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Written by Timothy Sexton
Hitchcock’s obsession with blonde women capable of projecting a sense of detachment that is at once a cool rejection and an irresistibly tempting siren’s call is on full display in The Birds. Few of Hitch’s female protagonist have ever featured hair of quite so yellow a shade of blonde. As for the cool quality, it remains debatable as to whether Tippi Hedren’s mastery of both the rejection/invitation dichotomy was the result of incredibly great acting or incredibly bad acting. Ultimately, of course, the answer hardly matters; what is important is that the duality that Hitch ached for from his blonde heroines was delivered to such an excessive rate of success by Hedren that she would become an object of obsession for the director; a relationship later explored in a film about the making of The Birds titled The Girl.
A recurring motif in most of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies is his short cameo appearance. This running gag began in 1926 with The Lodger in which he briefly appeared not once, but twice: sitting at a newspaper desk and among a crowd witnessing an arrest. This signature motif gradually began to take on a life of its own as his cameos became increasingly more creative. In The Birds, Hitchcock can be seen coming out of a pet shop struggling to maintain a hold on the leashes of two white terriers. Of note is that the terriers were actually Hitchcock’s pets.
The motif of the dominant mother—or mother-figure—was quite clearly on Hitchcock’s mind during the period of his career in which he crafted The Birds. The film which immediately preceded it featured the mother of all dominant mothers: the mother of Norman Bates. Interestingly, Marnie—the film that succeeds The Birds—also features a very strong maternal figure central to its plot. While the dominant mother in this case is clearly not in the same league of menace as those mothers or the evil Nazi mastermind in Notorious, Lydia Brenner is nevertheless presented as quite controlling of her son and potential obstacle toward fulfillment of the blossoming romance between Mitch and the comely young outsider Melanie Daniels.
Glasses are one of the more overlooked symbols that pops up in Hitchcock’s films at least as routinely as his infamous cool blondes. The reason for this—oversight—is likely one of two things. One, the recurrence of spectacles is usually relegated to minor or at the very least major supporting characters. The more likely reason is that this recurrence of such an obvious symbol is lacking in any obvious recurring meaning. Glasses on a character in a Hitchcock movie may signify intelligence as likely as it signifies a lack of glamour. The character wearing the specs may be a useful associate of the protagonist or an annoying obstruction. That glasses must have some significance as a symbol or merely a motif across his body work can be exemplified by their unique manifestation in The Birds. One of the most memorable and chilling scenes in any Hitchcock film (although admittedly less so than it might have been without the cheesy rear projection) is the attack by the titular characters upon a defenseless and vulnerable group of young schoolchildren. Take note that the only one of the children being attacked by the voracious birds falls to the ground and she is the only child wearing glasses. This utilization of Hitchcock’s idiosyncratic use of glasses as symbol may have been overly influenced by the dramatic intent of the close-up of smashed lenses.
Another recurring motif interspersed throughout the films of Hitchcock, but rarely made the center of thematic focus, is the psychological effect of being trapped within confined spaces. The closest that Hitchcock ever came to making this motif the primary theme of a film was Lifeboat, although the actual psychological impact of what it might be like to suffer from claustrophobia was more effectively portrayed in Rope. The Birds features two extremely different, but equally nightmarish realizations of the terror that this particular phobia might be capable of producing in sufferers. Both situate the character played by Tippi Hedren within confined spaces that could not be more divergent: in the first, she finds sanctuary from an attack inside a phone booth on a small town street corner surrounded by other people also trying to defend themselves against the onslaught. From within this sanctuary, the terror is primarily directed outward to the suffering taking place around here and the acknowledgement that she is as helpless as those on the outside. The second sequence is the exact opposite: she is alone inside a dark attack being the only victim of an attack nobody else can see and so she is every bit as helpless.
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