Monday, 21 February 2011

The Birds (1963)

Fig. 1 Theatrical Poster

Only loosely based upon the Daphne du Maurier book of the same name, this film focuses upon an impulsive and irresponsible young woman who spends a weekend in a small seaside "town" (village) only to find that the local avian population have decided to declare war on humanity,
It must be noted that the effect of the film is not down to the plot; rather the plot provides an excuse for some very effective set-pieces that have gone down in cinema history.  Apparently, (at least according to Phil) most commentators interpret it as a commentary on women's empowerment and sexuality; however it seems to me that there is just as strong an argument that it is a study of the impact of outsiders on small rural communities (the distraught mother accusing Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) of causing all the mayhem).

The films opening credits are filmed against a backdrop of a flock of shrieking starlings, and this introduces the recurring visual motif of the film - that of flapping, squawking menace.  However, Hitchcock takes care to mislead the viewer; all of the early sights of birds are benign, everyday background scenery.  The flock of seagulls circling over a city street - they must have been driven inland by a storm at sea - the caged birds in the pet shop, quietly chirping away in the background.  When the first bird attack occurs - a single gull pecking at Melanie's head - the effect is shocking.  The counterpoint of the bizarre - a seagull attacking a human - with the ordinary banality of the film up to that point causes the audience to question their assumptions about the film (Crowther, 1963).

Perhaps the most famous shot of the film (certainly the most referenced) is the scene where Melanie sits on a bench outside Bodega Bay school, smoking a cigarette.  Inside the school, the children are singing, and behind Melanie some crows are perched on the climbing frame.  Every time the camera cuts back to Melanie smoking, the number of birds on the climbing frame increases.  The tension slowly builds, as the audience waits anxiously for her to turn round and spot the avian menace behind her; at the same time the way the crows sit still and silent is highly unnatural and unnerving.
Fig. 2 Film Still [Close Up]
The film doesn't use background music in the traditional sense; all of the soundtrack is actually happening, in the film world.  There are moments of music, when Melanie plays the piano, or the radio is on, but on the whole the only sounds the audience hear are the everyday sounds of life.  This ensures that whenever the birds attack, the audience's ears are assaulted by a cacophony of squawks and shrieks; the effect combining with the flapping, darting images and quick cuts onscreen to make the audience feel that they too are under attack (Time, 1963).

Fig. 3 Film Still
There are other memorable images in the film: an overhead shot of the village, its gas station burning in the wake of an avian attack, seagulls circling in the foreground (fig. 3); Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) opening the door of his house after a night of being under siege to discover birds covering the ground, the roof and the trees outside; the elderly farmer lying dead in his bedroom, the first victim of the birds, covered in scratches and with his eyes apparently pecked out (fig. 4)
Fig. 4 Film Still [Close Up]
Perhaps the most memorable feature of the film is the ending, which still feels modern despite it's age.  As the small group of characters the film has focussed on get into their car and try to drive to safety, surrounded by flocks of watching birds, the film fades to black without the traditional "The End", suggesting that while this is the end of the film, it is in no way the end of the avian threat (Film 4, 2011).  The audience is left to wonder what happens to Melanie and the Brenners - do they make it to safety; is there even any safety to reach?

List of Illustrations

Figure 1.   Universal Pictures (Org) (1963) "The Birds" Theatrical Poster [Digital Image] At: (Accessed on 11/02/2011)

Figure 2.   Universal Pictures (Org) (1963) The Birds [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 16/02/2011)

Figure 3.   Universal Pictures (Org) (1963) The Birds [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 21/02/2011)

Figure 4.  Universal Pictures (Org) (1963) The Birds [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 21/02/2011)


Crowther, Bosley (1963) "The Birds": Hitchcock's Feathered Fiends are Chilling In: The New York Times [Online] At: on 15/02/2011)

"Film4" Staff (2011) The Birds (1963) In: [Online] At: (accessed on 21/02/2011)

"Time" Staff (1963) Cinema: They Is Here In: Time Magazine [Online] At:,9171,830097,00.html (Accessed on 20/02/2011)

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