A Brief Essay on The Birds

by Max Carlson

The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock's finest works. It's a diabolically wonderful contribution to the world of film. While it may not meet today's ridiculous horror standards, I consider The Birds utterly terrifying.

The plot is very simple, almost silly: Birds begin attacking the small town of Bodega Bay. Had this scenario fallen into the wrong hands, it could easily have become a "B" picture. But, thankfully, it didn't. This simple story fell into the lap of one of the great filmmakers who turned it into a great technical achievement. Unlike Hitch's other works, in this film nature, rather than human nature, is the villain. There are no disturbed pathological killers, just birds.

In one especially poignant scene, Melanie Daniels (played very appropriately shallow by Tippi Hedren) calmly waits outside the schoolhouse to meet the Bodega Bay schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth. As she sits and waits on the bench, she is oblivious of a flock of crows who begin to gather on the school's playground equipment located directly behind her. Their numbers gradually accumulate. All we can hear are the children inside the school singing a monotonous nursery tune. The chemistry is chilling. This scene alone is proof of Hitchcock's technical work, which lays the groundwork for an excellent suspense sequence.

Never have I seen a more apocalyptic thriller so well done. Oddly, there is no soundtrack, no music to help add to the suspense, just plain, ordinary, pregnant silence. The only melody that reaches our ears is the flapping of wings and other bird sounds. I think the film does much better without a musical score.

One of my favorite things about The Birds is the references to its predecessor, Psycho—the numerous references to birds that are either very subtle or blatantly obvious. I think all were planned by Hitch—none are coincidental. Stuffed birds are placed all about the parlor room of Norman Bates' motel. The camera work continually makes sure that the audience knows the room is infested with birds. An owl gets special attention. It sits in the corner of the room in an attacking position, almost as if it were about to come to life and do just that. Norman Bates' hobby is taxidermy. He says to the ill-fated, shower-taking Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), "I'd just rather stuff birds because I hate the look of beasts when they're stuffed. I think only birds look well stuffed because they're kind of passive to begin with." The seemingly passive Norman Bates is, as we all know, anything but; much like the passive, emotionless birds in Hitchcock's next film.

Added Bonus: Hitch's cameo, walking out of a pet shop with two poodles, is definitely the best of all his movies.

Max Carlson studies music and cinema at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

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