Netflix Flashback: The unsettling brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’
(Credit: Netflix)

Film Flashback

Netflix Flashback: The unsettling brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds'

As well as reams of brand new movies, Netflix is stocked full of cinematic classics. So for every new action flick from any number of actors named Chris or Ryan, there is a forgotten icon on the dusty shelves of the streaming platform. Using Netflix Flashback, we’re looking back at one particularly brilliant piece of cinema, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Alfred Hitchcock had released almost all of his most revered movies by the time The Birds arrived in 1963; with this natural horror, he achieves a unique sense of discernible dread, where the threat is purely inhumane. Based on the 1952 short story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, originally featured in The Apple Tree collection, the plot follows Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels as she follows her love interest, Mitch, to Bodega Bay, California. However, things soon go awry as the location becomes the centre of a series of unexplained and deadly bird attacks.

The Birds combines the human, psychological horror Hitchcock perfected with his 1960 effort Psycho and mother nature’s terror, with both sides of the coin experienced by the viewer. This is augmented by the scope and power of the danger being essentially unfathomable to humans. Screenwriter Evan Hunter also deserves considerable praise on this front. Not only did Hunter help Hitchcock adapt du Maurier’s work, but he suggested that The Birds metamorphose from something resembling a screwball comedy into what he described as “stark terror”.

Aided by the convincing performances of Hedren – in what might be her most significant film role – Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, and the teenage Veronica Cartwright, the relatively small main cast work well together, manoeuvring the various themes and vague backstory of Melanie. As a unit, towards the film’s intense climax, they also form what can be understood as a symbol of humanity’s last stand in the face of the omnipotent mother nature. Here, there are clear Biblical themes able to be extrapolated.

The storyline is aided by the compelling theme of complacency. From this angle, the audience assumes the role of the increasingly aggravated birds due to the frustration induced by the main characters. Hedren’s self-absorbed and ultimately tedious socialite is addicted to time-consuming and unfunny pranks. Taylor’s almost egocentric lawyer, Mitch, is acutely aware of his sex appeal. Suzanne Pleshette’s ex-fiancée, Annie, is trapped in a neverending self-pity, and Jessica Tandy’s Lydia – Mitch’s mother – is always scared of loneliness. 

These complex characters are hard to sympathise with fully, much like many of Hitchcock’s previous stone-faced protagonists, often forcing us onto the side of the birds as a result, eager to pluck the eyes from Mitch and the crew. This might be an inhumane point of view, but it follows the movie’s general theme. If bought into, this inversion of what Hitchcock makes us feel for his characters might also be considered one of his ultimate triumphs.

With a stellar blend of audio and visuals, as ever, Hitchcock creates a feast for the senses. This is undoubtedly helped by the natural atmosphere of analogue sound, which goes a fair way in creating a ballast for the raw horror witnessed. Interestingly, the director keeps it minimalist in The Birds, doing away with the standard incidental score. Instead, sound effects and sparse source music are used in counterpoint to a string of calculated silences to construct a genuine chill. Hitchcock also ensured the niche electroacoustic instrument, the Trautonium, was used to create some of the bird’s sounds for the film. Elsewhere, Sala and Remi Gassmann were commissioned to design the scant electronic soundtrack, with Hitchcock’s previous musical collaborator, Bernard Hermann, credited as a ‘sound consultant’. Symbolically, this means the auteur hasn’t strayed far from himself whilst also doing something new.

Demonstrating the scope of the movie, the majority of the birds seen are real, with an estimated $200,000 spent on the creation of mechanical ones. Harnessing the power of the studio and the natural world, Hitchcock creates a movie that will retain freshness, despite whatever the zeitgeist may be. This can be summed up by the terrifying collective attacks of the birds, brought to life by innovative FX from Walt Disney Studios animator/technician Ub Iwerks. Whilst most of the birds are real, visual FX intensifies the idea of this unknown horror, adding a mechanical element, reflecting the essence of our times.

Whilst The Birds might differ from his earlier work in terms of the themes and the absence of an incidental score, Hitchcock does retain elements of the ‘pure cinema’ he had pioneered before the release of this feature. The focus on editing and visuals instead of dialogue is one of his most famous hallmarks, which remains prominent here. Montage editing and slow pacing are also present throughout, helping to evoke a profound response from the viewer during the attack sequences. This is exemplified by the scene in which the birds gather outside the school while the unwitting Melanie waits on the bench. As the camera cuts between her and the increasing number of birds swooping down, one of his tensest-ever sequences ensues, eventually giving way to unadulterated ghastliness, and they finally strike. 

Regardless of what some might call their complacency, eye-line matches and point-of-view shots also help us identify with the characters and their individual experiences, adding to the sense of “stark terror” Hitchcock and Hunter conceived. We see through their eyes and take on their senses as it cuts between the character and the object of their gaze. A notable instance of this is when Melanie crosses the bay not long after the beginning, where she watches Mitch fall for her prank. After following him to Bodega Bay, her longing for him could not be clearer. 

An utter masterclass from Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds will likely stand out in his oeuvre forever. From the themes to the technical effects and other displays of ingenuity, such as the decision to forego any extensive score, the terror he brought to life here leaves an indelible mark. The cause of the bird attacks might well be left unresolved, but that’s the point. It’s up to the mind to do the work, and that’s more frightening than anything.

Watch The Birds on Netflix.