Urban Sprawl is for the Birds

5 October 2014

Celestino Deleyto’s essay “Focalisation in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds” emphasizes focalization due to camera angle. For the most part, Deleyto uses focalization as synonymous with point of view shots. In fact, Deleyto keeps such a tight hold to the idea that camera angle equals point of view that he refers to high angle, bird’s-eye-view shots as the omniscient external focalizer as if the camera, independent of a character, is a character in its own right. An external focalization is an object or character that is being viewed by the camera, and an internal focalization is when the camera acts as the sightline of a character. Deleyto mentions that anything in the view of the camera is focalized at least to some degree, but he spends very little on this idea (Deleyto 3). Following Deleyto’s ideas, one can see that both Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Daphnie Du Maurier’s “The Birds” spend a great deal of time focalizing the birds themselves.

Du Maurier only uses external focalization to portray the birds in the text. However, in Hitchcock’s adaptation both external and internal focalization are used to portray the birds as an object and as a subject in the film. Du Maurier’s “The Birds” focuses all of its narrative on Nat’s house and the Trigg’s farm. But Hitchcock’s adaptation of Du Maurier’s story extends the symbolic possibilities of the attack of the birds. While the extended scope of Hitchcock’s film The Birds does add more possibility for changes to the symbolism of the bird attack, the scope by itself does not do everything necessary to create a new context for symbolism. The new symbolism is being carefully crafted from the beginning of the film. In Hitchcock’s The Birds the damage that is wrought by the birds symbolizes the impact that people fear urban sprawl might have on small town America.

In fact, between the years of 1950 and 1960 San Francisco County lost 4.5% of its population while the entire region had a 35.7 % increase in population. During the years between 1950 and 1960, Sonoma County, the county that includes the actual city of Bodega Bay had a 39% increase in population and a 42.5% increase during the decade before (U.S. Geological Survey 184). By the time Hitchcock made his 1963 film The Birds, the people of Bodega Bay had already been witness to the effects of population growth over the last 20 years.

Hitchcock goes through great pains to imbue the birds with a greater symbolism than the everyday clichés one might expect. Hitchcock’s birds are actively made into symbols by their juxtaposition with Mitch, Melanie, and the city of San Francisco itself. In the first scene of the film, Mitch and Melanie meet in a pet store among all of the caged birds (Hitchcock 1963). The beginnings of their budding love affair takes place within a background of multicolored imported birds, and Mitch and Melanie’s conversation is highlighted by the sound of the birds in the background. Adding to the metaphoric connection that is built between the prospective couple and the birds, Mitch asks Melanie if she would show him some lovebirds, but more importantly, the lovebirds take actual form in the mise en scéne of the film. (Hitchcock 1963). Not only does Mitch’s choice of lovebirds indicate that he is interested in Melanie, but also his choice of birds creates a symbolic connection between him, Melanie and the lovebirds.

But Mitch and Melanie are not fully equated with the birds until Melanie drives the pair of lovebirds up and sneaks them into Mitch’s house (Hitchcock 1963). By allowing the lovebirds to surprise Mitch, Melanie’s actions foreshadow the scene when the birds enter his house through the chimney and the scene when the birds enter through the hole in the roof, and the damage and confusion that the bids cause symbolizes the damage being caused to small town America.

The birds in the pet shop are an assortment of domestic and exotic birds imported from around the world, and workers that are attracted to a booming city like San Francisco also arrive from all around the world. The arrival and departure of birds in the San Francisco pet shop mirrors the influx of jobs and workers to the city. The increase of workers in the city creates a need for places to live on the outskirts of the city.

Mitch and Melanie could easily be seen as stand-ins for the workers that had been known to be leaving San Francisco over the last decade. And as Mitch and Melany were well-to-do, they are not necessarily seen as the problem. The influx of birds is the problem and in the scene in the dinner after the city has been under full-fledged attack by the birds, one of the women in the dinner accuse Melanie of bringing the birds (Hitchcock 1963). Although Melanie denies being the cause of the attack, she does bring a pair of caged lovebirds with her from San Francisco. The pair of lovebirds were the first birds to arrive in Bodega Bay; therefore, the lovebirds stand in for the scouts or the early adopters that review the area and advertise it to others that might be looking for the same thing. As Mitch and Melanie are equated with the lovebirds they could be seen to perform the same function trying the area out and reporting it back to others who might be interested in a place to live outside of San Francisco. And the enjoyment that Melanie gets from her sunny seaside drive up the beautiful California coast shows how alluring the prospect of living in Bodega Bay might be for some one that wants to work in San Francisco and live where the housing costs are lower.

Although the film does not actually depict an influx of immigrants from San Francisco other than Mitch, Melanie, and Annie the increasing number of birds in connection to them symbolizes a bigger problem with population growth than just those three. The imagery of the Melanie surrounded by birds in the background of the pet shop is mirrored in the scene outside of the school house in Bodega Bay when the crows are gathering behind her on the playground equipment. The manmade pipes of the playground equipment and the telephone wires that the crows perch on are a more ominous reference to the cages that the birds were held in inside of the pet shop. This more dangerous imagery shows that the small town folks view the things that the birds symbolize as a much more dangerous problem than the people of San Francisco do. And the view of the birds massing one by one behind Melanie shows that the invasion of outsiders continues to grow.

Disregarding all of their other more obvious narrative motivations, Mitch and Melanie go to the small town of Bodega Bay for a weekend trip from San Francisco only to experience the destruction of the small town beauty and charm that had drawn them there in the first place. As a result of the destruction caused by the increase in population (whether by birds or immigrant people), the city of Bodega Bay is no longer suitable for a weekend getaway by the well-to-do, and Mitch and Melanie, with their original lovebirds in tow, beat a hasty retreat back to San Francisco. Therefore, Hitchcock’s The Birds portrays the fear that the increasing populations of major cities and the urban sprawl associated with this growth will wipe out the culture of small town America and ruin the weekend getaways of the rich.

Work Cited

Celestino Deleyto. “Focalization in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.” Miscelanea Journal Archives – FOCALISATION IN ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE BIRDS. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.

Du Maurier, Daphne. The Birds. London: Virago, 2004. Print.

The Birds. Hitchcock, A. Universal Pictures. 1963. Film.

“U.S. Geological Survey.” USGS Publications Warehouse. Web. 09 Oct. 2014. <pubs.usgs.gov/bul/b2188/b2188ch9.pdf>.

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