Melanie Daniels is spoiled and beautiful: she drives a gorgeous Aston Martin coupe, dresses in a slim, green designer suit, and has a pristine physique to go with her perfect face that looks like it was carved out of stone. As the daughter of a newspaper mogul, she’s never had to take on any real responsibilities or trials, instead leading a reckless and lavish lifestyle of parties, travel, and—as we quickly learn in the film’s opening sequence—the impetuous pursuit of handsome men.
Arriving from San Francisco in the small seaside town of Bodega Bay, Melanie looks downright out of place next to its rusty pick-up trucks, overalls, and grizzled faces. “She’s always mentioned in the gossip columns,” one character says, stressing a particular notorious event in which Melanie was caught frolicking naked in a fountain in Rome.
Melanie journeys to the town to deliver a few love birds to the sister of a well-built, good-looking San Francisco lawyer named Mitch (Rod Taylor), whom she meets in a bird shop in the opening scene.
Mitch wanders into the shop, notices Melanie, and asks for help. Melanie glances up, at first a little surprised, but when she sees that Mitch is attractive, she gives a subtle, mischievous smile and goes along pretending to be an employee at the shop. He questions her about various birds, and despite her ignorance she manages to sustain the act by exuding confidence and charm. We get the sense that she’s well practiced in this sort of behavior, that she sees the world as a playground on which she sets the rules.
And yet when he asks to see a canary, she quickly grows a little anxious. As she tries to remove the bird from the cage she lets it loose, and her sense of authority is diminished as she helplessly watches it flutter around the room. In a way this opening scene is a microcosm of the film as a whole: we see a glimpse of Melanie’s recklessness and then its repercussion by the bird escaping. It’s Mitch who catches it, and as he returns it to its cage he says: “Back in your little cage, Melanie Daniels,” revealing that he’s seen her before and that he was the real actor in the scene, pretending to have thought she worked in the shop. “I just thought you might like to know what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag,” he playfully snarls in reference to a previous prank of Melanie’s that resulted in a broken window.
This is important information because we learn that Melanie doesn’t always get away with her practical joking and also because of the way Mitch equates the bird to Melanie when he puts it back in the cage. There’s an implication that Melanie’s bad behavior unleashes problems that are beyond her control. Her small little joke in the opening scene precipitates a small little problem. As her reckless actions grow stronger through the film, the problems become stronger.
Melanie’s first task when she arrives in Bodega Bay—a quaint seaside town with rolling green hills and crudely paved roads—is to find out exactly where Mitch lives. As she arrives there’s a clear sense that she’s intruding on a place not accustomed to big city women in fancy fur coats driving fast cars. As she pulls up to a general store, we see a woman in the background walking by holding grocery bags. As Melanie gets out of her car, the woman slows and stares at her, as if Melanie is some sort of threat, and then hurries out of the frame. And when Melanie enters the store and asks the clerk about Mitch’s whereabouts, he seems uncomfortable with her presence, vaguely answering that he lives “right across the bay there,” as he stacks a pile of envelopes.
Melanie, in her forthright manner, insists on specific directions, and when the clerk complies and explains the precise location of the Brenner’s home, Melanie looks up in alarm. “The Brenner’s?” she asks, “as in—Mr. and Mrs. Brenner?” Melanie is a puzzle box, but one of the great things about the film is the way it reveals her motives through her subtle questioning, and then allowing the viewer to reach conclusions through the way she asks the questions, communicating more through body language and facial expression than words. Her concern implies that if there is a Mrs. Brenner, then this seemingly kind bird delivery would actually be pointless, because Melanie’s ulterior motive is really just to see Mitch again.
Luckily for her, the Mrs. Brenner is actually Mitch’s mother, at which Melanie gives a playful smile of relief. Her game continues.
In one of the film’s best scenes, we see Melanie rent a boat in order to sneak around the backside of the Brenner home and deliver the love birds unnoticed. After slipping in and out of the house, she crouches in the boat and watches as Mitch, who’s working in the nearby barn, wanders into the house. Anticipating that he’ll see the birds, she waits for him to come back outside. She wants to be seen. When he runs back outside and spies her with a pair of binoculars, she starts up the engine and heads back toward the town. She knows Mitch will follow because she’s helped him by delivering the birds and because she’s fully aware of her physical allure. Gliding back towards the town, the camera hones in on her smug, self-satisfied smile. This is a game she’s probably won countless times in her life and she’s winning it again.
It is at this point though that the bird problems begin. The first attack is a mild one yet it still has an element of shock as a gull swipes down nips Melanie’s brow just as she is arriving at the dock. It also the beginning of a pattern we shall see throughout the film: the further Melanie takes her game, the closer she gets to Mitch, the more aggressive the bird attacks become. To actually interpret the meaning behind the birds poses a challenge that really doesn’t seem to have a solution. All we can really understand about them is that Melanie has brought birds to the town (literally) as well as a spoiled, haughty temperament that’s in conflict with the working class simplicity of Bodega Bay. She’s unchecked in a place where people live responsibility and are simply trying to put food on the table. She’s a problem and the birds are literal manifestations of this problem. Melanie is a realistic character and Hitchcock goes to great lengths to give Bodgea Bay a sense of authenticity, which makes the bird attacks all the more jarring, like something out of a nightmare. Without the birds Hitchcock could have still made a compelling dramatic picture, but, lest we forget, this is at the end of the day a horror film.
Melanie’s integration into the Brenner family home is as sneaky as her initial purchase and delivery of the lovebirds. As Mitch takes care of the gull wound on her forehead, and bemusedly suggests she really likes him, Melanie retorts that she loathes him, that he “has no manners, is arrogant and conceited.” Yet her tone is flippant and intentionally so, as Melanie knows that this sort of language will only make Mitch more curious about her. There is no reason to think that she has any real feelings for Mitch, thus she has to sustain her joke as much as possible. She’s even created an alternate reason for visiting Bodega Bay: she’s seeing an old college friend, Annie Hayworth, when in reality the two had only just met when Melanie went to her to get the name of Mitch’s little sister. What’s interesting is that Mitch is fully aware of Melanie’s scheme, and, just like the opening scene in the bird shop, he plays along.
Mitch is one of the few characters in the film that doesn’t see Melanie as some sort of threat, in part because Melanie is both attractive and vying for his attention, and also—let’s not forget—because he’s a big city lawyer. He’s from Bodega Bay, but he only stays there on weekends, the rest of the time attending to his profession, law, which also is a type of game in the way it relies on manipulation and deception. Melanie’s game might work better on a gullible, shy type, but Mitch is too smart and too experienced to not catch the transparency of her act.
That he plays along, though, only heightens the intensity of the film, particularly when his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) arrives on the scene. She’s introduced when entering the drug store where Mitch is tending to Melanie’s bird wound. She seems uncomfortable just by the sight of her son with another woman, and when Mitch explains that Melanie was delivering a pair of love birds for Cathy, Lydia’s cold “I see,” evinces clear disapproval. Hitchcock frames the scene with Lydia standing between Mitch and Melanie, a visual representation of Lydia’s role in her son’s life. Any time a young woman tries to take her son away, she does her best to get in the way of things.
When Mitch invites Melanie to dinner, she expresses hesitation, which we can assume is intentional. She doesn’t want Mitch to deduce that this entire act is built around her attraction to him because then she would be remitting both her own sense of authority as well as the game itself. She needs the two of these because that is simply how she operates in life: Mitch is ultimately a plaything, a way for her to stave off boredom, and if she expresses any sense of commitment to him, then that would lead to responsibility, which for her is a foreign notion and something to be afraid of. You get the sense that she would be more comfortable hooking up with Mitch for a night and then never seeing him again. She wouldn’t have to surrender her life to someone, plus there’s always going to be another handsome man in the city who will fall victim to her conniving ways.
When Melanie arrives for dinner, there are the expected formalities: she meets Cathy, who is ecstatic over the birds, she admires the house, and Mitch makes drinks for them. What’s strange though is that we see all this in the background, as the foreground is occupied by Lydia as she makes a phone call to her chicken feed supplier to complain about how her chickens have stopped eating. She learns that it’s not the chicken feed that’s the problem though, as a neighbor is also experiencing the same issue with a different brand of feed. With a guest in the house it’s unusual that Lydia would make this phone call, but because Hitchcock puts her in the forefront of the frame while Melanie lingers in the background, the viewer is informed that this phone call is important. Lydia is uncomfortable with Melanie’s presence, and it’s as if her concern about her chickens is Hitchcock’s way of expressing her anxiety about Melanie. After all, we’ve already seen that Melanie is equated with bird problems, a pattern that will only continue through the film.
After the meal, as Melanie casually plays the piano while smoking a cigarette, Hitchcock cuts to a scene in the kitchen where Lydia is washing the dishes and talking concernedly to Mitch about his new girl. This is the first time we get to see Mitch talk about Melanie, and while his intent has been ambiguous till this point, here he suggests that Melanie is simply an object of attraction and amusement. He’s also aware that his mother is afraid of letting him go, and he satisfies this fear with a near Oedipal treatment of her, addressing her as “dear” and “darling,” and kissing her cheek as he assures her that he can "handle Ms. Daniels" as Melanie slowly begins to become part of the Brenner household to the point where she is essentially taking over Lydia’s role.
It begins when Melanie, who has gone to Annie Hayworth’s house to stay the night, gets a call from Mitch asking her to stay in Bodega Bay one more day to attend his sister’s birthday party. At this point perhaps Melanie’s feelings for Mitch have grown, and it takes little convincing for her to accept the invitation. Immediately after, a bird dies as it crashes into the door, maybe a warning for what’s to come as a result of her decision to stay in Bodega Bay.
The next scene is the birthday party, and as Mitch and Melanie wander away together through the sandy hills, we realize that the game is over and now there really is a mutual romantic interest between them. Mitch again tries to get her to stay for dinner after the party, only this time she’s insistent on leaving because she has to get to work in the morning (“you have a job?” Mitch asks incredulously).
As Lydia comes out of the house with the birthday cake, we see her look up in the direction of the two lovebirds with a frightful, uneasy look in her eyes. We then hear someone shout “Look!” as a bird swoops down and attacks one of the kids. Once again there is a parallel between Melanie’s intrusion and the birds. Lydia sees her with Mitch alone, and the implication of romantic interest coincides with the bird attack.
This is the most severe attack yet, as several birds end up preying on the kids at the party, giving the celebration an abrupt ending. More importantly, this keeps Melanie in Bodega Bay, not out of choice, but circumstance: Because of the attack, Mitch would be much more comfortable if Melanie stayed at least through dinner, to which she readily agrees.
She ends up staying the night after another occurrence in which fifty or so sparrows fly into the house through the fireplace, chaotically whizzing through the air like they’re on some sort of drug. At this point the film shifts tone entirely, as the threat of Melanie gives way to the threat of the birds. No one in the town can make any sense of the events, with some attributing them to unusual migration behavior and others calling it the dawn of the apocalypse.
The only time we see an attack in which Melanie is not involved is when Lydia goes to see her neighbor the next morning and finds that the birds have gouged his eyes out. But this results in a key moment in which Melanie becomes even more cemented in the Brenner family. Fraught with peril, Lydia returns home and lies in bed, forced to rely on Melanie for comfort.
Already she’s seen Melanie become the romantic interest of her son, and now, in a strange way, she’s taking on a maternal role as well. Not only does Melanie try to calm Lydia like a mother would her child, but she also goes to the town school to make sure Cathy is safe. Lydia is incapable of ensuring her daughter’s well being because of the birds, and she’s already losing her son to Melanie, thus rendering her on the verge of obsolescence.
But as Melanie becomes more and more the dominant female presence in the Brenner household, she simultaneously gets more worn down as the bird attacks escalate in their severity.
As the viewer now anticipates, when Melanie arrives at the school, she brings the birds with her. Waiting nervously on a bench outside the schoolhouse, she notices a few birds gathering on the playground. Then, in one of the film’s most terrifying images, the playground is suddenly covered in large black birds. Because we know an attack is likely imminent, simply seeing them gathered, waiting, is almost more frightening than the attack itself. Another assault ensues, and Melanie flees to the town drugstore, where she makes a phone call and describes the attack. The town people around her stare at her with mysterious and concerned faces, as if they’re just as alarmed by her as by her description of the birds.
Hitchcock continues the pattern of Melanie bringing the attacks to wherever she goes as moments later the town experiences its first onslaught of the aggressive birds as they dive down upon pedestrians and drivers, interrupting the smooth, comfortable everyday life of Bodega Bay with a startling surge of mayhem, terror, and bloodshed. As people crowd in the drugstore for safety, one woman approaches Melanie, her eyes wild, proclaiming: “They said when you got here the whole thing started! Who are you? What are you? I think you’re the cause of all this—I think you’re evil!” At this point the viewer feels some sympathy for Melanie, but that’s largely because the rise of the film’s intensity upon the start of the bird attacks makes us forget a little just how unlikable she’s been for most of the film.
Hitchcock first and foremost wanted to make a horror movie about creatures universally loved for their beauty and tranquility becoming malevolent. But in the process he did also create Melanie Daniels, and the entire film feels directed towards this statement by the woman in the drugstore. Melanie is a woman who has built her life around bad behavior, and in coming to Bodega Bay she’s found the wrong place to exhibit it. The film takes the idea of actions having consequences to its most extreme by employing the genre of horror to exhibit those repercussions.
In the film’s final scene at the Brenner’s boarded up house, we see Melanie on the couch comforting Cathy, continuing her role of the mother while the real mother, Lydia, sits in a chair backed against the wall aside a portrait of her dead husband. It’s the most full-fledged image of Melanie’s intrusion into the family, as we sense Lydia longing for the order of her old life when her husband was still living, and Melanie, by default, taking over the maternal role. Mitch, meanwhile, saunters about the room, utterly perplexed by the whole situation.
As if saving their most ambitious attack for last, the birds slowly penetrate and enter the house, their beaks cutting through the boarded windows as if made of steel. Melanie, who after that initial attack in the boat has avoided being physically victimized, finally becomes the object of the birds’ violence. Cut up and speechless, Mitch and Lydia help her out the car like she’s an infant not yet able to walk or talk. It’s only at this point that we see Lydia embrace her, putting her arm around her like she’s her own child. The birds have now rendered Melanie powerless, the polar opposite of the strong, confident woman who arrived in Bodega Bay a few days before. As Mitch drives the car away, the birds simply watch. Melanie is leaving town for good, and that strange, mysterious trouble she brought with her is leaving too.