Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective: The Birds
By Simon Roberts.
In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock brought us a horror story like no other. The Birds went in a different direction to most other horror films in this era. There was no serial killer, or scary monster, or sinister alien. Instead, Alfred Hitchcock made one of life’s most average species into a monster. Yep, you’ve guessed it. Birds. The Birds closely follows in the footsteps of the film Psycho, with Psycho airing in 1960, and The Birds airing in 1963. Because of Psycho having such a prime spot in the horror genre, The Birds is frequently overlooked, which I think is unfair. Psycho is a brilliant film, but The Birds is equally brilliant, for different reasons. To this day, it remains one of the scariest horror films I’ve ever watched. And believe me, I’m not one to scare easily.
The film starts off in a bird shop in San Francisco (a not-so-subtle hint at what is to come). In this bird shop, young socialite Melanie Daniels and the charming Mitch Brenner meet for the first time. The romance between the two is the thing that really keeps the story going. This type of romantic storyline gives the story a multidimensional feel, which makes the story feel much more interesting. This ‘feel’ is something many modern TV series and films try to achieve, but regularly fail, showing how well Alfred Hitchcock managed to write his characters, in this story and many others.
After a trip to Bodega Bay, we start to realise the dangerous situation that the main characters are slowly being plunged into. Within 10 minutes of arriving in Bodega Bay, we are introduced to Mitch’s clingy mother, Lydia Brenner, and his younger sister, Cathy Brenner. With these characters introduced, the classic ‘happy family’ set up is put into play. This set up is common in a lot of horror films. It’s put into play to make us worry about each of the characters safety and health. This effect works incredibly well in The Birds, because the family is likeable. Another pure example of how well Alfred Hitchcock could write his characters.
Then things take a sinister turn for the worse. After starting off small, with an encounter with an angry seagull, and a strange night in local teacher, Annie Hayworth’s house, things start to escalate. A child’s birthday party is attacked by a horde of birds, and the Brenner house is later attacked by more birds. But then, we come to the goriest scene in the film. From the moment Lydia opened the door to a local farmer, Mr Forset’s house, we all knew something was wrong. As Lydia searched around the house, the tension and suspense built up, to the point where you could cut the tension with a knife. Then of course, we reached the ‘bedroom scene’. The dead birds scattered around the room, and the dead body with eyes gouged out in the corner, really gave us a proper insight into what the Birds were capable off. This scene, because of Alfred Hitchcock’s superb ability to write suspenseful scenes, is probably my favourite scene from The Birds.
Another highlight in The Birds for me is the scene in the restaurant, shortly after a swarm of Birds attack a bunch of fleeing school children. This scene displays how this type of ‘apocalypse’ would be viewed by the public. There are 4 ‘types’ of person in the restaurant. There is a drunken man, who believes this to be the first sign of the apocalypse. There is an ornithologist, who denies that such a phenomenon would ever be possible. There is a woman and her two children, who merely panic. And finally, there is the businessman, who doesn’t really care, as long as he isn’t affected, suggesting the simple, yet impossible suggestion to “exterminate them all”. These people give us a glimpse into how people split in situations like this
The final 5 minutes are very thought provoking. As the thousands of birds are seen outside the house as the car drives away, the viewers mind turns to the fact that the reason that the birds turn on the humans in such a menacing way is never properly answered. This has left many people theorizing on what caused this to happen. From what the film shows us, I’d say that it has something to do with the food chain of the birds in Bodega Bay. Say that something were to happen to the food that the birds feed off, then they may be forced into desperation out of hunger, and turn on humans as a ‘last resort’ for food. This theory has a fair few holes in it, but apart from that, I have genuinely no idea (If you want to leave your theories in the comments, please do!). Alfred Hitchcock’s decision to not answer the ‘big question’ was a good one. It leaves the audience thinking, and even scares a fair amount of people. In fact, there are many more questions raised in The Birds that aren’t answered, adding to the thick layer of suspense outlining the film. The biggest question raised is “What would happen if this were to happen in real life?”, something of which, to this day, I ponder on from time to time.
The Birds is another Hitchcock masterpiece, benefiting from a gripping storyline, incredible acting, and some amazing dialogue. It’s truly a diamond of its era. To me, it’s my second favourite Alfred Hitchcock film, the first being Psycho. But, of course, as I stated at the start of this retrospective, don’t overlook The Birds because of Psycho. You’ll be missing out on a great, entertaining, classic Hitchcock gem!