Melanie is a newspaper heiress, a rich socialite with enough time on her hands to get into plenty of trouble. As the film progresses, her glamorous façade is slowly stripped away until our golden girl is a disheveled, catatonic wreck.
The upside? She probably becomes a better person—if she ever recovers.
In our first scene with Melanie Daniels, she's strolling down the street in San Francisco, dressed to the nines. Some guy wolf-whistles at her; she likes it.
We're already not sure we like this gal. And then, the first thing she actually does in the movie is lie.
She's in a bird shop when Mitch Brenner comes in, and she pretends to be a saleswoman. "Just what is it you're looking for, sir?" she coos, and then proceeds to pretend she knows anything at all about birds, which she doesn't. Then, when Mitch turns the tables on her and tells her he knew she was faking all along, she gets cranky and tells him he's a "louse."
So, there's Melanie: she's irresponsible and spoiled and kind of a jerk. It's no surprise to find out later that she was in all the newspapers for jumping naked in a fountain while on vacation in Italy. She's got the money and the disposition to do whatever she feels like doing—even if that means motoring up to Bodega Bay on a whim in order to play a practical joke on Mitch.
Bottom line: Melanie is used to getting what she wants. She calls up a connection at daddy's newspaper to run down Mitch's license plate and get his home address. Then, she goes into his apartment building with a cage of lovebirds. When that doesn't work, it's off to Bodega Bay for a drive-by bird dropoff. That's chutzpah.
Melanie arrives in Bodega Bay in search of Mitch and still feeling pretty mischievous. Clearly way out of her element, she depends on the locals to find out where Mitch lives and even shows up at Mitch's ex's place to get some info about his sister. They all don't know quite what to make of this glamorous city girl, but Melanie manages to pilot a small boat well enough to make it to Mitch's house, walk inside, and deposit the lovebirds.
The turning point in Melanie's character arc? Fittingly, it's bird-related: when she gets knocked in the head by a gull on her way back from Mitch's. This brings Mitch into the picture, and as they start to build a relationship, we see a different side of her. She's still flirty and sarcastic, but Mitch presses her about her past, and she owns up to it. She defends herself but admits she hasn't been the nicest kid on the block.
MITCH: You were just a poor, innocent victim of circumstance, huh?
MELANIE: I'm neither poor nor innocent, but the truth of that particular—
MITCH: The truth is you were running around with a pretty wild crowd ...
MELANIE: Yes, but—
MITCH: ... who didn't much care for propriety or convention or ...
MITCH: ... the opinions of others, and you went right along with them, isn't that the truth?
MELANIE: Yes, that's the truth. But I was pushed into that fountain, and that's the truth, too.
At Cathy's birthday party, we get the backstory about Melanie; she opens up to Mitch about her family and tries to explain that she's really more serious and decent than she seems—she takes classes and does some volunteer work.
MELANIE: You see, Rome … That entire summer, I did nothing but … Well, it was very easy to get lost there. So, when I came back, I thought it was time … I began … I don't know … finding something again.
She even talks about her sad past:
MITCH: You need a mother's care, my child.
MELANIE: Not my mother's.
MITCH: Oh, I'm sorry.
MELANIE: What do you have to be sorry about? My mother? Don't waste your time. She ditched us when I was 11 and ran off with some hotel man in the east.
At this point, Melanie becomes a bit more sympathetic—the cliché of the poor little rich girl.
Once the bird attacks begin in earnest, Melanie seems to rise to the occasion. She's as terrified as anyone, but she's able to help the family deal with the chaos, and she comforts Cathy and Lydia.
But, don't take our word for it. Here's what Hitchcock himself had to say about her:
Generally speaking, I believe that people are too complacent. People like Melanie Daniels tend to behave without any kind of responsibility, and to ignore the more serious aspects of life. Such people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all. But I believe that when catastrophe does come, when people rise to the occasion, they are all right. Melanie shows that people can be strong when they face up to the situation, like the people in London during the wartime air raids. The birds basically [symbolize] the more serious aspects of life. (Source)
Melanie, like everyone else, struggles to understand why these bird attacks are happening, but she seems to think there's some kind of intention behind the attacks. When the folks in the diner are trying to challenge that idea, she insists the birds are out to get them:
SEBASTIAN: What do you think they were after? Miss, uh—
MELANIE: Daniels. I think they were after the children.
SEBASTIAN: For what purpose?
MELANIE: To … to kill them.
MELANIE: I don't know why.
Don't worry, Mel; nobody knows.
After the explosion at the gas station, one of the women blames Melanie for the attacks. They only occurred after the evil hussy arrived in Bodega Bay, after all. (That's not really true, but she's the easy target.) Despite the accusations, Melanie continues to try to help out, going with Mitch to retrieve Cathy and comforting Cathy after Annie's death. She stays in the house with the Brenners during the next assault, and after things have quieted down, she even goes upstairs to investigate some noises.
Um, didn't she see Psycho?
It's the beginning of the end for our heroine. She's madly attacked by crows and gulls; by the time Mitch and Lydia drag her out of the attic, her fancy clothes are torn, she's bloodied all over, and her perfect hair is a perfect disaster. She's totally come apart.
They carry her downstairs, and she's in a daze. She flaps her hands at imaginary birds; she can't speak. The family realizes they have to get her to a hospital, and they slowly walk past the hordes of sitting birds, get in their car, and drive away. She's still got her fur coat on—a little statement about how far she's fallen.
Remember how Annie told Melanie that Lydia is her good friend now that Annie was no longer dating Mitch? Our last scene is Lydia looking lovingly—and maternally—at Melanie, who's no longer a rival for Mitch's attention.
"I think you're a louse," Melanie tells Mitch Brenner.
"I am," he responds.
And he's right. He is a louse—at first.
Consider the evidence. The first thing Mitch does is play a practical joke on Melanie. She's pretending to be a clerk in the store where he's buying some birds. So, he tweaks her back. You know, to teach her a lesson.
But then, he goes on to be a self-righteous jerk about it.
MITCH: We met in court ... I'll rephrase it. I saw you in court ... Don't you remember one of your practical jokes that resulted in the smashing of a plate-glass window?
MELANIE: I didn't break that window. What are you, a policeman?
MITCH: No, but your little prank did. The judge should have put you behind bars. I merely believe in the law, Miss Daniels ... I just thought you might like to know what it's like to be on the other end of a gag. What do ya think of that?"
How smug and self-righteous is that? He's reprimanding her like she's 12. He's totally using what he knows about her past to ridicule her. And we're supposed to see him as cute and charming and righteous: "I merely believe in the law, Miss Daniels." Go soak your head, Mitch. Doesn't the law say something about confidentiality?
He keeps it up when Melanie comes out to Bodega Bay. She's brought his sister a birthday gift, and she's clearly smitten with him (who knows why, but she is). But, he just keeps sneering at her, tweaking her about having been in the gossip columns and of "running around with a pretty wild crowd." He gets all judgmental and superior. "I loathe you. You're arrogant and conceited," Melanie says.
And, she's right.
(Yeah, we have an opinion about this one.)
Mitch must think women swoon for guys who are condescending. You know, the bad-boy thing. And, even worse, the film agrees with him; the more of a jerk he is, the more Melanie likes him. The film and Melanie almost endorse his louse-ishness.
Yeah, we know—it was a movie of its time. That doesn't mean we have to condone it.
Maybe we've been too hasty. Maybe this is all just charming, flirtatious banter. After all, as the film goes along, Mitch does seem to be less louse-like. He seems delighted and grateful that Melanie has brought the lovebirds. He's sympathetic when Melanie talks about her estrangement from her mom. After she's attacked by the birds in the attic, he's genuinely horrified and insists on getting her to a doctor, no matter the risk.
Men: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. At least in Hitchcock films.
When the birds attack, Mitch stops being a smug louse and starts being more of a standard-issue action/suspense hero. He does competent hero things like insisting that the threat from the birds is real, boarding up the house, and then getting everyone safely into the car.
Mitch proves to be "manly," after all.
Every important woman in the film wants Mitch's affections. Lydia, Cathy, Annie, and Melanie: all these "birds" flock around him like Royal Wing Mealworms and Nuts Suet Balls.
Critics tend to blame the bird attacks on the women in Mitch's life. They're a manifestation of Lydia's maternal anxieties about keeping hold of Mitch. Or, they're because of Melanie's sexual desire for Mitch. ("I think you're the cause of all of this. I think you're evil. EVIL!")
But, what if the birds aren't about Lydia's desires or Melanie's desires, but are actually about Mitch's desires? The first bird attack occurs when Mitch is approaching Melanie at the bay and a seagull strikes her. Later, the birds kill Annie, who was stuck on Mitch. Then, they go after Melanie again in that gruesome attic scene.
Remember Annie's dry comment about San Francisco? "I guess that's where everyone meets Mitch." And Mitch himself says, somewhat ominously, "I think I can handle Melanie Daniels by myself." And Lydia says, "Mitch has always done exactly what he wanted to do." All of this suggests that Mitch might be a selfish playboy who picks up hearts (like Annie's) and then discards them as he wishes.
Rather than a symbol of dangerous femininity, then, the birds could be a symbol of dangerous masculinity—a warning, in other words, about lousy, dashing men, and the kind of violence their condescension might hide. Annie starts a relationship with Mitch and ends up dead. Melanie starts one and ends up traumatized—and possibly maimed for life.
Maybe we blame Adam this time, not Eve.
Annie, Mitch's ex-girlfriend, is down to earth.
The first time we see Annie, she's covered in dirt from gardening. And, when we first see her and Melanie in a scene together, the contrast couldn't be more striking:
Annie tries to size up Melanie:
ANNIE: Did you drive up from San Francisco by the coast road?
ANNIE: Nice drive.
MELANIE: It's very beautiful.
ANNIE: Is that where you met Mitch?
ANNIE: I guess that's where everyone meets Mitch.
Annie still has a thing for Mitch even though they broke up years ago. Considering that Melanie is obviously Mitch's new love interest, Annie is pretty nice to her. She even confides in her about her feelings for Mitch and why she moved to Bodega Bay from the city—very different from Melanie, who's not revealing much of anything and has been lying since the minute she got to Bodega Bay.
ANNIE: I wanted to be near Mitch. It was over and done with, and I knew it, but I wanted to be near him, anyway. You see, I still like him a hell of a lot. I don't want to lose that friendship ... ever.
Annie's openness finally lets Melanie admit that the reason she's in Bodega Bay is to see Mitch, too. Annie finds a way to be okay with that. She even clues Melanie in to the big potential problem with Mitch: his mother. Evidently, Lydia didn't warm up to Annie until she and Mitch broke up:
MELANIE: Well, what had you done?
ANNIE: Nothing. I simply existed. So, what's the answer? A jealous woman, right? A clinging, possessive mother? Wrong. With all due respect to Oedipus, I don't think that was the case.
MELANIE: Then, what was it?
When Melanie arrives at the school, she and Annie work together to save the children, leading them out of the building and telling them to run, run, run. Annie brings Cathy to her house for safety.
Later, when Melanie and Mitch go looking for Annie and Cathy, they find Annie dead on the front lawn and Cathy inside the house, terrified. Cathy describes it:
CATHY: All at once the … the birds were everywhere. All at once. She … she pushed me inside and … they covered her. Annie. She pushed me inside.
Annie dies heroically, at least. She's been a hugely sympathetic character all along and didn't seem to deserve a gruesome death.
But, that's Hitchcock. He doesn't work in clichés or do what you expect. These bird attacks are totally arbitrary.
Lydia is kind of a mess.
Her husband died several years before our story gets started, and she hasn't gotten over it (obviously). Because she's now clinging to Mitch, she's unhappy when there's another woman in his life. Annie believes that Lydia ruined her relationship with Mitch because she feared Mitch would leave her if he got married. Lydia is just as leery of Melanie; she makes sure to bring up Melanie's bad-girl history:
LYDIA: Forgive me. I suppose I'm just naturally curious about a girl like that. She's very rich, isn't she?
MITCH: I suppose so. Her father's part-owner of one of the big newspapers in San Francisco.
LYDIA: You'd think he could manage to keep her name out of print. She's always mentioned in the columns, Mitch.
MITCH: Yes, I know.
LYDIA: She is the one who jumped into that fountain in Rome last summer, isn't she?
MITCH: Yes, mother.
LYDIA: Perhaps I'm old-fashioned. I know it was supposed to be very warm there, Mitch, but ... well ... actually ... well, the newspaper said she was naked.
MITCH: Yes, I know, dear.
LYDIA: It's none of my business, of course, but when you bring a girl like that to—
MITCH: Darling? […] I think I can handle Melanie Daniels by myself.
After Lydia is traumatized by seeing the farmer dead and missing his eyes, Melanie tries to comfort her and bring her tea. By this point, Melanie has been drawn into the family by the bird attacks, and Lydia confides in her:
LYDIA: Mitch is important to me. I want to like whatever girl he chooses ... Well, I don't think it's going to matter very much to anyone but me ... Mitch has always done exactly what he wanted to do. But, you see, I don't want to be left alone. I don't think I could bear to be left alone. Oh, forgive me ... This business with the birds has upset me. I don't know what I'd do if Mitch weren't here ... I wish I was stronger.
We're more sympathetic to Lydia now that she's fessed up to her fears.
Remember the movie Carrie? When Carrie gets angry, bad stuff happens. Things crash around or spontaneously burst into flame. It's like her unconscious wishes cause this stuff to happen without her meaning them to.
Some film critics think the same about Lydia Brenner: Lydia's unnatural attachment to Mitch has somehow caused the bird attacks.
There seem to be two different views on the matter:
One targets Mitch's girlfriends as the object of Lydia's destructive wrath. Melanie gets attacked for the first time after sneaking into the Brenner house; Cathy's party is attacked because Cathy is the one who invited Melanie to stick around Bodega Bay for the party. As Melanie and Mitch get closer, the attacks increase in ferocity, and they only stop (or, uh, pause) when Melanie is totally destroyed. Even Annie gets killed.
By the end of the film, Melanie is more like a helpless child. Now, Lydia doesn't have to worry about losing Mitch. Once the birds have rendered Melanie senseless, Lydia can now be back in control. (Source)
The second view is a little more, well, Greek. Mitch and Lydia's relationship is too close—he calls her "darling," and she's very possessive. It has what psychoanalysts would call "Oedipal" overtones. As in Oedipus, the mythical Theban king who accidentally, and unbeknownst to him, killed his father and married his mother. This unnatural event disturbed the universe and brought plagues raining down on the country while Oedipus and his mother reigned as king and queen.
Applying this thinking to the birds, we see that it's not just Annie and Melanie who pay the price for Lydia's attachment to Mitch. It's not that the bird attacks are manifestations of Lydia's Carrie-ish anger. It's that the natural order of things has been disturbed—and everybody pays. (Source)
Cathy is Mitch's kid sister—and being a kid sister is 100 percent her character. She's cute and winsome and … cute. She adores Mitch, and she likes Melanie because Melanie brought her some lovebirds.
She, of course, wonders why the birds are attacking and looks to Mitch for the answers.
Cathy suffers through most of the major bird attacks and has to witness her beloved teacher being pecked to death. But, she refuses to become a bird bigot. When the family flees the house to take Melanie to a hospital, she insists on bringing the lovebirds with her.
Veronica Cartwright, who played Cathy in one of her first film roles, went on to have a lengthy career in film and television, including a couple of other major horror roles in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Alien (1979).
Cartwright started out being terrified and decided that she'd keep on keeping on.
What are the chances that an ornithologist happens to be wandering through Bodega Bay?
Though, to be fair, the chances of birds suddenly deciding to attack humankind aren't very good, either. If you're willing to accept killer birds, you might as well accept ornithologists in the local diner.
As a bird booster, Mrs. Bundy says it's unthinkable that birds of different types would flock together and become aggressive.
Credit Hitch for controlling himself and not having her killed off by marauding seagulls.
The townspeople and schoolchildren mostly mill about, wonder why the birds are attacking, worry about the bird attacks, and/or get attacked by birds.
They're there to give you the sense of a wider world beyond just Melanie, Annie, and the Brenner family. As characters, they don't get to do much but offer theories about what's happening and run screaming from the birds. We get the impression that there's a good sense of community, though—typical small-town types like drunks, fishermen, postal clerks, and eccentric ladies.
Our favorite character by far? Officer Al, who comes to the Brenner house after it's been invaded by about a zillion birds flying down the chimney and pecking everyone in sight. His response? Don't worry, Mitch. "My wife found a bird in the backseat of her car once," reassures Officer Al. "Maybe you should put some screen on top of your chimney."
Officer Al is our nominee for the Mayor Larry "It was a boating accident" Vaughn Award.