ON CLASSIC CINEMA The Godfather of suspense

A look at The Birds and the Hitchcock classics

What makes a movie great? What is it exactly that elevates a film from its usual status as a means of entertainment of entertainment to that of a cultural hallmark deserving of modern audience’s attention? Frankly, who gives a damn?

The history of cinema is rich in films worth celebrating. Some are memorable for their cultural significance or how they defined an era, others for their pioneering film-making techniques or artistic excellence, and still more for their influence on a genre of film itself. Modern movies stand on the shoulders of a long and highly varied tradition that has sought to showcase human creativity for a century. The purpose of this column is to celebrate this tradition, highlighting some of the films and film-makers that have contributed in their own right to its impact both on cinema and on culture in general. As they say, one can’t explain the present without an understanding of the past.

This week, I would like to take a closer look at one of the classics of suspense that spawned from the abundant directorial talents of the widely acknowledged “Master of Mystery” — Alfred Hitchcock. The Birds (1963) stands as one of Hitchcock’s most well-known films for its simple but well-executed plot, careful manipulation of the audience’s emotion, and elegant presentation of its characters’ response to the unknown.

The movie’s premise is straight forward: The birds of a small, quiet town start acting up for no apparent reason. It begins with a couple of seemingly innocuous — albeit strange — behavioral oddities: A bird swoops down and pecks someone on the head, or forcibly flies into a door. Soon these singular events escalate into what appears to be a full-fledged attack that no one can explain nor escape.

But a Hitchcock film is never as much about the plot as it is about its characters. The Birds serves largely as a means to psychoanalyze its hero and heroine, their relationships with the people close to them, and the general human reaction to uncertainty. In fact, it takes nearly an hour of film for the action with aviary creatures to really pick up. The first part instead focuses on the beautiful Melanie Daniels —the archetypal icy blonde so often portrayed in Hitchcock’s movies, played by Tippi Hedren — and her chance meeting with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who she then follows to the small waterfront town of Bodega Bay where he lives on weekends with his mother and sister. You learn everything about the characters through their direct actions and their interactions with each other, most notably through dialogue. We become acquainted with their strengths and weaknesses — Melanie’s boldness, Mitch’s breezy confidence, his mother’s strained overprotective tendencies.

Having established these vivid portraits, the film next watches how these characters react to external forces. It is a defining feature of Hitchcock’s films to explore the personalities of his characters, how their relationships define who they are, and how their true nature are by out-of-the-ordinary circumstance. As Vertigo (1958) is about human obsession, The Birds is at its core about how people respond to chaos. It’s this deeper level of fear that truly makes his films so terrifying — fear of ourselves.

Hitchcock’s films have been most influential on the genre of suspense and more widely on film-making in general for the creative techniques they use to tell their stories, as The Birds superbly demonstrates. A key part of this is the way suspense is built slowly in ordinary settings involving often mundane elements of everyday life, until by the end of the film the audience finds itself terrified of something as commonplace as a flock of seagulls. Perhaps a more famous example is the shower scene in Psycho — that the brutal murder to takes place in a shower has long been acknowledged as one of the scariest and most influential movie scenes in all of cinema. The way his movies violate people’s comfort zones and make the audience re-think the ordinary breach the divide between the movie-goer and the film, and permanently left their mark on the way audiences view what is scary.

Another key element to Hitchcock’s filmmaking is his use of cinematography to draw the view into the story and leave maximum impact. Most of his films are shot from the perspective of the audience as voyeur — of a secret observer. Events unfold as if you’re in the room with the characters, and you usually know as little as they do about what’s going to happen next. There’s often something particularly unique about the way he tells his stories; for instance, Rear Window (1954) is shot entirely in a single room, and Rope (1948) in a single apartment with the appearance of having been shot in a single take. The Birds has absolutely no background music whatsoever, which makes the flapping and screeching of the birds particularly dissonant. There’s a heavy reliance on facial expressions, emphasized by an abundance of close camera shots.

A great example is the scene in The Birds where Mrs. Brenner enters her friend’s house. As she enters she sees the broken cups in the cupboard; the camera follows her closely as she walks noiselessly down the hallway, until finally she reaches a room. She walks into the doorway and we see a shot of confusion on her face, then the camera cuts to what’s directly opposite her in the room: a dead bird crashed against the windowsill. We see another shot of her concerned face, then a shot more rightward into the room as her gaze moves to a disheveled bed; her face again, and then more rightward to a pair of bloodied legs on the floor. Shock and horror are etched on her face before the camera finally shows a full view of the body, cutting to a zoomed in frame of his gouged out eyes before Mrs. Brenner falls back in horror and runs outside. The entire scene is silent — her face says it all — and is in my opinion, the most suspenseful part of the entire film.

It’s that sort of creativity and attention to detail that makes The Birds worth talking about today. Alfred Hitchcock’s notoriety (both by name and by face — he has a cameo in most his movies) stems both from his distinct vision and numerous pioneered film-making techniques, and his influence is still felt today in both the genre of suspense and the many films that have been based on his work (Disturbia, anyone?). It’s the type of thing I highly recommend you see for yourself.