Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Cutting Edge: The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock seems to always try to present the audience with a new and unusual experience. From 'Rope' (1948) where he used one single continuous shot for the duration of the film, to his most well known work, 'Psycho' (1960), with a metamorphic genre and violence the public has not seen before in cinema, it is clear he enjoys pushing boundaries. Alfred Hitchcock continued this trend with 'The Birds' (1963), a film that makes the viewer interpret the emotions and thoughts of the characters along with meaning behind the plot.

Fig. 1 'The Birds' (1963)
Similar to 'Psycho', 'The Birds' seems to swap between several different genres including comedy, romance, and horror/monster. Somehow, Hitchcock manages to make this work alongside the bizarre 'attack of the birds' story. While the film starts off slow, we are presented with an array of characters all of which aren't particularly likable. However, as time passes and strange bird attacks commence it is easy to still be interested in the characters and wonder what will happen even if we don't like them. We want to see what happens to them while it also becomes clear that the story is not really about evil, aggressive birds at all.

While the effects are not particularly frightening (a seagull pecking at someones hand does not look very scary), the camera shots and sound design is what makes this film unsettling. While the sound of the birds when they attack remains familiar there is something eerily different about it, it falls within the Uncanny Valley. The sound makes them feel unnatural, or maybe supernatural, as if they have been possessed by an evil spirit or infected by some sort of disease.

While there is no actual score within the film, Bernard Herrman (who designed the famous score used in 'Psycho') developed the other-worldly sounds of the birds during their assaults. Using the absence of music within the film, Hitchcock is able to build up an impressive amount of tension before chaotic bird attacks, "...the bird-attack sequences are tremendously complex...and the absence of a score renders the horror more immediate: Hitchcock's long-time composer Bernard Herrmann fashioned an eerie soundtrack of claws, strident with screeches and rustling wings," (Sooke, 2015).

Fig. 2 Bird Horde
Another tool that Hitchcock uses to build up unease is the interactions between the characters as expressed through different camera shots. It is apparent that Hitchcock is skillful with manipulating the camera to get across a character's thoughts and emotions without any dialogue, and in this case, without any score. For example, this film seems to focus very much on the stereotypical (and sexist) female psyche. This includes being overemotional, overprotective, sensitive, and jealousy towards other women.

Just by how Hitchcock frames his characters, it is clear to see how one is jealous or feel threatened by the presence of another. For example, it is clear that Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) was a previous lover of Mitch's (Rod Taylor) and is jealous of Melanie's (Tippi Hedren) relationship with him. Just by how the two interact and how the camera moves from one to the other, we can see that they feel threatened by each other but aren't exactly rivals either. Another example is Mitch's overprotective mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Due to how Hitchcock placed his cameras and sequenced his shots, a simple glance from Lydia towards Melanie is all it takes to express her feelings of jealousy and vulnerability.

Fig. 3 Jealous Mother
It is debated that these feelings of jealousy, anger, and tension is the 'cause' of the birds actually attacking. The film never provides a direct explanation, but one popular belief is that the birds attack due to the emotions of the women. However, it is not "...made readily clear whether Hitchcock meant the birds to represent the classical Furies that were supposed to pursue the wicked on this earth...the context of the birds concentrating their fury upon a house in which a possessive and jealous mother hovers anxiously over her son is so obvious and fascinating that I rather lean to it," (Crowther, 1963). Hitchcock leaving this part of his story open for interpretation is both frustrating and exciting as it allows the viewer to come up with their own explanations and theories.

The reason behind the birds attacking is not the only thing that Hitchcock left open-ended. Unlike 'Psycho', this film has no clear outcome or ending. In fact, Hitchcock seems to tease the audience by having Mitch hear a radio report near the end of the film saying that there have been bird attacks in other cities. This does not mean the ending was a let down, "what stirs me the most about The Birds is not what it puts in but what it leaves out...Electrifying, insurrectionist Psycho still felt the need to wheel on a psychiatrist to explain Norman Bates...But The Birds floats free...a non-resolution, an open ending - the perfect closing that leaves the world in the balance and its mysteries all intact," (Brooks, 2012). Instead of forcing a strict conclusion, sometimes it is better to end on a high note to allow the viewer to question and reflect.

Brooks, X. (2012) My Favourite Hitchcock: The Birds At: http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2012/jul/31/my-favourite-hitchcock-the-birds Accessed on: 26/1/2016
Crowther, B. (1963) The Birds (1963) At: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D05E7D9143CEF3BBC4953DFB2668388679EDE Accessed on: 26/1/2016
Sooke, A. (2015) The Birds, Review: 'Disturbing' At: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/11334674/The-Birds-review-disturbing.html Accessed on: 26/1/2016

Illustration List:
Figure 1. The Birds [Poster] At: http://www.clevelandcinemas.com/images/promos/birds.jpg Accessed on: 27/1/2016
Figure 2. Bird Horde [Film Still] At: http://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/1000_Frames_of_The_Birds_(1963)_-_frame_950 Accessed on: 26/1/2016
Figure 3. Jealous Mother [Film Still] At: http://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/1000_Frames_of_The_Birds_(1963)_-_frame_283 Accessed on: 26/1/2016


  1. "what stirs me the most about The Birds is not what it puts in but what it leaves out...Electrifying, insurrectionist Psycho still felt the need to wheel on a psychiatrist to explain Norman Bates...But The Birds floats free...a non-resolution, an open ending - the perfect closing that leaves the world in the balance and its mysteries all intact,"... absolutely! The Birds is a film that just grows and grows in your imagination - at least in mine! I love the 'unknowability' of it - so avant-garde really! The sign of a good review is when reading it just makes you want to watch the film again and talk about it long into the night! Good stuff, Dee.

  2. Another spot-on review Dee! Well done :)