Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Birds (1963)

The Birds (1963) is a horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on the 1952 short story /novella The Birds by Daphne du Maurier.  The story revolves around Bodega Bay in California, a small coastal town that is suddenly and inexplicably subjected to a number of large scale bird attacks.
The film begins with an oddly light tone, it is similar to Psycho (1960) in that respect, except it is perhaps more noticeable in this movie.  It is described by screen writer Evan Hunter as almost like an “old fashion screwball comedy” [Evan Hunter, 2000]. The movie, at the beginning follows Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and her funny interaction with Mitch Brenner (Rod Talor), which leads her to pursue him to Bodega Bay. This gives the audience a false sense of security as it is in sharp contrast with the horrific events later in the film. However the movie changes tone gradually after the first bird attack on Melanie.  The attacks get increasingly worse as the movie progresses in chaos towards the end.

Fig 1, The Screwball Comedy
Perhaps the most outstanding scene that shows Hitchcock’s inventiveness in terms of building suspense with editing is the famous school playground scene. The scene builds tension very slowly and subtly, this statement could be extended to describe the entire movie.  This scene works because it lets the audience in on more than the character in the movie (this is a common trait in Hitchcock’s movies). Jessica Tandy talks about the scene in detail  it begins as “she sits down on the bench and you see the one bird land on the jungle gym, then it cuts back to Maloney sitting on the bench” [Jessica Tandy, 2000].Only the audience is aware the bird has landed and introduces the threat “We cut back to the jungle gym, and then you see a few more birds” [Jessica Tandy, 2000] now the audience is aware that more birds are coming into the playground and they are also aware that the camera is getting closer to her (so they cannot see the jungle gym but are aware that more birds must be arriving). “Then when we finally get to a big head close up, it holds on it until the audience can’t stand in anymore” [Jessica Tandy, 2000’. and then it cuts back again and it’s covered with birds releasing the built up suspense in a shocked reaction.

Fig 2, Playground Scene

The reasons for the bird attacks in the movie are never explained this makes the events far more sinister. It makes the birds actions far more unpredictable and believable. When there is an elaborate scientific explanation of the events in movies like this it somewhat cheapens it, and makes the premise seem a little ridiculous. An example of this is, otherwise excellent, zombie reimagining 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), an explanation is given involving rage infected monkeys that could have been cut from the beginning of the movie entirely. It would have been much more effective if the reason for the infection was never explained. Screen writer Evan Hunter has said early in the production “Hitch would say, do you think we should explain it? And we decided that it would be science fiction if we explained why the birds are attacking. It would have a greater meaning if we never knew, if it were this kind of unsettling thing that these creatures we see in the park every minute can suddenly come at our heads with no reason” [Evan Hunter, 2000].

The Birds, like Psycho, is a film that feels very contemporary. In the case of both films this is largely due to their sharp editing. As with Psycho, The Birds still has the power to frighten people and put them on the edge of their seats.  

About the Birds, 2000, DVD, Universal Studios
Image List
Fig 2, Playground Scene, The Birds, 1963, Movie Still, Available at:

Fig 1, The Screwball Comedy, The Birds, 1963, Movie Still, Available at:

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