Keywords: the birds analysis, the birds suspense
‘The Birds’ was one of the most successful suspense films of its time and possibly all time. It is a superbly directed film by ‘the master of suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. ‘The Birds’ was based on a novella by Daphne Du Maurier of the same name. I think this is an astounding, unbelievably, remarkable film because it does everything a suspense film should have, and more. In this article I am going to explore the suspense used in the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I will examine how through lighting, colour and camera angles this was one of Hitchcock’s most renowned motion picture.
Hitchcock was very impressive in his dramatic techniques because the tension is built in various scenes which also makes this film accomplish the horror genre in addition to suspense. Initially the audience believe the film is a comedy because it is incredibly ordinary in addition to the use of bright lights and warm colours. Hitchcock makes us as the viewer get an understanding of the characters back story before unleashing the terror in the rest of the film. The movie was very modern for its era, as a result of the use of new technology to the 60’s hence the scenes are realistic which adds to its unrevealing storyline. The use of Technicolor added to the horror during the film because it was very new. Through pathetic fallacy the atmosphere is set in most scenes, for example when Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner are in the bird shop it is very bright and colourful which is reflected in the characters behavior in the scene. Also towards the end the lighting and colour create a dark and eerie atmosphere.
The killers in ‘The Birds’ and ‘Psycho’ were believable however the characters remained odd and innocent characters. The introduction of the film with the character is familiar shows her sense of security however when she moves to a rural area we see a vulnerable character with unfamiliar surroundings. Hitchcock may have chosen a small town because it is seen to be more dangerous but in this setting it is more dangerous as it is isolated.
The film features a mass use of the colour green for example in the scenery whilst Melanie is driving the boat the landscape is green and blue to Hitchcock’s liking and also Melanie wears the same green coat throughout the film. This makes the colour green significant to Hitchcock’s films. Green is not usually associated with terror and fear but Hitchcock used this to make the audience feel uncertainty in the film. When Melanie is taking the birdcage to Mitch she is viewed from the waist down showing her in a green dress. This is a reference to birds being women because Melanie is blonde haired and is wearing green, the love birds are yellow headed with green bodies. This suggestion is also made in the beginning when Melanie is walking down a busy street and hears a wolf whistle towards her. This sound is similar to a birds sound. Hitchcock also used the colour green in ‘Vertigo’ the Female lead wears green. Hitchcock also uses sharp objects in many ways for example the beaks in ‘The Birds’ and the weapon in ‘Psycho’.
Most of the film is set during the day which makes the viewer unsuspecting of the birds. Hitchcock does this to show the calm and peaceful atmosphere which is maintained throughout the film until the ending. Vibrant colours take over the screen predominantly, during the relaxed scenes whereas before and for the duration of the bird attacks dim, shady colours are used. For instance in the Tides Restaurant when the birds attack the atmosphere is dark which is reflected on the clothes worn, the weather and the colour of the birds (see image 1). The colour plays a key part in why ‘The Birds’ is a successful suspense film. Through its use of high key lighting contrasted with low key lighting which creates a mysterious impression to the audience.
An example of lighting is offered proficiently in the dead famer scene. In this scene we see the lighting symbolising the mood in the scene. It begins with Lydia walking down with very bright sunlight, as she walks towards the door the lighting begins to dim down. Entering the house we see a window with natural light but no false light in the house. This absence of light begins to suggest something bad has happened. The director has used this superbly in many of his films to create unease with the observer. Hitchcock was superior when it came to using mise-en-scene to alter the appearance of things. The room where the famer is found is bright but as the camera begins to reveal his body the lighting is darker. The shadows cover the body only exposing his face with his pitch-black eye sockets. As Lydia runs out the weather has changed to a dark stormy sky. The audience feels that this symbolises the man has died and the birds will attack again. Hitchcock creates a parallel to the book because the main character finds his neighbours killed because of the birds. The director does this because he is trying to use visual techniques such as camera angles and lighting to create a horror film atmosphere which also creates a more effective suspense film. This scene is effective because of the drama portrayed by Lydia it is also good because we begin to see different aspects to Lydia’s character.
During the scene where the old woman talks about the scientific facts concerning the birds we see bright colours and vivid lighting but as the birds begin to attack it seems to get darker. When the man is set alight the fire signifies death and evil, as well as a warning that more birds are coming to attack. This is another scene where lighting causes suspense. The use of Chiaroscuro is very effective in scaring the audience. Also the use of long dialogue to create suspense is extremely effective because the audience is eager to find out the cause of the attacks and when they will attack again but this ‘explanation’ creates the anticipating effect on the audience.
The MacGuffin changes throughout the film. At the beginning the audience feels the film is a cheerful film about love but when the storyline develops the viewer thinks: Why are the birds attacking? When are they going to attack next? These questions cannot be answered because they were even analysed by the characters in the Tides Restaurant scene after the birds attacked the school but there was no rational reason.
Hitchcock used the MacGuffin in many of his films for example in ‘Psycho’ the characters wonder Where Is Marion Crane with the money? MacGuffin is one of Hitchcock’s strong points because he uses it to make the audience have a different attitude to every scene wondering what is going to happen and why is it happening. This works well because the audience does feel the urge to find out what will happen and a number of other questions.
The performance portrayed by the actors in this film is very effective as the actors and actresses are very realistic and can relate to the audience through this. Also the use of something as ordinary and everyday as birds instead of monsters and aliens used in modern films makes the film relate to the audiences life. This is a film that can affect a wide range of audiences because it would have frightened people in the 60’s because of the fear of bombs attacking. Nowadays it could be a relation to global warming attacking us.
Due to the death of the farmer Lydia was in more need of Mitch’s protection but felt she had to compete with Melanie because both were women in Mitch’s life and they felt helpless. The very moving portrayal of a needy mother by Jessica Tandy is amazing and still makes an impact to people today because this emphasises Oedipus’ complex. Mitch is the central character and the women seem to revolve around him which could be another cause for the bird attacks. The protagonist in the novella by Du Maurier is a farmer and Mitch lives in a barn. This is one of many similarities between the film and the book.
Hitchcock developed the characters relationships in different ways to create an unsuspecting atmosphere. Melanie is the centre of this as she is a problem to Lydia Brenner and Annie Hayworth (the school teacher) as they are both women who are dependent of Mitch’s love. Kathy Brenner (Mitch’s sister) likes Melanie because of the love birds she received from her for her birthday and is not one of the main focuses of the film. The handing of the love bird’s guides to a very misleading storyline making us think it is about the love birds only because Hitchcock spent a lot of time building the characters feelings and behaviours to create an intense atmosphere for the audience thus creating suspense.
In the opening credits the title “The Birds” was slowly pecked away by the passing crows. This use of bright light and medium shots for an introduction creates a mysterious tone for the audience. For modern audiences this could be seen as a very emotive film but long however this makes the audience even more eager to watch the film because it does not give away much information in many scenes.
The power of the movie is through the use of camera angles due to the absence of a music soundtrack. Hitchcock uses a variety of methods which are incredibly effective to produce the vast suspense in the film. In many scenes tension is built to create fear and uncertainty in when the birds attack. The film is not extremely graphical in the scenes where the birds attack yet the terror is shown through his use of camera angles. For example Melanie’s phone booth scene, the camera moves around in the point of view of the birds then switches to Melanie’s view however when she is getting more and more vulnerable low angle shots are used to make her look defenceless (see image 2). As Melanie enters the phone booth a medium long shot is used. Birds-eye view is used to show her alone with the birds attacking the booth. Extreme close ups show her emotion as scared. The attack from the birds is shown with fast paced point of view shots from Melanie and the birds.
Extreme close ups are used to show the characters emotions during bird attacks. At the start of the film this is used showing the characters behaviour. Predominantly when we see Melanie she looks like an upper class woman with no worries in the world through extreme close ups. She is very sophisticated which makes her weak and in danger of attack. Hitchcock uses a female protagonists in many of his films such as ‘Psycho’, Marion is alone and vulnerable and ‘Vertigo’, the female is calm and alone. Through camera angles we can see the similarities in the characters feelings.
Point of view shots are used a great number of times during the film to give you an idea about what they can see and how they see things. For instance when Lydia sees the farmer we walk with her because a point of view shot is used. The body of the farmer zooms in three times to show his eyes. This triple close up shot works well with point of view shot to create a tense atmosphere. Lydia is a frightened old woman who walks in a certain way through Camera angles we find out about her need to be a woman in authority.
In the playground scene of ‘The Birds’ the camera shots are used to develop the still surrounding before the assembly of the birds. The long shot of Melanie Daniels walking to the bench illustrates she is alone and the empty climbing frame in the playground. She is unaware of what is going on and has her back to the birds in the climbing frame (see image 3). By doing this suggests she is exposed and vulnerable and open to attack as she is unaware of the further gathering of the birds but the audience can see this through the medium long shot. She is lower down under the birds showing she is in danger of attack by the birds. Hitchcock is trying to explore the audience’s reaction to this calm place being the home of the ‘villains’ of the film because the playground seems like a place of purity so the audience believes it is a cheerful place. Usually in suspense films something begins calm but changes unsuspectingly. Hitchcock used suspense to its extent because the wait in many of his scenes for the birds to come are long. This change is when the first bird lands on the climbing frame creates a sinister atmosphere. The camera cuts from mid shots of Melanie smoking and the birds building up number on the climbing frame. Mise-en-scene is used because Hitchcock makes the landscape reflect onto Melanie’s loneliness. The school playground and the hills in the background make the atmosphere normal and make her appear defenceless and alone. Hitchcock is trying to explore how colours and bright scenery creates a cold scary atmosphere without the use of non-diagetic sounds or speech of Melanie. The argument that the bird attacks are drawn by Mitch could be proved wrong as it has three female characters: Kathy, Melanie, Annie. The sounds are very loud and show tension such as in ‘psycho’ the only sound in the shower scene is the water touching the basin. Melanie is a very vulnerable character because she is an outsider to the community and Hitchcock emphasises this in many scenes. Annie seems to be dominant and have power over Melanie because she is accepted by the community. Also Annie feels threatened by Melanie because we see her ordering Melanie to sit outside instead of staying with her in the classroom.
Tilted angle shots are used in the end scene when we hear the birds approaching. The characters look up towards the ceiling where the bird sounds are coming from. The squawks could be a diegetic or non diegetic sound because they set the mood and as the volume increases the characters are more frightened and the mood is intense. Afterwards a low angle shot is used to show the defencelessness of the characters.
Wide shots (Extreme long shots) are used to show the landscape and the characters surroundings and usually it is not visibly detailed. This is incredibly thrilling and terrifying and is shown in many scenes to show the birds plotting and attacking.
A bird’s eye view camera angle is a very strange and unnatural shot but is used frequently in the film, not only in the phone booth scene (see image 4). Hitchcock could have used this as a literal bird’s-eye view however the shot puts the audience in a god like position because we see it from above. This could be a direct link to the judgement day explanation of the film as this shot is used when the birds begin attacking at the gas station.
The first attack is referenced in the Tides Restaurant scene when the woman accuses Melanie of the bird attacks because she is the first person to be attacked in the boat. Long shots are used to show the landscape. The warm, calm atmosphere in the scene is shown by the landscape and Melanie’s clothing. The long shot doubles as a point of view shot for Mitch. We see what Mitch sees as she is attacked by a seagull. The bird attack could be interpreted as Melanie’s need be noticed by Mitch because Melanie would have gone home straight afterwards if it wasn’t for the bird attacking her. Hitchcock uses a range of dramatic techniques to introduce the characters and their relation with each other. He does this to create a sense of unease and make the film have a deeper meaning than just bird attacks. This film could be about a number of other things because this scene shows the emotions between the two characters which seems to cause the first bird attack. If Hitchcock really wanted to make the film only about birds he would have based it more around the book because the novella has a conclusion and an explanation. Also it focuses more on the bird attacks and the science than the relationship between the characters.
The mother and son relationship is shown in many of Hitchcock’s film for example the dominant mother in ‘Psycho’. Throughout the film Mitch refers to his mother as “darling” and kisses her frequently. This is a suggestion of Oedipus’ Complex. Mitch is in love with his mother and the absence of his father makes the mother needy. In addition to that Lydia and Melanie look extremely alike which tells us that Mitch wants his wife to be his jus like his mother.
One of the most successful scenes in the film is Kathy’s birthday scene. It has a sense of being a very unsuspecting scene because it uses very vivid colours and has an absence of birds altogether in the landscape. This use of bright lights and bright colours make the scene seem innocent which makes the audience anticipating a bird attack or wondering why they aren’t attacking. This gives an idea of innocence because we see Mitch and Melanie’s relationship develop before the bird attack and we see their characters revealed which also adds to a build up to the climax of the birds attacking. We see Lydia is helpless by the uses of camera angles such as point-of-view shots and extreme close ups. She is scared when the birds begin to attack and is needy of Mitch’s attention but he is focused on the other two women in his life Melanie and Annie. When the birds pop the balloons we hear sounds like bombs which could be a link to the Daphne Du Maurier novella because her book was based in England to show the fear of bomb attacks in post war Britain. Hitchcock was trying to explore what humans are afraid of which is nature attacking the human race. Hitchcock played on the idea of being afraid of the sky and used birds instead of bombs. This scene shows how the director makes a calm peaceful scene make us think about the world and nature. Modern movies have followed this example by the master of suspense such as ‘2012’ which shows nature attacking humans and ending the world.
Towards the end when the birds attack the house the feeling of being paranoid is conveyed through the actor which implies the feeling of things coming out of the sky. This is a reference to the cold war. This also makes us as humans feel that anything can happen to us and nature can make us vulnerable. The book comes to a conclusion that the birds are influenced by the tide levels. In the beginning the humans are in control of the birds as they are caged. The tables turn when the humans are locked in their homes with the birds intimidating them.
‘The Birds’ is arguably a film about the tension between families because the birds attack when different things happen to each character. The bird attacks when Melanie starts to get feelings for Mitch and when there is tension between Lydia and Melanie. Lydia is the overprotective mother and Melanie is a woman without a mother. Melanie is wealthy and has everything she wants apart from a mother. At the end we see Melanie powerless she can barely look up to Lydia but still does in a way saying that she has found her mother figure and is need of help.
Also another interpretation of the bird attacks is that because the birds will never stop until humans change. The birds almost fight back after the humans treat them with cruelty trapped in zoos and cages. The phone booth scene also emphasises that because Melanie is surrounding by birds mocking her in a phone booth which looks like a bird helpless in a cage. This tells us there could be a biblical message to the film, Judgement day as discussed in the Tides restaurant. In ‘Psycho’, there is a psychologist who concludes the film by explaining why Norman Bates chose those actions, similarly ‘The Birds’ an ornithologist explains the facts about birds and possible answers to their behaviour in the Tides Restaurant. The birds could be a warning from something greater than humans due to the fact that birds are traditionally a symbol of peace but in the film they connote death and evil. Hitchcock reinforces the idea that humans are in constant fear that nature will turn against them. Humans are usually the predators of birds but in the book they are shown as eating the humans because of the weather. However in the book they kill the humans but no mention of eating. The humans are left helpless to die. Hitchcock could have also based this on the bird attacks in San Francisco because the birds attacked without an explanation. Also ‘Psycho’, Norman’s hobby is stuffing dead birds which could be a reference to the cruelty of humans to birds.
In the beginning the lack of any non-diegetic sounds in the film makes us believe there is no music score. However Hitchcock uses the sounds of the school children and birds during the film. The squawking of the birds is very intense. When it is calm the sounds are quiet and high pitched. Before and during attacks the bird sounds range in pitch and volume terrifying the viewer. Hitchcock refers to Bernard Herrmann, a composer as a music consultant. Herrmann has worked with Hitchcock on many films such as ‘Vertigo’. Hitchcock seemed to not use non-diegetic sounds to create a nervous atmosphere which is preserved throughout the film but the bird noises seems to be internal but is a non-diagetic sound with different pitched squawks. When we are introduced to Mitch’s family home Melanie on the piano is another sound which creates and atmosphere. Whist Kathy is pleading for Melanie to stay. The piano sets the mood and slows down in pace as Kathy is turned down.
In the Playground Scene the children’s nursery rhyme is the only sound which gives the same effect as a non-diegetic sound. This sound is well used to create tension in the atmosphere. The children sing repeatedly to make the scene feel innocent and to show Melanie is still naive to the birds gathering behind her. Although the sound is internal it still builds up tension and fear in the film.
To conclude the film was incredibly triumphant in creating suspense for the audience. The whole film has a mixture of horror and suspense. This made me feel Hitchcock deserved to be called the master of suspense. Although others may feel this is not one of Hitchcock’s best films because of bad visual effects I think it is worthy of being in the top five of Hitchcock’s films. Through camera angles, colour and lighting and the drama portrayed by the actors and actresses the birds continues to be a success due to it being able to frighten audiences from different time periods. The absence of a musical soundtrack is very efficient in creating suspense. The film also produces an amazingly compelling storyline and for those reasons Hitchcock will never be forgotten for his amazing works.