The Birds: Unleashing Ornithophobia
Three years after the successful film, Psycho, Hitchcock made another feature film that left audiences and critics confused. It was a film that deviated from his usual style, for which it received both negative and positive reviews. The film was The Birds. With this production, Hitchcock embraced a genre that, despite being full of suspense, was nothing like any of his previous films.
The Birds marked a before and after in the world of cinema, providing a number of iconic moments. The film begins in a lighthearted tone and introduces us to Mitch and Melanie, two young people who meet in a pet shop. Everything seems to go smoothly, and young Melanie decides to leave San Francisco to try to win over Mitch in a town called Bodega Bay.
From this moment on, desire and terror go hand in hand to make up the worst of nightmares. In a quasi-apocalyptic scenario, for anyone who suffers from ornithophobia, it would undoubtedly unleash their worst fears. In this article, we discover some of the keys to one of the most iconic films of everyday horror.
Hitchcock had already experienced success with two works of Daphne du Maurier with the film, Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) and Jamaica Inn (Hitchcock, 1939). These films had brought him great success and praise from both the public and critics. With The Birds, he decided to adapt, once again, a novel by this British writer.
However, on this occasion, the filmmaker immersed himself in a form of terror that he hadn’t explored before: the fantastical. Hitchcock has gone down in history as the master of suspense. Even today, he’s remembered for films in which criminality and evil make up the darkest side of being human. However, with The Birds, he went down a completely new path, both technically and narratively.
The Birds presented a series of innovations and special effects that, at the time, were quite a challenge. Nowadays, if you saw the film, you’d find it easy to identify the artificial birds that were used. Nevertheless, the important thing is not to see the film from a current perspective, but to contextualize it.
Furthermore, the use of sound is worth noting, especially considering that the master of suspense used to say that if a movie was good, it could be watched without sound. Despite this assertion, in The Birds, he decided to innovate and rely heavily both on sound effects and the lack of them.
For example, there are totally overwhelming scenes marked by the deafening sound of birds. However, there are others in which, in the face of a tragic event such as the discovery of a corpse, silence takes over, drowning out the screams of terror.
Themes such as desire and the mother-child relationship that had been seen previously in his films such as Psycho are also explored. Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s innovative style in this film managed to divide the critics and many considered that the movie wasn’t up to standard. However, time has tended to erode their criticism, proving, once again, that terror is to be found in the everyday.
Metaphors in The Birds
Hitchcock was a filmmaker who was renowned for playing around with metaphor and even psychoanalysis. He liked to play with the viewer’s perception. Therefore, he built images that were loaded with symbolism hence bearing a certain similarity to what he really wanted to express.
In The Birds, Hitchcock presents an everyday terror story that begins with caged birds but ends with caged humans. The story starts in a pet shop, a place where birds are captive and humans do with them what they want. However, as the movie progresses, it shows the humans having to hide from the birds. In fact, they have to lock themselves away for fear of attack.
Two lovebirds, acquired by Melanie for Mitch’s sister make appearances throughout the film. As a matter of fact, the attack of the birds seems to be linked to the presence of the two small caged birds. Is it, therefore, divine revenge? Revenge by the birds for the slavery to which they’re subjected by humans?
Melanie and Mitch begin their dialogue talking about caged birds while they’re in the pet shop. However, as the film progresses, the two humans have a similar conversation about their own confinement. It’s as if the lovebird couple materialized the conversation that they might’ve had in the pet shop. A conversation about two caged beings, without their freedom because of a “superior” being who frightens and torments them.
The idea of the human enclosed by the birds starts with a comedic feel, then deepens its roots to terror. Nevertheless, this is a normal kind of terror, since it has nothing to do with the supernatural. In fact, it’s fantastical, but not unreasonable if viewed as revenge on the part of the birds.
As a matter of fact, in one of the most interesting scenes, the elderly bird expert explains to Melanie that the events she’s talking about would be virtually impossible. Certainly, that the birds would’ve had to be extremely upset for them to act in this manner. All this leads the viewer to think that, perhaps, acquiring two caged lovebirds and continuing to keep them captive has brought her nothing but negative results.
Furthermore, the metaphor goes beyond the cage and can be applied to the characters themselves. For example, in Mitch’s mother, there’s a clear example of the empty nest syndrome, since she seems to fear that her son will be happy away from home. In addition, there are also connotations of female desire in Melanie.
In fact, Melanie appears to be locked up and surrounded by caged birds until she meets Mitch. It’s as if her desire has remained trapped until a trigger appears to make her leave her comfort zone and search for her lover.
Melanie, like the birds, must leave her familiar territory and face new threats. Because, when she arrives in Bodega Bay, she soon discovers that she’s not the only one interested in Mitch. Furthermore, the pair of caged birds represent, in turn, an allegory of the couple.
Suspense and everyday terror
Humans aren’t necessarily evil, but we do trap birds in cages for our own enjoyment. The Birds appears to be telling us that our actions and desires can have terrible consequences. It certainly wasn’t a random decision of Hitchcock to firstly introduce the small birds at the beginning of the film, progressing to massive attacks by larger birds.
There’s also evidence of an attack on innocence, which materializes when the birds attack the school.
Hitchcock, as a good master of suspense, gradually builds the suspense in this film, at the same time moving away from rational explanation.
As Todorov pointed out, the fantastical resides between the dichotomy of rational versus irrational explanation. We see it this way when the characters argue in a bar about the nature of the attacks. While some call it apocalyptic, others insist on seeking logic. Indeed, they believe that something must’ve been done to the birds to make them act in that way.
Little by little, both explanations become confused, generating feelings of strangeness in the viewer. Then, from an isolated attack, the film moves to one en masse. Consequently, it moves from a logical explanation to a supernatural one.
Hitchcock presents us with a series of open theories that are verbalized in the middle of the footage. In this way, the viewer can choose one or the other or even both. The end of the world appears to be closer than it seemed before, but we don’t know if humans have triggered it or it’s just an unavoidable event.
One of the most interesting things is that, at the time, all films closed with the classic announcement “The End”. However, The Birds omits this information. This gives a more open ending. In this way, the viewer is left to decide for themselves what ultimately happened. Hitchcock used this technique in some of his other films. It also inspired later filmmakers such as Shyamalan. In fact, there are similarities with his films, Signs (2002) and The Happening (2014).
The interesting thing is how the film moves from something ordinary, like a couple of lovebirds or a pet shop, to the sinister. It’s a strangeness that’s based on the dichotomy between the real and the irrational. It delights lovers of the strange and gives nightmares to anyone who suffers from ornithophobia. Indeed, feathers have never been so terrifying. It all goes to show the tremendous range of emotions cinema is capable of evoking in the viewer.