Sometimes regarded as Alfred Hitchcock's last true masterpiece, The Birds is a frustrating and at times maddening film, constantly flirting with and skirting around answers and solutions to the unexplained bird attacks that descend upon the Northern California coastal town of Bodega Bay. It is also a brilliant and deceptively complex film for the same reason, with Hitchcock playing on the human need to make sense of horrible things in order to understand how they happened and to assuage our fears in the process. In The Birds, he robs of us that relief, presenting a horror for which there is no explanation -- it just is, and that is the most frightening thing of all. By making that horror a natural one -- in this case, the birds with which we associate peace and harmony -- Hitchcock also reminds us of man's utter helplessness in the face of nature, should nature ever decide to turn on him.
In no other Hitchcock film is there such a constant feeling of dread lurking throughout. Take the opening scene, in which society girl Tippi Hedren and lawyer Rod Taylor "meet cute" in a bird shop. There is a moment when one of the small birds escapes from its cage and flits around the ceiling a bit before being captured and returned. Normally, this little bit of business would be humorous and played for laughs (which it seemingly is here, at first), but there is something about the bird's escape, and the brief pandemonium that it causes while flying about the shop, that creates a feeling of tension and unease in its unpredictability and the way that the bird upsets the order of things. The scene ends, leaving you feeling a bit uneasy, but you can't quite be sure just why.
The best example of what Hitchcock is up to here is the scene in which Tippi Hedren, for no apparent reason, wanders up to a top-floor room of the house, which has just been devastated by a bird attack. She slowly creeps up the dark stairs, flashlight in hand, as Hitchcock pulls out all the tricks in the books to make the audience anticipate something awful about to happen. When she enters the room, she spots a gaping hole in the ceiling, through which a hundred birds immediately come rushing in, mercilessly pecking and attacking her in a way that suggests a rape. Why, we wonder, did she ever go up to the room in the first place? Why do the birds attack? Is it meant to suggest a metaphor for sexual assault? And if so, why? Hitchcock is careful -- methodically so -- to avoid anything that could be construed as an explanation for any of it.
Perhaps the best way to think of The Birds is as a colossal joke on the academics and critics who were beginning to take Hitchcock's work very seriously around this time. It's as if the Master, with characteristically sly humor, offered them a film that seemed to be packed with layers of symbolism to be dissected for its meaning, but which ultimately mean nothing, like a puzzle that cannot be solved.
If so, Hitchcock had the last laugh.