As the Master of Mystery, Alfred HITCHCOCK created films filled with thrills and suspense. These films are about serial murders, a plotted murder and espionage. The Birds is unique among those works. The murderers in this film are not humans, but birds. How much suspense can he create on screen with animals? His directorial craft again shows us the mastery of his filmmaking. This film takes place in a small coastal town north of San Francisco. Melanie is a young socialite, whose father owns a newspaper company. She is well known for her racy mannerisms. She happens to meet a lawyer, Mitch, in a San Francisco bird shop and follows him to Bodega Bay, where Mitch regularly visits his mother and little sister. There, Melanie starts to witness the strange behaviors of the wild birds and eventually finds herself under their attack. Compared to HITCHCOCK’s other works, the pacing of The Birds is rather slow. While the suspense begins at 11 minutes from the start in Psycho, the first one hour of The Birds focuses mainly on the relationship between Melanie and Mitch, and the depictions of Mitch’s family. The information the audience learn from this first one hour will come back effectively in the later half of the film, but not so much of the suspense happens.
Subjective Shot & Objective Shot
After 30 minutes (00:25) from the start, the events gradually happen. After leaving a birdcage inside Mitch’s house by a lake, Melanie rides a small boat toward the other shore. Mitch finds out and chases after her by car. The film cut back and forth between Melanie’s face looking at the car, and the car running on the shore. The sequence makes the audience wonder what will happen to the relationship of Melanie and Mitch. Melanie eventually reaches the dock, where Mitch is already waiting for her. They look at each other with an expectant smile. Suddenly, a seagull comes down and attacks Melanie. The crosscut of this scene is between the shots of Melanie’s face looking for something, and her POV (point of view) shots of running car. A character’s POV is called Subjective Shot. Hitchcock uses Subjective Shot often in order to draw the audience into a character’s mind. This sequence suggests Melanie’s competitive nature, as well as her attraction towards Mitch. But most importantly, it makes the audience oblivious to approaching danger just like Melanie’s mind. The film pulls the audience away from suspense, then suddenly shows the bird’s attack. The surprise is effective and the audience is in sync with Melanie’s emotion. About half way through, the suspense starts to unfold. This is when a child’s birthday party is attacked by the birds. Not too long after this, there is a scene, where Objective Shots are used effectively. In this scene Melanie comes to the school to pick up Mitch’s sister. (01:10)
“Art is experience.”
Melanie waits for the school to end, sitting on a bench and smoking. There is an empty playground behind her. A crow flies down and sits on the jungle gym. Melanie doesn’t notice this. Then another crows fly down, one after another. We see a crosscut between Melanie smoking and waiting impatiently, and the jungle gym with the increasing number of crows.
The last shot of Melanie is rather long. (01:11) We start wonder if she will notice the crows and even if the crows will begin to attack her. The elongated timing of this shot heightens the suspense. Finally Melanie spots a crow in the sky. The crow shots, up to this point, are Objective Shots, but this last shot becomes Melanie’s POV. All these crow shots are shot in the exactly same way. Yet the meaning changes dramatically in the last POV. As the camera follows the crow down from the sky, the playground is revealed, being filled completely with crows. Chills run through the audience, in sync with Melanie, as the blood withdrawn from her face.
HITCHCOCK uses Objective Shot in order to give the audience information that a character in the film doesn’t know. As a result, this raises the suspense. He says, “The essential fact is to get real suspense, you must have to let the audience have a certain amount of information and leave the rest of it to their own imagination.” In this sequence, Objective Shots are used successfully for this purpose.
However, the power of his cinematic technique is apparent more with the way he uses Subjective Shots. In the playground scene, the timing of the cut to Melanie’s POV and her reaction shot controls the audience’s emotion. The ultimate goal of each scene is emotion. This is another rule of his filmmaking. By using Subjective Shots skillfully, HITCHCOCK leads the audience to the targeted emotion.
The film The Birds doesn’t give any explanations of why the birds attack, or how the humans resolve this epidemic. HITCHCOCK says, “ I don’t care what the film is about… so long as that audience goes through that emotion!” Art is experience. The audience experiences the film only through emotion. This is HITCHCOCK’s film art.
ILLUSTRATOR: Hisako MIYAKE