Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Review: The Birds

Figure 1: Theatrical Poster (Angela, 2012)
  • Native Title: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Technicolour
  • Year of Release: 1963
  • Budget: est. $2,500,000
  • Film Length: 119 minutes
  • Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
    Another of Hitchcock's signature films The Birds is a horror-thriller that plays on connotation, symbolism and is one of the most recognisable films for it's use of the MacGuffin - In this film an attack on Bodega Bay, California by birds of all kinds.

    The film starts off in downtown San Francisco where Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) encounters Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a pet shop. The two of them banter before Mitch drops the illusion where he thought Melanie was the store clerk but this is our first MacGuffin is introduced: The lovebirds. Although they are not in shot until the next day  they act as the catalyst that takes Melanie to the small fishing village of Bodega Bay 60 miles outside San Francisco.

    Melanie is introduced as a headstrong and rebellious character with a huge streak for deception: When fist in the pet shop she plays the game that she works there until Mitch calls her out and after he leaves the shop she notes down his license plate, calls a contact at her father's newspaper to find out who on the state DMV registrar owns the plate then pretends to half-remember Mitch's apartment number at the apartment block's reception desk. At every point from the apartment to Bodega Bay's post office, fishing wharf and even when speaking with, Annie Hayworth (The teacher of Mitch's younger sister Cathy) she pretends to be someone she isn't while still gaining information and, apparently, not rousing suspicion from the townsfolk.

Figure 2: Is this woman hysterically shouting at Melanie? Hitchcock?...or the audience?
(MovieClips, 2011)
    Not long after the lovebirds are delivered (by way of sneaking into Mitch's house while he's tending the nearby barn, no less), the second MacGuffin comes into play in the form of a seagull that swoops down and scratches Melanie in the temple. "Why are the birds attacking?" is the question on many peoples' minds, but the film gives no factual explanation. In one scene midway a woman  hysterically accuses Melanie (the camera positioned so she looks directly at the audience) of being the cause. "The Accusation points not simply to a supernatural cause, but an authorial one, as well. If there is no scientifically plausible reason for the attack of the birds, we are nonetheless constantly reminded that there is at least a reason for Hitchcock's staging of the attack" (Goldsmith, 2012). What's more, by looking directly at the viewer her words are in some respect directed towards the audience, perhaps the woman is not only shouting at Melanie, but perhaps Hitchcock himself for making the town suffer like this (this was right after a severe attack by the birds which led to a large fire in the town centre) and maybe, at a stretch, also condemning the audience for being willing to sit though this disaster for the sake of entertainment and to enjoy another classic choreographed by their tormentor to the detriment of the well-being of these fictional characters.

    Another thing that happens several times is the camera acts either as Mealie's eyes, or as an indicator of a danger she may be oblivious to and there are several key scenes that use this to promote shock value. During her return from the inflitration of Mich' house, we see him get into his car and drive around the lake. But "we see only only what she can see from the rowboat. Suddenly, near shore, the camera picks up a sea gull swooping down on our heroine. For just a second, the point of view is shifted, and we are permitted to see the bird before its victim does" (Sarris, 1963). The latter idea is then used again in a later and more iconic scene where crows cover the school playground. Melanie doesn't see any of them, too busy waiting and occupying herself, So the crows gather gradually in the playground and then, the audience itself gets treated the same way as after a number of crows gather the camera joins Melanie in following one flying for a while before it finally lands...on a climbing frame packed with crows. This time the shock value comes from simply how many birds have gathered. The audience saw the numbers building and building to practically ludicrous levels, as well as building the dread that these things are amassing for an inevitable attack.
Figure 3: Surely when filming this Hitchcock descended into rabidly
"More birds! More birds!" (MrDisgusting, 2013)
    The film's ending is famous for being so...open. The screen fades to black as the car drives away from the farmhouse which had been swarmed by birds. The entire landscape screams of a zombie apocalypse (impressive seeing as this film predates Night of the Living Dead, arguably the world's first zombie horror). But there is a jarring lack of closure: They drive away from the farmhouse but we see nothing else beyond that. The controversiality was expressed by Cagey Films' Kenneth Godwyn who recalled that back in 1963 of his classmates complained that the theatrical showing had the ending cut off. Reciting that the boy had "Seen it before and that the army had come in, using the children for bait, and killed all the birds with flamethrowers" (Godwyn, 2012). This is a rather chilling and outlandish ending suggestion and something more in-line with the imagination of a teenager than Hitchcock himself which cements the outlandishness but nevertheless demonstrates that there were those who thought the true ending wasn't enough and that it had effectively finished on a cliffhanger.
Figure 4: Car drives away, birds stare on. The end. (Godwyn, 2012)
   The abrupt ending isn't the most extreme cliffhanger in cinema. The Italian Job finished with a coach full of gold hanging halfway off a mountain cliff and Michael Caine telling his partners in crime "Alright chaps. I've got an idea". What was his solution? We never see or hear. At least in The Birds there's a glimmer that the birds may have left the car alone afterwards.

Image References


  1. ...also condemning the audience for being willing to sit though this disaster for the sake of entertainment and to enjoy another classic choreographed by their tormentor to the detriment of the well-being of these fictional characters... love it, Mark!

    1. It was quite a surprise when I thought about it myself. I thought it was a stretch due to the nature of talking though the fourth wall but the metaphorical anvil is fortunately hidden a bit by previous shots making it clear that at the very least, she's shouting at Melanie.

  2. Another great review Mark... but as mentioned before, do go back over your writing before you post it to iron out any little spelling errors. You have called poor Melanie 'Mealie' at one point :)