Alfred Hitchcock has directed some of the most memorable suspense classics in film history. From Rear Window to North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s filmography is unprecedented in its scope and quality. In addition to his innovative visual style, Hitchcock pushed the boundaries of subject matter. With its underlying psycho-sexual drama, Psycho was ahead of its time, a precursor of things to come in the horror genre.
Following the release of Psycho, Hitchcock innovated again with The Birds. It says a lot about a film if it can be considered among Hitchcock’s best work. After 55 years, The Birds remains a masterpiece in the horror-thriller genre.
Horror in the Ordinary
Based loosely on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same title, Hitchcock continued to break new ground with The Birds. Of course, younger viewers may miss some of Hitchcock’s genius. Today, theaters regularly screen apocalpytic-themed films. In addition, serial killers and ‘nature gone wild’ have been common horror themes for decades now. Yet when Hitchcock made The Birds he was breaking new ground.
Universal Studios dominated horror films of the 1930s and 1940s with their gothic monsters. Subsequent to the ‘Universal’ years, the ‘giant mutant’ monsters of science fiction were the norm. With Psycho, and then The Birds, Hitchcock found horror in the ordinary. There was nothing supernatural or ‘out-of-this world’ in The Birds. Hitchcock used plain surroundings to disrupt and unsettle audiences. Indeed, The Birds’ early moments feature several benign shots of birds to lull the audience into a sense of complacency before the horror.
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“Hitchcock peeled back on the grandeur of ‘big filmmaking’ to create a quiet atmosphere that leaves the audience waiting.”
Sparse Filmmaking at its Best
Hitchcock was also a master at working music into his films. Composer Bernard Herrmann composed the memorable score for Psycho and several other Hitchcock films. The Man Who Knew Too Much boasts both The Royal Albert Hall concert scene and Doris Day’s rendition of ‘Que Sera, Sera’ at the film’s climax. In contrast to his other work, The Birds is characterized by a lack of musical score. For this outing, Hitchcock peeled back on the grandeur of ‘big filmmaking’ to create a quiet atmosphere that leaves the audience waiting.
Indeed, The Birds is about patience for its first third. Hitchcock defines the ‘slow burn’ relying on the banter between his characters and the occasional ominous shot of birds in the background. One effect of this methodical pacing is to instil a feeling of familiarity in the audience. For its first half, The Birds does not feel like a thriller or a horror film. In fact, it could pass for a Cary Grant romantic comedy.
Horror by Degrees
Of course, The Birds was an Alfred Hitchcock film, so audiences had to know that something was waiting just around the corner. In this case, Hitchcock elects to introduce the horror by degrees. Seagulls swoop on children playing outside at a birthday party. In another scene, sparrows flood a living room after flying through a chimney. The next morning a neighbouring farmer is found with his eyes pecked out. From this point onwards, Hitchcock ramps up the action and tension more rapidly.
With the schoolyard attack, Hitchcock shows remarkable restraint. Against the eerie backdrop of school children singing a folk song, he scatters shot after shot of birds beginning to mass outside the school house. The scene suddenly bursts into a frenzy of action as the school children are attacked by a murder of crows. For some viewers, the special effects may feel dated for but it’s arguably still a supremely effective build-up of tension. Following this scene, The Birds becomes a rollercoaster ride to its climax.
Sometimes not knowing is scarier than knowing. Hitchcock does not bother with offering an explanation and The Birds is a better film for it.
An Ominous and Open-Ended Ending
In the 1960s, audiences were used to happy endings. Even in Psycho, Hitchcock provided the audience with some closure. Planet of the Apes was still five years out. Yet with The Birds, HItchcock didn’t just deny audiences a happy ending. To some extent, he denied audiences an ending all together.
In The Birds, Hitchcock sets a good example for contemporary filmmakers. There is no expository dialogue to fill in the blanks. Instead, he opts to offer no explanation. The final scene of Rod Taylor leading Tippi Hedren and his family to their car with hundreds of birds surrounding them, no musical score, is still haunting after 55 years. It is this simplicity that still has the power to provoke an emotional response decades after its release.
John Carpenter understood it when he made Halloween. Wes Craven got it when he made A Nightmare on Elm Street. Sometimes not knowing is scarier than knowing. Hitchcock does not bother with offering an explanation and The Birds is a better film for it.
A Classic Worth Passing On
Few films can retain their power to entertain or their relevance after a half a century. To his credit, Alfred Hitchcock directed several films that meet this criteria and The Birds can be counted among them. Before writing this article, I sat down with my sons and re-watched The Birds with them. While they found the pacing to be slow at the start, they were visibly impressed. At the end of the film, they asked if this ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ made other movies. That is the hallmark of a classic film – one that can entertain generation after generation.