‘The Birds’: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie

Have you ever thought about being afraid of the unknown? Or lived in the fear of the strange? As human beings, we question everything we see, hear, smell, taste and thus comprehend. What we do not understand, disturbs us even more. The more complex it becomes, the more seriously the disturbance grows and eventually turns into a morbid fear which could be fatal. Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, based on a novella written by Daphne Du Maurier, tells a similar story where an unexplained phenomenon shakes the town to its core. Over the years, it has been the subject of countless debates. Multiple allegories of human psyche and nature’s backlash have always made the viewer curious about ‘The Birds’. And even after so many years, it still manages to baffle the most avid movie watcher. After all, why did the birds attack?

Made on a lavish budget, ‘The Birds’ was a huge commercial success and was probably the last of the success that Mr. Hitchcock had seen after the cult classic ‘Psycho’. It tells about a sudden attack of birds on a small town across Bodega Bay, near San Francisco. What eventually proved to be a masterful tactic is, that it never explains the reason behind the attacks, leaving the viewer either concoct his own explanation or simply remain perplexed with the occurrence. On a parallel thread, ‘The Birds’ also offers an insight about the relationship dynamics that women have with each other. The central male figure is flanked by three ladies who have been in his life as some affectionate forms and thus represent his past, present and future. Each lady is in a constant state of turmoil at the presence of other ladies. Mr. Hitchcock presents this palpable tension among the characters rather deliciously, for the viewer.

‘The Birds’ can be considered as Hitchcock’s monster movie where the ‘monster’ is a common bird lurking innocently at your backyard. It was practically unheard of to use birds as the instrument of fear. Many modern day directors have depicted the similar style of monster or creature attacks in their films. There is an eerie similarity between the bird slamming against the glass shot at the phone booth and the shark plunging towards the viewer shot in the ‘Jaws’ which perhaps, is a tip of the hat to Mr. Hitchcock’s ingenuity. The movie has some amazing shots of the birds invasion which was done by a mixture of trick photography, mechanical models and live birds. This was back in the day, when VFX was either unheard of or was perhaps in its nascent stage.

The horror creeps up on the viewer at certain scenes, particularly one shot where Lydia discovers a dead body with the camera lingering from the feet and suddenly panning at the face which has the eyes gouged out by the birds. Unlike his other movies, Mr. Hitchcock never used a background score for ‘The Birds’. The lack of a score was due to the intense bird sounds which reaches a crescendo during the attacks. There is a scene outside the school where Melanie is waiting and the only sound is the children singing in chorus. As the song progresses, the birds fly inside the school park one by one and soon there’s an entire flock waiting to pounce on the children. It is one of the best examples where a scene can be heightened without using a background score. He even pays a tribute to himself with an in-movie reference to ’Psycho’ with Lydia’s relationship with Mitch. The famous shower scene was mirrored with the close up of Melanie getting attacked by the birds. It was sheer brilliance on Mr. Hitchcock’s part to have thought of fear on such a psychological level.

No discussion on ‘The Birds’ can be concluded without breaching the lines on Mr. Hitchcock’s relationship with his leading ladies. Ms. Tippy Hedren who played Melanie, made her debut through ‘The Birds’ and so Mr. Hitchcock groomed her to hone her craft. She gave her career defining performance for another Hitchcock movie ‘Marnie’. It is said that Mr. Hitchcock fell in love with Ms Hedren which turned into obsession. And as it often occurs in such cases, the result was disastrous and much scandalous. All said and done, ‘The Birds’ was a momentous moment in the history of film making. The genius of Alfred Hitchcock shines brightly throughout this movie as the parting shot comes down with the central characters driving away from the town, among the huge cacophony of the birds screaming behind and stays with the viewer as a reminder of the fear in the way they just witnessed – unexplained.