1963 is the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and the assassination of President John Kennedy. I was 21 years that fateful year and the emotions and powerful images associated with the film and the brutal murder of JFK have since been inextricably linked in my mind. I believe the film was an ominous foretelling of what happened on 11/22 and of what the future would bring.
When I saw “The Birds” during that summer, I was stunned and unnerved by the experience. What was so unsettling to me as well as to many other movie goers was the way in which Hitchcock had let loose terror and horror on the lives of ordinary people. Suddenly, their routine was altered by having to come face to face with evil that was foreign to their experience. In the middle of the day, under a bright and blue sky, a young woman was suddenly and inexplicably struck on the forehead by a seagull as she was gliding in a motorboat across Bodega Bay. What then followed were coordinated and sometimes deadly attacks by birds on people, young and old, over the course of a long weekend.
The images of “The Birds” still haunt me: birds attacking children as they flee down a steep hill from the school house; the woman trapped in a phone booth as she hopelessly sees people being attacked by birds and is herself threatened when some crash into and crack the glass like miniature guided missiles; the explosion of a gas station as seen from the birds’ point of view and the disturbing inference that they posses a diabolical intelligence as they coordinate a mass attack on the town; hundreds of birds suddenly swarming out of a living room hearth as a family cowers under the assault; a neighbor dropping by the home of a friend and pausing in disbelief when she sees a row of damaged coffee cups, their handles dangling on the rack.
Finally, the last image that concludes the film was the most disturbing of all: the survivors slowly driving down an abandoned road as thousands of birds perched along utility and telephone polls and tree branches follow their every movement. I remember leaving the theater dazed. It seemed that Hitchcock had struck a very disturbing chord. His world view in “The Birds” was filled with despair and there was no hope for humankind.
It has often been said that an artist envisions a world that is yet to become a reality. Given what happened in Dallas, Texas later that year, it seems that “The Birds” was ominous in a number of ways. Like the film, the horror on November 22 also begins in the middle of the day under a bright and blue sky. Suddenly shots ring out as JFK rides in the motorcade. Photos and the Zapruder film capture the moments he is shot, hands clutching his throat and then his head snapping back. We could not believe that something so horrific as this-the brutal murder of the President of the U.S.-could happen in broad daylight. It threw us into unfamiliar territory, grasping for meaning. We felt the same way in the darkened theater when the young woman in the boat wiped blood away from her forehead after being struck by the gull, disbelief turning down the corners of her mouth.
Like the film in which more horrors spill out from a single event, the history that unfolded in the wake of the assassination seemed out-of-control and impossible to fathom-the escalation of the Vietnam War which created a bitterly divided country and violent civil strife in the streets, the back-to-back murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the staggering numbers of bodies that have piled up over the decades from terror attacks, mass shootings and genocide. And on 9/11-the scale of evil enacted yet again under a bright and blue sky-was so utterly foreign and inconceivable. When we see those images again, it still seems unbelievable that this horror actually happened.
So much death and destruction have defined our era since “The Birds” and 11/22/63. It comes as no surprise that over the past 50 years, we have felt like Hitchcock’s survivors, driving down an endlessly abandoned road, where cold-blooded eyes seemingly everywhere follow our fearful journey, as if we are all moving targets.