(dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963, USA)
Based on a short story of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is a chilling, challenging tour de force of suspense, combining a restrained narrative with primitive, unexpected fears. One could be forgiven for initially believing Hitchcock’s film to be a screwball romantic comedy (which he is no stranger to after making Mr and Mrs Smith in 1942), concerning two attractive leading characters courting one another following the standard ‘meet-cute’ during the opening sequence. Yet perhaps this was the director’s intention, to meddle with the audiences’ preliminary expectations of the genre he is depicting and to lull them into a false sense of security, building up what he is expert at – tension.
This officious technique is a favourite of Hitchcock’s, and can easily be seen in his other works, most namely in the earlier film Psycho (1960) which starts as a crime drama yet progresses to be anything but, combining a mystery plot with aspects of horror. Further similarities arise between the two; the melding of several contrasting genres, the descent of the strong leading female character, the dominant nature of the mother and most predominantly the usage of sound (the silent reveals compared to that strikingly memorable shower scene). Furthermore, The Birds’ standout ‘jungle gym’ scene shares particular resemblance with Marnie (1964) in the way it uses folk songs and jingles respectively to contrast with the arresting visuals onscreen. It is no accident that there is a lack of a traditional incidental score or soundtrack, Hitchcock instead uses sparse, frenetic sound effects to evoke a frantic feeling of chaos, best seen in the beginning moments as birds flock manically across the screen, setting the tone for the events that follow.
Whereas modern horror fare is overcrowded with cheap and clichéd bangs, crashes and knife-wielding psychopaths, Hitchcock sustains an archaic tranquillity throughout his film, contrasting with the underlying feeling of doom which, albeit leisurely, results in a dénouement which is as pleasing as it is startling. The use of birds is also an interesting choice in threat, using them as a potential allegory for the dangers of society taking advantage of the seemingly mundane entities of everyday life (‘A film about the dangers of complacency’ says Hitchcock), which bodes well with the unexpected nature of the peril the characters face. He also thankfully steers clear of any B-movie extravagance when it comes to their portrayal; they are simple, impersonal yet calculating animals who prey on the audiences psychological fears.
Tippi Hedren plays Melanie Daniels with chilled dexterity, a blonde, self-confessed socialite who exudes confidence and charisma so much that she could be mistaken for a typical femme fatale, just without the treacherous desires and selective lighting. With her perfectly positioned hair and straightforward manner, Daniels is a particularly competent character who bounces off Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner nicely, displaying a charming chemistry from the outset. However, her capability and proficiency is no match for the looming threat which she perhaps is an unbeknownst catalyst for, and which eventually degrades her to a quivering wreck come the films tense final moments.
While this film won’t please die-hard horror fans, its brilliance lies in Hitchcock’s effectively minimalist approach to the genre, disregarding usual fast-paced storytelling and replacing it with a narrative which drip-feeds its audience, as the bird attacks are initially few and far between. This works in The Birds favour as it lures the audience in, under somewhat false pretences, and proceeds to confront them with irrational and primal fears, building to an indefinitely ominous finale which may or may not settle the audiences’ anxieties.
The Birds, 1963. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, USA: Universal Pictures.
Mr, and Mrs. Smith, 1941. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, USA: RKO Radio Pictures.
Psycho, 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, USA: Shamley Productions.
Marnie, 1964. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, USA: Universal Pictures.