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Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds
Alfred Hitchcock has long been considered one of the great innovators of cinema. His attention to detail, his use of misdirection, his unapologetic love of suspense and his cutting edge (at the time) technology and special effects are all reasons why many of his films endure today, even though the man himself has been dead for over thirty years now. Having started in the film industry in silent films, it is no big surprise to see how he puts vast import on every detail and on every image the eyes will see during his films.
The Birds is a tremendous cinematic achievement and my favorite Hitchcock film.
Viewed through the lens of modern technology and film making, the Birds could be viewed as cheesy and not too scary. The birds are obviously fake as is the blood. At times the horror of the victims in the Birds is more comical than horrific. At the time of its release, however if must have been utterly horrifying for the viewers. My dad confirms this as he says the film terrified him as a child and he has never viewed seagulls the same way again.
So why has the film endured?
Alfred Hitchcock. The way he commands a camera, the way he controls the eye of the viewers of his films is masterful and really attests to his brilliance as a filmmaker.
In this film in particular, there are many scenes where the camera focuses on certain images that seemingly have little to do with the plot. The most notable of these close-ups is the image of the bloody glove of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), which, like the Extreme Close Up in Psycho , is perhaps the most enduring non bird image in the film.
Rather than focusing on the on one particular image, because that’s been overdone with this and all Hitchock films, I want to focus on the way one character in particular is filmed: Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy).
In the first third of the film, Brenner is an imposing character. She is filmed generally from low angles or at the front the frame, so she dominates the screen. We learn through many characters, and particularly through Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Plechette) that she is indeed a dominant figure in the lives of Cathy (Veronica Cartwright)and Mitch (Rod Taylor). She is consistently filmed like this until she visits the the chicken farmer. Here, upon entering the house we see her vulnerable for the first time.
While she is filmed from a low angle, she is also shown framed by a dark hallway on either side. The camera has trapped her and shown us, the viewer, that there is no escape. The darkness of course adds to the tension but allows us, the viewers, to know that the character doesn’t know what’s going to happen next—she’s in the dark as we are. The vulnerability of the framed character is also powerful and symbolic because after this scene where she discovers the dead body of the chicken farmer, she is filmed from high angles, generally, to show her loss of power and her vulnerability. The camera shots directly reflect the character arc for Lydia Brenner, whom is weak and powerless through the rest of the film.
When Birds Attack:
The Bird attacks in The Birds are a wonder of filmmaking. I would like to focus one attack in particular and that is the attack at the Brenner household towards the end of the film. I would like to focus on this one because it is the most unique of all the attacks in the film. For the other attacks, from the party to the school, Htchcock alternates between wide and hide angles to show the massive amounts of birds attacking and, in turn, the great odds against his characters to close ups showing the birds attacking from the different angles and the horrified looks on the faces of the victims.
In the attack on the Brenner home, Hitchcock uses a totally different mode of, pardon the pun, attack. In this scene, the Birds are not seen en masse, only heard. The attack is shown through the sounds of the birds, through holes being punched through doors and windows and through the looks of terror on the faces of Daniels and the Brenner family. I found this scene to be the most interesting and scary of the attacks because the attackers could not be seen. It’s easier to suspend reality and believe that these birds are attacking this family because they are not scene and I think Hitchcock broke the monotony of the attack scenes and surprised the filmgoers by changing his modus operandi for this scene and I think it worked to spectacular effect. The only bird seen in this scene is the bird that attacks Mitch when he breaks in through the window. All the others are scene only by the effects they cause. Much like the wind, they are invisible, but their effects are not and this is only one more example of Hitchcock’s brilliance.
The question I’m having the most trouble answering is the question of why the birds attack in the first place. It’s clear from the dialogue in the film that the attacks did not begin until Melanie Daniels makes her appearance in Bodega Bay which leads me to conclude that she is the conduit.
So, what do we know about her?
We know she is a wealthy socialite; the daughter of a newspaper mogul, we know she doesn’t do much in the way of work, we know that she likes to hang out in bird shops (and has no problem keeping them caged up) and, she wears green throughout the movie. I don’t believe that the green is an accident. Hitchcock filmed her in that color on purpose. Green makes me think of money and greed so perhaps she’s filmed in green because she is greedy and perhaps this greed plays a role in the attacks in the film.
The first attack occurs after Daniels has dropped off the lovebirds at the Brenner house when she is boating back to the dock and staring at Mitch Brenner. It’s a single bird attacking, but it strikes enough to draw blood, which Hitchcock shows in close-up. The next attack occurs at the birthday party, then through the fireplace at the Brenner house a few minutes later. Later, the biggest attack is the attack at the school when the children go outside which is followed by the unseen attack at the Brenner house before the final attack, again of Daniels alone, in the attic of the Brenner home.
The best outside source I can find for the bird attacks is from a site called Commonsense Media, which focuses on rating films for families. According to this site the Birds attack to remind humans to respect animals. I can certainly see this as a possibility, since the movie opens in a bird shop where allt he birds are caged up. Again, visiting Wiki Answers, the answerer of the question as to why the birds attack says that the bird attacks really don’t mean much and that the point of the story is the different relationships of the people involved in the story. This is the explanation I like best and the one I will go with!
Check out Some of my other Film Reviews/Analysis
- The Dude Abides
An anlaysis of the Big Lewbowski, the cult film from the Cohen Brothers, using the Hero theories of Joseph Campbell. Includes a brief description of Campbell and his work and some trailers of the film and a video interview of Campbell.
- The Full Monty Goes All the Way
A Review of the Full Monty.
- Gothika: a Confused Reviewer Responds
a review of the 2003 film Gothika starring Halle Berry
The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Universal, 1963. FILM
Slaton, Joyce. “The Birds.” Commonsense Media.org. Common Sense Media Inc. No date Given. Web. October 9th, 2011
“Why did the Birds Attack in the Movie Birds?” Wikianswers.com. Answers Corporation. NO date given. Web. October 9th, 2011
all rights reserved. Copyright Justin W Price, October 2011