1. In what ways does this opening scene seem more appropriate to a romantic comedy than a "horror of the apocalypse" film? What do we learn about Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) in this scene?
AN UPSCALE, WELL-LIT pet shop is antithetical to the typical horror film setting. It isn't a fog-shrouded castle in Transylvania, or some mad scientist's laboratory. But it's typical of Hitchcock to open in a public place--in this case, a pet shop with many well-heeled patrons; and, on the second floor, LOTS of birds. It's here that our two stars--'Tippi' Hedren and Rod Taylor--"meet cute", not unlike Tracy and Hepburn in their romantic comedies, or other players in screwball comedies.
(But literally hovering ominously over this cute first encounter is that large flock of various species of birds that we see even before "Melanie" enters the pet shop. Hitchcock plants the hint that something is amiss in Nature even before "Melanie" begins her flirtatious "mating dance" in the store.)
When "Mitch" (Rod Taylor) mistakes "Melanie" ('Tippi' Hedren) for a clerk, she finds him attractive and plays along, as she tries to sound knowledgeable when answering his questions about various species.
He wants to buy a pair of love birds for his sister's 11th birthday. When he says he wouldn't want them to be "too aloof," he's really commenting on his first impression of "Melanie" herself. Another of Hitchcock's "cool, icy blondes," Hedren is the most exotic thing in the pet shop. (Hitchcock irony here: in the pet store, the birds are caged and "Mitch" is looking for love birds, while just outside the store, birds are free--free to fly, to soar...and, eventually, attack.)
Fine-boned, with bird legs, Hedren gives the impression that, like a bird, if startled she might just fly away. Hedren's finely groomed hands are featured in many shots of the opening scene. Bony-fingered with blood-red nails, her hands are not unlike a bird's claws. There's something off-putting about the way she's dressed. Although her attire is stylish, she's dressed in an armor-like, tight-fitting suit--solid black--and almost fetishistically groomed.
Before she enters the pet store, someone on the sidewalk gives her an off-screen wolf whistle. She stops and accepts the whistle with a beaming smile. But once she's in the store she never really smiles. At moments, she almost smiles. But, like a bird, her face remains almost constantly in repose, frozen, expressionless, like that of a bloodless store mannequin. She seems cold, icy--almost frigid. Even when she's obviously attracted to "Mitch," she plays it cool, never giving him a smile, big or small.
Other than a small amount of white blouse showing at her neck and slightly beyond the jacket sleeves, she's all in black. In light of Hitchcock's meticulous attention to detail, this isn't by accident.
The barest amount of visible white could signify at least some capacity for "good" beneath "Melanie's" black, icy and blonde (!) exterior.
Hedren's black-over-white is a reversal of Kim Novak's white coat over black sweater in VERTIGO when she delivers a note to "Scotty's" apartment, thanking him for pulling her out of San Francisco Bay. In that film, the attire is a manifestation of something dark beneath the façade--the act--that Judy, as "Madeleine", is trying to project to "Scotty."
Another example of black vs. white appears in separate scenes of the first twelve minutes of PSYCHO. In the opening scene, when we discover Janet Leigh and John Gavin in their adulterous affair, Leigh is wearing a white slip. Although she's committing adultery, Hitchcock in this scene elicits our sympathy for her. Not only is she wearing white, Hitchcock increasingly uses tighter shots of Leigh over Gavin, making it obvious she is going to be the main player in the story. The color white also denotes that her love for "Sam" is pure. Later, after her boss gives her $40,000 to deposit over the weekend, we discover her at home, packing a suitcase. In this scene, she's now wearing a black slip and bra. Hitchcock is letting her exterior clothing tell us about her interior, immoral decision to steal the money.
In THE BIRDS, when we meet "Melanie," there's something mysterious about her, even ominous--perhaps as ominous as that dark, agitated cloud of birds swarming and swooping above her before she enters the store on her fast-footed, bird legs. Despite her freedoms as the spoiled daughter of a rich man, she's as "caged" as those pet store birds--caged in Daddy's money. She's overly groomed, artificial. But this veneer, by movie's end, will be stripped--or, rather, painstakingly pecked--away.
In that opening scene, are the birds swarming with "Melanie" as their intended target?
As the story unfolds, we will learn that she's the daughter of a San Francisco newspaper publisher, a "playgirl" with nothing to do except...play. And get in trouble.
By movie's end, she will be a changed person, having (barely) survived her "baptism by fire"--the near-apocalyptic attacks by the birds. Nature's force will have sparked in her a maternal protectiveness over "Mitch's" little sister and a mature and growing relationship with "Mitch." Of course, to reach this point, she will first be attacked by a seagull while crossing Bodega Bay in an outboard motor boat; a large flock will gather on the schoolyard jungle gym, as if waiting for her, then attack her as she tries to hustle the children to safety; they again attack when she seeks refuge in a phone booth. In the film's climax, the birds will seem to be waiting for her in the attic. In what amounts to a virtual rape scene, "Melanie"--and Hedren, who reportedly had to be hospitalized after shooting the scene--is driven into shock when the birds come close to pecking her to death, tearing her clothes-- her polished (phony?) exterior--to shreds.
In contrast to "Melanie" in the opening scene, "Mitch" is serious and no-nonsense, apparently successful in his own right. Dressed for success in a suit, he's also obviously kind as he's taking the time to buy his little sister a special birthday gift. Above all, he's savvy. Although he at first mistakes "Melanie" for a clerk, he rather quickly picks up on the fact that when it comes to birds, she's a bird-brain, apparently knowing nothing at all about things ornithological. And yet, he's intrigued by her play-acting, her cool flirtatiousness. From his point of view, she may be a little wacky--and she may appear more than a little unobtainable-- but he's attracted.
2. How does Hitchcock use sound design in this opening sequence? For example, how are the sounds of birds used to create a particular mood and atmosphere?
WHEN THE CAMERA picks up "Melanie" crossing the intersection beneath a cloud of swarming birds, Hitchcock emphasizes the visual with the loud crowing and cawing of the birds. As if to ensure we "get it," the sound of the birds seems to be amplified, as if emanating from an echo chamber, giving the effect that Nature is always surrounding us and is, ultimately, dominant.
This sound effect must be the result, as pointed out in the lecture notes, of the electroacoustic Trautonium, invented by Dr. Friedrich Trautwein, something Hitchcock had heard on the radio way back in the 1920s. Once again, we see Hitchcock experimenting with (in this case, old) technology, but using it in a new way--in film.
In short, in 1963, when THE BIRDS was released, Hitchcock, at age 63, was not above trying new things.
Meanwhile, Hitchcock's masterful composer Bernard Herrmann, while on staff for THE BIRDS, wasn't exactly composing another memorable movie score, but instead was working with the electronic composer to create a soundtrack composed completely of actual and electronic bird sounds.
Was this Hitchcock's way of pulling rank on Herrmann, getting back at the composer for having had so much to do with the success of VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO? What a pity that after MARNIE, Hitchcock fired Herrmann when the latter's score for TORN CURTAIN wasn't the jazz-inflected score that Hitchcock had requested.
I must say that as much as I admire Hitchcock's genius, his greatest, most popular films--VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO--would not be what they are--would not stick in the mind as they do--without Herrmann's music. It's exactly how I feel about the films of Steven Spielberg. They needed John Williams's scores to be the iconic films that they've become.
3. The opening scene contains a famous Hitchcock cameo. Describe the cameo and if you think it has any particular meaning in relation to this scene.
HITCHCOCK'S CAMEO in THE BIRDS has him coming out of the pet store just as "Melanie" is entering it. His two white Sealyham terriers--Stanley and Geoffrey--are on leashes and are leading him out of the store onto the sidewalk. His real-life lookalike dogs are yet another example of his favored motif of "doubles." We saw it in SHADOW OF A DOUBT ("Uncle Charlie" and his favored niece "Charlie"); in THE WRONG MAN, when "Manny" is falsely accused of armed robbery simply because of the doppelgänger effect: he bears a striking resemblance to the actual criminal); in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN ("Guy's" wife "Miriam" and her lookalike, "Anne's" younger sister, "Barbara"); in VERTIGO ("Judy" as "Madeleine" and "Judy" as herself); in PSYCHO (the "doubles" of a split personality: "Norman" and "Mrs. Bates").
In the opening scene of THE BIRDS, "Melanie" seems to be a double of herself. As stated earlier, we've seen her give a big smile to a total stranger on the street and yet, when she meets "Mitch" and seems interested in him, she withholds such a smile and plays it cool. Is this the two sides---Good Girl vs. Bad Girl--of her personality. I do believe because Hitchcock introduces "Melanie" with this seeming duality, she's a mystery magnet that pulls us into the movie and makes us want to know more. Like, "What IS it with this woman?! What's her story?"
I've wondered why Hitchcock was so intrigued by this idea of doubles. Was it merely the juxtaposition and filmic possibilities of "black vs. white," "good vs. evil", "yin vs. yang"? Or was it something else? One thing's for sure: it certainly gave him numerous opportunities to show "surface," then startle--and sometimes shock--us with the "underneath."