Alfred Hitchcock is a director so well known and beloved by both cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike that most writers on the art of cinema would prefer to talk about someone else should the opportunity arise. After all, hasn't Hitch been analyzed, critiqued, elevated and deconstructed ad nauseum at this point? Probably, but that's not going to stop me from doing it again. Why? Because sometimes a director is so well known and beloved that we take for granted just how skillful said director is behind the camera. For this extended edition of this October's "Creepy Moments" series I'd like to look at how effectively Alfred Hitchcock achieved extraordinary suspense and tension in the much misunderstood The Birds, a film considered at the time a lackluster follow-up to Psycho (but wouldn't most films ever made suffer from the same perception) but upon further reflection is as brilliant in many ways as Hitchcock gets.
One of the most effective elements of The Birds is its lack of music. Impressive and memorable musical scores are as associated with Hitchcock's films as Italians with guns are with Martin Scorsese's and yet The Birds is silent. It's music is the call of the birds themselves. It's opening credit sequence alone, with fleeting blurred images of crows flying in and out of the frame, their cacophonous caws the only sound we hear, is a marvel of tension filled disquiet. The film is in bold technicolor but without music it appears distant and faded, the conversations feel overheard, and the characters sans musical cues for heroism and courage seem all too human and all too vulnerable.
While there is much to admire here the setup for the attack on the schoolchildren is one of Hitchcock's finest hours as a director. Most documentaries on Hitchcock make the mistake of showing this scene from where Tippi Hedren sits down on the bench. This is wrong because Hitchcock begins the tension at the top of the scene with Hedren's convertible seen driving towards the schoolhouse. The audience doesn't know it yet but this opening shot is a psychological plant on the part of the director. He is fixing the image of the schoolhouse on the hill in the viewer's mind as a serene image of safety and security. Nothing can go wrong here. Later when the children are fleeing we will see this same shot only with hundreds of birds rising up magnificently behind it. It's a visual strong enough on its own to signal extreme and imminent danger but combined with the memory of the peaceful schoolhouse planted in our minds just moments before it becomes something else entirely, something more unnatural and at odds with our perceptions of how the world should look and work.
By the time Hedren walks into the school to warn the teacher and students the scene is essentially over. The attack follows and works because Hitchcock built up a lingering menace in the playground first but it's superfluous to the tension already achieved. And again, when you watch it, take note of how quiet the scene is. The birds make little to no noise and the children's singing is muted from inside the schoolhouse. The song they're singing provides a kind of tempo to the scene as well as a haunting quality, as if ghostly voices were singing in the distance.
Next is the attack. The opening swarm from behind the schoolhouse echoes the earlier serene shot with the car approaching it. As I said, the thrust of this scene is done anyway with the setup but is mesmerizing to watch regardless and provides a terrific payoff to the initial setup.
Finally there is the film's ending. I've talked to many a person unimpressed with this ending. "It just kind of... ends, you know." I don't know how to respond to that. It doesn't "just end" it fades out into quite possibly the end of the world, the beginning of an assault on humanity by nature or just the end of human settlement in Bodega Bay. Whatever the true "end" may be I find this conclusion to the story one of Hitchcock's ballsiest moments as a director. Note just near the end how the crows caws go from natural sound to heightened unnatural sound just before the fade out. What does that say? Again, no music, no credits, not even the words "The End." Note that the camera precedes the three principals making their way outside. For the camera to do this there can be no door, otherwise Rod Taylor would have to reach "through" the camera to get to it and then the camera would block it from opening. In a brilliant solution by the cinematographer Robert Burks, Rod Taylor simply mimes opening the non-existent door while a lighting effect fills in the rest. It works beautifully.
If you haven't seen The Birds, and I can't imagine there are too many out there that haven't, it is readily available pretty much everywhere. Give it a look but be prepared to meet the movie halfway. The Birds is a movie that keeps its secrets closely guarded, under the wing.