"The Day of the Claw: A Synoptic Account of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds"
senses of cinema
Note from the author:
What follows is my attempt to present Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds more accurately, or anyway more suggestively, than a purely theoretical reading could do. It takes seven or eight literary texts and uses them to illuminate Hitchcock’s intentions “synoptically”. Naturally, I have tried to focus the data intelligently and in an informed way, drawing on my knowledge of the director and his films, and of Hitchcock scholarship and criticism. Three appendices round out the account.
I’m aware that the account is still not exhaustive. Recently, I noticed a specific indebtedness of The Birds to F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), something that my account had not touched on. I hasten to set down the matter here. Probably two entire sequences in The Birds take their inspiration from Sunrise. (1) In Murnau’s film, when The Man (George O’Brien) thinks to murder The Wife (Janet Gaynor) by drowning her, the pace of the sequence on the lake is at first lethargic: we watch The Man row listlessly, not talking. But when eventually he starts to carry out his murderous intention and then, shocked, tells The Wife that he shan’t harm her, the pace suddenly picks up and now The Man rows energetically for shore. Here, unmistakably, is the blueprint for Hitchcock’s sequence in which Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) drives her turquoise truck at leisurely speed to the Fawcett farm but, shocked at finding Dan Fawcett pecked to death, frantically drives back home. The fact that The Birds also has its own rowing scene on a lake, and its own “universal” story of a man and a woman, in which Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) must be transformed from The City Woman into potentially The Wife, are further indications of what I think Hitchcock wanted: to create “pure cinema” of a cosmopolitan, Murnauesque kind.
Also, I have lately been discussing with Buddhist friends the nature of Hitchcock’s cinema, and becoming more aware of the extreme openness of those films to final interpretation. (2) This bears on the attic climax of The Birds. Below, I give an account to the best of my ability of what happens there. But let me just indicate some questions I feel the scene raises. Does Melanie by the end of the attic scene, or shortly afterwards, attain self-knowledge (with a precedent in the 1936 novel by Frank Baker called The Birds)? Or is the scene essentially one of her dreaming, and perhaps still being subject to delusion (however that is defined), with an obvious visual precedent in Francesco Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”? Or is the scene simply a sexual allegory, and for Melanie a virtual nightmare, perhaps inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting, “The Nightmare”?
I would suggest that all of these readings are allowed, perhaps even encouraged, by how Hitchcock has shot his film and that the final emphasis of the film is on a subjective solution by the individual viewer in which human love will probably be crucial.
– K. M.
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“Very early, I was immensely struck by the Symbolists. For a time, I had Symbolist dreams.”
– Alfred Hitchcock (3)
[A] wonderful thing about Hitchcock is his double vision. He sees the tragic dimension and the horrors of life, as in Psycho , but he also sees the comedy.
– Camille Paglia, interviewed about The Birds (4)
Something touched my hair and whistled past me. Then, Anna, I burst out of that dead world, lost my control, and ran blindly and wildly […]
For in one dreadful second, which seemed like all eternity, I saw in my Demon my own face; all that was me, all that had shrivelled to waste in me. […]
I saw and I lived. Had I not seen, my Demon would have destroyed me. But I saw and I lived. Suddenly I realized that […] the metempsychosis which touched and threatened the whole race of man no longer had the power to assault me.
– Frank Baker, The Birds (1936) (5)
Two items need to be noted straight away. First, before Alfred Hitchcock decided to base a film on Daphne du Maurier’s short story, “The Birds” (1952), he considered as possible projects both a novel by H. G. Wells, The Food of the Gods (1904), and a novel by Frederic Brown, The Mind Thing (1961). (6) Both those books depict, inter alia, murderous attacks by animals and birds on people.
Second, no sooner had The Birds appeared, early in 1963, than its director found himself facing threats of possible lawsuits for plagiarism. Three separate works were cited against him (7): a short story by Philip MacDonald, “Our Feathered Friends” (1931); a forgotten (indeed obscure) novel by Englishman Frank Baker, The Birds (1936); and a novel by Jean Giono, Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof, 1951). In all three, the avian world wreaks terror and mayhem on the human, Giono’s novel merely compounding its effect by being set in 19th-century Provence during a cholera epidemic.
There’s another item to note. Not so far mentioned is the most likely progenitor of the type of story seen in Hitchcock’s film. I mean Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), in which various creatures, including both domestic and wild animals, and even moths, collude to kill humans. Frank Baker wrote of this classic horror tale that it “continues to haunt the imagination as a possibility” (8) and admitted a likely influence on his The Birds (9). Hitchcock himself probably read it at some stage. One anthology editor notes that “The Terror […] contains the seeds of a thumping great thriller and even the hint of a First World War spy story” (10), which may raise another matter this essay will want to engage. Machen and H. G. Wells both figure in a devastating account of intellectual life in Britain before and after the First World War (Machen only briefly, Wells extensively). That account is John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), and I’ll indicate below that its author’s thesis about the “pride and prejudice” of the literary intelligentsia of the time is borne out by several of the stories examined here. As for Hitchcock, given his notorious reference to “the moron masses” (11), he can hardly escape some censure along Carey’s lines. At any rate, I raise such a question below, drawing on William Rothman’s notion that Hitchcock’s films punish his audiences for not “acknowledging” him. (12) I think it’s fair to say that Hitchcock’s The Birds follows a hint in du Maurier’s short story and shows birds avenging themselves on humans for millennia of ill treatment. My question is: To what extent is the director avenging himself on “the moron masses”?
I hope to show that all of the above-mentioned stories illuminate Hitchcock’s The Birds. Accordingly, my main task below will be to present the film “synoptically” – that is, as seen through the wide lens of the several stories taken together. A suitable emblem of my purpose might be the camera obscura of Professor Redwood in Food of the Gods (13) or perhaps even the famous “God’s-eye” viewpoint found in The Birds itself (14).
By the same token, I recognise the need at times to move in close – another Hitchcock lesson. Besides examining specific aspects of the stories vis-à-vis the film, I’ll consider below the particular case of Frank Baker, who was born in London in 1908 into what he would call “the gaslight dinginess of the great Edwardian stage illusion” (15). Baker’s rebellion against his repressive early milieu is implicit in his novel, The Birds. He also serves here as my link between Arthur Machen and Daphne du Maurier, having been a familiar of the one (Machen) and a correspondent of the other (du Maurier). Crucially, I want to indicate that Baker’s claim against Hitchcock for plagiarism, while it may not have succeeded in law, was more justified than he ever knew. He never did see Hitchcock’s film. Originally, he received reports about it from friends. Finally, he was told about it in a letter from Daphne du Maurier, dated Sunday, 15 September 1963. (16) She spotted immediately that the film resembles Baker’s story at least as often as it follows hers – though she stopped short of supposing that this wasn’t fortuitous. But it’s my contention that Hitchcock and/or screenwriter Evan Hunter did all along know of Baker’s brilliantly conceived novel, so many points of resemblance does it have to their film. (17) At the least, after reading the novel, one must seriously re-think the nature of Hitchcock’s and Hunter’s achievement. Where exactly lie the film’s supposed originality and other merits ascribed to it as if they were unique by several notable commentators from Robin Wood (though he’s always had doubts about the film) to Camille Paglia (in her admirable 1998 monograph for the BFI) to, lately, Slavoj Žižek (not least in his 2006 television documentary, A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema)?
I shall start, then, by briefly summarising the various stories. Related matters, including my attempts to extrapolate just what Hitchcock was doing in his version of The Birds – rhetorically, conceptually, and so on – will follow after.
The Food of the Gods (1904) by H. G. Wells
The title refers to a foodstuff invented by two incautious scientists, Mr Bensington and Professor Redwood, that stimulates exceptional physical growth in whatever creature consumes it. Intended at first just for chickens in controlled farmyard conditions, it proves highly successful. In ten days, the birds attain a size six times that of normal chickens. Alarmingly, they soon kill a stray cat, and they even menace children. Worse, the foodstuff itself escapes into the surrounding countryside, where it is ingested by rodents and insects, as well as by plants. But the scientists press on. They give the food to several human babies, who in time grow to 40 feet in height. The ordinary “pigmy world” – as Wells pointedly calls it – doesn’t know what to do with these super-sized “gods” and ostracises them. The parable ends on an ambiguous note. Incited by an opportunist politician, Caterham, “the little people” take arms against the giants, prompting one of the latter to make an impassioned speech: “Tomorrow, whether we live or die, growth will conquer through us. […] Till the earth is no more than a footstool.” (Notable incident: a giant killer-wasp flies inside the domed reading-room of the British Museum, stampeding the readers below.)
The Terror (1917) by Arthur Machen
Set during the First World War in and around the seaside town of Meirion in Wales, the tale consists largely of events observed at first-hand by a local doctor, Dr Lewis. A series of bizarre deaths leads him to suppose that the community is dealing with “a sort of country variant of Jack the Ripper”. But then reports arrive of similar incidents in other parts of Britain. The fact that the authorities want these matters kept out of the papers makes people suspect that a German invasion plan is involved: accordingly, “as the terror deepened, the general public co-operated voluntarily, and, one would say, almost subconsciously, with the authorities in concealing what they knew from one another”. A visitor to the area, a young artist named Secretan, takes lodgings with a farmer and his family. But one night the entire household is wiped out, seemingly besieged in their house by some inexplicable agency. From notes scrawled by Secretan and discovered afterwards, Dr Lewis at last deduces the terrible explanation: on this occasion, the deaths had been principally caused by millions of smothering moths, part of a vast conspiracy of the natural world against humans. At other times, herds of farm animals had forced people over cliffs, or a flock of birds had deliberately caused a plane to crash. One explanation for these events is that a war-time “contagion of hate” had infected even the animals, overcoming their natural submissiveness to humans. And though the terror soon afterwards ends as suddenly as it had begun, this can’t be a reason for complacency. “They had risen once – they might rise again.” (Notable incident: the protracted siege of the farmhouse, described from the viewpoint of the terrorised people within, including the moment when something beats against the barred door “with a thundering crash”.)
Our Feathered Friends (1931) by Philip MacDonald
Shorter even than du Maurier’s The Birds – a mere ten pages in fact – Philip MacDonald’s story tells of Vi and Jack, an engaged couple from London, out for a summer’s day in the country and doing what comes naturally. But near a wood she suddenly kicks him painfully. “Listen! … Birds! … Jever hear the like …?” A few moments later, inside the wood, she complains of the cold. And even after the pair have made love, her voice is again shaking as she says, “I … I … felt all along … we shouldn’t … shouldn’t be here. … We didn’t ought to ‘ve come …”, which is most prescient of her. Suddenly they find themselves surrounded by gleaming-eyed birds of various sizes and manifest hostile intent. Within moments, what remains are just “two feathered mounds” which soon lie silent. (Notable incident: a single small bird with head cocked to one side – the apparent leader of the birds – hops right up to a delighted Vi, who exclaims, “Isn’t he sweet, Jack?” Next moment the attack begins …)
The Birds (1936) by Frank Baker
Although the author was just 28 when this, his second novel, appeared, its animus is partly autobiographical. The passages set in a London marine insurance office, with its hated Underwriter, reflect the five monotonous years Baker spent as a clerk. The novel is told in the first-person by a survivor of a global apocalypse engineered by birds against humans in which a bird would assign itself to a particular individual as his “Demon”. Years later, the narrator sets down for Anna, his daughter, why he believes the world in effect invited the destruction that first devastated England’s capital. He himself had been afflicted by a widespread disease known as ambition. “What ambition chiefly implied was mastery of men rather than mastery of self.” He was living with his widowed mother, Lillian, at the time; they had a live-in maid, Annie. Each day he commuted to the City by train. And one morning, outside the Bank of England, he found himself part of a crowd gazing at the spectacle of thousands of small birds swarming in the street. Suddenly, one of the birds rose up and flew at an old lady in a feathered hat, who then tried to flee into the nearby Underground. Yet even when she retreated into a telephone box, the bird kept after her. Entering the box with her, it pecked her to death. This was the first of many such incidents involving birds that summer, all of which the authorities were powerless to prevent. Meanwhile, the birds only became more numerous and widespread. In an interlude in the narrator’s main story, he describes how he took a short vacation in Wales. Alone on Cader Idris, he had an epiphany. He saw that art could never give “but a pennyworth of the sum-total” of emotions. Yet, men might be like gods if only they would break their “habit of unconscious experience” and choose that awareness of Life “which we called the Soul of man”. Returning to London, the narrator, emboldened, sought out a woman named Olga, whom he had seen earlier in a restaurant. She would later become his wife. But now his mother expressed her fear that he no longer cared for her, and in his heart he knew it was half true. One day, the continuing bird attacks brought matters to a head. On Hampstead Heath, the narrator himself had suddenly to confront his “Demon”. Armed with his new self-insight, he emerged the victor. But most other people now succumbed. In St Paul’s Cathedral, an entire congregation was pecked and clawed to death, and soon almost the whole of London – indeed of Britain – was also dead, killed by the birds. The narrator used an abandoned car to reach home in North London. There he found his mother alive, for she had taken refuge in a cellar – though a small grey bird was even then hovering ominously over her. (Annie had not escaped and lay dead in the kitchen.) Bundling the old lady into the car, and then stopping only to collect Olga – someone else whose exceptional self-knowledge had miraculously saved her – the narrator headed for Cader Idris. It was on that mountain that Anna was born and grew up. (Notable incident: a small bird pecks and bursts the wares of an old lady balloon-seller in Hampstead.)
Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof, 1951) by Jean Giono
This is a long novel, eventually filmed in 1995 by Jean-Paul Rappeneau. The year is 1832. Angelo Pardi, a young freedom fighter, has been forced to leave Italy because of a duel. Travelling through Provence, he knows that the Austrians have sent agents after him. But that is by no means his only concern, for the region is gripped by cholera. A telltale sign is the scavenging crows and other birds that wheel over infected villages and perch on rooftops. Angelo encounters an idealistic young doctor and watches his futile attempts to treat the dying, until suddenly the young doctor himself is stricken. Angelo now rides towards Manosque, hoping to find his foster-brother, Giuseppe, who has come after him and may have news from his mother. On arriving in town, though, he barely escapes a lynch mob who mistake him for a fountain-poisoner. Taking refuge on a roof, he has time to ruminate, “And that’s the people.” Angelo is an aristocrat, at 25 still young enough to hold Romantic views of self-sufficiency. At the same time, he regards Liberty as a beautiful woman whom he would willingly die for. Resuming his journey, he helps a nun dispose of the dead. Later, he comes by chance upon Giuseppe and his wife. Angelo’s mother has sent money and a long letter (“Always be very foolhardy, my dear”). Angelo feels that he must be heading home. He encounters again a young woman named Pauline who had helped him in Manosque, and they decide to travel together, for she says she has a husband waiting for her near Gap. When a large crow presses its attentions on Pauline – almost as if it were wooing her – she fires a pistol at it. Later, Angelo and Pauline are taken into indefinite quarantine in a castle at Vaumielh, but one night they manage to escape. Pauline reveals that she is the daughter of a doctor and that her husband – who at 68 is far older than she – had been a patient staying in her house. Despite the age difference, she says she loves her husband. Now rain starts to fall. Seeing the young people seeking shelter, a large man invites them into his book-lined study. He, too, is a doctor and what he has to say provides the novel its philosophical commentary. In essence, he says that the real problem isn’t cholera but “congenital egoism” (18): truly good people die of old age. Angelo mentions the idealistic young doctor and is told that he was “too good – there has to be a mean in everything”. The person who has mastered the art of living is “simply someone who forgets himself”. What causes far more deaths than cholera is melancholia which produces “a delirium of uselessness”, driving “its victims to excesses of negation”. Angelo and Pauline resume their journey, and now the countryside seems free of infection. They even see “timid crows again”. At the last minute, Pauline shows symptoms of the dreaded sickness. But, not thinking of himself, Angelo undresses her and rubs upwards on her body in the way he had learnt from the idealistic young doctor. He is in time and Pauline recovers overnight. So, finally they near Gap, where an old woman recognises Pauline, exclaiming, “But it’s Madame la Marquise!” Shortly afterwards, Angelo rides away, joyful that Italy is so near. (Notable incident: Angelo and Pauline are approached by predatory crows whose collective voice is like “an amorous force”, or a prayer, and which to the birds appears to have “the sense of indisputable logic”. (19))
“The Birds” (1952) by Daphne du Maurier
Into about twenty pages, this artful story crams an abundance of tendentious detail – and terror. Nat Hocken, a part-time farm labourer, lives with his wife (whose name we never learn) and their two children, Jill and young Johnny, in a cottage on the Trigg farm in Cornwall. One still December day, the birds are restless. That night, they tap at the Hockens’ bedroom window, then invade the children’s room across the passage. Thrusting the children out, and shutting the door, in the darkness Nat flails at the birds with a blanket, temporarily driving them away. Next morning, he walks Jill to the school bus. At lunchtime, the radio reports birds massing all over the country. Nat tells his wife to keep Johnny inside while he goes for Jill. With the turn of the tide, vast flocks of seagulls wheel overhead. When Jill alights from the bus, Nat remarks that it’s cold, adding, “See how fast you can run.” As they race past the farm, Mr Trigg is backing his car into the garage. The farmer agrees to drive Jill the rest of the way home, though there isn’t room for Nat, who will have to follow on foot. So, Nat finds himself alone with a skyful of birds. Suddenly, they start diving at him. Shielding his eyes, he runs towards the cottage, yelling to his wife to admit him. He falls inside just as a gannet, its wings folded to its body, thuds into the door. That night, the family sleep in the kitchen before a well-stoked fire. For further defence, Nat moves the dresser against the windows. Planes fly overhead but, when several explosions follow, Nat guesses that they have been forced down. Another change of tide brings a lull in the birds’ fury. Stealthily opening the back door, Nat gazes into the darkness and sees heaps of dead birds. All the windows of the house have been shattered. Nat stuffs the cracked panes with the bleeding bodies of the birds, then, sickened, returns inside to await the next attack. This time it continues until morning. Meanwhile, the radio has stopped broadcasting programs, and emits only crackle. “We’ve got to depend upon ourselves” is Nat’s terse comment. To lay in supplies, the family heads to the farm. Birds watch on either side. Now Nat’s worst fears are confirmed. Mr Trigg lies dead by the telephone, his wife’s legs protruding from the bedroom doorway upstairs. With the tide again soon to turn and sure to bring another attack, Nat knows that the family must return to the cottage. Whether they can withstand another siege is uncertain. (Notable incident: one of the crashed planes has set fire to a haystack.)
The Mind Thing (1961) by Frederic Brown
A small-town community in Wisconsin experiences a number of apparent suicides of both humans and animals. Staying at an isolated house nearby is Dr Ralph Staunton, respected MIT physicist. After a dog named Buck runs under the wheels of his car, Doc is told something of what has been occurring. Unable to persuade the local sheriff to treat the matter with proper seriousness – to acknowledge that something sinister is afoot – he decides to investigate it personally. He hires a stenographer, Miss Amanda Talley, who is also an English teacher at the local high school, and tells her what he has found out. Almost immediately, Amanda concludes that an alien, an extra-terrestrial, might be involved. Perhaps such an entity needs a succession of “hosts”? “And that’s why he makes his hosts commit suicide, so he can get his mind back out of them and be free to take a different host.” Amanda is indeed correct. What neither she nor Doc knows is that this particular “mind thing” has been exiled from its home planet somewhere near the constellation Andromeda. In order to return there, it will need to take over a host who has an advanced knowledge of electronics – someone like Doc. The host will need to be asleep at the time. Accordingly, the novel moves to a terrifying climax in which Doc, fighting to stay awake until help arrives, is besieged in his house by a succession of hostile animals and birds, sent by the mind thing. At one point, the house is plunged into darkness: the mind thing has cunningly directed a field mouse to sabotage the generator in the cellar. Eventually, Amanda joins Doc inside the house, managing to dodge a charging bull as she sprints from her car. Together, they come up with a plan that might just rescue them … (Notable incident/dialogue: Doc asks the sheriff if he’d ever known an owl fly through a plate of glass. The sheriff replies: “Got a picture window in my house that a bird flies into – oh, maybe once or twice a week. Mostly sparrows.” (20))
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From a wealth of precursive material available to Evan Hunter and Hitchcock – though probably excluding Le Hussard sur le toit, which I seriously doubt either man had yet heard of – the pair drew extensively to craft their own “day of the claw”. Evidence for this claim comes largely from specific details and correspondences. I’ll examine these next. (I’ll also allow for purely “generic” factors and here Le Hussard sur le toit should prove very relevant.) In an Appendix, I’ll refer to works such as John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids, constituting a somewhat broader stream of possible influence.
Now, I’m sure my readers have already spotted several likely “borrowings” by Hitchcock’s film. The slow-witted sheriff in The Mind Thing bears an almost family resemblance to his counterpart, Deputy Al Malone (Malcolm Atterbury), in The Birds! And the sudden plunging of the house into darkness during the climactic siege – in both The Mind Thing and The Birds – hardly looks coincidental. (The siege itself has precedents in at least three of the texts summarised above.) By the same token, the scavenging crows in Le Hussard sur le toit preside over people’s deaths implicitly linked to an ignorance of the art of living. Only very remotely is such a notion raised by Hitchcock’s film. Yet a similar idea is a major theme of Frank Baker’s The Birds, and frankly I would be loathe to disregard it when considering the film’s intentions.
Indeed, I have been struck by how few of their predecessors’ key ideas Hitchcock and Hunter passed over. For a start, Daphne du Maurier’s short story inspired several memorable scenes. There’s the occasion, for example, when Nat collects Jill from the school bus and, remarking on the cold weather, suggests that they run home. Clearly this passage is the forerunner of the school fire drill in the film, which likewise takes place one winter’s day. We have just seen Melanie buffeted by a chill wind while smoking a cigarette in the school playground. That wind may go back to Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca (he had wanted to indicate Manderley’s “loneliness”), but du Maurier provided the cue in this case and Hitchcock responded. More broadly, the fire drill and several subsequent events in the film seem inspired by the fire references and explosions in the typically elemental du Maurier story.
Baker’s novel, The Birds, offers so many correspondences to Hitchcock’s film that it seems unreasonable to attribute them to chance. (21) They range from the central situation, which I am about to describe, to individual details like a woman trapped in a telephone box and birds bursting balloons. As we’ve seen, the premise of the animal world turning on humans goes back to Arthur Machen, whom Baker knew personally. But it was Baker who chose to have his narrator-hero still living with his widowed mother named Lillian and their maid named Annie (the latter destined, like another Annie, to be killed by birds, although the family escapes). The narrator then meets a foreign girl, Olga, an event that stirs Lillian’s fear of being abandoned. The threat of the birds inevitably sharpens the narrative here. It graphically points up Lillian’s fear, not to mention the insecurities of the narrator (to which we are made privy) and, indeed, of the individual reader. Of the stories examined in the present essay, Baker’s most directly addresses a reader’s subjectivity. The book’s readiness to critique the shortcomings of art and literature – by implication, Baker’s own novel – impels both the narrator and the reader towards self-scrutiny. Thus, beyond the melodrama of the bird attacks, the novel is about authentic versus inauthentic living. In this respect, I take the allusion to “the metempsychosis which […] threatened the whole race of man” to be an idea borrowed from one of Baker’s favourite novelists, Samuel Butler (1835-1902). For a time, Butler taught a notion of “Continuous Personality”, a notion which fell out of favour but which seems to have been revived recently in sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s phrase “volitional evolution” (22). Much earlier, Butler’s notion was praised in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Back to Methuselah (1921), which Hitchcock may well have read. (23)
In any event, when Baker’s narrator confronts his particular “Demon” on Hampstead Heath and emerges from that ordeal bloodied but victorious, thereby affirming his authentic self, the parallel with Hitchcock and Hunter’s attic scene – and Melanie’s ordeal there – seems to me a close one. We will look further at that scene later.
Practically all of the stories examined here embody themes of human finitude. “Ugh! The little people!”, exclaims one of the giants in Wells’ Nietzschean parable, The Food of the Gods, using a phrase that neatly sums up the disdain for the masses felt by most British intellectuals during the early decades of last century. Again Shaw was prominent among such intellectuals, and there is evidence that a part of Hitchcock felt as he did. But equally, vide such films as Lifeboat (1944), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and, I think, The Birds, there is other evidence that finally Hitchcock saw deeper and was not deceived. The fundamental problem is surely human nature itself and what Giono in Le Hussard sur le toit calls “congenital egoism” – and Baker’s novel alludes to as “ambition”. So, full marks to Hitchcock for not succumbing to a strain of simple pessimism. If, as I have suggested elsewhere (24), his paradoxical films combine pessimism with anti-pessimism, I see nothing evasive about such a “solution”. On the contrary, I see a rare kind of sense. Of course, the massed birds in Hitchcock’s film may just conceivably be meant to mirror an audience whom Hitchcock despised, and be sent by him to punish us for our dull flock-like uniformity (including our failure to “acknowledge” the director). The fact that several of the characters are given bird-like mannerisms – the all-of-a-flutter pet shop proprietor Mrs MacGruder (Ruth McDevitt), for one – might support such a reading. Or maybe Hitchcock saw the birds as virtual policemen – regiment after regiment of them! – and sent them as he arguably sent the traffic cop in Psycho to try and warn the heroine that her aberrant behaviour won’t solve what is basically an existential problem. Neither of these readings is greatly removed from themes in, say, Baker’s novel. They also correspond, roughly, to readings of Hitchcock’s films by William Rothman, Jean Douchet and others. (25)
However, I want to suggest that a virtue of a “synoptic” reading of The Birds is that it highlights how the above somewhat strained readings won’t suffice. Those are, at best, secondary. To use them to “explain” the film is to be diverted from a more important question: how exactly does Hitchcock understand human nature and what consequently does the film expect of us, the audience? Slavoj Žižek has begun to answer such a question by invoking Desire and by implying (a) that Hitchcock intuitively understood its workings, and (b) how a reading that sees the birds as, say, emanations from Lydia Brenner’s unconscious is again secondary. (In the beginning was Desire … (26)) To this latter conclusion I’m not unsympathetic. Nonetheless, I want to insist: we should respect how earlier authors of this type of story have expressed, or implied, a broad range of views about human nature, about the human situation – which oscillates between boredom and ecstasy, but with suffering the common lot – and about how we readers/viewers should relate to these things.
I think it is noteworthy that several of our stories include wisdom-figures, typically physicians, though not necessarily as omniscient commentators; their main function seems to be to uphold sanity amidst the events described. I imagine that is how the reader sees Dr Lewis in Machen’s The Terror. Dr Lewis isn’t the tale’s narrator but he is a principal observer of its events and the person whose clever mind finally supplies the true explanation of what has occurred. (In this respect, he is like Miss Amanda Talley, schoolteacher and stenographer to Doc Staunton, in Brown’s The Mind Thing.) He is also our principal tutor, as we read, in how to look at the events, finally reminding us of the ultimate mystery behind all appearances, all nature. “We don’t even know why the moth desires the flame”, he says at one point. Hitchcock’s film, or its screenplay, hints at a comparable ignorance. For instance, when young Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) asks Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) why the birds are trying to kill people, the screenplay has him answer: “I wish I could say. But if I could answer that, I could also tell you why people are trying to kill people.” (27)
H. G. Wells’ two biologists in The Food of the Gods are initially mocked for the “unfaltering littleness” of their academic ways. (28) A description of Bensington giving a public paper “that he imagined himself to be reading audibly” might be Hitchcock’s inspiration for a moment inserted into the political rally in 1935’s The 39 Steps. (29) Bensington remains a figure of fun, almost a buffoon, throughout the novel. By contrast, Professor Redwood grows in stature for the reader as the giants – one of them Redwood’s son – grow up physically. For the infant giants, Redwood prepares a nursery in Kensington, full of pictures and other stimuli, including a camera obscura in the roof. The professor reasons that “[i]nterest is food for a child and blankness torture and starvation.” Had Hitchcock proceeded with adapting Wells’ novel to the screen, one can suppose that this optical device would have played as significant a role as the camera obscura of Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey) in A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946). In any event, it is likely that it helped suggest to Hitchcock the God’s-eye shot of Bodega Bay in The Birds. Wells’ camera obscura is linked symbolically to the giants’ point of view as Hitchcock’s high-shot is linked symbolically – and actually – to the domain of the birds. In turn, the film, like several of the texts we’re discussing, is remarkable for a facility that is more than technical, that is expressive of both a wise objectivity and, in the very next moment, real human feelings. I want to emphasise this particular matter – it seems to me a reason for considering Hitchcock a major artist. Arthur Koestler thought that “the highest form of human creativity” was the endeavour to bridge the gap between the “trivial” and the “tragic” planes of our existence. (30) Part of his reasoning was this:
Both the artist and the scientist are gifted – or cursed – with the faculty of perceiving the trivial events of everyday experience sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of eternity; and conversely to express the absolute in human terms, to reflect it in a concrete image. (31)
Accordingly, I will discuss below both Wells’ and Hitchcock’s capacity to alternate high- and low-angle views of the human condition.
There is no actual scientist in The Birds, no wisdom-figure either. This is surely deliberate. The nearest figure to a scientist that the film gives us is the tweedy Mrs Bundy (Ethel Griffies), with her ready ornithological accounting (“It’s estimated that five billion, seven hundred and fifty million birds live in the United States alone”). Functionally, she is more like Bensington than Professor Redwood; perhaps, too, she’s like the lady pecked to death in a phone box in Baker’s novel, who had only wanted to feed the birds from a paper bag. The last we see of Mrs Bundy is when she is among a group of women huddled in a corridor of The Tides Restaurant. The script compares them to people hiding from a storm. Not all of her statistics, it seems, nor her bird-friendly disposition, can protect Mrs Bundy from the irresistible “force” the birds represent. Indeed, the Tides Restaurant scene and the bird attack on the town, coming shortly before the siege of the Brenner house, effectively foreclose on any facile optimism that “all will be well”. Neither science nor art nor religion is directly called into question here – just an unwarranted dependence on such things, as when two of the characters start trading biblical quotations. In other words, the Tides Restaurant scene and the bird attack sequence (beginning with the aforementioned high-shot) function somewhat like the epiphany of Baker’s narrator about the limitations of art and like Dr Lewis’ reminder to readers of The Terror that ultimate mystery always remains. Hitchcock is setting us up for the final sequences in which we may feel that there is no way out except one, which is also Baker’s solution: not blind faith, but a human love that has been tested.
If the birds represent an irresistible natural force, Daphne du Maurier cleverly suggests this by allying her birds with the ebb and flow of the tides; Hitchcock’s film is content to just hint at the connection. Meanwhile, for the film’s audience, the note of sanity that lets us keep watching is provided only partly by the sensible, resourceful Mitch. (A lawyer, Mitch is roughly the equivalent of physicist Doc Staunton in The Mind Thing.) No less is it provided by another kind of “force” – namely, the controlling presence of the director that speaks to us from every frame. As O. B. Hardison long ago pointed out, Hitchcock was a master rhetorician. (32) And, yes, Hitchcock’s combining of pessimism with anti-pessimism was certainly part of his rhetorical method. But it was so much more! I will want to suggest below that Hitchcock’s “pure cinema”, having its own force and flow, is a virtual analogue for the life/death force in nature evoked by The Birds, and takes authority from that fact.
So where are we? As noted, I think that The Birds shows a wise and interesting attitude on the filmmakers’ part to the human condition; and that what Giono called “congenital egoism” and Baker referred to as “ambition” is, for good or ill, intrinsic to that condition. Accordingly, Baker’s novel and, I think, Hitchcock’s film require a confrontation before the end with the inauthentic self. In any case, as a closer look at Machen’s The Terror will show us, apocalyptic fiction and the like allow an author opportunity for many kinds of frisson and nuance. Moreover, all of the texts examined here show their authors facing particular creative challenges and being prepared to experiment in interesting ways as they try to meet them. For such reasons, our “synoptic” investigation of The Birds must now continue, returning first to the texts.
* * *
Looking down on the masses: H. G. Wells and Philip MacDonald
There’s a crucial matter concerning humanity’s “congenital egoism”: how do we live with it? Jean Giono’s answer – by forgetting oneself – is profoundly wise. (33) I think most societies encourage some such process of self-forgetting. Certainly it’s inherent in the yoga first taught me by an Indian, Shri Vijayadev Yogendra. (Besides self-forgetting and non-attachment, “Vijay” emphasised the ideal of service.) In turn, Giono’s answer recognises our “common humanity”, for self-forgetting, by and large, is what makes us agreeably “human” to others. Ultimately, we are talking here of love, something which is definitely on show in The Birds, though not without ambiguity. And that’s perhaps because social engineers in the West have always had a hard time including love in their schemes! During the decades in which Hitchcock grew up, at the start of the last century, certain broadly Nietzschean ideas of self-fulfilment and the “will to power” were in circulation and making it especially difficult for many intellectuals to love their fellow humans, the masses. (34) Even John Buchan showed the characteristic ambivalence. His early novel, The Power House (1912), has a passage in which the hero, Leithen, confronts the Nietzschean villain, Pavia, with a speech that has obvious echoes in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) and Rope. Calling his foe “an artist in crime”, Leithen says:
You love power, hidden power. You flatter your vanity by despising mankind and making them your tools. You scorn the smattering of inaccuracies which passes for human knowledge, and I will not venture to say that you are wrong. Therefore, you use your brains to frustrate it. Unhappily the life of millions is built on that smattering, so you are a foe to society. (35)
Such a confrontation is roughly comparable to how the self-described “anti-pessimist” G. K. Chesterton – another favourite author of Hitchcock’s – stood up in print to the irreligious authors whose influence he had once felt so strongly, among them Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde. (36) But, even more, Buchan’s ambivalence resembles that of another of his contemporaries, H. G. Wells.
Hitchcock owned a complete set of first editions of Wells (1866-1946). (37) One of his favourite novels was, in fact, Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) (38), whose influence may be detected, for example, in the gazebo scene of I Confess (1953). The two men may have first met at a Film Society screening in London. (39) Later, they reportedly travelled together on the train from London to Brighton. (40) In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey begins by establishing the fierce disgust and hatred the masses aroused in the intelligentsia of the day, then proceeds to a number of case studies of specific writers and artists. Wells alone, though, gets two chapters, the second of which, the brilliant “H. G. Wells Against H. G. Wells”, discusses his ambivalence towards the masses. The gist of it is this: for all his campaigning, all his hope, that men could be like gods, Wells’ science taught him that the human race was doomed. “The cold, empty world at the end of The Time Machine ”, writes Carey, “was the coming reality, and this made dreams of progress futile.” (41) The avowed Nietzscheans in Wells’ fiction – Edward Ponderevo in Tono-Bungay (1909), young Walsingham in Kipps (1905) – “are always preposterous” (42). So Carey can state: “Though the idea of the superior individual was vital to Wells’s whole programme, […] his doubts about it persistently enrich his fiction.” (43) In The New Machiavelli (1911), Wells writes with feeling of London suburbia in which lower-middle-class youngsters, stirred by “mysterious intimations”, perform their twilight mating rites: “They promenade. Vulgar! – it is as vulgar as the spirit that calls the moth abroad in the evening and lights the body of the glow-worm in the night.” But, as Carey comments, Wells here sees “what others (himself included) often miss – that the suburbs are not outside nature but part of it” (44).
Indeed, in writing of the lower middle class, especially in a context of failure and “lost possibilities”, Wells does achieve a (for him) rare depth of characterisation, and even tenderness. Hence, notes Carey, it is no accident that Wells’ most vibrant characters are “his jaunty, woebegone clerks and pupil-teachers and shopkeepers – Mr Lewisham, Kipps, Mr Polly, and Hoopdriver in The Wheels of Chance ”. (45) Ironically, these are the very same people who provided Wells his principal readership for his science fiction. They weren’t by any means intellectuals but simply the self-educated Mr Pollys who craved “a good read and liked to be astonished and entertained” (46). However, ambivalent to the end, Wells continued to believe “that in an overpopulated world human beings are a plague” (47).
In The Food of the Gods, there’s an episode that bears out several of Carey’s insights; it also happens to highlight the difficulty of those who would consistently take the God’s-eye view. One of the giants, young Caddles, has been set by the “pigmies” to toil endlessly in a chalk pit. Finally rebelling, he one day strides to London and becomes increasingly perplexed at what he sees. “What are ye for, ye swarming little people?” (48) is his first question – which gets only drunken, ribald answers. Then he is heard muttering, “I don’t understand. What’s it all for and where do I come in?” But the Cockney wits are a match for him. To each other they mock him. “Ullo Arry O’Cock. Wot’s it all for? Eh? Wot’s it all bloomin’ well for?” Amongst the standard answers to this, the most polite are, “Shut it”, and, in a voice of scornful detachment, “Garn!” (49)
Precisely now, Wells’ tenderness asserts itself, though it appears to be nearly all for the young giant. Caddles is a “lonely dumb monster crying out for his race, for the things akin to him, for something he might love” (50). Wells cleverly shows us Piccadilly Circus through Caddles’ eyes, its repeating incandescent signs seeming to represent “the infinite futility” of the lives below. Yet, there is something else here, beyond Caddles’ comprehension, and Wells is up – or rather down – to capturing it. “People emerged from the restaurants or entered them, grave, intent, dignified, […] or keen and vigilant – beyond the cheating of the sharpest waiter born.” (51)
Perhaps despite himself, in these passages the ambivalent Wells valorises his native Cockney resilience and wit. True, at the end of the book he appoints the giants his ambassadors for growth and “the Life of the World”. (“Till the earth is no more than a footstool.”) But two things make Wells-the-novelist much more than a Nietzschean propagandist. One is his ambivalence. The other, obviously related, is his technical ability in passages like these to move from a high to a low perspective. At such times, he really does come down to earth and show himself human – a quality, I’ve suggested, often linked to self-forgetting. Those cheerful, resilient Cockneys, possible neighbours of young Alfred Hitchcock, surely knew a thing or two! But let’s turn to our next author, who has Hitchcock connections of his own.
* * *
Thriller-writer and war-novelist Philip MacDonald’s personal background is unclear, except that he was British-born (probably on 5 November 1901, in Scotland (52), though one source says London) and came from a literary family. He died in California in 1980. In 1929, he helped adapt one of his novels into a low-budget silent film, Lost Patrol (Walter Summers), destined to be re-made five years later in Hollywood by John Ford. Work with a young Michael Powell followed. Indeed, between 1931 and 1932 Powell filmed several of MacDonald’s stories; unfortunately all of those films appear lost. MacDonald and his novelist wife, F. Ruth Howard, then moved to California, where he quickly re-established himself as a screenwriter, including of Charlie Chan and Mr Moto films. For Alfred Hitchcock, he worked with Michael Hogan to write the first draft of Rebecca.
So, it was a touch ironic when, two decades later, on 13 March 1963, MacDonald sent a letter to Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, beginning:
I am the author of a short story entitled, “Our Feathered Friends,” which appeared in the publication Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night  published by Random House. I have noted from the publicity which has been issued in connection with […] “THE BIRDS,” a striking resemblance between the literary content of your picture and my story. (53)
Two other authors, Frank Baker and Jean Giono, lodged similar complaints at this time. To all of them, Joseph S. Dubin, the studio’s chief counsel, used the same response, informing them that an examination of Daphne du Maurier’s short story and the Hitchcock film, “now in general release, will clearly demonstrate to you that there is no actionable similarity between your work, the work of Miss Du Maurier, or the photo play ‘The Birds’” (54). Dubin’s letter stopped the would-be litigants in their tracks. (55)
Yet, as we have begun to see, their stories can throw light on each other and, more importantly, on Hitchcock’s film. In MacDonald’s case, I don’t doubt that he wrote “Our Feathered Friends” from much the same disdainful attitude toward the masses as displayed by the other authors we are examining here. Vi and Jack clearly come from the lower middle class. Jack is a clerk paying off his cheap car on the instalment plan. As for Vi, whose “charming body” MacDonald evidently fancies, her words give her away immediately: “Listen! … Birds! … Jever hear the like? …” Reading the story, I picture its author – who for years bred that most aristocratic of dogs, the Great Dane – as punishing Vi and Jack not just for engaging in sex out of wedlock but for existing at all, and for intending to help perpetuate their kind. In other words, MacDonald was like, say, D. H. Lawrence who regarded the masses as expendable. (56) When Vi says, amidst the story’s pastoral setting, “We didn’t ought to ‘ve come …”, she speaks for the author.
* * *
Punishing the masses: Arthur Machen, Frank Baker, Daphne du Maurier
It is very possible that Philip MacDonald had read Arthur Machen (1863-1947), another depicter of dæmonic woods. And Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) had surely read him; her pagan side would have felt a keen affinity. I suspect that the vengeful Helen Vaughan, the daughter of Pan, in Machen’s early and controversial tale The Great God Pan (1894), was the inspiration for du Maurier’s polymorphous-perverse Rebecca. At one point, Helen’s shocked husband recounts how, on their wedding night, Helen sat up in bed and “spoke in her beautiful voice, spoke of things which even now I would not dare whisper in blackest night”. (Du Maurier could be very eclectic. I have shown elsewhere how Mrs Danvers in the Brontë-esque Rebecca was probably based on a character in a novel by espionage writer E. Phillips Oppenheim. (57)) The premise of The Great God Pan, according to T. E. D. Klein, is this: that what Machen once called “the secret of things; the real truth that is everywhere hidden under outward appearances”, is too shocking for the human mind to accept. (58) Before the tale ends, the voluptuous Helen has wreaked an epidemic of sin and suicide on stuffy fin-de-siècle London.
Which may bring us to The Terror. There, too, a society provokes and may deserve its particular catastrophe. Machen’s narrator gives two possible explanations for why the animals turn on humans. He initially posits “a certain contagion of hate”: the world war “infected at last these lower creatures, and in place of their native instinct of submission, gave them rage and wrath and ravening”. But he allows that a certain fancifulness may be at work here. As his preferred explanation, he suggests that too much talk of democracy (read: rights for the masses), and lowering of traditional barriers, had led to an emphasis on man’s rationality rather than his “singular spiritual element”. The very thing most differentiating man from the beasts had been lost sight of. And the beasts had instinctively sensed this:
They perceived that the throne was vacant – not even friendship was possible between them and the self-deposed monarch. If he [man] were not king he was a sham, an impostor, a thing to be destroyed.
Distinctive about Machen’s tale is its breadth of allusion and its readiness to hypothesise, the better to encompass, well, everything. At one point, Dr Lewis, no doubt speaking for Machen, says that “free thinking” is justified because otherwise the observer will simply let go of inexplicable mysteries and pretend “that there isn’t any mystery”. A reader of The Terror encounters allusions to Jack the Ripper, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Zeppelin scare, the “intolerable” conundrum of Achilles and the tortoise, “reigns of terror”, “the enormities of Louvain and of the Lusitania”, Burke and Hare, the Black Death and the end of the world. True, most or all of these are “popular” allusions, not recondite ones. But Machen’s intention, it seems clear, is less to pander to his readers than to build a significant effect, and to induce perception. Throughout the tale, Dr Lewis leads the way, sometimes after consulting with a rather windy local clubman, Mr Remnant. His final breakthrough, the matter of the moths, offers a model in Humean open-mindedness and makes for exciting reading. The crucial paragraph concludes:
[…] we do know what the moth does not do; it does not gather itself into swarms with the object of destroying human life. But here, by the hypothesis, were cases in which the moth had done this very thing; the moth race had entered, it seemed, into a malignant conspiracy against the human race. It was quite impossible, no doubt – that is to say, it had never happened before – but I could see no escape from this conclusion.
A philosopher, one Professor Huvelius, from Sweden, does indeed figure in Machen’s tale, and is said to be a monster of iniquity “worse than Neech”. But this is the public’s view of him, occasioned less by his “cynical” writings and rather more by the fact that he had supposedly advised the Germans on how they might secretly invade Britain. The real Huvelius “was all but a saint”. His shabby clothes were readily tolerated in his university town because it was known that he spent most of his income on charitable works. Nonetheless, his treatise, De Facinore Humano, was designed to prove the infinite corruption of the human race – “Hobbes [preached] rosy sentimentalism in comparison”! In essence, Huvelius
held that a very large part of human misery, misadventure, and sorrow was due to the false convention that the heart of man was naturally and in the main well disposed and kindly, if not exactly righteous.
So, Machen gives to this German-friendly philosopher (whose ideas, in fact, resemble those of Arthur Schopenhauer) a prominent place in the tale. Undoubtedly, Machen agrees with the essence of Huvelius’ thought, for it expresses his own understanding of “the secret of things”. At the same time, Machen, like H. G. Wells, is too good a writer not to be ambivalent. The fact that “inexplicable mysteries” always remain means that optimism is still possible. A detail of the tale seems intended to make just this point. A group of local farmers are led to one of their fellows, dead, and with a ghastly wound in his side, by the visible distress of the man’s yellow collie dog. At the end of the tale, someone observes:
“And there seems to have been one beast that remained faithful; the dog at Treff Loyne. That is strange.”
“That remains a mystery.”
* * *
Coming now to the novel The Birds by Frank Baker (1908-1983), I need to mention first Peter Davies, a prestigious London publisher based in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. (59) An avowed admirer of Arthur Machen and said to be distantly related to him, Davies published Baker’s first novel, The Twisted Tree (1935), a Cornish Gothic melodrama. When this met with some good reviews, and a sale of perhaps 2,000 copies (60), Davies agreed to take The Birds. At one point, Davies’ younger brother, Nicholas, contributed his technical knowledge of grouse-shooting to a re-write of an incident in Hyde Park which backfires when an attempt is made to hunt down the birds massing there. (61) (The birds turn on the hunters and peck their eyes out.) Ruefully, Baker’s memoirs reports that sales of The Birds were just 350 and that the novel had some “shattering” reviews. (62) In turn, this result meant that Davies had to reluctantly forego Baker’s next book, Miss Hargreaves (1940), which, when published elsewhere, proved to be a best-seller and was eventually adapted to the stage as a vehicle for Margaret Rutherford.
Peter Davies is better remembered as Peter Llewellyn Davies, one of the “Lost Boys” who inspired J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. (63) Daphne du Maurier was a first cousin. While preparing this article, I was told that du Maurier had actually been working in Davies’ office at the time the novel The Birds was launched. (64) But, in 1963, she denied all knowledge of it when Baker himself wrote to her, mentioning Hitchcock’s new film. (65) In August, she followed up by requesting Baker to send her a copy of the novel – which, within days, and clearly excited, she told him in another letter was “superb […] far and away deeper stuff than mine [of the same title]” (66). As for the connection of both authors to Arthur Machen, I have indicated above that du Maurier had surely read him. An article available on the Internet helpfully notes that she probably spent summers in the country with the Llewellyn Davies boys, “as was the custom with Edwardian middle-class families. It is likely that the cousins shared books, including those of Machen.” (67) For Baker’s part, although he became friends with Machen later, he couldn’t remember consciously basing his novel on The Terror. (68) Nonetheless, he had read The Great God Pan, probably in his teens (about the same age that Hitchcock read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) and had become “devoted to” Machen’s writings. (69) In his book of memoirs, I Follow But Myself (1968), Baker readily acknowledges that his “misanthropic horror story […] bears some resemblances to […] The Terror“ (70).
“Misanthropic” is a fair description, and the author of the novel The Birds appears no more an unreserved apologist for democracy – and mass culture – than Machen had been. Baker’s memoirs graphically recounts the gloomy winter afternoon in Cornwall when he saw a gigantic flock of starlings suddenly blanket a field, and a “hatred for all the rottenness of our civilization rose in me” (71). (Daphne du Maurier recounts a similar genesis for her Cornish-set The Birds, only in her case the particular incident involved seagulls.) Baker hurried to his hut, already planning the destruction of the City of London and “seeing in my mind’s eye many enemies who would become the victims of my harpies” (72). But against this sordid impulse, friendship with a local amateur ornithologist, Dr Robert Walmsley, now “came to redeem my devilish birds […] to remind me that it is their wings and their superb use of them which give them power to lift our minds away from things of the earth” (73). Shades of the line from Wilde that Hitchcock appropriated in Saboteur: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Certainly, a marked ambivalence of intention – a hatred of civilisation’s defects mixed with a desire to set them right – informs Baker’s novel, and it appears connected to a sexual ambivalence. At this stage in his life, Baker was bisexual in his feelings and had already suffered at the hands of a conservative society which had objected to a couple of his youthful friendships with males. Further, he was a dedicated and skilful cathedral organist, which may help explain the transcendental impulse in his writings. From the several of these I have read, including the gripping The Birds, I consider Baker a major author – and of interest, besides, for details of his life and writings that can throw light on Hitchcock. For instance, several of the London episodes in the novel The Birds are redolent of early scenes in Rich and Strange (1931). (Could that “atrociously conventional painting of a sailing ship tossing in a heavy sea” in the Underwriter’s office (74) be the same “Off Valparaiso” by Thomas Somerscales seen above Fred and Em’s mantelpiece?!) We have noted many of the actual parallels with Hitchcock’s The Birds and can turn now to further connections, beginning with the respective depictions of the avians themselves.
Baker regretted late in the day that he had insufficiently distinguished between bird species. (75) Most of the time, his avians are of indeterminate kind, starting with a vast flock of “small twittering birds of bright plumage” that appears over The Thames and then suddenly settles near the Royal Exchange – which the narrator identifies as the site of the original Armistice Day celebrations after the First World War. (76) But in truth this non-differentiation of species scarcely affects the impact of the birds on the reader. By the time the book’s magisterial climax arrives, their status as threat is all-important. “Stature” might be the better word – and Baker finds exactly the language to convey it. The “thick swarm” that invades St Paul’s Cathedral and destroys a congregation praying for deliverance consists, we are told, of a thousand feathered furies “mighty as eagles and dull black”. Nothing is lost in effectiveness here. Of course, Hitchcock’s film across its length does differentiate its species – sparrows, crows, seagulls, an owl – and thus carries its own measured impact.
In a major episode, Baker’s birds take over Trafalgar Square, covering the statue of Admiral Nelson and the surrounding monument “like a soft carpet of moss or lichen” (77). There’s a parallel in Hitchcock’s film, whose opening scene begins in San Francisco’s Union Square “dominated” (as Camille Paglia writes) by the Dewey Monument commemorating Admiral Dewey’s naval strike and blockade at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. (78) Overhead, masses of gulls are already wheeling, something which Melanie notices and comments on. But many of the avians in both Baker’s and Hitchcock’s stories are perching birds. Baker says of his: “Scaffolding attracted them greatly.” (79) He notes their continual presence amongst the renovations to the Houses of Parliament. (There is a rough parallel when Hitchcock’s crows perch on the jungle gym outside the schoolhouse.) The sound the birds make is also something that excites Baker’s imagination. At one point, he describes such a sound as: “A chattering, a harsh croaking, a sound which seemed to scrape along the quiet morning air like a blunt knife drawn over a slate.” (80) Always, though, the narrator keeps coming back to how individual birds would detach themselves to follow particular humans, and yet few of these people would admit their ordeal to others. To the narrator, this was a mystery: “I cannot tell you why people were so sensitive.” (81) Returning home one evening, he learns that Lillian herself is now prey to the prevailing fear, for a bird has been pecking at her window. Accordingly, she has taken to staying indoors with the windows shut. “Don’t ever open them, son; don’t ever open them. It’s like – like a blot somewhere. Something I can’t – get at.” (82) She begins to cry and the narrator is unable to console her, even when he suggests that she should “get away somewhere”. She becomes momentarily combative:
“You’re young”, she said. “You don’t think. You’ve got your own affairs, you don’t think of me any longer.”
I denied it but I knew it was half true. (83)
* * *
Lillian, then, resembles at least two characters in Hitchcock films: Rose Balestrero (Vera Miles) in 1956’s The Wrong Man (someone else who, beset with irrational fears, would stay indoors and shut out the world) and the widowed, nervy Lydia in The Birds.
But I want now to turn back to the lesson Baker intended, and to begin to suggest how far it is echoed by Hitchcock. I do think that virtually all of the texts and authors considered in the present essay concur, in effect, with Jean Giono’s view that humans are afflicted with “congenital egoism”. His own solution involves following a detached course that by no means excludes respect for the entire natural world and its members. In his novel, I don’t recall any instance of author-approved hatred for the gorged crows, swallows and other creatures that feed on the cholera victims. Hatred, he knew, would be futile. (84) A pragmatic detachment marks the beginning of wisdom. Now, the attitude to the natural world in Baker’s The Birds is related to this, but is more complex. I’ll be hard-pressed to set it down adequately.
Early in the novel, the narrator recalls how he had come to see the England of his youth as tragically misguided, most of its people – in the cities, at least – living a lie. At twilight one evening, he had gazed from a hill towards London, the Alexandra Palace in the foreground. (Baker’s original readers would have known that the BBC had lately begun transmitting regular television programs from here.) His comment is anguished: “I felt in everything a dreadful sense of the instability of the mock-world we had set up in place of the real world which was our heritage.” (85) Bearing this observation in mind, one sees the full significance of the narrator’s oceanic experience (as I will call it) on climbing Cader Idris. Here, he had become conscious of “the mysterious process of breathing” and “the natural mechanisms of living”. He had felt in himself “the Soul of man” and how “we had the power to detach ourselves; like a bird, to float in the air at our side and see ourselves” (86). From his own bird-like vantage point, he suddenly knew for certain “that the men of my time had accustomed themselves to the habit of unconscious experience. They ate, they drank, they breathed in a semi-comatose condition.” (87) How uncannily similar this last remark is to Hitchcock’s a year later about film-goers “so screened and sheltered” by civilisation that they are in danger of growing “sluggish and jellified”! (88)
Baker’s narrator isn’t finished. He returns to the topic of art’s inadequacies and our literally vital need to be conscious of “breathing, eating, drinking, loving – ” He pauses. “Loving. Back again. There was no escape. What a commonplace conclusion to approach from so tortuous a route!” (89) He aches for the girl Olga whom he had met briefly in London. Later, it will be Olga who notices in him something that is true. “Only … it isn’t true until you see yourself.” (90) And it is this lesson of unswerving self-appraisal that is represented in the powerful episode that now follows: the narrator’s confrontation with his Demon-bird on Hampstead Heath. As I have said, this represents a close equivalent to Melanie’s attic experience in Hitchcock’s film. In owning to his “shrivelled” condition, a most painful admission represented (and seemingly induced) by the Demon’s beak and talons assailing him, the narrator is changed forever. Deep in the Demon’s eyes,
I saw the soul that I had driven out from me so long ago. And it was hideous.
– I cannot tell you about that, Anna. Because to tell you what I saw then is to betray the living Soul which from that moment came to life in me and still lives. (91)
The Demon is defeated. Suddenly, the narrator understands that he would always carry Cader Idris deep inside him. “I saw that I had not to go to a mountain to fill my lungs with life.” Moreover, “I knew that the metempsychosis which touched and threatened the whole race of men no longer had the power to assault me.” (92)
I have suggested that this peculiar way of putting the matter, invoking a regrettable “metempsychosis” (soul-passage) that “threatened” the very race itself, comes from Samuel Butler. (In Baker’s memoirs, he mentions his treasured collection of Dickens plus “two novels which had become touchstones for me – Samuel Butler’s [The] Way of All Flesh and [W. Somerset] Maugham’s Of Human Bondage”.) (93) But as the same idea is implicit, however ambivalently, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), where Scottie wants to free both “Madeleine” (Kim Novak) and himself from “the past” – meaning, at least in her case, from an apparent metempsychosis – perhaps the idea has a psychological provenance. In noting this, I do not preclude that it may also be a delusion. At all events, Baker’s narrator simply forecloses on the matter. He is adamant that his Soul was now inviolate in a way “that I had never before accepted”. And he adds:
Neither could I intrude upon the privacy of any other Soul. I could tell nobody of what had happened to me, though I might warn them – as Olga had – not to resist their Demons. I could save nobody, for nobody had the power to save a man but himself. (94)
* * *
In effect, the above is Baker’s most powerful retort to the masses, whom he thinks lack “the power to discover anew the ancient beauties that have been under the sun since the world began”. (95) This view of the problem (a passage from early in the novel) is probably not Hitchcock’s – none of his films, I would say, sets ultimate store on “ancient beauties” – and perhaps it’s not truly Baker’s, given his narrator’s subsequent discovery that he carried Cader Idris within him. On the other hand, perhaps such a view isn’t greatly removed from Daphne du Maurier’s fierce love of Cornwall and her respect for its people with their roots in a distant past. Du Maurier’s crippled farm worker, Nat Hocken, is said by Camille Paglia to be “as attuned to nature’s disturbances as an ancient Druid” (96). As Nat eats his solitary lunch at the far end of the peninsula each day, he can watch the birds and perhaps intuit the “many million years of memory […] stored in those little brains”. In a double sense, he is the story’s authentic hero, if a finally ineffectual one. His initial encounter with the invading birds in the children’s bedroom shows his fibre. Next day, as he listens to a news bulletin from London (“The flocks of birds have caused dislocation in all areas […]”), he senses that the announcer treats the whole business as a joke. Hundreds like him, Nat reflects, “did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds”. Thus, the story’s tone of paranoia targets not the birds but human ignorance. Hitchcock would have understood, for he had adopted a similar perspective when depicting the situation of wrongfully accused Manny Balestrero in The Wrong Man. For example, that film posits a Bergsonian, or perhaps Kiekegaardian, understanding of time and space that no one in the film, least of all the bourgeois Manny, can grasp, though he has an inkling of it when he says that his arrest the day before “seems like a million years ago” (97). And, of course, in the film of The Birds, Nat Hocken’s experience in the children’s bedroom has become, in effect, both Melanie’s attic scene and Lydia’s harrowing, beyond-words experience when she finds Dan Fawcett pecked to death at his farm.
Just as there’s little room in Giono’s Le Hussard sur le toit for hatred directed at the cholera’s gorged birds, there’s no room at all in du Maurier’s tale for such an emotion directed at the birds. Du Maurier employs an almost languid style. Here’s her description of Nat boarding up the house’s windows:
The cold was so intense he could hardly bear it, but the job had to be done. Now and again he looked up, searching the sky for aircraft. None came. As he worked, he cursed the inefficiency of the authorities.
Plain words and sentences, and a relative absence of melodramatics. It’s fair to say that Hitchcock’s film achieves something of the dignity of du Maurier’s style by its deployment, for example, of a generally subdued look – just a basic palette drawn from nature of greens, greys, blues – and, although melodrama isn’t eschewed, its use is always perfectly legitimate to make a point (so the bird attacks on children say something about an implacable, blind force …). In comparing story and film, one is struck, as I said, by how little the filmmakers discarded and by how much they used to cinematic effect.
Here’s a different example. Nat’s stuffing the bleeding bodies of dead birds into the cracked panes of windows became the inspiration for the surreal tableau of a seagull impaled in the window of Dan Fawcett’s bedroom. That seagull may easily remind you of the sensuous depictions by certain artists of the martyred San Sebastian! However, it was the filmmakers who added the detail of an overturned glass case of stuffed birds nearby. That detail tops the imagery of merely caged birds, such as the film’s pair of lovebirds. And, of course, glass is everywhere in the film, starting with a reference to Melanie’s prank that saw the breaking of a plate-glass window … (98)
* * *
Mellowing the picture slightly: Jean Giono, Frederic Brown
As we shall see, Frederic Brown (1906-1972) is the only author of the seven whose work I’m examining here who doesn’t in some way denigrate the mass of people – if only for their ignorance – and appear to set the animal world against them as punishment. (Mind you, even Brown reserves a particularly nasty death for a Nazi sympathiser named Siegfried Gross, who is induced by the mind thing to blow his brains out with a shotgun.) By the same token, Jean Giono (1895-1970) strikes me as easily the most “humane” of these writers, for his canvas is broad and lived-in, with no signs of condescension to the Provencal characters who are clearly its true subject – along, that is, with the lyrically-described French countryside.
Le Hussard sur le toit appeared in 1951, four years after Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague) that it resembles in final outlook, or wisdom, but not setting or method. For much of its sprawling length, Le Hussard is all incident and fresh encounter and lively exchange; on the other hand, Camus’ great novel, set in Oran, North Africa, has been suitably called a Symbolist work, concentrated and working on various loosely-related levels simultaneously. (99) La Peste resembles Machen’s The Terror in having a doctor at its centre who observes the story’s calamities, knows the people at first hand, and tries to see clearly what is happening or at any rate what he must do to help others. In Le Hussard, the idealistic young doctor who himself soon succumbs to the cholera is contrasted, 300 pages later, with another doctor, more detached, who has cultivated self-forgetting – a contrast which may imply, on Giono’s part, how neither idealistic zeal nor a doctor’s intelligence is in itself the answer, how wisdom is something else again. (That conclusion, as I say, is pretty much Camus’, arrived at by a different route; both authors seem to feel that something in the human condition doesn’t fundamentally change, and, moreover, in Camus’ words and imagery, “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good”.)
Unlike the more paranoid English authors we have been looking at, Giono acknowledges quite early that society is a necessary given, that it is what most of us will sooner or later have to settle for with all its inherent flaws. Here is Giono describing the thoughts of his starry-eyed young hero:
[Angelo] was one of those men who remain twenty-five for fifty years. His soul did not comprehend the full seriousness of society and how important it is to have one’s place, or at any rate to belong to the party that distributes places. He always regarded liberty as believers regard the Virgin. The most sincere among the men he trusted saw it as a relative thing […]. He did not realize that, of those who always had the word “liberty” on their lips, some were beginning to sport crosses. (100)
Still, if Giono appears more tolerant at times of human diversity than do English authors like Frank Baker and Daphne du Maurier, the difference does not extend to his endorsing arrogance and complacency. Giono’s level-headed doctor, he of the practised detachment, tells Angelo, “My dear sir, death to the man who believes he is innocent: that’s what the gods say. And it’s just.” There’s a matching moment in Baker’s The Birds when a mop-haired orator near the National Gallery harangues a crowd with reminders of Judgement Day – and is promptly savaged and killed by a flapping bird. Baker’s narrator comments: “it appeared to me, and still appears, to be the only possible outcome of the preacher’s savage and arrogant assault [on his listeners]” (101).
I will just mention two more details from Le Hussard. Another of the level-headed doctor’s comments – all of them seemingly endorsed by Giono – about his idealistic colleague who had perished is that he “wasn’t altogether good, or else he was too much so. […] He wasn’t facing reality. He was clinging on. To everybody. What for? To end by following their example.” (102) I am reminded of school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) in Hitchcock’s The Birds, whose insight into the alleged “clinging on” of others – notably by Lydia Brenner – is ironic inasmuch that Annie is far from being detached herself. (103) That irony, at any rate, is the lesson I take from her otherwise unwarranted death by bird attack. Like Giono’s young doctor, she dies in the very act of trying to help or save another human being – in her case, Cathy Brenner. That makes for another, and larger, irony. (104)
Finally, I will quote another question posed by one of Giono’s characters, a guard named Dupuis. Noting that even the local butterflies have become meat-eaters, he calls them devils and advises Angelo and Pauline not to lie down in the grass:
“You’d soon have them even in your mouth. And what they like best, the dirty bastards, is the eyes, as usual. What the hell have we got in our eyes that makes animals so greedy for them?” (105)
* * *
One of the first of respected pulp author Frederic Brown’s novels to be filmed was The Screaming Mimi (1949), about an alcoholic reporter’s quest to find a Jack-the-Ripper-like killer roaming Chicago. Gerd Oswald’s film came out in 1958 and starred Anita Ekberg. (Eleven years later, Dario Argento’s first feature, L’Uccello Dalle Piume de Cristallo/The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, was an unofficial remake.) Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had adapted several of Brown’s stories, including “The Night the World Ended”, starring Harold J. Stone (one of the detectives in The Wrong Man). The episode was typical of Brown inasmuch that it combined s-f themes with crime fiction (106), and because it employed a subjective twist ending. (The practical-joking reporter’s scare headline, “World to End Tonight – 11.45 p.m.”, comes true for him …) A subjective element also informs, for example, Brown’s novel, Martians, Go Home (1955), depicting a Martian invasion through the eyes of an s-f author.
Which may bring us to The Mind Thing. As noted, Hitchcock contemplated filming this novel shortly before he decided to switch to The Birds. Again there’s a twist ending and one, significantly, that is dependent on events inside Doc Staunton’s head. Symbols of subjectivity – a flashlight, a pair of binoculars – had earlier been introduced as Doc, alone in the house, prepared himself to meet any eventuality.
A feature of the novel is its Wisconsin local colour. Doc’s nearest community is a small town, Bartlesville. The general store is run by an individual named Cap Hayden, who is also the local postmaster. When Doc decides he needs a shorthand typist, he visits Ed Hollis, editor of Bartlesville’s weekly newspaper, The Clarion. Ed immediately recommends a local schoolteacher, Miss Amanda Talley. Later, after dropping Amanda back at her house, Doc stays in town for a meal. Wanting to hear the latest scuttlebutt about the mysterious human and animal suicides that have been reported in the area, he chooses a place “where he knew he’d be served by the most talkative waitress in town”. She proves worthy of her billing, but there had been no new developments. “The most exciting thing that had happened in the past twenty-four hours had been a fire at Smalley’s Feed Store […]”
Brown’s tone in describing all of this is almost affectionate. Doc Staunton himself is no snob as far as ordinary people are concerned, and he enjoys playing cards with his new buddies such as Ed Hollis. Bartlesville, then, looks to be something of a prototype for Bodega Bay in Hitchcock’s The Birds, and the physicist Doc may well have supplied some of his virile and sociable qualities to Mitch Brenner in the same film. More on Mitch, subjectivity, and related topics, shortly.
* * *
Short interlude: critiquing the critics
The present article has as its principal focus Hitchcock’s The Birds, but there remain one or two things I need to do before we derive our “synoptic” account. First, here is how I see the nature of Hitchcock’s films. My fundamental view on this has changed little since I wrote The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999) and my long profile of Hitchcock (2005) for the Senses of Cinema website. In essence, I equate Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” with the very palpable force or energy that, like life itself, flows through the films and is typically announced emblematically in their credits or opening sequences. (See, for example, Jamaica Inn, 1939, and Rebecca, both adaptations of Daphne du Maurier novels.) In turn, I liken pure cinema to the ubiquitous cosmic Will, a blind life/death “force” described by the philosopher Schopenhauer (Arthur Machen’s Professor Huvelius!) in his monumental The World as Will and Representation. It seems to me that such an entity, or its analogue, modulated by the director, is the very basis of the films’ suspense and meaning. Gratifyingly, a new book on Hitchcock, by Paul Gordon, states that “Mogg is […] correct in referring to the force behind The Birds and other Hitchcock films as the Schopenhauerian ‘Will’”, adding that such a notion is “highly compatible” with the Freudian Unconscious (107) – which indeed it is, though we should remember that Schopenhauer understood Will to be immanent not just in minds (volition) but also in the outer world and the events occurring there. Arguably, this makes Schopenhauer among the most “cinematic” of philosophers.
Also, something I would now incorporate into my argued view on Hitchcock is his indebtedness to the Symbolist movement, based in France and Belgium. We know that Schopenhauer (1788-1860), with the poet Charles Baudelaire, was a principal influence on these writers and artists. Shehira Doss-Davezac notes:
Schopenhauer, like Baudelaire, seemed to them to be the mouthpiece of their own feelings; had they not themselves witnessed the irrational forces he described which drove both man and nature, dominated by a blind energy – to the edge of destruction? (108)
The Birds, I would say, is a Symbolist work …
But this “interlude” is really about how I would engage with recent Hitchcock criticism. Basically, I want the reader to know my subjective position – where I’m coming from – before we arrive at what may be a more objective outlook, using the synoptic approach. Of course, the critics are a complicating factor. They, too, have their subjective positions!
I greatly admire Camille Paglia’s monograph on The Birds (1998). Not least, I welcome her careful description of the energy-charged credits:
Against the severity of deep black and blazing white, the titles’ very formal, slightly raised classical letters come up in cerulean blue – the lovely pastel of Renoir idylls and romantic hope, of the welcoming robe of merciful Mother Mary, and of the serene, cloudless sky that Hitchcock denies to Bodega Bay. But the hanging words and names nervously overlap and disintegrate, as if bitten to pieces by invisible beaks. The titles show a war between nature and culture […] (109)
Paglia sums up the “white box of the titles” as “half cosmic void, half mental cage”, which again I am grateful for. Such a formulation parallels Schopenhauer’s distinction between Will (reality) and Representation (appearance). Paglia has seen immediately the pessimistic aspect of The Birds. For, if the film is going to reveal, on the one hand, a stark “cosmic void” and, on the other, our customary imprisonment in “mental cages” (cf the “private traps” of Psycho), what possible joy can it finally leave us?
In truth, Paglia’s perceptiveness is operating at several levels. Notice in the above indented passage her precise use of the phrase “as if”. Earlier commentators had been less careful. Thus, Richard Allen, in a helpful essay for the Hitchcock Annual, 1997-98, had still referred to “black birds that peck away at the credits” (110), when, strictly speaking, they do no such thing. The birds fly through and about the frame, but do no detectable pecking. Hence, Paglia’s again precise reference to “invisible beaks”. Moreover, a characteristic of the “hanging words and names” is that they appear shattered and broken from the moment each fresh set forms; then they briefly attain wholeness before disintegrating again. So, if there is any causal connection to the activity of the birds, it may seem that the latter peck the titles into existence as well as out of it! May we not say that these birds represent a life/death force – or an analogue of it?
Let me mention just briefly the interesting recent work on Hitchcock by Christopher Morris, including his book, The Hanging Figure (2002). True, he’s a much less concrete analyst of images than Paglia, and therefore not as satisfying, in my view. My Schopenhauerian bias, perhaps! Schopenhauer much preferred “percepts” to “concepts”, believing that the latter tend to feed upon each other, on and on, regardless of verifiable reality. (111) Partly for this reason, G. W. F. Hegel was Schopenhauer’s principal bête noire. Apropos The Birds, Morris speaks loosely of “the birds’ nibbling at the credit names”, something “which reduces words to morphemes or phonemes” (112). This does seem to me an overly forced reading, but of course Morris has his thesis based in Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man to uphold. And I can see why he might conclude:
As the action accelerates and culminates in the horrific assault on Melanie, it may become possible to see life reduced to the alternation of arbitrary sound and nothingness […] (113)
Well, yes, it may (evoking a famous soliloquy in The Tragedy of Macbeth). But apropos such a moment as Morris describes, our synoptic reading below of The Birds can remind us that other authors, at other times – notably Frank Baker – have intended a more immediately challenging significance.
So, I do not say that Morris is wrong here but only that his particular reading needs weighing alongside the others that are available. Robin Wood’s, for example, in Hitchcock’s Films (1966 and subsequent editions), in which he invokes D. H. Lawrence’s “The Woman who Rode Away”: Melanie “accepting the sacrificial knife”. (114) Frankly, one must be alert to where even the most brilliant reading falls short or becomes skewed. So, coming back to Paglia, I have only praise for her use of Wood to explicate Lydia Brenner’s wordless horror on seeing the dead Dan Fawcett. Paglia writes: “Wood usefully compares Lydia’s experience to Mrs Moore’s in the Marabar cave in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India”. (115) And she elaborates: “there is nothing to say because both women have confronted the ultimate chaos of existence, beyond space and time, reason and language, love and hate” (116). Paglia elsewhere uses similar phrasing – “beyond space and time” – to describe the realm of “the Mothers” in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: The Tragedy Part Two. (117), which, surely, is the more reason for her to suppose Lydia will henceforth be a person whose worldly nature has been chastened, someone who won’t stoop to petty thoughts and actions. Yet, that’s not how Paglia reads the final scenes of the film (118), and I think she’s mistaken. Granted, her comparison of Lydia to the embittered Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1959) is striking (119): I once noted that the climactic flashback in Suddenly, Last Summer was the likely model for the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) (120), so that’s evidence for Hitchcock having seen Mankiewicz’s film. And I readily allow that few things in Hitchcock – or human nature – are without paradox. Even so, I detect precious little evidence that Lydia finally revels in her “dominance” over the prostrate Melanie. On the contrary, the movement of the film has been all towards the characters’ putting aside childish things, instinctive reactions.
Ambiguity at the end of the film is, I think, pretty much confined to the matter of the lovebirds and of course to the question of what will happen next. Here, Richard Allen is optimistic (“Although the birds cackle and deliver a peck or two, their anger has abated”) (121), but I am less confident – or would be if I took a naturalistic position on this. Nonetheless, Allen’s summing-up seems basically more true-to-the-film than Paglia’s position. He distinguishes between The Birds as horror and as melodrama:
As a horror film, The Birds, like Psycho, evokes a human nature poisoned at its source to which Melanie, like Marion, is [in danger of being] sacrificed. However, in the melodrama of The Birds, Psycho’s catastrophic Oedipal logic is checked by the redemptive, therapeutic narrative of the mother-daughter relationship; Melanie, as family therapist, uses her intuition, her contact with nature, to redeem the Brenner family from emotional isolation. (122)
Allen’s phrase “human nature poisoned at the source” sounds pessimistic enough, given Hitchcock’s disposition that way. (As for Schopenhauer, he was happy to liken Will-in-humans to Original Sin. (123)) The reference to Melanie’s “contact with nature” is more troubling. I think what Melanie brings to the rural Brenners is actually a bird-like “otherness”. Nonetheless, I accept the thrust of Allen’s description. The perhaps obvious comparison is with Shadow of a Doubt. There, the interloper, the serial killer Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), may very well redeem the Newton family: at the beginning of the film, young Charlie (Teresa Wright) – an older Cathy Brenner? – summons her uncle to California precisely to “save” the family from stagnation. As noted in The Alfred Hitchcock Story, such a theme goes back to The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) – and with a particularly downbeat variant soon to follow it, in Easy Virtue (1928), which Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work (2000) has shown to likewise anticipate The Birds. (124) Furthermore, several moments in The Birds are matched in Shadow of a Doubt. Thus, the latter’s scene with a tetchy, small-town postmistress (“I only send telegrams the normal way”) anticipates the scene with Bodega Bay’s small-town storekeeper cum postmaster. He, too, is confident about his mastery of the postal system and its requirements, though for the name of “the little Brenner girl” he mistakenly insists, “It’s Lois!”
Confounding Paglia, perhaps, is how Mrs Newton, Lydia Brenner’s forerunner, seems almost entirely without malice. Anybody less like Violet Venable would be hard to imagine.
My main point is that no single reading suffices, and that the critics’ readings have tended to be very subjective (125). That’s a reason I like to look to broader-ranging commentators, such as Arthur Koestler, for perspective. I quoted earlier Koestler’s distinction between the tragic and the trivial planes of existence; I wanted to suggest that Hitchcock was someone who could bridge them. To Truffaut, Hitchcock spoke of how in The Trouble With Harry (1955) he sought to “elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level” (126). That was Hitchcock-the-Symbolist speaking. Koestler, for his part, wrote: “By bridging the gap between the two planes, the cosmic mystery becomes humanized, drawn into the orbit of man, while his humdrum experiences are transformed […]” (127). Our synoptic reading of The Birds may show us Hitchcock accomplishing such a goal.
Also, in preparing this essay, I have had occasion to refer to John Gray’s uncompromising Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002). Reminding us that “[t]he first and still unsurpassed critique of humanism was made by Arthur Schopenhauer” (128), Professor Gray describes his book as “an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people” (129). His favourite phrase for the human race is “homo rapiens”. (130) And he cites Jacques Monod: “All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.” (131) Why, he concludes, “[c]an we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” (132)
Below, then, apropos Hitchcock’s film, I’ll try to do just that: simply see. Something I particularly value about Schopenhauer’s post-Kantian insight into the nature of everything is how it is so fundamental. I tell myself it frees me from pursuing an interminable “theoretical” line about, in this case, The Birds! Ideally, our synoptic reading will be more free than usual from “causal” explanations. Recall how often critics have been teased into asking, “What do the birds mean?” Some of their answers have been astute, such as Wood’s: “[the birds] are a concrete embodiment of the arbitrary and unpredictable […] of the possibility that life is meaningless and absurd” (133). No denial of contingency there. However, as Wood himself, Morris and, recently, Robert J. Yanal in Hitchcock as Philosopher (2005) have all pointed out, the more the critics try to theorise about the bird attacks, the more they effectively flirt with absurdity and contradiction. (Yanal is particularly severe on Donald Spoto’s post hoc, ergo propter hoc logic when he argues that the characters’ tensions cause the birds to attack (134) – though perhaps one sees what Spoto intends.) Moreover, as Yanal sums up: “For a film supposedly about character and relationships, The Birds ultimately fizzles. Hitchcock himself agreed that The Birds without the birds is not much of a story.” (135) So, should we not just accept that the birds, like Will, are finally inscrutable? They appear bent on “causing” suffering, but who can say what ultimate “design” they may or may not serve? At any rate, Hitchcock’s film has more than enough “designs” of its own – which I trust a non-tendentious, synoptic reading will help us to understand.
* * *
Bringing the threads together: seeing The Birds synoptically
The world in its essence is paradoxical … an ambivalent attitude alone can grasp its contradictory totality.
– Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) (136)
I saw that to see only the ridiculousness of humanity was just as misleading as to see only its dignity, that what one said or thought about a thing must always be a distortion, that the mistake was to believe that any one expression could be the last word, for experience was always bigger than the formula.
– Joanna Field, A Life of One’s Own (1934) (137)
A synoptic reading of Hitchcock’s film will show it to be both pessimistic and anti-pessimistic. Young Cathy, who quickly befriends Melanie in gratitude for her gift of lovebirds, represents a note of hope, much as a grown-up Anna, the dying narrator’s daughter in Frank Baker’s The Birds, is that novel’s pledge of a fecund, decent future. (138) There are other structural resemblances between these two works. For example, Melanie as “other”, someone who “redeems” the Brenner family, has her equivalent in the Russian girl Olga, whom Baker’s narrator falls in love with. We have seen that fiction thrives on ambivalence. Baker admitted that his initial impulse in writing his novel was destructive, to avenge himself on his enemies – as Hitchcock may have taken sadistic delight in directing his film at audiences whom he had once characterised with a typically British disdain as “the moron masses”. But then Baker met amateur ornithologist Dr Robert Walmsley, whose friendship “came [first] to redeem my devilish birds [with their] power to lift our minds away from things of the earth” and ultimately to transform the novel into one about the redeeming power of love – a love that has been tested and found strong. Hitchcock, too, reportedly underwent a change of heart during shooting of The Birds. He began to enter into the characters in a way he’d never done before. The siege of the Brenner home was totally re-thought by him as he became increasingly involved with the family’s and Melanie’s plight. (139) I once likened Hitchcock’s concern here to artist Paul Klee’s notion of “that Romanticism which is one with the universe” (140). From such a concern, hope could spring.
Of course, in Hitchcock, it might still be muted! The director’s cognitive ambivalence – or plain honesty – held him back. Referring to the film’s lovebirds, he noted wryly: “With a little effort even the word ‘love’ can be made to sound ominous.” (141) Witty and wise, that remark rivals his famous “everything’s perverted in a different way” (142). Both remarks posit the One and the Many – the latter linked to human finitude, and subjectivity. In a moment I will invoke Arthur Machen’s The Terror, whose insistence on “inexplicable mysteries” makes it another work allowing at least a measure of hope. But we need to consider further Hitchcock’s lovebirds. A delighted Cathy takes Melanie’s gift at face value and thanks her for them. Nonetheless, the viewer knows that Melanie purchased them with an ulterior motive, as an excuse to pursue Mitch. And these supposed “innocent little creatures” – the lovebirds, I mean! – have other symbolic functions. For one thing, their caged state serves as a reminder of anthropocentrism, something that has scarcely dissolved by the end of the film. The lovebirds remain caged and no one questions the propriety of this – in contrast to Mitch’s teasing remark to Melanie in the pet shop, “Doesn’t this make you feel awful … having all these [birds] caged up like this?” Anthropocentrism has lately received several excellent studies, notably Paul Carter’s Parrot (2006). (143) It is related to humans’ “congenital egoism”, and I’ll have more to say about that below.
Also, the pair of lovebirds is suitably mysterious. “Is there a man and a woman?”, asks Cathy. Not only does that particular question go unanswered, but the viewer is soon speculating along further lines, such as whether the lovebirds aren’t colluding with the attacking birds. In effect, the lovebirds emblemise the film’s open ending – which may return us to The Terror. I’m thinking of a couple of things. First, The Terror says of its creatures: “They had risen once – they might rise again.” (And Camus’ La Peste concludes: “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.”) At the end of the film, the caged lovebirds accompany the humans in the car, which may not be a good omen for the Brenners’ and Melanie’s future. On the other hand, the pair of birds symbolise love. Quite a different matter! In this respect, let’s recall a crucial detail in Machen’s tale, of the dog at Treff Loyne that had remained faithful to its master and about which someone comments, “That remains a mystery.” (My emphasis.)
But our synoptic reading of The Birds should perhaps have begun at the beginning, namely, the start of the film. What do we learn there? After the credits, the camera pans Melanie in high heels crossing the road at Union Square. Her elevated footwear combines with other elevated structures seen in the background – among them the Dewey Monument and a couple of airline signs on buildings – to suggest a theme found elsewhere in Hitchcock, a discontent with being “grounded”. (Notably, it is in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954, and Vertigo.) H. G. Wells would not have disapproved: his The Food of the Gods had lamented the lack of aspiration of London’s citizenry. In contrast, the hints of human hubris in the same opening shot may have come from Daphne du Maurier, specifically her story’s reference to aeroplanes forced to crash-land by vengeful birds. Subtly, then, and with some ambiguity – for human efforts to soar can be noble – Hitchcock is announcing that his film will deal with the Will in humans. Will, let’s recall, is an essentially ambiguous life/death “force”.
The presence of the Dewey Monument is ironic, the first of the film’s references to war. True, a general “contagion of hate” – to use Machen’s phrase – doesn’t obviously explain why Hitchcock’s birds turn on people. Nonetheless, earlier Hitchcock films had implied some such infection. For example, there was the unspoken reason for Michael Logan’s (Montgomery Clift’s) becoming a priest after returning from war service, in I Confess (1953). And there was critic Colin McArthur’s instructive description of The Wrong Man: “the film which perhaps best conveys the underlying unease of 50s America” (144). In The Birds, the recent Cuban Missile Crisis and the continuing Cold War do nuance what we’re shown. Once again, our best indication of Hitchcock’s intentions may be The Terror. We have seen that Machen sought to include as many pertinent allusions as possible: everything from Jack the Ripper to the Zeppelin scare to the end of the world. Convinced that “the secret of things […] is everywhere hidden under outward appearances”, he was trying to build a significant gestalt, and to induce deeper perception. I think that The Birds works similarly. For example, when Mitch refers to a client who had murdered his wife after she changed the television channel, Hitchcock is invoking another of his recurrent motifs over the years: the domestic scene as another battleground (as in, say, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, and Rear Window). With Machen’s Professor Huvelius, we might put 2+2 together and conclude that “the heart of man” is not always “naturally and in the main well disposed and kindly” …
But also implied in The Birds’ opening shot is the ubiquitous Hitchcock trope of a character wanting “more life” – think of Fred (Henry Kendall) in Rich and Strange or Marion (Janet Leigh) in Psycho. Aptly, it’s an overcast afternoon, and Hitchcock has further dulled the shot by dressing both Melanie and several extras in black and white. On the right of screen, he seems to have staged a piece of business in which a little old lady starts to cross the road behind Melanie but is restrained by a man in a coat: the contrast of the film’s seemingly go-getting heroine and the fragile old lady anticipates the cleaning lady sequence in Marnie. So, what sort of “life” is Melanie seeking? A superficial answer is La Dolce Vita: Melanie has just returned from Rome where she reportedly cavorted in a fountain, recalling Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film. Yet, we soon gather that Melanie scarcely knows what she wants and is subject to periodic boredom. According to Schopenhauer, the latter is practically a universal condition. (145) (But Wells’ Professor Redwood, it will be recalled, had tried to guard against it in the case of his baby giants by installing a camera obscura in the roof of their nursery in Kensington.) Fortunately, boredom may in turn stimulate risk-taking and new insight. In Melanie’s case, it leads to her relationship with Mitch. In our case, it may impel us into a cinema! Here I think of how Siegfried Kracauer, in Theory of Film (1960), calls film a “glistening wheel of life” (146) and likens the spectator to, firstly, a flâneur, happy to revel in “the transient real-life phenomena that crowd the screen” (147). But at times, notes Kracauer, the spectator may feel elevated like a god. (148)
Now our synoptic account of The Birds may press on. For I think it’s evident that Hitchcock has taken a sizeable leaf from H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods and has tried to give us both a “low” and a “high” account of the human condition. Melanie’s story – her seeking “more life” – provides the “low” human content, akin to what Koestler called the trivial plane of existence. At the same time, the film gives us a “high”, God-like perspective on things comparable to the view through the camera obscura in Wells’ novel. Such a view may afford us an inkling of what Koestler called the tragic plane of existence.
Tragic? I suggest that’s a reason why several of the literary narratives cited here take place, like Hitchcock’s film, by the sea. Simultaneously, all these works emphasise human finitude and subjectivity. The contrast is all. I’m reminded that in fact Hitchcock first scrupulously explored such a situation in his silent film The Manxman (1929). Here’s how I once summed it up:
The Manxman opens with a shot of the triskele (three-legged) symbol of the Isle of Man, and proceeds to tell a story that perfectly illustrates how none of its three main characters sees – at least until too late – the whole truth. The gaze of each has been clouded by worldly ambition. (149)
In other words, in all these works the seemingly unbounded sea mocks the finite vision, and schemes, of men. Machen’s The Terror, set on the Wales coast, makes particularly effective use of the contrast. His story brings out the blinkered wartime thinking of the British populace, meanwhile building to a revelation about the animal world that in turn implies the ineffable: the hidden secret of things. Baker’s The Birds works similarly inasmuch that the bounded nature of popular thinking is repeatedly cited. The narrator’s mother is heard to complain of “something I can’t get at” which she compares to “a blot somewhere” (150). The novel especially targets the media. In a Hitchcockian incident, birds invade a cinema and shred the screen. (151) However, to all of these moments and their implications Baker opposes not a symbolic sea but the narrator’s epiphany on Cader Idris – and the oceanic consciousness it represents for him. On the mountain, his senses quicken and he suddenly understands that neither art nor the media can give “but a pennyworth of the sum-total” of emotions. (152)
Now, I suggest that oceanic consciousness is precisely what’s implied in Hitchcock’s film by the literal (and symbolic) ocean adjoining the events we see. (Recall the same ocean’s role in the masterly Vertigo.) But analysis will indicate that it is the spectator’s consciousness as much as Melanie’s or the other characters’ that is being invoked. Paglia’s monograph on The Birds refers to “the primal ocean” (153), thereby drawing on Ferenczi’s idea that the sea symbolises the womb and a wish to return to the origin of life. But our synoptic reading shows that there’s more at stake. First, the sea in The Birds may be said to imply Will – like the birds themselves. It, too, represents a life/death “force” (154) that affects us whether we acknowledge this or not. Aptly, the fishing village of Bodega Bay depends on the sea for its general livelihood; and, while many of the locals, like Nat Hocken in du Maurier’s story, necessarily remain sensitive to its presence, others have grown complacent. (Machen shows a similar state of mind happening in The Terror.) But the sea is also an icon of grandeur, or potential grandeur. Men might be like gods, Baker had reminded his readers, if only they would break their “habit of unconscious experience” and become aware of the fullness of Life. I can’t forget that Hitchcock in Marnie has Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) mis-quote a well-known passage on Duty from one of Emerson’s Voluntaries, beginning: “So nigh is grandeur to our dust,/ So near is God to man”.
Opposing the evident, even necessary, optimism in oceanic consciousness is a generic tradition underlying much s-f writing. (155) One prototype, which probably influenced H. G. Wells, was an 1885 novel by Richard Jefferies called After London: or, Wild England. It “vengefully imagined the London of the future as a desolate swamp” (156) – though no precise cause for the environmental catastrophe was given. John Carey has recently considered the reasons for such pessimism. It had begun to affect the British public as early as the 1830s: geology, he notes, had given the Victorians a glimpse of the terrifying vastness of time, showing all human achievement to be transitory. (157) Writers soon reflected the new mood:
From Tennyson’s In Memoriam  to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, [they] persistently reminded the Victorian public of the eventual annihilation of all living species, including the human. (158)
Another work that famously reflected – and lamented – the new pessimism, and a concomitant decline in religious faith, was Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach” (1867). I think one can detect a hint of Arnold’s “the eternal note of sadness” in at least one of the shots of the somnolent sea in The Birds.
At any rate, that line and what it evokes can prompt this reflection. At about the time Ingmar Bergman, the “gloomy Swede”, was making Skammen (Shame, 1968) – a superb film, very evidently influenced by The Birds – his mood of pessimism led him to state: “We’re quite definitely living in a twilight world. But I don’t know when the darkness will descend.” (159) Well, forty years later, the world still carries on, albeit precariously. At the least, Bergman’s pessimism may have been premature. By contrast, a synoptic reading of The Birds shows it to alternate by design between possible pessimism and possible optimism. Arguably, this shows Hitchcock being more realistic than Bergman. It definitely recalls the fought-for stance of one of his principal mentors, G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:
There are two equal and eternal ways of looking at this twilight world of ours; we may see it as the twilight of evening or the twilight of morning […] There are times when we are almost crushed, not so much with the load of the evil as with the load of the goodness of humanity, when we feel that we are nothing but the inheritors of a humiliating splendour. But there are other times when everything seems primitive […] (160)
After the “primitive” Psycho, which lacked grandeur, Hitchcock probably wanted to make a film whose emphasis was more objective. Generally speaking, that is how things turned out. Nonetheless, the realist in Hitchcock – or the pragmatic rhetorician in him – could hardly disavow how a film is in the end subjective, because it’s what takes place in the head of the individual spectator. The Birds allows for this. As we will see, it is a work in which subjectivity doubles back on itself, the better to invite scrutiny by all concerned – including the film spectator – of the very world depicted. Potentially, this is very liberating. Nothing quite like it occurs in The Manxman, not even in that film’s courtroom scene when the judge himself becomes the person accused. The philosophical sophistication of The Birds recalls Schopenhauer. For one thing, the film shows not only how humans imprison other creatures in elaborate “gilded cages” – a sign of our anthropocentrism, which Schopenhauer despised (161) – but how we ourselves are often trapped in such cages without knowing it. That’s because the general human condition is one of unmitigated subjectivity. (162) Both Frank Baker and Hitchcock would choose to emphasise this by having a character assailed by birds in a telephone box.
However, what is most cogent, philosophically, about the film’s pet-shop scene is its conceit of the practical joke that misfires. Here I’ll take my cue from a remark by Angelo Restivo concluding his recent essay, “The Silence of The Birds”, that could also apply to Baker’s novel:
[…] the media is radically incommensurate to the task that The Birds has set out for us. For that task is nothing less than the imperative to re-think the human, once we have moved “beyond subjectivity.” (163)
Restivo has been principally influenced by Žižek and Lacan. Had he consulted Schopenhauer, he might have found the very solution he was seeking! For Schopenhauer had grasped that the cosmic Will is itself a jest. (Joseph Conrad picked this up and in Lord Jim, 1900, portrayed life as “a devastating practical joke” (164).) His brilliant solution was to advocate turning the individual will back on itself, thereby stilling it, and potentially freeing it, while taking inspiration and insight from art and compassion for others. The Birds seems to me an almost literal enactment of that idea. As Mitch leaves the pet shop, he says it’s time that Melanie found herself “on the other end of a gag”. Well, he gets his wish, writ huge. Accordingly, by the time the film’s attic scene arrives, Hitchcock is ready to deal us his coup de grace – and perhaps thereby impel us “to re-think the human”.
* * *
Dangling, [being] pursued, and [racing against time] were tactics that Hitch experimented with and developed in order to make himself and the audience feel alive.
– Neil P. Hurley, Soul in Suspense: Hitchcock’s Fright and Delight (1993) (165)
Before we consider the end of Hitchcock’s film, our synoptic account must allow for the crucial matter of “the gaze”. I am very aware of Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay on this topic, dealing with an alleged controlling male gaze, both in and behind the film. (166) But I feel a need to broaden the matter out. Especially, I can’t forget the question posed by a character in Jean Giono’s Le Hussard sur le toit: “What the hell have we got in our eyes that makes animals so greedy for them?” In Hitchcock’s film, birds make a particular target of their victims’ eyes. Camille Paglia notes how there’s a precedent for this in Young and Innocent (1937). There, one of Erica’s schoolboy brothers speculates out loud that Robert may be dying in a field, “with rooks pecking at his eyes” (167). That Hitchcock and Hunter were indeed thinking of Young and Innocent is shown by a couple of other borrowings in their film: a game of blindman’s buff at a children’s birthday party; and several ambiguous references to “innocence” (such as Melanie’s admission, “I’m neither poor nor innocent.”). What’s going on here?
In the first place, as every farmer knows, predatory birds peck at the eyes of their victims in order to disable them. But with poetic licence, both Giono and Hitchcock have used this plain fact to hint at the wider scheme of things. In Giono’s case, he certainly had in mind what he called people’s “congenital egoism”. That his creatures are “greedy” to attack humans is apt, merely a turning of the tables on human rapaciousness. In Hitchcock’s case, I think the eye-metaphor has a twofold resonance: an allusion to, again, the wider scheme of things, immanent Will, as almost literally reflected in, and through, our eyes; but also a specific allusion to the eyes of the film spectator and the subjectivity of each of us. In other words, I think that Hitchcock began by reasoning something like this: Will itself is blind and often predatory (168), being a life-force that is also a death-force. Its creatures, in turn, partake of these qualities, often blindly. So the film’s sand-dunes scene contains a typically ambiguous moment. No sooner has Melanie told Mitch that she isn’t innocent than she remarks that perhaps they had better go and join “the other children” at the birthday party! Of course, even Hitchcock’s children are creatures of ambiguous Will …
Now to the other aspect of this. “Hey, no touching allowed!”, we hear a blindfolded Cathy cry out. It’s quite literally an innocent remark. Let’s recall William Rothman’s emphasis on “acknowledgment”. Most of us will take just about all the “acknowledgment” we can get! (I even think this is true of Frank Baker’s narrator in the novel The Birds, despite his wariness of “the masses”. (169)) The urge to overcome our isolation from other living things – biophilia – is very strong. (170) That’s essentially what drives Melanie at the start of the film; the business there of the small boy’s wolf-whistle, and Melanie’s amused reaction, is a reminder. Of course, in adult life, “acknowledgment” typically has a sexual component. In a line cut from Vertigo, the shop-girl Judy (Kim Novak) complains, “You’ve got to prove you’re alive these days” (171). I doubt that anyone would give her remark an entirely innocent interpretation. In fact, abandoned by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), Judy soon feels the need to throw herself again on Scottie. And in The Birds, Melanie endures the slight of being seemingly mistaken for a shop-girl by Mitch, to the extent that she promptly follows him to Bodega Bay. He, at least, had “acknowledged” her!
Accordingly, I think Rothman’s suggestion that Hitchcock punishes his audience for not acknowledging him, the film’s director, isn’t the whole story. Most definitely, there are moments when Hitchcock’s films confront us: for example, when the murderous Thorwald (Raymond Burr) in Rear Window suddenly looks straight back at us, or when the hysterical mother (Doreen Lang) in The Tides Restaurant in The Birds addresses the camera: “I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil.” At such times, we sense Hitchcock saying to us, “Go on. Admit I scared you! Admit I made you feel uneasy!” But by evincing such a demand to be acknowledged, he is also acknowledging us, and thereby hangs a paradox. The master rhetorician is seeking to make us feel more alive and to re-empower us in our “sluggish and jellified” state – which is not, after all, greatly removed from Melanie’s when the film begins. (Melanie’s high heels can suggest over-reaching and unsteadiness, despite her go-getting manner. She is our extension, not our opposite!) Later, the fact that she – on our behalf, so to speak – slaps the hysterical mother for saying that we “caused” the bird attacks is an ambiguous moment that will need a Schopenhauer to fully explain it. (See Appendix 1.) My point for now is that it constitutes part of both Melanie’s and our re-empowerment. Hitchcock, like Frank Baker, knew that people are reluctant or unable to closely examine their own condition. (172) The hysterical mother’s accusation thus serves as a wake-up call ultimately represented by the attacking birds in the attic. On both occasions, the gaze, or Will, is effectively turned back on itself.
In other words, I see the scene with the hysterical mother as an interim one, a stage on our way. It marks the beginning of our new wisdom, of our acceding to non-attachment, because Melanie’s slap frees us from certain guilt-feelings. Even so, the scene remains highly ambiguous. It may bring us more fully “alive”, and may make us wiser, but at the risk of a new smugness. Caught up in the events themselves, and in the film’s suspense, we may still be a long way from feeling a true sympathy for our fellow humans – or from attaining “oceanic consciousness”.
I am trying to accurately convey the spirit of Hitchcock’s rhetoric here. Remember that I’ve suggested how the trajectory of The Birds is towards a moment when the main characters put aside childish things and thereby set us an example. Several of the texts we’ve been examining take a similar line. For example, Jean Giono’s sated crows are not admirable. Granted, they have a collective voice like “an amorous force” or a prayer, one that to them has “the sense of indisputable logic”. But, sated though they are, they are not detached. They haven’t achieved a selfless Love. Giono’s intended lesson is voiced by his wise doctor. The latter tells Angelo and Pauline that the person who has mastered the art of living is “simply someone who forgets himself”. However, I think Baker’s The Birds comes even closer to Hitchcock’s film by the end. Baker’s narrator is almost apologetic about how the solution to the human predicament involves loving. “What a commonplace conclusion to approach from so tortuous a route!” Furthermore, Olga tells him that the insight he seeks involves “acknowledgment” of a particular kind: namely, his seeing himself for what he truly is. (She sounds a bit like Francie (Grace Kelly) in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, 1955, telling John (Cary Grant) about how to “capture” a woman: “It’s no good unless you discover it for yourself.”) Accordingly, the episode on Hampstead Heath in which the narrator directly confronts his Demon-bird looks to me very like a precursor of Hitchcock’s attic scene. The attic scene may be more complex rhetorically, but the key ideas are practically identical.
Now, an admission. Although I have watched the attic scene dozens of times, often comparing it with the screenplay – which it considerably extends – I still don’t exactly “like” it. (By contrast, I consider the flashback climax of Marnie masterly.) Melanie was downright foolish to get herself trapped in that room! And though the scene “had to be”, if only because Hitchcock needed it as his climax, it seems to me to lack the graphicness of the Hampstead Heath episode in Baker’s novel. On the other hand, I feel strongly the scene’s Schopenhauerian logic: the idea of the Will turned against itself, with Melanie as its brunt, is a metaphysical version of the gun turned on the audience at the climax of Spellbound (1945). Moreover, if there’s still a vagueness about the scene, I’m reminded of another John Gray passage: “The knowing I cannot find the acting self for which it seeks. […] The I is a thing of the moment, and yet our lives are ruled by it. We cannot rid ourselves of this inexistent thing.” (173) Melanie in the darkened attic, defending herself against the almost “ghostly” birds (174), and later, when she wakes up downstairs, flails at essentially “nothing”, which is the very nature of both the inscrutable Will and of the acting self. (175) Further, I feel reasonably sure about a couple of things. One is that the scene works on two levels: Melanie’s and ours. (Baker’s episode works similarly, inasmuch that his narrator says pointedly: “I could save nobody, for nobody has the power to save a man but himself.” (176)) The birds assail our very eyes which, like Melanie with her flashlight (a possible legacy of Doc Staunton’s in The Mind Thing), we have relied on until this moment. Suddenly, our eyes represent our human vulnerability. The other thing is that Melanie is effectively both “cleansed” and “punished” by what happens. The birds fly directly at her, finally reducing her to helplessness and to what the screenplay describes as near-nudity. She, and by extension the film viewer, is thus metaphorically stripped of her share of “congenital egoism” or what Baker calls “ambition” – anyway, modes of illusion – implying that she will awaken to a new awareness of her place in the scheme of things. Or something like that. Unlike Baker’s narrator, Melanie doesn’t receive a saving realisation at the moment of the bird attack. It would be difficult cinematically to convey that. Nonetheless, our synoptic reading of the film suggests the movement I’ve been describing towards selflessness and love. In the screenplay, after Mitch has carried the prostrate Melanie downstairs, he addresses Lydia:
“What do we have to know, Mother? We’re all together, we all love each other. What else is there? Mother, I want us to stay alive!”
The screenplay indicates Lydia’s acquiescence in what Mitch has said. There is absolutely no indication that she harbours Melanie ill will. And it is to a dawning awareness of the love surrounding her that I believe Melanie awakens. (177)
As for us, the film offers an implicit challenge. The birds flying straight at the camera are following up the hysterical mother’s accusation, “I think you’re the cause of all this.” But this time Hitchcock is confronting us even more purposefully. As we endure with Melanie her plight, we may, like a dying man, see the whole film flash on our inward eye. It has, after all, in its Symbolic way, sought to sum up for us all “life” – seen from both a “low” and a “high” perspective. Hitchcock knew that his film would be viewed by people of various ages, intellects and degrees of sophistication and maturity. Nonetheless, we have all come this far with Melanie and the Brenners. And few of us, I imagine, have been unaffected by the film’s good sense and decency, as in the scene where Melanie volunteers to Lydia to bring Cathy from the school. A comparable Symbolic seriousness may be found in the stories by Machen, Baker and Camus. The main question, then, is: Have any of us really grasped what is at stake, including the vital subjective factor that determines not just what we take from this particular film but how we live our individual lives in the world afterwards? I can’t help remembering that Rope ended with the damning cry of Rupert (James Stewart), “Did you think you were God, Brandon?” So, I will allow Robin Wood the final word here: “The point about the ending [of The Birds] is that the degree of optimism or pessimism it is felt to contain must depend on ourselves: what Hitchcock gives us are the questions.” (178)
“I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil. Evil!”
Why, exactly, does the frightened, hysterical mother in The Tides Restaurant need to put a cause to the bird attacks at all? Why must she scapegoat Melanie in this way? After all, we have just heard Mitch say to Sholes-the-fisherman (Charles McGraw), “It’s happening. Isn’t that a [sufficient] reason?”
In fact, both the mother and Melanie represent a certain tendency of people everywhere, and no one has described that tendency more profoundly than the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Hence this Appendix. Towards the end of the 19th century, Schopenhauer became an inspirational figure for many of the artists and writers of the Symbolist movement, and thus, if only indirectly, influenced Hitchcock. Hitchcock told biographer Charlotte Chandler, “Very early, I was immensely struck by the Symbolists. For a time, I had Symbolist dreams.” (1)
The frightened, hysterical mother, far from being objective and detached, represents ordinary human consciousness, which is “interested” consciousness. (2) In her case, she is seeking the quickest way to point the finger of blame, and thus supposedly end an intolerable threat to her children and herself. In formal terms, she is manifesting the “principle of sufficient reason”. Schopenhauer, adapting Leibniz (and Hume and Kant), initially wrote his doctoral thesis on this principle. It says, in essence, that humans require a reason or cause for everything (or, in the case of human actions, a motive). Seemingly, our minds are pre-wired to seek such an explanation, and we feel bewildered or lost if none is found. Hence, for example, teleology. On the other hand, John Gray, a Schopenhauerian, in his salutary book, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), is firm: “The most advanced physical sciences suggest that causality and classical logic may not be built into the nature of things.” (3) And he concludes his book thus: “Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” (4)
Neither objective nor detached, the hysterical mother seeks the quickest way out – both metaphorically and literally. She accepts a lift for her children and herself with the salesman, only to be frustrated when the birds attack the town (and the salesman is blown up after he drops a lighted match in a gasoline spill). Schopenhauer’s explanation of her behaviour might go like this. In looking so readily to assign a cause, or blame, for the bird attacks, and then to flee, the hysterical mother shows a primitive, survival-oriented response that is innate in the best of us and which tends to surface when we are under stress. Of course, the mother’s accusation of Melanie is irrational and could scarcely be otherwise, given that the bird attacks themselves are like that – or anyway seem so. They, like the cosmic Will, are finally inscrutable.
But what about the considerable force of the mother’s other charge, that Melanie is evil? In truth, both her accusations are directed as much at us as at Melanie, being delivered straight to the camera. But Melanie bears their initial brunt and responds to the mother’s hysteria by slapping her. By and large, the situation hardly differs from the episode recounted in Frank Baker’s The Birds (1935), in which an “arrogant” fire-and-brimstone preacher near the National Gallery assails passers-by with accusations of sin and punishment – and is promptly killed by a large black bird. (5) Melanie is entitled to respond the way she does because – like everybody else – she must press on with her life. That is, as best she can. But there’s the rub. Each of us is bound in subjectivity and prone to error. Religious people do indeed speak of sin, and Catholics, in particular, add the notion of Original Sin. Schopenhauer acknowledged some truth in that notion but related it to his empirical analysis of the working of Will, on the one hand, and what he called the principium individuationis, the principle of individuation, on the other.
The principium individuationis is simply a corollary of the principle of sufficient reason. Highly pertinent to Hitchcock’s films, it states how subjectivity conceals from each of us the larger picture and our essential unity. As scholar Michael Tanner puts the matter:
We are in fact all part of the Primal One, the Will itself, and the individuation that we manifest is something that both guards us from this truth, and gives rise to a great deal of further suffering. (6)
(Other suffering proceeds more directly from Will, felt as a blind “force”. Natural disasters, such as destructive storms and hurricanes, are an example.) The hysterical mother understands none of this. In elsewhere analysing Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, I tried to suggest how that film ends in almost magical fashion, with the principium individuationis momentarily dissolved. (7) At the end of The Birds, as the family drive away together, there is perhaps a similar gesture by Hitchcock, albeit highly localised.
However, the frightened, hysterical mother from the The Tides Restaurant isn’t included in this final gesture, and one can see why. Hitchcock, like Frank Baker, was very selective in whom he “saved” from his birds. The principium individuationis, which says that we usually confine our understanding of the (outer) world to matters of time, space, and causality – our accustomed subjectivity – applies to ordinary human consciousness. The trouble is, for many of us that’s about all we ever know or experience. To proceed beyond our everyday “interested” perceptions may take special circumstances. Accordingly, I think that Hitchcock deliberately contrasts the hysterical mother in The Tides Restaurant with his film’s other frightened mother, Lydia Brenner, who is transformed by her experience at the Fawcett farm. Camille Paglia describes that experience as nothing less than a confrontation with “the ultimate chaos of existence [Will?], beyond space and time, reason and language, love and hate” (8). In the film’s second half, Lydia and her family gradually bond with the interloper Melanie, and good comes from evil (though ultimately it’s all One).
Here again, the incisive John Gray can help us see the situation:
It is not true that our experience compels us to think of ourselves as free agents. On the contrary, if we look at ourselves truthfully we know that we are not.
[However, using …] his critique of Kant to batter down the ordinary view of time, space and cause and effect, [Schopenhauer] offered a different vision of the world – one in which there are no separate things at all, in which all plurality and difference do not exist, and there is only the ceaseless striving he calls Will. (9)
By dint of the Will within her, and her subjection to the principium individuationis, Melanie possesses her share of evil, but in this she is only like the rest of us. Accordingly, even before she is herself “battered down” in the attic (for her, an experience of going “beyond space and time” which clearly has parallels with what Lydia undergoes at the Fawcett farm), she has been unfairly singled out, scapegoated, by the hysterical mother in The Tides Restaurant. Scapegoating is a widespread phenomenon. But it is only symptomatic of a more general “blindness”. Nearly all of us, notes Schopenhauer, tend to blind ourselves to the boundless suffering that surrounds us on every side. (10) Hitchcock clearly thought so too, and designed The Birds to show the true situation:
Generally speaking, I believe that people are too complacent. People like Melanie Daniels tend to behave without any kind of responsibility, and to ignore the more serious aspects of life. Such people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all. But I believe that when catastrophe does come, when people rise to the occasion, they are all right. Melanie shows that people can be strong when they face up to the situation, like the people in London during the wartime air raids. The birds basically [symbolize] the more serious aspects of life. (11)
Hitchcock’s beautiful and lucid summing up of his film set in an iconic California, but knowingly directed at a global audience, bears comparison with one of the finest passages in all of Schopenhauer. Here’s a fragment:
Just as the boatman sits in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in a stormy sea that is boundless in every direction, rising and falling with the howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering and misery the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis, or the way in which the individual knows things as phenomenon [rather than noumenon, the Primal One]. The boundless world, everywhere full of suffering in the infinite past, in the infinite future, is strange to him, is indeed a fiction. His vanishing person, his extensionless present, his momentary gratification, these alone have reality for him; and he does everything to maintain them, so long as his eyes are not opened by a better knowledge. (12)
None of us is immune from the implicit criticism Schopenhauer is levelling here. Equally, each spectator of The Birds must face the film’s accusation that we – collectively and individually – may have “caused” the bird attacks and may be “evil”. But how, exactly? And how may our eyes be opened?
At one level, I think Hitchcock is simply being down-to-earth and incontrovertible. In this particular case, it isn’t so much that we lack “better knowledge” (although that’s part of it) as that at times most of us start to lose touch with our feelings, our sense of self. So we may go to the movies to defeat boredom and to restore dimension and fellow-feeling to our lives. We may even want to challenge Hitchcock the showman to both scare and amuse us, and in that sense we really do “cause” the bird attacks. We positively welcome the onscreen mayhem even as we pit ourselves against the filmmaker: “Both scare and amuse us, Hitch, and see if you can outsmart us – because we think we’re pretty smart too!” Yet for all our show of good humour, in thus pursuing what Fred in Rich and Strange calls “more life”, we are not exactly being virtuous, let alone objective and detached. Not at the outset, at any rate. (13) Nor can we help but interpret what we see on the screen, each according to his own subjectivity. That’s what makes Hitchcock’s Rope an allegory, I believe. It shows two very smart, if bored, young men, trapped in a folie à deux, who interpret their tutor’s Nietzschean aphorisms as a licence to kill …
I’m saying that films like Rope and The Birds start out by making us complicit in a process of evil. They do it by artfully playing on our “interested” consciousness. What for Hitchcock in his evident detachment is just “pure cinema” is experienced by us as virtually the world itself with all its engrossing uncertainty (suspense) and its successive “momentary gratifications”. In the case of Rope, the “continuous” shot (14) binds us into the principium individuationis, so that there seems no escape. However, Rupert’s throwing open of the window at the end returns us to the wider picture and may inspire us to “open our eyes”. On the other hand, as Schopenhauer (and I’m sure Hitchcock) knew, “a better knowledge” may still elude us.
Now, it’s ironic that Rope’s “continuous” shot was Hitchcock’s attempt at the time to turn the Patrick Hamilton stage play into “pure cinema”. In later years, the director would define “pure cinema” as “pieces of film put together like notes of music make a melody”, but that clearly won’t do, especially here. The concept, like Rope itself, is more profound than Hitchcock could say. (15) He should rather have emphasised how “pure cinema” refers to the ultimate Oneness of film and content – an analogue of how the world, in Schopenhauer’s terms, is both Representation (appearance) and Will (reality). The two aspects cannot be separated: as Oliver Sacks notes, they are “always distinct and always conjoined […] To speak in terms of either alone is to lay oneself open to a destructive duality […]”. (16) By the same token, Hitchcock’s use of a musical analogy to define his concept is telling. Schopenhauer had called music a “copy of the [W]ill itself” (17). Accordingly, any film director who juxtaposes “lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints” (18), as Hitchcock put it to Truffaut, is well on the way to both creating “pure cinema” and showing us the “flow of life”, which is Will at work. (How apt that Rope uses Francis Poulenc’s Mouvement Perpétual No. 1 as its theme!)
In the Hitchcock-Truffaut passage just quoted Hitchcock likens the fiction film director to God. So, when Rope ends with the now-chastened Rupert rounding on the two murderers to ask, “Did you think you were God?”, what we are seeing is evil rebuked, certainly, but also Will turned against itself, in the interest of “a better knowledge” – an ending that is almost self-reflexive on Hitchcock’s part. It is a Schopenhauerian ending rather than a Nietzschean one, and as I have tried to indicate in the main text is something that – in more elaborate vein – we find also in The Birds.
Next, here’s one more illustration of where I think Hitchcock was coming from in all of this – but this time I’ll use an art analogy. It’s well known that Hitchcock thought critics who ignored “pure cinema” and who concerned themselves with the content of his films were like a gallery visitor who wonders whether Paul Cézanne’s apples are sweet or sour. Conveniently, Julian Young’s lucid book, Schopenhauer (2005), refers to Cézanne’s apples to demonstrate the nature of “interested” consciousness. In the following passage, Young is talking about the time/space/causality nexus of our everyday perception:
In addition to knowing where things are, will-serving consciousness also needs to know how they stand causally to its needs and desires: what they can do to and for the individual and what he can do to and with them. […]
So, for example, when an object shows up in ordinary consciousness as […] an apple, it shows up, not, à la Cézanne, as a delicately variegated display of nature’s wondrous infinity of greens, but as food. (19)
In other words, an individual who concerns himself with whether Cézanne’s apples are eatable or not – whether they’re sweet or sour – is displaying an “interested” consciousness which binds him to the principium individuationis. But for a Symbolist artist like Hitchcock, the principium individuationis was his special target. By the end of a Hitchcock film, we should be seeing the bigger picture – that is, detachedly, freed (at least momentarily) from our impatient subjection to normal “understanding”. The very nature of Will itself should be felt. Even so, such “better knowledge” can only be partial, and temporary.
One of many paradoxes here is that Hitchcock himself was a gourmand who famously loved his food. But as a filmmaker he was surely exemplary in his detachment, his non-ordinary consciousness. I think he really did epitomise Schopenhauer’s conception of the artist as supremely disinterested, someone who may perceive things more truly than the rest of us. Moreover, that finally is the significance of Hitchcock’s concern with “pure cinema” and even his joking aloofness sometimes. (At the start of the Marnie trailer, he descends from Olympian heights on a studio crane.) Which may bring us back to The Birds. In saying that Hitchcock was detached, I do not necessarily mean that he was cold, though he struck some people that way. The Birds is cogent about how the world goes, and has always gone, and about the need for love and compassion. That, as I have indicated, is a Schopenhauerian position rather than a Nietzschean one. John Gray has put this succinctly:
Against Schopenhauer, Nietzsche had often argued that the best people should cultivate a taste for cruelty. Schopenhauer had been Nietzsche’s first love in philosophy, but in his early book The Birth of Tragedy, he is already urging that pity – the supreme virtue according to Schopenhauer – should not be allowed to destroy the joy of life. […] Schopenhauer argued that we achieve compassion for other living things by “turning away from the Will” – by ceasing to care about our own well-being and survival. In Nietzsche’s view, this morality of compassion was anti-life. Life was indeed cruel; but it was better to glorify the Will than deny it. (20)
Actually, I wouldn’t have said that Schopenhauer denied the Will, especially in his own life. Like Hitchcock, he regularly dined out, was a theatre-lover, and a reader of The Times (London). He often claimed: “It is no more necessary for a philosopher to be a saint than it is for a saint to be a philosopher.” More to the point, it seems clear to me that films like Rope and The Birds pit Nietzschean (cruel) and Schopenhauerian (compassionate) outlooks and finally allow the latter due supremacy – though not without ambivalence. Which is also as it should be! Gray, though, rather exalts in noting Nietzsche’s folly:
it was not the coldly cheerful Schopenhauer – ‘the flute-playing pessimist’, as Nietzsche scornfully described him – who was destroyed by pity. It was Nietzsche, whose acute sensitivity to the pain of the world tormented him throughout his life (21)
– until he finally went mad. Gray sums up:
[Nietzsche] invented the ridiculous figure of the Superman to give history meaning it had not had before. He hoped that humankind would thereby be awakened from its long sleep. As could have been foreseen, he succeeded only in adding further nightmares to its confused dream. (22)
Which is about where we came in, wondering why we can’t just accept – and see – things as they are. Why must we always dramatise them and subject them to the principle of sufficient reason? In fact, I have tried to show in the main text how Hitchcock’s films do both invoke, in Schopenhauer’s phrase, “the life-dream of the man who wills” and allow us a new, if perhaps fleeting, lucidity. One of the earliest, and best, theories of film was propounded in 1916 by Hugo Münsterberg. He speaks of how film “by overcoming the forms of the outer world, namely, space, time and causality, and by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world, namely, attention, memory, imagination and emotion”, may present … “the human story” (23). I think that’s a beautiful description of The Birds and what it does.
As for the hysterical mother in The Tides Restaurant who scapegoats poor Melanie for her – and our – sins, she surely represents another paradox. For isn’t she herself a scapegoat? Of Hitchcock’s cruelty? However, in presenting us with Melanie’s very human story, his film atones, I’d say.
Correspondence between Frank Baker and Daphne du Maurier, September 1962-September 1963
Frank Baker, author of the novel called The Birds (1936), first wrote to Daphne du Maurier in September 1962. (1) Friends had alerted him to how Hitchcock was making a film of du Maurier’s short story, “The Birds”, originally published in her collection, The Apple Tree (1952). Baker had obtained the story and been struck by how it bore such a “strong resemblance” to “my book that I can hardly believe she had not read it, when she wrote her tale” (2). In a letter he now dashed off to his publisher-friend Nicholas Davies in London (the letter just quoted from, in fact), Baker wondered what action to take. For example, did “Nico” suppose Hitchcock was aware of Baker’s novel? If not, Baker was prepared to send him a copy forthwith. He added that, after hearing from Nico, “I might then take some legal advice, but I would prefer not to”.
Davies, the Deputy Chairman of Peter Davies Ltd, the novel’s original publishers, replied immediately and in cordial vein, though he noted it was an awkward situation:
You put me in a particularly difficult spot over the film of “The Birds”: at least it’s difficult from the point of view of Daphne being my first cousin, so that what loyalties I have are horribly jumbled up. (3)
Nonetheless, he volunteered as follows:
If you like I would be quite ready to write to Daphne giving her the gist of […] your letter and asking her point blank if she had read your story (though I shouldn’t guarantee the truth of her reply); I could at the same time ask her what she would do if she was in your position […]
About now, apparently, Baker heard that when his novel was being published du Maurier had been in close touch with both Peter and Nicholas Davies. (She may even have been working in the company’s office. (4)) Given the brothers’ enthusiasm for the novel, which they publicised widely, it would have been difficult for her not to have been aware of it.
Now Baker himself wrote to du Maurier (September 1962), only to receive a prompt reply saying that she had never heard of his book. (5) And there he let matters lie until the following May, when he took some tentative legal steps (see below). At about the same time, he contacted Panther Books Ltd, London, offering them the paperback rights to The Birds, which he proposed to cut by 23,000 words, supposedly making it “an infinitely stronger book” (6). The paperback edition duly appeared in February 1964, but was virtually unchanged from the original. (7)
Baker’s above-mentioned legal steps included sending formal letters to both Alfred Hitchcock and Daphne du Maurier, plus a written “Statement” to a firm of solicitors. None of these steps came to anything. Indeed, the solicitors had quickly foreseen this and, on 14 August, they advised Baker that after consulting Counsel they were confirmed in their view “that there can be no claim against either Miss Du Maurier or Mr Hitchcock” (8). On 16 August, Baker conveyed this information to du Maurier, thanking her for the courtesy she had all along shown him. Now the two writers could communicate more freely. In the next few weeks, several letters passed between them, pleasant and mutually respectful. The extracts below convey something of the flavour.
When du Maurier expressed a wish to read Frank’s novel, he sent her a copy. His accompanying note, dated 26 August, observed: “The last part of the book gets down to the tale, and I don’t think the end is bad.” Du Maurier, it soon appeared, couldn’t agree more. Within three days, she was writing excitedly to say: “The Cathedral chapter is quite masterly”, adding that she had especially enjoyed “the chunks of wild humour amongst the birds, and the particular form their attacks sometimes took!” “It’s far and away deeper stuff than mine”, she wrote, before elaborating:
What has enthralled me is that basically we were trying to get at the same thing, but that you developed the idea so much further than I did, and gave such a good explanation: that it was each individual Soul, thrust out by the conscious self, and so betrayed, that wanted to return to the body and make it whole. This did not occur to me when I was working out my “Birds”. Also, my birds, as you will have noticed, did not come from a fourth dimension, as it were, but were the birds of our existing world […] groping for an answer. The world, our Earth, had been theirs once, and we human beings had somehow flouted the Natural Law (this is close to your idea) and the revenge was Destruction by the birds, who had waited in patience for millions of centuries. (9)
Such appreciative remarks were not lost on a grateful Baker. As soon as he could – he had been away – he replied on 11 September:
I’m glad, indeed, that the book caught your imagination so strongly. I was very young when I wrote it [….] I could cheerfully destroy the whole of our civilization then (Mr Baker even hates telephones, as one reviewer said) and would as cheerfully destroy it today – but I would now lack the energy with which I released my destroyers then. I could not really say why I wrote the book, except that I suddenly saw what power the birds of the air really had. And I think I still do firmly believe that there is little hope of any survival in any of us, unless we face the devil that lies inside us. This has always been a favourite theme of mine: man’s invention of the devil, as a scapegoat for his own follies. As I say, I could launch out then against all I disliked around me. But I fear I lacked humility – note how arrogantly I save myself (and my mother).
Baker added that he did not feel bitter about Hitchcock adapting du Maurier’s story rather than his own.
I only felt – since a film was being made, it was a pity he never happened to alight on my tale which does, solely from the story point of view, offer a wealth of material to a film-maker.
Baker never did see Hitchcock’s The Birds, relying for his information about it on newspaper reports and what friends and family told him. However, du Maurier caught a screening at her local cinema on the day she received Frank’s letter just quoted. On 15 September, she sent him her impressions. She considered the film “pretty good” technically, but was left wondering just why Hitchcock had “put his script-writers on to inventing the particular tale he did”. In particular, she wondered about what the love-birds (which “remain calm throughout”) might symbolise.
Towards its end, she noted, the film
follows my story, with the lawyer boarding up windows, etc, and [the] family listening to [the] attack from within. There is certainly no suggestion of birds being souls, as in your story, or merely turning against mankind, as in mine, but I feel Hitchcock intended some [sort] of psychological interpretation […]
However, when the family drives away (“and lawyer’s small sister clutches love-birds in the cage”), “you could say, if you pressed the point, that Hitchcock was [now] following your story. That the birds were, in fact, one’s evil thoughts or better still conscience, and the rich man’s daughter, and the suspicious widow, were only ‘cleansed’, as it were, after attack.”
Following her description of the film, du Maurier had a final thought for Frank. “I do wish you would see it,” she wrote, “just to see what you think. It is worth seeing, for the birds alone. But what a story [Hitchcock] missed in yours!”
NB: The foregoing is a mere summary of the Frank Baker-Daphne du Maurier correspondence, which awaits separate publication. I wish to express my deep thanks to Dr Gabriel Hughes, grandson of Frank Baker through his daughter Josephine Baker, for entrusting me with copies of the Baker-du Maurier letters. KM
Broader antecedents of Hitchcock’s The Birds, not dealt with in main text of the present article
For the sake of a more “complete” synoptic reading of Hitchcock’s film, this Appendix mentions various “apocalyptic” and other texts and events …
There had been both radio and television adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” before Hitchcock made his film. (1) Herbert Marshall starred in the Lux Radio Theater production that aired on CBS on 20 July 1953. The following year, on 10 July 1954, CBS’s Escape brought back the story, this time featuring Ben Wright and Virginia Gregg. Then, on 31 May 1955, CBS Television got into the act with the final episode (#240) of the series Danger. Host Richard Stark introduced an adaptation for the small screen by James Cavanagh, who later worked on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and who wrote the first draft of Psycho. The cast included Michael Strong and Betty Lou Holland. Unfortunately, no copy of the program seems to have survived. We do not know in what manner the birds were shown (if at all) or whether Hitchcock saw it.
Now let’s go further back. In c. 414 BCE, old Aristophanes wrote his wickedly funny satire about humans planning to give the supreme power of the universe to birds and to set up a glorious new city to be called “Cloud-cuckoo-land”. “But by the end of the play”, notes Hitchcock scholar Christopher Morris, “it is apparent that the newly established city is no freer than Athens.” He adds: “The vanity and futility of human action in each version of The Birds [Aristophanes’, Hitchcock’s] is made all the more obvious by its contrast with the seeming omnipotence of the birds.” (2) It does seem likely that the methodical Hitchcock and his screenwriter Evan Hunter familiarised themselves with a play bearing the same title as their intended film.
Something else striking about the play is its comprehensiveness. As another commentator remarks, “it casts a glance […] on the sum of all things, which […] is all very proper, considering that most of our conceptions are true only from a human point of view” (3). That was written in 1906, just as the term “anthropocentrism” was first appearing in English. (4)
Actually, Enlightenment certitudes and confidence had begun to erode a full century earlier, resulting in a significant new literary genre. (5) Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 novel, Le Dernier homme, on the now-popular theme of the Last Man on Earth, was translated the following year into English (6), paving the way for Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). This, her third published novel, is a politically disillusioned but powerful vision of the end of civilisation, set in the 21st century. It draws for inspiration on various accounts of war and plague, plus the debate initiated by Thomas Malthus in 1798 about the adequacy of human food supplies. Before that, the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 (7) and the French Revolution of 1789 had provoked an eventual torrent of cataclysmic visions by artists and writers. For example, scenes of pestilence, if not total human annihilation, are depicted in works by William Blake (1757-1827) and Henry Fuseli (1747-1825). Other artists, such as Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), specialised in “tragic” or “sublime” landscapes. (See also below.) In turn, Friedrich would influence Symbolist painters such as Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), the latter best remembered for his “Island of the Dead” (1880).
Of course, Hitchcock liked to work with counterpoint, or obliquely. Accordingly, there may be more of Böcklin in the comedy To Catch a Thief (1955) than in The Birds! On the other hand, we know that another Symbolist/Expressionist artist, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), along with his 1893 painting “The Scream”, were definitely in the minds of Hitchcock and art designer Robert Boyle during early planning of The Birds. (8) Munch’s own influences appear to have been primarily personal and psychological, including the deaths during his childhood of both his mother and his beloved sister. He emphasised: “Art is the opposite of Nature. A work of art can only come from inside a person.” (9) Nonetheless, the essence of “The Scream” is how it fuses inner and outer states. Hitchcock’s own art in The Birds is like that, too.
Outlooks changed markedly in the 19th century. The present article has mentioned John Carey’s emphasis on how geological discoveries forced people “to realize that they […] were a mere blip in the unimaginable millions of years of the earth’s existence” (10). Carey follows up:
In the mid-19th century there was a further scientific advance. The theory of entropy and the eventual heat death of the universe were propounded by German physicist Rudolf Clausius, who had formulated the second law of thermodynamics in 1850. (11)
(But Carey makes no mention of the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species – another blow to the complacent – perhaps because it suggested a forward movement of history, however slow.) Quite soon, as we have seen, a novel like Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) was mournfully (or gleefully?) depicting a city that had become a deserted swamp. That image would recur in subsequent novels and films: for example, in Chapter 9 of John Wyndham’s science-fiction The Day of the Triffids (1951).
So, was there a demonstrable Zeitgeist in the 19th century conducive to apocalyptic visions? There was, certainly, for the perceptive and erudite Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), whose unhappy life Hitchcock read about as a youth and was touched by. (12) In 1848, Poe delivered a long lecture which was later published as Eureka: A Prose Poem. In effect, this dense treatise on “the Material and Spiritual Universe” was Poe’s theory-of-everything and, in particular, of how we should understand our place in the forever expanding and contracting universe. That is to say, it represented his “sublime” vision of time and space, serving scholars ever since as a “template” (Dennis Perry’s term) for how Poe himself used the sublime in his writings. (13)
The sublime is grandeur that inspires pleasurable awe in an observer. (14) In Eureka, we can say, Poe takes delight in seeing the universe in toto, notwithstanding that at some time in the future it will implode and destroy itself before the whole process starts over. (15) There is potential terror here but so long as it remains no more than that, sublime emotion can be felt. For Dennis Perry, that is the connection to the sublime in Hitchcock. In his book, Hitchcock and Poe: The Legacy of Delight and Terror (2003), he makes much of Hitchcock’s statement that “fear […] is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety” (16). It enables Perry to draw parallels between Hitchcock’s The Birds and Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1842).
Meanwhile, in Europe, there was a whole “sublime” zeitgeist that underpinned the cataclysmic visions by artists and writers I have mentioned already. Edmund Burke’s influential A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful was published in 1757. Later on, the great Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) spoke of a mathematical sublime – whereby the mind imagines a magnitude by comparison with which everything in experience is small (17) – as well as a dynamic sublime whereby power or might, as in, say, hurricanes or volcanoes, can be pleasurable if we are safe from their threat. (18) One artist who specialised in the mathematical sublime, the vastness of nature versus the little schemes of men and women, was John Martin (1789-1854). (19) His output included several works on the “Last Man” theme, beginning with a study in 1826 (now lost) and a watercolour c. 1832. His 1849 oil painting on the theme shows an old man standing near the body of a woman. As the dark-red sun fades in front of him, the figure gestures prophet-like towards what appears to be a deserted seaside town.
Someone else at this time whose body of work showed sublime qualities, and who theorised perceptively on the matter, was Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). What could be more sublime, indeed, than his celebrated image of the complacent boatman, “trusting his frail craft in a stormy sea that is boundless in every direction”, to illustrate the working of the principium individuationis? (See Appendix 1.) The first volume of Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, containing that image, appeared in 1819. (20) While I am unaware that it was read by Poe, what is striking is how parts of Eureka match key notions of the German philosopher. For instance, Eureka begins in explanatory vein, like this:
He who from the top of Aetna casts his eyes leisurely around, is affected chiefly by the extent and diversity of the scene. Only by a rapid whirling on the heel could he hope to comprehend the panorama in the sublimity of its oneness. (21)
That is to say, Poe wants to perceive the One beneath the Many: a project akin to Schopenhauer’s distinguishing between basic Will (the One) and multitudinous Representation (the Many). And if Poe’s master-theme, according to Richard Wilbur, is to transcend the creative, emotional, and physical limits of mortal existence (22), that ambition approximates Schopenhauer’s “transcendental” project of coming to know, if not the Ding-an-sich/Thing-in-itself, then anyway the Platonic Ideas. Which may bring us back to those later adherents of Plato, the Symbolists.
Recall that Hitchcock told biographer Charlotte Chandler that very early he had been “immensely struck by the Symbolists”. The fact is, that both Poe and Schopenhauer (and Charles Baudelaire, who had translated Poe into French) were major inspirators of the Symbolist movement, and may fairly be thought to have thus influenced Hitchcock. Here are some quotes from Shehira Doss-Davezac’s essay on “Schopenhauer according to the Symbolists”:
Almost all the painters, writers and critics of the late nineteenth century in France frequently mentioned the influence of Schopenhauer on their ideas. (23)
Schopenhauer, like Baudelaire, seemed to them to be the mouthpiece of their own feelings: had they not themselves witnessed the irrational forces he described which drove both men and nature, dominated by a blind energy – to the edge of destruction? (24)
By the 1880s, [although] Impressionism was very much accepted and admired by the general public […] to the young generation of Symbolists, it was anathema. (25)
[Theirs] was to be an art not of mimesis but of expression, an art akin to music, the highest of all the arts according to Schopenhauer, and they reiterated Edgar Allan Poe’s statement, quoted by Baudelaire, that ‘it is in music perhaps that the soul most nearly attains […] the creation of supernal beauty’. (26)
So, perhaps The Birds, too, has a conception and a Symbolism that are sublime – which observation should not stop us seeing further influences and analogues. In the 20th century we find, in stories and films, new variants on Armageddon and “Last Man” themes. H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) had shown the Martians targeting London (though the Byron Haskin and Steven Spielberg film versions, in 1952 and 2003, would shift the action to America). As the new century opened, another novel, The Purple Cloud (1901), by M[atthew] P[hipps] Shiel, eerily depicted the last man on earth returning from the North Pole to a London filled with corpses. (Setting out again, and sometimes razing entire cities with explosives, he finds in Istanbul a young female survivor. Initially he questions whether the human race is worthy of resurrection, and leaves the woman, but finally he returns to her.) Shiel’s novel has been called “Poesque” because it “mixes the rational and the mystical” (27). It was filmed in 1959, under the title The World, The Flesh and the Devil (Ranald MacDougall), as a vehicle for Harry Belafonte. Again the action was shifted to (a post-nuclear) America. The woman was played by Inger Stevens. (28) The same year also saw the release of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, from Nevil Shute’s end-of-the-world novel which Hitchcock is rumoured to have turned down. Gregory Peck played the submarine commander who voyages with his crew to Australia, knowing that deadly atomic fallout from the Northern Hemisphere will soon reach even there.
London, though, had again been the main setting for another death-from-the-skies novel, John Wyndham’s classic The Day of the Triffids. Initial devastation is caused by showers of meteors that overnight blind most of the world’s population. (The “meteors” may actually be a secret weapons system that has malfunctioned, Wyndham’s not-so-oblique comment on the arms race. (29)) But, seizing its chance, a monstrous mutant plant, the triffid, then literally moves in. Ambulatory and capable of inflicting a painful death on now-defenceless humans, the species threatens to take over the world – anticipating Hitchcock’s birds. A disappointing film of the novel was directed by Steve Sekely in 1962, starring Howard Keel. (See also below.)
Another favoured setting for “Last Man” and similar stories written last century was the San Francisco Bay area. Hitchcock’s research for The Birds would almost certainly have turned up both Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912; 1915) (30) and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949). The former, with its Poe-referring title, appeared originally in London Magazine (June 1912); it was later expanded into book form. The principal character, “Granser”, a former English professor at Berkeley, is an old man attempting to pass on to a group of primitive hunters and shepherds what the world had been like before the Plague came. (More below.) Plague is also responsible for the disaster that befalls the world in Earth Abides. Again only a handful of people have survived, among them the man called Ish and the woman, Em, whom he eventually meets and who gives him hope.
Finally, the 20th century produced a large crop of films about either the end of the world or bleak future dystopias. Some have been mentioned above. Others I am not going to list here, simply because they came after The Birds. (This Appendix is concerned with antecedents of Hitchcock’s film. So, I shan’t itemise, for example, all its many “ecological”, etc., rip-offs, some more risible than others: everything from Freddie Francis’ The Deadly Bees, 1966, to Ingmar Bergman’s masterly The Shame, 1968, to Spielberg’s Jaws, 1975.) Early in the century there had been Verdens Undergan (The End of the World, August Blom, 1916) from Denmark. As directed by Blom, its story of impending global destruction by a great comet made obvious allusion to the current European war. (More below.) William Cameron Menzies’ Things To Come (1936), from the H. G. Wells novel, was prophetic of the Second World War (as in its own way was Frank Baker’s novel, The Birds, published in the same year). War, plague and finally the first rocket to the moon were all portrayed.
But it was the 1950s that saw the onset of a spate of doom and panic-button films. Dennis Perry has an interesting note about these. It begins:
As a Roman Catholic, if a lapsed one, Hitchcock would have been aware of the apocalyptic visions of Mary, particularly the Fatima secret message concerning Russia that led many Catholics in the 1950s and 1960s to understand the Cold War as a religious apocalypse. Beyond the nuclear threats of the period, there was the danger of an ecological holocaust that Rachel Carson warned of in Silent Spring (1962). (31)
Perry adds that in the decade before The Birds the fear of atomic holocaust was evident everywhere, particularly in B-movies. (But we know that Hitchcock discussed with Evan Hunter precisely how to avoid the clichés of these movies such as Gordon Douglas’ Them!, 1954, and Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End, 1957 – both of which, incidentally, are about giant mutant insects attacking cities. (32)) In Europe, top directors like Bergman and Federico Fellini were making such remarkable films as Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957) and La Dolce Vita (1960). Robin Wood is right to say of Bergman’s film that it “belongs to the Doomsday literature and cinema of the atomic age” (despite its mediæval setting). (33) And in its own way, Fellini’s “exposé” of modern life has similar concerns: it, too, captures the “lostness” of an era while seeming at the end to find hope in innocence: its girl on the beach.
Three works mentioned above:
The Scarlet Plague (1912; 1915)
Written a few years after the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, Jack London’s tale is set in the 21st century after world-wide plague has left only tiny pockets of survivors. “Granser” remembers a typical scene:
“There were numerous stalled motor-cars, showing that the gasoline and the engine supplies of the garages had given out. […] Strange and terrible sights there were on every hand. People slipped by silently, furtively, like ghosts – white-faced women carrying infants in their arms; fathers leading children by the hand; singly, and in couples, and in families – all fleeing out of the city of death.”
The tale ends as “Granser” observes: “‘All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types – the priest, the soldier, and the king.’”
Verdens Undergang (The End of the World, 1916)
August Blom’s film was released just six years after the return of Halley’s Comet and in the midst of World War I. The following observations are based on notes kindly provided by Michael Walker. The film follows the stories of two sisters, Edith and Dina, from a coastal town. Edith loves Reymers, a fisherman, and remains true to him. The pair is still alive at the end. But the more-worldly Dina runs off to the city with local mine-owner Stoll and both perish when the catastrophe comes. One of the film’s effective and suspenseful touches is that, at a certain point, we suddenly see the fateful comet appear in the background; over the days, it grows steadily larger. The ensuing apocalypse “takes the form of pretty convincing falling meteorites and entirely convincing floods”. Reymers is the sole survivor of his fishing vessel, destroyed by the meteorites. Edith survives the floods by climbing onto the roof of her home. Eventually she finds her way back to the remains of civilisation – which resembles a bombed town. Beside a chapel she is reunited with Reymers and they go down on their knees. (Blom’s film may be said to have anticipated Deluge (RKO, 1933), directed by Felix E. Feist from a 1927 novel by Sydney Fowler Wright. The film’s most memorable sequence is the destruction of New York City by tidal wave.)
The Day of the Triffids (1951; filmed 1962)
John Wyndham wrote his novel just when the Russians had exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. The triffids, the novel suggests, were bioengineered in the Soviet Union and a stolen box of seeds was in the plane of a Russian pilot shot down attempting to defect, thus scattering the box’s contents to the winds. Besides some remarkable flights of imagination, Wyndham’s novel also concerns itself with speculating about possible groupings that might form following the near-annihilation of the human race. For example, Miss Florence Durant’s conservative community run to traditional Christian standards might not breed a new generation fast enough. In any event, most soon fail or are wiped out by plague, with the finishing touches provided by the triffids. Against the latter, constant vigilance is necessary. Hero Bill Masen (who had been in hospital with his eyes heavily bandaged when the meteors came) eventually finds himself part of a community protected by an electrified stockade. Here, he and the sighted woman Josella Playton feel secure enough to indulge in occasional melancholia – with a touch of the sublime. One summer’s day, visiting a beach and watching the gulls, she tells him:
I go sentimental when you play records – there is something rather frightening about a great orchestra which has passed away still playing on to a little group of people hemmed in and gradually growing more primitive.
But matters are brought to a head when a para-military organisation arrives to take over. In a scene anticipating the end of The Birds, Bill and Josella furtively bundle up a few essentials into a truck and with their young son drive away.
First, my gratitude to the late Leslie Shepard, who originally told me about Frank Baker’s novel, The Birds.
My especial thanks to Gabriel Hughes, grandson of Frank Baker, and to his family, for allowing me access to relevant documents, including Frank’s correspondence with Daphne du Maurier.
Stephen Rebello and Tony Williams were supportive throughout my project, and Stephen’s research for me in the Margaret Herrick Library was crucial at the outset.
Day in, day out, Inge Izzo put up with a great deal.
Bill Krohn and Richard Franklin (1948-2007) were knowledgeable when I needed their level-headed expertise on Hitchcock, which was often.
David Sterritt read the manuscript and made astute suggestions.
Al Chafin and Alain Kerzoncuf provided me with hard-to-obtain DVD material.
Adrian Martin cheerfully assisted me when called upon.
Last but not least, my many Internet correspondents over the years have been stimulating and sustaining. My thanks to everyone.
1. There are specific homages to Sunrise elsewhere in Hitchcock. The credits sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) is one: the grid-pattern that becomes the glass face of a city building. Also, the use of Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette” to introduce each episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was a personal choice by Hitchcock who remembered it accompanying the charming scene in the photographer’s studio in Murnau’s film. See Donald Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius (London: Collins, 1983), p. 371.
2. Several Hitchcock films allow Buddhist interpretation, notably Vertigo (1958). That film’s theme of “wandering” may invoke the Buddhist (and Hindu) notion of samsara, the earthly round of suffering that chains beings to existence (literally: the activity of “wandering on”).
3. Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie – Alfred Hitchcock: A Personal Biography (London and Sydney: Simon & Schuster-Pocket Books, 2006), p. 19.
4. Camille Paglia in conversation with Leslie Felperin about The Birds, Sight and Sound, October 1998, p. 65.
5. Frank Baker, The Birds (London: Hamilton & Co.-Panther, 1964), pp. 168-70.
6. Hitchcock’s files for both these projects are held in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), Beverly Hills, California.
7. I am indebted to Stephen Rebello for his great kindness in undertaking research for me at the Margaret Herrick Library. Stephen alerted me to the fact of the three lawsuits mentioned here in a detailed email dated 27 January 2006.
8. Frank Baker, I Follow But Myself (London: Peter Davies, 1968), p. 200.
9. Ibid, pp. 232-33.
10. Lynn Picknett, “Introduction”, The Best Horror Stories (London, New York, Sydney and Toronto: Hamlyn, 1977), p. 9.
11. According to John Russell Taylor, the phrase “the moron masses” was a pet term of Hitchcock’s to describe his audience – whom Peter Viertel, the young screenwriter of Saboteur (1942), felt he tended to despise. See J. R. Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock (London and Boston: Faber, 1978), p. 181. I recall that a couple of years later, John Steinbeck gained a similar impression, writing privately to friends that Hitchcock was “one of those incredible English snobs who really do despise working people”.
12. See William Rothman, Hitchcock – The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 6-7 and passim. Rothman’s term “acknowledgment” is borrowed from his mentor, Stanley Cavell, but adapted to Rothman’s own thesis about Hitchcock’s “murderous” relation to his audience.
13. H. G. Wells, The Food of the Gods (New York: Airmont, 1965), p. 83.
14. I am told by Bill Krohn that “God’s-eye shot” was Hitchcock’s own customary way of describing the high-shot of a burning Bodega Bay. In the 1980s, Krohn participated in a round-table discussion of The Birds with three of its crew: Robert Boyle, Albert Whitlock and Harold Michelson.
15. Baker, pp. 24-5.
16. My very real gratitude to Dr Gabriel Hughes, grandson of Frank Baker, for providing me with copies of the Baker-du Maurier letters, and related correspondence. (I thank Dr Hughes further elsewhere in this article.)
17. In late 2005, I posted a synopsis of Baker’s novel on my Hitchcock Scholars/”MacGuffin” website. The correspondence I received, including from at least three authors of books on Hitchcock, tended strongly to the view that screenwriter Evan Hunter may have “ripped [the novel] off” – as a professor-friend put it. The present text ultimately leaves it to my readers to make up their own minds on this matter.
18. Jean Giono, The Horseman on the Roof (New York: North Point Press-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982), p. 394.
19. Ibid, p. 267.
20. Frederic Brown, The Mind Thing (Feltham: Hamlyn Paperbacks, 1979), p. 90.
21. Sometimes a filmmaker buys the rights to one work while eyeing another. The late Richard Franklin (Psycho II, 1983), a friend of Stephen Sondheim, cited to me the case of the film version of A Little Night Music (1978), adapted from the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler stage musical. Both the film and the stage musical were nominally derived from the Ingmar Bergman film, Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955), but were actually inspired by playwright Jean Anouilh’s L’Invitation au château (1947).
22. Wilson’s phrase is quoted in John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (London: Granta Books, 2003), p. 5.
23. The Hitchcocks owned a set of Shaw’s works, signed by Shaw himself (“To Alma, who married Alfred Hitchcock”). They also had sets of works by H. G. Wells and J. M. Barrie. See Spoto, pp. 114-5.
24. See my long profile of Hitchcock published in the Senses of Cinema “Great Directors” series.
25. The Douchet article I have in mind is Jean Douchet, “Hitch and His Public”, translated by Verena Conley, in Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Eds), A Hitchcock Reader (Ames: Iowa University Press, 1986), pp. 7-15.
26. See in particular the 2006 documentary, A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, directed by Sophie Fiennes. An earlier, rather different slant by Zizek on The Birds may be found in his essay, “In His Bold Gaze My Ruin Is Writ Large”, in Slavoj Zizek (Ed.), Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (London and New York: Verso, 1992), pp. 211-72 but mainly pp. 236-7.
27. Evan Hunter, screenplay for The Birds. My copy of the screenplay is headed “FINAL DRAFT 2nd Revision March 2, 1962”; the pages are not numbered. Note: at several points in the text, I cite the screenplay where it differs from the actual film. I have done this believing that, more often than not, the screenplay indicates ideas or effects that Hitchcock was finally able to put across purely visually: as Bill Krohn has shown, a screenplay was for Hitchcock typically only an aide-mémoire to realising the film itself.
28. Wells, p. 13.
29. Wells, p. 12. An earlier variant of the scene in The 39 Steps occurs during the auction scene in The Skin Game (1931). Possibly both scenes took their inspiration from Wells.
30. Arthur Koestler, Janus: A Summing Up (London: Picador/Pan, 1979), p. 145.
31. Ibid, p. 146
32. O. B. Hardison, “The Rhetoric of Hitchcock’s Thrillers”, in W.R. Robinson (Ed.), Man and the Movies (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 137-52.
33. Equally wise, though, may be Joanna Field’s observation, in the Preface to her book, A Life of One’s Own (1934), that it may not be to “everybody’s good to think less about themselves. Some, who are biased towards perpetually giving themselves to external purposes, may find their necessary balance in an opposite direction.” Joanna Field, A Life of One’s Own (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1952), p. 19.
34. This is an important theme of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992). For example, he writes on p. 4: “The immense popularity of [Nietzsche’s] ideas among early twentieth-century intellectuals suggests the panic that the threat of the masses aroused. [So, for example,] W. B. Yeats recommended Nietzsche as a counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity’ […]”
35. John Buchan, The Power-House and The Frying-Pan and the Fire (London: Pan Books, 1961), pp. 104-5. (The Power-House was first published in Blackwood’s magazine in December 1913.)
36. I discuss Chesterton’s anti-pessimism in my profile of Hitchcock for Senses of Cinema, op. cit.
37. Spoto, p. 115.
38. Ibid, p. 329.
39. Ibid, p. 72.
40. John McCarty and Brian Kelleher, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Illustrated Guide to the Ten-Year Television Career of the Master of Suspense (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1985), p. 331.
41. Carey, p. 135. How remarkably close this is to Joseph Conrad’s outlook, as described by C. T. Watts: “Conrad argues that reform is ultimately futile, because human nature is selfish and brutal […] and because humanity is in any case destined to perish of cold, amid a mechanistic and soulless universe […].” Quoted in Bryan Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 385.
42. Ibid, p. 140
44. Ibid, p. 137.
45. Ibid, p. 141.
46. Ibid, p. 145.
47. Ibid, p. 150.
48. Wells, p. 157.
49. Ibid, p. 158.
51. Ibid, p. 159.
52. Date and place of birth given here are as they appear in the entry on MacDonald in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
53. Letter on file in the Alfred Hitchcock Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, AMPAS, Beverly Hills, California. Once again I am indebted to Stephen Rebello for his research. The letter quoted here is itself quoted in Stephen’s long email to me dated 27 January 2006.
54. Dubin’s letters are on file in the Alfred Hitchcock Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library. See previous entry.
55. Not quite, inasmuch that Baker did reply to Dubin, stating that “obviously” Dubin had not read Baker’s novel, and adding that he was “taking advice in this matter”. Letter of Frank Baker to Joseph S. Dubin, 4 June 1963.
56. See the chilling entry on both Nietzsche’s and Lawrence’s attitudes to the masses and society’s outcasts in Carey, p. 12.
57. “Daphne du Maurier appears to have based the character [of Mrs Danvers] on another, called Mrs Unthank, found in the novel The Great Impersonation (1920) by … E. Phillips Oppenheim”. Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story (London: Titan Books, 1999), pp. 71-2.
58. T. E. D. Klein, “MACHEN, ARTHUR (1863-1947)”, in Jack Sullivan (Ed.), The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (New York and Harmondsworth: Viking Penguin, 1986), p. 276.
59. Henrietta Street is, of course, well known for its various publishers – and to viewers of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) as the address of its villain, Bob Rusk. The brass plate for Duckworth & Co beside the street entrance to Rusk’s flat is a reminder that at least one Hitchcock author – John Galsworthy – was published from there.
60. Baker, 1968, p. 110.
61. Ibid, p. 185.
62. Ibid, p. 110.
63. And were fated by that fact. In the 1950s, Peter Davies “threw himself under a train at Sloane Square station, the third untimely death of Barrie’s five lost boys. He had suffered all his life as the namesake of Peter Pan, and in middle age still called the play ‘that terrible masterpiece’”. See Jackie Wullschläger, Inventing Wonderland (New York and London: Free Press, 1995), pp. 140-41.
64. Email to the author from Gabriel Hughes, grandson of Frank Baker, 13 January 2006
65. In a letter dated 20 May 1963 to his publisher Nicholas Davies (“Nico”), Frank Baker describes how he had contacted du Maurier – and had “heard from her very promptly that she had never read or heard of my book”.
66. Letter, 29 August 1963, from Daphne du Maurier to Frank Baker.
68. Baker, 1968, p. 233.
69. Ibid, p. 200.
70. Ibid, p. 185.
71. Ibid, pp. 186-7.
72. Ibid, p. 187.
74. Baker, 1964, p. 107.
75. Baker, 1968, p. 186.
76. Baker, 1964, pp. 19-20.
77. Ibid, p. 48.
78. See Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: BFI Publishing, 1998), p. 21.
79. Baker, 1964, p. 130.
80. Ibid, p. 95.
81. Ibid, p. 130.
82. Ibid, p. 132.
84. I am reminded that Hitchcock once told an interviewer that losing one’s temper represents wasted energy and, worse, is “unprofitable”.
85. Baker, 1964, p. 44.
86. Ibid, p. 118.
88. Alfred Hitchcock, “Why ‘Thrillers’ Thrive”, Picturegoer, 18 January 1936, p. 15; reprinted in Sidney Gottlieb (Ed.), Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews (London: Faber, 1995), p. 109.
89. Baker, 1964, p. 121.
90. Ibid, p. 165.
91. Ibid, p. 169.
92. Ibid, p. 170.
93. Baker, 1968, p. 86.
94. Baker, 1964, p. 170.
95. Ibid, p. 82.
96. Paglia, 1998 (2), p. 8.
97. Cf Kierkegaard: “The bourgeois mind is really the inability to rise above the absolute reality of time and space […] The opposite of the bourgeois mentality is really the Quaker religion (in its abstract significance), where it includes the uncertainty and chance which is found in the life of so many; altogether it is an annihilation of the historical process.” Quoted in W. H. Auden (Ed.), The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard (Bloomington: Indiana University Press-Midland Books, 1963), p. 37. My readers may like to compare the above passage with Appendix 1 of the present work. I have analysed The Wrong Man in “The Man Who Knew Too Little: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1957) compared with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853)”, The MacGuffin, #20, August 1996, pp. 15-26. There, I show how Hitchcock’s literally exemplary film, like Dickens’ novel, systematically transcends time and space in ways unavailable to the characters themselves.
98. Christopher Morris has a useful passage on “the metaphor of shattering” in a chapter on The Birds in his book, The Hanging Figure: On Suspense and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock (Westport, Connecticut, and London: Praeger, 2002), pp. 235-36. He writes: “The film’s many instances of shattered glass accompany its process of breaking down its characters’ and viewers’ fictions of causality.” (p. 236)
99. For this description of Camus’ The Plague, I am indebted to Barbara Creed’s essay in B. A. Creed and I. L. O’Laughlin (Eds), Insight ‘85 (Melbourne: Edward Arnold (Australia), 1984), pp. 152-64. In turn, Creed’s source here is John Cruickshank, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt (London: Oxford University Pres, 1959), though Creed is saying that there are other ways of describing the novel (e.g., some critics see The Plague as “deeply Christian”).
100. Giono, p. 113. Fanaticism and small-mindedness are principal targets of Giono’s novel.
101. Baker, 1964, p. 181.
102. Giono, p. 408.
103. Hitchcock compared Annie Hayworth to Mr Memory in The 39 Steps: both characters are “compelled” and “doomed by [a] sense of duty”. See François Truffaut, with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 67.
104. Ultimately, I take both these deaths – that of Giono’s young doctor and that of Annie Hayworth – to exemplify the working of “blind Will” (in Schopenhauer’s phrase). As for “clinging on” (the opposite of non-attachment), I once suggested, apropos the opening scene of Vertigo, that Scottie’s clinging to the roof symbolises his inability to let go in a figurative sense, his inability “to die in order to live”, which the film will eventually, and tragically, bear out. All along Scottie has been the opposite of non-attached and eventually becomes another compelled character. (See “San Francisco, Hitchcock, and Me”, in The MacGuffin, #1, November 1990, pp. 12-16.) Thus, Giono’s outlook in The Horseman on the Roof, and Hitchcock’s in several of his films, including The Birds, seem to me to coincide pretty well.
105. Giono, p. 312.
106. Cf McCarty and Kelleher, p. 106.
107. Paul Gordon, Dial “M” for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock (Madison-Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008), p. 148. Richard Allen, too, has recently given some support to my main point. He writes: “the affinity of the figure of the double with blind nature in expressionism [and Hitchcock’s films] shows the fundamentally antipsychological nature of the double: it demonstrates the core of irrationality or blind instinct that is lodged within the human, that romantic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer refers to as ‘The Will’”. Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 180-1.
108. Shehira Doss-Davezac, “Schopenhauer according to the Symbolists: the philosophical roots of late nineteenth-century French aesthetic theory”, in Dale Jacquette (Ed.), Schopenhauer, philosophy, and the arts (Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 251.
109. Paglia, 1998 (2), p. 20.
110. Richard Allen, “Avian Metaphor in The Birds”, Hitchcock Annual, 1997-98, New London, NH, p. 41.
111. See Christopher Janaway, Schopenhauer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 26-7, and passim. Susan Smith attributes a similar position to The Birds itself, whose “overall epistemological concern” is one whereby the birds “challenge theoretical, abstract forms of knowledge”. Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour, and Tone (London: British Film Institute, 2000), p. 140.
112. Morris, p. 236.
114. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (South Brunswick and New York: A. S. Barnes, and London: Tantivy Press, 1977), p. 131.
115. Paglia, 1998 (2), p. 64.
117. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 256.
118. Here is what Paglia writes (mistakenly, in my view): “At the end of The Birds, who wields the claw? I agree with Margaret M. Horwitz’s view that Lydia certainly appears ‘victorious’ and that she and the birds have ‘achieved dominance’.” Paglia, 1998 (2), p. 86. However, someone else who dissents from this view of Paglia/Horwitz is Susan Smith. She writes of a “growing female affinity between Melanie and Lydia, the progress of which seems to be elicited, rather than impeded, by their experience of the bird attacks”. Smith, p. 140.
119. Paglia, 1998 (2), p. 87.
120. Ken Mogg, “Defending Marnie – and Hitchcock”, Hitchcock Annual, 1999-2000, New London, NH, p. 80.
121. Allen, p. 61.
123. In a celebrated passage about the nature of tragedy in his The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer writes: “The true sense of […] tragedy is the deeper insight that what the hero atones for is not his own particular sins, but original sin, in other words, the guilt of existence itself.” Here, Schopenhauer praises the Catholic dramatist and poet Calderón (1600-81) for his frank expression, in Life is a Dream, of how “man’s greatest offence/ Is that he has been born”. Arthur Schopenhauer, translated from the German by E. F. J. Payne, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1 (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), pp. 253-4.
124. Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work (London: Phaidon, 2000), pp. 250-6. In Easy Virtue, the interloper, Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), works little or no discernible change for the better on the entrenched ways of the aristocratic family, the Whittakers, whose matriarch (Violet Farebrother) has all along resented her presence. In other words, Mrs Whittaker is a fiercer, less redeemable figure than Mrs Brenner in The Birds. Larita is eventually driven out.
125. One or two essays on The Birds in another recent book, Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics (Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 2007), edited by David Baggett and William A. Drumin, do approach objectivity. I would single out Scott Calef’s “Featherless Bipeds: The Concept of Humanity in The Birds” for its attempt to match the views of famous philosophers to positions raised by Hitchcock’s film. (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau and Hobbes are all cited.) His conclusion, though, is that Hitchcock does not so much refute such positions “as raise questions and suspense through challenging our preconceptions – about nature, what’s possible, and ourselves. […] Is anything more terrifying than really looking at oneself?” (p. 88)
126. Truffaut, p. 169.
127. Koestler, p. 146.
128. Gray, p. 38.
129. Ibid, p. xi.
130. For example, Gray writes (p. 151): “Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.”
131. Ibid, p. 1.
132. Ibid, p. 199.
133. Wood, pp. 116-7.
134. Robert J. Yanal, Hitchcock as Philosopher (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland, 2005), p. 180.
135. Yanal, p. 184.
136. Quoted in René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism (1750-1950): The Romantic Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), p. 14.
137. Field, pp. 156-7.
138. In a Postface to Baker’s novel, the narrator’s daughter Anna reports that, in the course of time, her father (“the Elder”) died and that she eventually married Thomas, a woodcutter, and bore him three sons and a daughter. Though Thomas was killed by a falling tree, and the daughter, their first-born, died of a fever, Anna carried on – together with her own two brothers and two sisters and their growing families. Baker, 1964, pp. 219-24, passim.
139. Cf Truffaut, p. 218.
140. Mogg, 1999, p. 164.
141. Truffaut, p. 218.
142. Alfred Hitchcock, interviewed by Ian Cameron and V.F. Perkins, Movie, #6, January 1963, pp. 4-6. Reprinted in Sidney Gottlieb (Ed.), Alfred Hitchcock Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), pp. 44-54. The remark quoted is on p. 51.
143. Paul Carter, Parrot (London: Reaktion, 2006). One description of Carter’s book is this: “More than a cultural or natural history, Parrot is an imaginary history of parrots. How we have imagined parrots (caging, trading, breeding and destroying) is how we have imagined others generally. Making parrots our slaves, we have taught them to flatter us. Now that the environmental and cultural endgame is upon us, it’s time to grow up – especially as the latest research suggests parrots can speak for themselves.” See http://www.comfortlevels.com/current/parrot/txt_01_more.htm .
144. Quoted in Patrick Humphries, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Bison Books, 1986), p. 139.
145. For Schopenhauer, pain and boredom go hand in hand with our human condition, especially our ordinary existence. (Cf Janaway, p. 6.) I am reminded that the adventure novels of John Buchan, a favourite author of Hitchcock’s, typically begin with a man bored.
146. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 170.
148. Ibid, p. 171.
149. Mogg, 1999, p. 22.
150. “In Lacanian psychology the arena of fear-inducing thoughts produce what Lacan calls ‘the blot’. This is some emotionally fraught issue, thing or event that cannot be looked at or thought about directly. The only way such fearful things can be looked at is through the distorting lens of anamorphism, through the exercise of the indirect look, something that could be thought of as ‘looking awry’.” ( http://www.dixiefriendgay.com/wsn.asp ) Siegfried Kracauer had anticipated such a (Lacanian/Zizekian) notion of “looking awry” when he described cinema as being like Perseus’ burnished shield that served him as a mirror and enabled him to slay the Gorgon Medusa. See Kracauer, pp. 305-06. Relevant here, though, is how the narrator in Baker’s The Birds does manage to out-face his Demon-bird – and to see himself as the shrivelled being he has become. Cf Notes 152 and 172.
151. Baker, 1964, p. 137.
152. John Gray quotes the contemporary Buddhist meditation teacher Gunaratana: “Our human perceptual habits are remarkably stupid. […] We tune out 99 percent of the sensory stimuli we actually receive, and we solidify the remainder into discrete mental objects. Then we react to those mental objects in programmed habitual ways.” Gray, p. 78.
153. Paglia, 1998 (2), p. 85. As noted in the text, Paglia is here invoking an idea of psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi, in Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality (1924).
154. A classic treatment of this dual aspect of the sea in poetry and literature is W. H. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood: or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, first published in 1950.
155. This is something I refer to further in Appendix 3.
156. Carey, p. 146.
157. John Carey, What Good Are the Arts? (London: Faber, 2005), p. 148.
159. Quoted in Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 171.
160. G. K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Nonsense”, in W. E. Williams (Ed.), A Book of English Essays (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1951), p. 209.
161. Schopenhauer, notes Christopher Janaway, lamented that in the eyes of many of his contemporaries the human species was elevated above other animals solely because the latter (allegedly) lack reason, with the consequence that, in philosophical morals, animals were seen as “mere ‘things’, mere means to any ends whatsoever” – providing the excuse for endless cruelty. See Janaway, p. 75. That Hitchcock felt similarly is borne out by several reports, including of his being unable to watch scenes of animal cruelty in films – and his anger, on at least one occasion, when a member of his staff unthinkingly chose such a film for him to view in one of his private viewing-sessions.
162. Such an insight constituted Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican revolution” in philosophy that Schopenhauer gratefully inherited and made the cornerstone of his own thinking. Ordinary human consciousness is invariably “interested” consciousness, he taught. See Appendix 1.
163. Angelo Restivo, “The Silence of The Birds: Sound aesthetics and public space in later Hitchcock”, in Richard Allen and Sam Ishii-Gonzles (Eds), Hitchcock: Past and Future (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 177.
164. Joseph Conrad, quoted by Simon Jenkins, “Happiness and all that jazz”, The Guardian, Saturday 10 March 2007 – online. Schopenhauer’s influence on Conrad’s pessimism is well known. See, for example, Magee, pp. 385-6.
165. Neil P. Hurley, Soul in Suspense: Hitchcock’s Fright and Delight (Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow, 1993), p. 158.
166. Laura Mulvey’s much-anthologised essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, originally written in 1975, appears, for example, in Bill Nichols (Ed.), Movies and Methods, Vol. II (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 303-15.
167. Paglia, 1998 (2), p. 63. The scriptwriters of Young and Innocent may have been influenced here by the laconic Scots ballad “The Twa Corbies” (“The Two Crows”).
168. “Schopenhauer’s world is purposeless. His notion of will is probably best captured by the notion of striving towards something, provided one remembers that the will is fundamentally blind’, and found in forces of nature which are without consciousness at all.” Janaway, p. 6.
169. Baker allows the narrator of The Birds this passage, occasioned by a boyhood visit early one morning to the local swimming pool: “Here I often went. At that early hour men were different. […] I am conscious that however much I try I shall but thinly convey to you the happiness of those days. […] I have nothing but condemnation for all those false distractions which prevented men from placing themselves within the natural flow of life, [and] when I close my eyes I can hear and almost long for the roar of an underground train; the babble of humanity crowding in the refreshment-room of some theatre; the rustling of old books in some dark shop; the patter of rain upon a thousand umbrellas.” Baker, 1964, p. 91.
170. John Gray has several passages on this topic. For example: “Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.” Gray, p. 17.
171. The Vertigo script (“Draft 9-12-1957”) is available online.
172. “Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.” Alfred Hitchcock in interview with Huw Wheldon, The Listener, 6 August 1964, pp. 189-90. Reprinted in Gottlieb, 1995, pp. 67-72. The remark I have quoted is on p. 70.
173. Gray, p. 68 and p. 78.
174. The swooping owl invokes Goya’s etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (c. 1790), while another scene of nightmare was also almost certainly in Hitchcock’s mind, the symbolically sexual “The Nightmare” (1781), painted by British artist Henry Fuseli.
175. Schopenhauerians and Buddhists (and postmodernists?) may find an especial appeal in these connotations. (Cf Christopher Morris’s phrase, quoted earlier, about seeing “life reduced to the alternation of arbitrary sound and nothingness”.) For what it is worth, here is how Christopher Janaway describes the ending of Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, the two-volume The World as Will and Representation. “Schopenhauer’s book”, he writes, “having begun with the words The world …’, does indeed end with – Nothing’. The phenomenal world is negated by those whose will has turned against it, and they embrace sheer nothingness in return; but then, from their altered point of view, the whole of this world can be set at nought. Having given up placing any positive value in the human round of happiness and suffering, the will-less subject finds a new value in the very rejection of what has ordinary human value.” Janaway, p. 94. Hitchcock’s film, I think, in its attic scene, does momentarily “set the world at nought” (or anyway reduce it to pure Will), then immediately turns the matter over to the individual viewer.
176. Baker, 1964, p. 170.
177. Wood calls the moment when Melanie regains consciousness downstairs “beautiful and moving”, noting that Melanie’s suffering rouses in Lydia “a sense of compassion”. When Mitch grips the girl’s hands to quiet her, “their eyes meet, they exchange a long, deep look, and slowly she relaxes and subsides, her eyes still fixed on his, her face conveying a deep trust.” Wood, pp. 132-3.
178. Wood, 1977, p. 133.
Appendix 1 endnotes:
1. Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie – Alfred Hitchcock: A Personal Biography (London and Sydney: Simon & Schuster-Pocket Books, 2006), p. 19.
2. On this, see the discussion in Julian Young, Schopenhauer (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 108-11. According to Young, the three marks of everyday or “interested” (survival-oriented) consciousness are: (1) its “egocentricity”, (2) its essential “subjectivity” and (3) its “unhappiness”.
3. John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (London: Granta Books, 2003), p. 23.
4. Ibid, p. 199. For Gray’s discussion of Schopenhauer, see pp. 38-52.
5. Frank Baker, The Birds (London: Hamilton & Co.-Panther, 1964), pp. 180-1.
6. Michael Tanner, Schopenhauer: Metaphysics and Art (London: Orion, 1998), p. 15.
7. See my long profile of Hitchcock published online in the Senses of Cinema “Great Directors” series.
8. Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: BFI Publishing, 1998), p. 64.
9. Gray, pp. 43-4.
10. Arthur Schopenhauer, translated from the German by E. F. J. Payne, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1 (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), pp. 352-3. By “on every side”, I mean “in every direction, both in time and in space”.
11. Kyle B. Counts, “The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall 1980, p. 26.
12. Schopenhauer, pp. 352-3.
13. I recall what Hitchcock screenwriter John Michael Hayes told me, that audiences, as a film begins, evince “hostility” to both the film and to each other – so that it’s the screenwriter’s task to quickly overcome this: for example, with a gag or line of dialogue that sets an agreeable mood. Personal interview with JMH, Culver City, California, 1975.
14. The use of “ten-minute takes” seamlessly edited to give the illusion that Rope is one continuous shot was a piece of trompe l’œil on Hitchcock’s part. Contrary to general belief, there are some “undisguised” cuts in the film, at the end and beginning of each cinema reel (approximately every 20 minutes). But even these cuts were designed to be as “invisible” as possible: e.g., cutting on reaction shots.
15. Hitchcock tended afterwards to be dismissive of Rope as a “failed” technical experiment that foolishly eschewed one of the most expressive aspects that “pure cinema” has to offer: namely, montage.
16. Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (London: Picador-Pan, 1982), p. 219.
17. Schopenhauer, Vol. 1, p. 257.
18. François Truffaut, with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 70.
19. Young, p. 109.
20. Gray, p. 46.
21. Ibid, p. 47.
22. Ibid, p. 48.
23. See S. S. Prawer, Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror (Oxford, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 209.
Appendix 2 endnotes:
1. Frank Baker reports this in a legal “Statement” whose date I have ascertained to be 13 May 1963.
2. Frank Baker, letter to “Nico” (Nicholas Davies), 19 September 1962.
3. “Nico” (Nicholas Davies), letter to Frank Baker, 20 September 1962.
4. Email from Gabriel Hughes to the author, 13 January 2006.
5. Frank Baker, letter to “Nico” (Nicholas Davies), 20 May 1963. The same information may be found in Baker’s aforementioned legal “Statement”, 13 May 1963.
6. Frank Baker, letter to “Nico” (Nicholas Davies), 20 May 1963.
7. Email from Gabriel Hughes to the author, 6 February 2006. In the event, reports Dr Hughes, the only material changes appear to be “that the first edition had a contents page, and also a dedication, which have both been removed [in the Panther paperback edition]”.
8. Letter from Messrs Warner & Richardson, Solicitors, to Frank Baker, 14 August 1963.
9. Daphne du Maurier, “Menabilly, Par. Cornwall”, letter to Frank Baker, 29 August 1963.
Appendix 3 endnotes:
1. Both radio broadcasts of “The Birds” mentioned here can be listened to online.
2. Christopher Morris, The Hanging Figure: On Suspense and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock (Westport, Connecticut, and London: Praeger, 2002), p. 229.
3. Alfred Bates (Ed.), The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, Vol. 2 (London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906), p. 43.
4. The online Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “anthropocentrism” as “the assumption that man is the center of all things” and gives 1905-10 for its first appearance. According to the same source, the adjective “anthropocentric” goes even further back, to 1860-65.
5. I wish to thank Paul Gordon who alerted me to early examples of the Last Man theme in literature and painting. Professor Gordon is the author of Dial “M” for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock (Madison-Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008).
6. The English translation of Cousin de Grainville’s Le Dernier homme was published anonymously in London in 1806, as Omegarus and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity.
7. The Lisbon earthquake is the moment from which Sir Kenneth Clark, in The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus Classic Art (1973), dates the rise of the Romantic era.
8. Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: BFI Publishing, 1998), p. 18.
9. Edvard Munch, quoted in Marina Vaizey, 100 Masterpieces of Art (London: Peerage Books, 1979), p. 98. Vaizey adds: “Man at the mercy of terrible forces beyond his control, forces within himself maybe, is exposed in this strange, powerful and unnerving painting.”
10. John Carey, What Good Are the Arts? (London: Faber, 2005), p. 148.
12. Alfred Hitchcock, “Why I Am Afraid of the Dark” (“Pourquoi Jai Peur la Nuit”), originally published in Arts: Lettres, Spectacles, No. 777, 1-7 June 1960, translated and reprinted in Sidney Gottlieb (Ed.), Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews (London: Faber, 1995), pp. 142-5. See especially p. 143.
13. Dennis R. Perry, Hitchcock and Poe: The Legacy of Delight and Terror (Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2003), pp. 2, 10.
14. Carl Woodring, “The Sublime”, in Jack Sullivan (Ed.), The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (New York and Harmondsworth: Viking Penguin, 1986), p. 409.
15. Cf Perry, pp. 8-9.
16. Perry, p. 1.
17. Woodring, p. 410.
20. Vol. 2 appeared in 1844.
21. Quoted in Perry, p. 47. Cf p. 9.
22. Perry, p. 46.
23. Shehira Doss-Davezac, “Schopenhauer according to the Symbolists: the philosophical roots of late nineteenth-century French aesthetic theory”, in Dale Jacquette (Ed.), Schopenhauer, philosophy, and the arts (Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 249.
24. Ibid, p. 251.
25. Ibid, p. 255.
26. Ibid, p. 256.
27. David G. Hartwell, “Introduction”, in M. P. Shiel, The Purple Cloud, G. K. Hall, 1977.
28. Making up an eternal triangle was Mel Ferrer.
29. See Chapter 15.
30. I wish to thank Prof. Tony Williams for drawing my attention to “apocalyptic” content in the work of Jack London.
31. Perry, p. 49.
32. Paglia, p. 13.
33. Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 88.
[Ken Mogg, in Melbourne, Australia, is a life-long admirer and proponent of Hitchcock’s films. His book, The Alfred Hitchcock Story (Titan Books, London, 1999), was recently re-issued internationally.]
Deceased--Robert F. Boyle
Robert F. Boyle
October 10th, 1909 to August 1st, 2010
"Robert F. Boyle, Film Designer for Hitchcock, Dies at 100"
August 3rd, 2010
The New York Times
October 10th, 1909 to August 1st, 2010
"Robert F. Boyle, Film Designer for Hitchcock, Dies at 100"
August 3rd, 2010
The New York Times
Robert F. Boyle, the eminent Hollywood production designer who created some of the most memorable scenes and images in cinematic history — Cary Grant clinging to Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest,” the bird’s-eye view of the seagull attack in “The Birds,” the colorfully ramshackle shtetl for “Fiddler on the Roof” — died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 100.
He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and lived in Los Angeles, a son-in-law, John Biddle, said.
Mr. Boyle worked on more than 80 films as art director or production designer, synonyms for a job he once defined as “being responsible for the space in which a film takes place.”
As a young assistant fresh out of architecture school at the University of Southern California, he worked on the Cecil B. DeMille western “The Plainsman” (1936) and Fritz Lang’s “You and Me” (1938). Over the next six decades he worked with a long list of top directors, including Douglas Sirk, Richard Brooks and Norman Jewison.
At the 2008 Academy Awards, as his list of credits was read aloud, he stepped onto the stage to tumultuous applause to receive a special Oscar for his life’s work in art direction.
Mr. Boyle is best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he produced indelible scenes like the climactic struggle atop the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur” and the crop-dusting sequence with Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” not to mention the seagull attack in “The Birds.” He was also Hitchcock’s production designer for “Marnie.”
“It was a meeting of equals: the director who knew exactly what he wanted, and the art director who knew how to get it done,” Mr. Boyle told Film Comment in 1978.
His art direction earned him Academy Award nominations for “North by Northwest” and “Fiddler on the Roof” as well as for “Gaily, Gaily,” a period comedy set in early 20th-century Chicago, and “The Shootist,” John Wayne’s last film. He was also the subject of an Oscar-nominated 2000 documentary by Daniel Raim, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose.”
“He was the last of the great art directors,” the director Norman Jewison said in an interview for this obituary. He worked with Mr. Boyle on “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Gaily, Gaily” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“His films have a look, an ambience, a setting that’s very real because of his scrupulous attention to detail,” Mr. Jewison added. “Every nuance he could bring to bear to make a film real, he’d do it. He was a real cinematic artist.”
Robert Francis Boyle was born on Oct. 10, 1909, in Los Angeles and grew up on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. His degree in architecture, which he received in 1933, was of little use during the Depression, so he began working as a bit player for RKO Pictures. Fascinated by set design, he introduced himself to the studio’s art director, who directed him to Paramount. There he was hired by the great art director Hans Dreier, and wound up doing a bit of everything.
“We were illustrators, draftsmen, we would supervise the construction on the sets,” he told an interviewer for the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1998. “We did almost anything that the art director thought we ought to do.”
After doing second-unit work on “The Plainsman,” with Gary Cooper, and “Union Pacific,” both directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” Mr. Boyle left Paramount to paint in Mexico but soon returned to the United States and began working for RKO and Universal. One of his first films for Universal was “The Wolf Man” (1941), with Lon Chaney Jr.
Art directors enjoyed a varied diet in those days. “We might be doing the Bengal Lancers one day and Ma and Pa Kettle the next and something else the next,” he told the Merrick Library. “Saboteur” (1942) was his first collaboration with Hitchcock and the beginning of a series of unforgettably suspenseful cinematic sequences. For the climactic battle between Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd, Mr. Boyle and his team constructed a studio model of the hand and the torch of the Statue of Liberty. To create the illusion that Mr. Lloyd, the villain, was falling in an uncontrolled spin from a great height, Mr. Boyle twirled him on a revolving chair as a crane mounted with a camera swooped upward at dizzying speed.
Mr. Boyle worked with Hitchcock on one more film, “Shadow of a Doubt,” before serving in the Army Signal Corps in France and Germany as a combat photographer during World War II. After the war, they resumed their collaboration and he married Bess Taffel, a contract writer at RKO who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. She died in 2000. He is survived by two daughters, Emily Boyle, of Los Angeles, and Susan Licon, of Toledo, Ore., and three grandchildren.
Mr. Boyle’s touch is evident in the cleverly orchestrated Mount Rushmore sequence in “North by Northwest,” in which large-format still photographs were rear-projected using stereopticon slides. He also used studio mock-ups of sections of the stone heads — “just enough to put the actors on so we could get down shots, up shots, side shots, whatever we needed,” Mr. Boyle said. For the famous scene in which a crop-duster strafes Cary Grant on a desolate road, Mr. Boyle combined location footage with a toy airplane and toy truck on a miniature field created in the studio.
Mr. Boyle said that the attack sequence in “The Birds” may have been his trickiest bit of work. To simulate the point of view of the swooping birds descending on Tippi Hedren in a phone booth, Mr. Boyle and his team climbed a cliff overlooking an island off Santa Barbara, Calif., and photographed seagulls as assistants threw fish into the water, encouraging the birds to dive. Only the telephone booth was real. The town of Bodega Bay, actually a composite of several towns, was reproduced on mattes.
For “Gaily, Gaily,” Mr. Boyle recreated turn-of-the-century Chicago on a backlot at Universal, right down to the elevated tracks in the Loop. Notoriously finicky about locations, he traveled the length and breadth of Eastern Europe for “Fiddler on the Roof” before settling on a location in what was then Yugoslavia.
For “In Cold Blood,” Mr. Boyle took the opposite tack, using as a set the actual Kansas farmhouse where the murders took place that provided the material for the Truman Capote book on which the film was based.
Trickery for its own sake did not interest him. “If it doesn’t have any meaningful application to the story, it’s never a great shot,” he said.
Mr. Boyle took on projects of every description. He worked on Ma and Pa Kettle comedies and “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.” He was the art director for Sam Fuller on “The Crimson Kimono” and for J. Lee Thompson on “Cape Fear.” He was the production designer for “The Shootist,” “Private Benjamin” and “Troop Beverly Hills.”
A movie, he said, “starts with the locale, with the environment that people live in, how they move within that environment.” Sometimes that environment has to be built.
“I’m all for construction, because we’re dealing with the magic of movies,” he told Variety in 2008. “And I always feel that if you build it, you build it for the dream rather than the actuality. We make up our own truth.”
Robert F. Boyle [Wikipedia]