plot spoilers coming!]
It was good to see The Birds again – another film that should have made my ‘greatest films of all time’ list. I saw it years ago, and it shows how deceptive memory can be. As I remembered it, the final shot showed the four protagonists (Melanie, Mitch, his mother, and his young sister) standing on the porch, watching the birds fly off into the distance, with a sense of relief that they had gone. But of course it’s the opposite: the birds themselves stand on the porch, having taken occupation of the house, and Mitch and the others tip-toe through them, start the car, and drive away. Strange how something gets transposed in that way.
I was reading about the longer ending that was written up and story-boarded, but never shot. Mitch drives away, into the town, and they witness the devastation caused by the birds: mangled bodies, burnt-out houses, etc. Classic horror film territory. As they leave the town, the birds gather above them and swoop down upon the car. Mitch accelerates, the birds keep pace with the car, they tear through the soft roof of the convertible, but eventually he speeds away from them. The tough guy saves the day. Refined sports car technology beats the savagery of nature. Human courage and ingenuity overcome the apocalyptic threat symbolised by the birds.
That’s why Hitchcock’s real ending is so much more powerful and unsettling. There is no victory. The stars don’t outrun or outwit the birds. It’s the birds who let them go. There is no apparent meaning to the original attacks; and there is no obvious reason for this hiatus that allows them to ‘escape’. The birds, at every moment, are completely in control. They flock. They attack. They take control of the boat, the school, the petrol station, the house. They take control of the circumstances in which Mitch and the others are allowed to leave. We feel a sense of relief as the car pulls away, but we have absolutely no idea what it means or what is going to happen in the future. It’s a moment of respite and not of resolution. The birds have not gone away.
That’s why, as a parable of human vulnerability and existential menace, The Birds is such a masterpiece. Whether you interpret that menace in psychological or political or evolutionary or religious terms, the chaos is always just beneath the surface, threatening to overcome us, biding its time. It’s not the whole story of human life, but it’s one part of it that Hitchcock was particularly good at telling.