How Does Hitchcock’s Camera Techniques and Use of Space in “The Birds” Build the Film’s Atmosphere?
With over 40 films preceding it and only five after, The Birds (1963) is often cited as the last “great” film of Alfred Hitchcock, one of the finest and most inimitable directors in cinema. The film transforms one of earth’s most passive and ignored creatures into a catalyst for fear and destruction, and Hitchcock makes it happen by employing his wealth of cinematic tricks and trades to create an atmosphere of suspense.
The Birds tells the story of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), daughter of a San Francisco newspaper giant, who travels to remote town Bodega Bay in pursuit of a man, Mitch (Rod Taylor). There, after introducing herself into the lives of Mitch’s family members, hordes of frenzied birds randomly begin attacking people all over town. Hitchcock weaves visual design, cinematography, editing, and sound design together to create an abstract horror film about survival against a sudden danger that appeared out of everyday life—a theme with which everyone can identify.
Hitchcock utilizes camera narration throughout The Birds to illustrate how birds impact what is being said, as well as how it is being said. Birds control the actions of the characters from the very beginning. The film’s first shot, which is an establishing frame of San Francisco, swoops down and picks up the motions of Melanie Daniels as she approaches a pet store. En route, someone sounds a “bird call” whistle her direction—the camera pauses momentarily with her—as she appears flattered by the gesture. Soon, the ambient sounds of birds pick up the soundscape and Melanie looks to the sky and sees a number of birds in flight. Throughout the entirety of The Birds, there is no score—only the chirping madness of the looming and growing threat, the significance of which is foreshadowed by this shot. Entering the pet store, which is heavily populated by birds, the camera continues to follow Melanie as the central focus as she arrives at the clerk’s counter. The strange movement patterns of the birds outside are discussed, and, not surprisingly, Melanie is there to pick up a rare bird. All around her, birds are caged and confined, giving the illusion they are under the control of humans. This situation will be entirely subverted by the film’s eventual climax when Melanie is caged under a flock of attacking birds.
Later in the film, during one of the picture’s most iconic moments, Hitchcock uses the camera in a climbing frame scene to let us know the birds are inescapable. On a brightly-lit, calm day, Melanie sits on a bench outside a school with a playground jungle gym behind her. A few crows land, unbeknownst to her, on the jungle gym. Compared to Melanie, dressed in a fine green suit with her perfect hair and radiant looks, the ominous black birds quickly stand out and develop a presence as the dominant power in the frame.
Hitchcock cuts away from the birds, to Melanie rooting through her purse, smoking cigarettes, and close-ups of her face, showing her growing impatience, each time cutting back to a wider shot that reveals more birds have joined the perch.
Finally, she spots one flying overhead and her eyes (the camera) follows it to the playground at her back, revealing it to be swarmed with crows. All the while, the children in the schoolhouse sing a cheerful nonsense song to heighten the absurdity of the scene.
The Birds often uses a high-angle shot that provides a God’s-eye-view perspective that drives the ferocious intensity of avian attacks. A beautiful, ecclesiastic and extreme example of this camera angle comes after the gas station explosion, as an aerial shot watches the fire unfold as the birds swoop in from off-camera, as if to celebrate the victory of their work.
Hitchcock plays with the element of space regularly in The Birds. What starts off as a film with vast, open shots of San Francisco, lakefront towns and wide areas ends up a claustrophobic fight for life. Scenes like Melanie cornered on a couch in Mitch’s house, filmed from a distance to make her appear small and submissive, further builds the significance of the birds as a threat. Melanie’s eventual decision to trap herself in a phone booth for protection against attacking birds is a role-reversal with her attackers—the birds stuck in cages in the film’s opening pet shop scene is now switched with Melanie in the cage seeking refuge from them.
Hitchcock proves in each of his films that he is a master of control in framing and angles to achieve the emotional effects he wants at any given moment, and The Birds is a chief example of that in action.