Birds of a Feather: Mastering Suspense and Metaphor in the Climax of THE BIRDS
27 July 2014
When you are Alfred Hitchcock and you have already made Psycho, what is next? What do you work on when you already achieved such cinematic success and stardom? Perhaps the answer is…go back to your roots. Well, to be fair, not all the way back, but Hitchcock did return to Daphne du Maurier’s literature, as he did in the 1940s when he made Rebecca. This time, Hitchcock went for one of her short stories, “The Birds.”
In short, Hitchcock’s adapted film, also titled The Birds, follows the developing relationship between a San Francisco socialite, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), and California native Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Melanie follows Mitch to Bodega Bay, California, a small coastal town, where Mitch lives with his mother (Jessica Tandy) and young sister (Veronica Cartwright). Shortly after Melanie arrives, birds begin migrating to the area and attacking people. The first attack is by a seagull on Melanie, but within hours the attacks escalate to swarms of birds attacking the entire community, killing several who dare to fight. With no help from the outside world or explanations about why this is happening, Mitch and Melanie, along with Mitch’s mother and sister, barricade themselves inside the family home and prepare for battle in an unforgettable cinematic climax.
The climax of the film is when Melanie explores the Brenner’s attic, discovering the birds have broken into the home and suffering one final, near-fatal attack by the lingering flock. Melanie’s discovery has interesting meaning, yet there is not much that prompts Melanie to wander off from the Brenner’s and investigate the restricted, dark areas of the Brenner home. So, why does Melanie’s adventure in the attic such a successful climax to The Birds if it is difficult to understand why she investigated in the first place?
First, the climax is successful because the “Master of Suspense” knows exactly how to build anxiety and excitement, simultaneously, in viewers, and he knows that his viewers are hungry for this tension, especially in a post-Psycho world. This final attack on Melanie is, perhaps, his most suspenseful moment in the film, the moment Hitchcock spreads his wings (pun intended) and gives viewers exactly the thrill they seek in The Birds.
Why is it so suspenseful? Apart from the narrative detail that Melanie is alone in the scene, a large part of the scene’s suspense is its silence. As Melanie approaches the attic, turns the door’s knob, and discovers the birds, not a sound is heard. Even diegetic sound is quieted so that the silence of the moment is deafening. Sounds distracts sight, but without sound all the audience can do is sit anxiously awaiting whatever danger hides behind the door in the attic.
In addition to the silence, the scene is also an allusion to Psycho. Released three years after Hitchcock’s most infamous cinematic success, Melanie’s walk up the stairs in The Birds is reminiscent of the pivotal staircase in Psycho which leads to Mrs. Bates’ bedroom. Moreover, even though Mrs. Bates is not in her room, she is behind a door, a door which separates a hidden, dark, forgotten room in the Bates’ home. So, as Melanie slowly turns the attic door’s knob, the audience continues to be, unconsciously, reminded of the Psycho, heightening the scene’s suspense.
All this suspense occurs before Melanie is actually attacked in this climax. And, this anticipatory tension prepares viewers for so brutal an attack Hitchcock film’s the moment in fragments. Never once does Hitchcock use a long shot in this scene; instead, Hitchcock stays in medium and close-up shots. Hitchcock in not the “Master of Suspense” for no reason, and this unforgettable climax points out why. By filming the birds attacking Melanie in fragments, viewers have a restricted/limited view of the event. Instead of shielding their eyes from the grotesque, traumatic attack, viewers are shielded by Hitchcock’s cuts. And, what do viewers do when cuts quicken the pace and the image becomes unclear? Viewers look closer, focus harder. This offers Hitchcock an opportunity he cannot pass up. Injected into the montage of cuts where birds peck at Melanie’s hands and feet, and between cuts of Melanie desperately swatting at crows and seagulls, there are shots of birds flying directly at the camera, as though viewers are Melanie and the birds are going to fly right through the screen and attack those watching. This clever, sudden break of the fourth wall comes at the peak of the audiences’ anxiety; therefore, the perfect time to give viewers the thrill they seek.
But it is not simply the suspense Hitchcock creates in this climax that makes the scene effective; the climax of The Birds is a metaphor, and the comparison it draws helps the audience connect to the film on an unconscious level that only Hitchcock, and the few directors of his caliber, could accomplish.
Asking why Melanie goes to the attic is like asking why viewers go to see The Birds? Metaphorically, Melanie represents the viewers. The climax is about confronting fear, being attacked by the unknown, and experiencing trauma. This is what Hitchcock viewers are doing when watching his film, and, on that level, they can relate to Melanie’s experience. As all great horror, thriller, sci-fi, etc. films do, the human experience is shown on a slant and/or in an extreme, but it is a human experience nonetheless. Sometimes de-familiarizing oneself with reality (as one perceives it) is an excellent way to see reality clearly. Hitchcock, experimental as always, plays with this idea. It is not that viewers are all people willing to wander into a killer bird infested attic alone, but viewers of The Birds are people willing to venture into the dark, an isolating place, and experience a trauma they know awaits them.
From this perspective, the climax of The Birds is successful, not only because it satisfies viewers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for suspense and thrills, but also because it validates their hunger. On this deeper level, one completely unconscious to viewers are they watch the film, The Birds does not only capture a story, it captures its audience.
In the end, no one knows why the birds attack or if they will attack again, but viewers do not need to know the answers to these questions. Viewers got what they needed from the aforementioned climax, and what they needed was validation that seeking out the unknown and confronting fear is necessary. Viewers did that, as they watched Melanie do that; therefore, in the final shot, Hitchcock leaves viewers in the unknown, challenging them to continue seeking and daring them to continue confronting fear.