Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie was Rebecca, based on the novel by author Daphne DuMaurier. DeMaurier’s twisted love story allowed Hitchcock to make quite the splashy introduction to the Hollywood way of making movies after perfecting his craft back home in England; Rebecca is the only Hitchcock movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, although Hitch himself did take home the Best Director awards. After what must have seemed an unlikely twenty-year stretch in which this oversight by the Academy was not corrected, perhaps Hitchcock was hoping lightning would strike twice when he chose to adapt another story by Daphne DuMaurier as the follow-up to the immensely successful Psycho.
The Birds is generally viewed as a nightmarish scenario in which nature decides to fight back against the encroachment of man, but like the story on which it is based, there is more to its simple plot of a town coming under siege by birds than merely another man vs nature conflict. DuMaurier’s novella is clearly signaled to be allegorical with the invasion of a small British village shortly after World War II by birds from the east intended to be interpreted as a metaphor for the communist threat.
By relocating the setting to a small California fishing village and updating the setting to present day, Hitchcock opened the gates to a flood of interpretations about what exactly his threat the attacking birds are supposed to represent. Interpretations of the meaning of the film range from feminist deconstructions about the fear of man at the power of the increasingly liberated woman to those birds being a psychological manifestation of Oedipal guilt. Some critics have even postulated that The Birds was Hollywood’s first big budget attempt at environmentalist propaganda.
Maybe some of these critiques have merit or perhaps some of them are merely fabulously demonstrative examples of how you take from any movie exactly what you put into it, but the manner in which Hitchcock ends his film is far more suggestive of exactly what he intended to say with his choice to tap DuMaurier’s gothic well for a third time in his career. In fact, the closing sequence of The Birds deserves to rank high among the greatest movie endings of all time. In its own understated and decidedly old-fashioned way, the ending of The Birds is every bit as creepy and disturbing as the end of Carrie.
Without giving too much away, suffice to say that Hitchcock uses all the power invested in pure cinema to bring The Birds to a conclusion in which the silencing of the human voice says more about the place of our species within the grand scheme of the earth’s other inhabitants than any dialogue ever could. What caused the birds to turn on humans? Hitchcock was smart enough to know what many filmmakers of today still haven’t learned: no explanation can be infinitely more chilling than overexplanation.
The Birds did not manage to bring Hitchcock the Academy Award for directing that he somehow managed to lose when Rebecca won the top honor two decades earlier. In fact, The Birds snagged just one nomination—for its special visual effects—and it lost that to the only other nominated movie, Cleopatra.
On the other hand, The Birds did manage to win a place in pop culture that even many of Hitchcock’s bigger hits and greater critical successes have not enjoyed. In 2012, an HBO film titled The Girl recreated many of the most famous scenes from The Birds from the perspective behind the camera as the film recounted the tempestuous relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady, Tippi Hedren.