Minutia Madness: The Birds
By Bret Dorman
(As always, SPOILERS! may apply to the movie in discussion.)Everyone knows what makes a movie good. Blurbs like “compelling”, “powerful”, and “explosive non stop thrill ride that will leave you on the edge of your seat!” are common place on movie posters. In reviews (including my own) people point out how the direction is “great”, how the writing is “awesome”, and how the acting is “wonderful”. Every once in a while you can find a really great essay from a smart film critic (a real one) or film maker that actually explains why a movie is good and helps you as a viewer become a better film watcher.
But what about those small moments that fall in between the cracks? I understand the need to talk about a movie in the broad sense, its the easiest most SPOILER! free way of saying if you liked or didn’t like a movie. I prefer people to talk in specifics, to actually know why something is good or bad. But this goes beyond all that. This is blowing the tiniest detail way out of proportion. This is what makes me a film nerd. This is… Minutia Madness!!!
Story by Daphne Du Maurier; Written by Evan Hunter; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Recently, one of Chicago’s local indie theatres, The Music Box Theatre, was fortunate enough to host Turner Classic Movies’ Road to Hollywood, a festival spanning 10 cities each presented by a host and special guest. We got The Birds with actress Tippi Hedren doing a Q & A hosted by Ben Mankiewicz. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was much much younger, where I only remember it being a lot of people talking, kind of silly, and the anti-climactic ending. I was excited at the chance to revisit one of Hitchcock’s better known movies and look at it through my more (movie) critical eyes.
While I don’t think the movie as a whole is a ‘masterpiece’, I will join in on the praise. It’s a lot of fun and a bit scary at times. The birds prove to be a scarier foe than I remember not only because they attack (and don’t attack) for no reason, but because there is no personal hate behind it. They are viscous and determined, but their motivation just seems to be… “because this is what we are doing now.” There are tense moments between people as relationships and pasts are explored as well as the human condition examined as the birds start their attacks. People argue, discuss, banter, warn, and laugh at the idea of something so preposterous. Paranoia and fear take over instead of rationality.We join this segment at the school house. There has already been a lone bird dive attack on our hero that seemed out of place but not threatening. A midnight knock at the door. A mysterious attack on a birthday party that resulted in some crying and confused kids. A farmer sans eyeballs. And a chimney raid. However without any hard evidence of FOWL(!!!) play, the cops can’t do anything but speculate.
Melanie Daniels (the wonderfully funny Tippi Hedren) is sitting outside the school, waiting to talk to school teacher/possibly-jealous-temporary-roommate Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleschette) and escort Cathy Brenner (Veronica Cartwright) back home. Melanie goes to sit on a bench and have an innocent and tension-relieving smoke. No biggie. And then… one (1) bird lands on the jungle gym behind her. The movie is called The Birds and we already know they are up to no good. This could be bad… but its only one (1) bird. Camera cuts back to Melanie as she lights her cigarette. Cut back to the jungle gym and there are now four (4) birds. Uh-oh. Three (3) more have joined the gym while the camera was not looking. A small increase but still, when the camera goes back to Melanie we now expect more… But this time we only see one (1) bird land bringing the total to five (5). When the camera cuts back to Melanie, unaware, we are now prepared for a long, slow build up. A long medium shot on Melanie helps build the suspense only to reveal in the cut back one more landing to bring the total to eight (8). At this rate we could be here a while…
The camera stays on Melanie for a excruciatingly long time. What is happening behind her?!?! How many birds are there? Are there more joining the flock? Can we take a drag off that cigarette, Ms. Daniels, to help release some of this tension that you have no idea is even there? Argh!!! Damn you Hitchcock! And then… a bird approaches from the front. It catches Melanie’s eyes. She’s knows that she should be scared at the site of a bird, she’s just oblivious as to how many are behind her. The bird, in flight, takes a long path around, causing her to turn… The camera follows the bird as it lands and BLAM-O! We see at least a hundred (100!) birds! Audible gasps could be heard throughout the theatre. People were genuinely terrified for Melanie. Here is the scene in full:
Using a wise shot selection and restrained editing, Hitchcock trains the audience to expect the slow build up. The horror isn’t automatically HOW many birds there are, since even the first one we see is enough to make us wince in terror. The horror is when. When will they attack? We aren’t necessarily waiting to see how many will join but how our heroine will get away, since they are so close behind her.
This scene is akin to ripping off a band-aid on the wrong count. Normally you would say “okay on three… one (rip!)” but here its more like pulling it off on the count of 4 or 5 when you should have done it on 10. It also marks the first time we see the ravens in the movie. Up until this point we had only seen gulls and tiny birds (finches?). Not only are ravens smarter, they are more menacing, thanks to their black feathers and literary association with horror tales and death.For Hitchcock, the challenge was to make birds scary. Now, normally, your every day average bird isn’t too threatening (and neither are these other 5 most scary non-scary animals!). Wisely, writer Evan Hunter focuses more on the people and their intimate relationships. Seeing characters in danger, no matter what the source, will be scary if we like them or can empathize with them. But Hitchcock is a master of the visual story. He takes a moment from this horror movie to build suspense and make birds on a jungle gym completely badass. It got both gasps and laughs. Gasps of horror and laughs of “Oh my god that was so awesome!”
Jumping your own gun is a rarely used horror device, because you can’t just try to shoe horn it in to any scene. It doesn’t automatically make any scene scarier/cooler because its hard to accomplish. You have to have a thing that upon site invokes horror, but not curiosity (aka a strange space alien that we haven’t seen to much of) because you don’t want the audience taking the time spent looking at the birds to be ‘trying to figure out what it is.’ Also, you have to have a quiet moment where a character is preoccupied with something else and not a complete horror movie cliched idiot. Here Melanie is smoking and aware of her surroundings, but distracted by the children singing. Also, you have to have a plausible way for many of the things to enter in frame or behind the character. The reveal of one, to five, to eight, to one hundred is not just scary. Its a badass crowd-pleaser. But once that initial jolt of adreniline finishes rushing through your veins, the horror settles in and becomes amplified.
As the movie continues the birds blow things up, crash through windows, and break into a well fortified house. Characters are forced to face the irrational danger of aggressive birds but also try and put aside their own personal preferences or fears of each other if they want to make it out alive. Hitchcock plays up the humor (lovebirds in the car leaning), melodrama (“But its a full moon out…”), and bizarre (birds suicide crashing into phone booths) while delivering on the thrills. Who knew birds could be so scary?
So what do you think? Is this ‘jumping your own gun’ reveal worthy of soaring into the horror hall of fame? Or am I just crazy for focusing on this minute detail?