Alfred Hitchcock is often deservedly lauded for his skills as an editor, as well as for the ingenuity of his films’ plots. What often gets lost in the shuffle though is how well Hitchcock uses mise-en-scene and sound. The Birds is an excellent example. The first time I saw the film I, like many others, noticed how seemingly disjointed the two halves were. If I hadn’t known the main subject matter of the film was before I saw it because of its fame, the first 50 minutes would have, on the surface, prepared me for a film purely about the relationship between Mitch Brenner and Melanie Daniels, with any sort of outside conflict coming from perhaps Mitch’s mother or Annie Hayworth, and nowhere else. Instead, at about the 52 minute mark there is a mass bird attack at Cathy Brenner’s birthday party, and the film becomes one of disaster, with all the characters fighting against the birds—not with each other. While I was perhaps puzzled and maybe even a little surprised by the sharpness and abruptness of this plot twist, I realized I wasn’t shocked at all. I may have not consciously expected the change in course, but there was a part of me that knew how dangerous the threat of the birds was, and knew that something like this would happen. Naturally I wondered why I was so relatively nonplussed by the first bird attack and the film’s subsequent course. How could I have known what was coming? Reviewing the film, the answer is rather simple: Hitchcock prepared me for it, expertly using timing, mise-en-scene, and especially sound to prepare viewers for the sudden change in the film’s focal point. In this essay I will go over specific instances of this throughout the first half of the film, illustrating exactly how Hitchcock subtly saturates the viewer with the idea of the birds as both omnipresent and threatening.
This saturation begins with the opening credits. As the Universal logo fades in, so does the sound of birds. More importantly they sound rather ominous. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, maybe it’s because they sound high up and far away, and we imagine them peering down at us, or maybe it’s simply because they sound like they’re many in number, and that numbers alone seem threatening. The viewer has entered the film understanding that birds will play some sort of role in it given the title, but it’s not clear what kind (although it is possible that some viewers may have been aware even at the time of release, given that the film is based on a novella of the same name and similar subject matter). Now, from the outset, Hitchcock has made it clear that birds are threatening and ominous in the world of this film. Next, after the Universal logo fades in and out, we see dark bird silhouettes flying close to the screen. This is accompanied by the sound of flapping wings, furthering the impression of birds as ominous and worth fearing.
Hitchcock also seeks to make the viewer constantly aware of birds, to feel that birds are always around, always lurking. There’s hardly a better example of this than the transition from the credits to the first scene of the film. Watch and, more importantly, listen to the following clip:
The sound of the birds that Hitchcock has placed in the credits fades a bit, but never goes away entirely, and bleeds seamlessly into the first scene. Thus, as we leave the credits and enter fully into the world of the film, birds are the first thing we hear. This is a subtle maneuver, one that most viewers likely won’t even consciously register (after all, the sound of birds is not outside a normal urban soundscape), but it prepares us, at least subconsciously, for birds to play a central role in the film. Hitchcock makes this even more evident when he reveals the diegetic source of the bird noises through an eyeline match at the end of the opening pan shot:
Here we see the birds swarming over San Francisco, bookended by Melanie’s expressions of mild confusion. This sequence again reinforces the presence of the birds in the film and further tells us, through Melanie’s confusion, that their presence and behavior is unusual. This is not an outright declaration of the birds’ malicious nature, as swarming birds is unusual, but not extraordinary, and certainly not cause for outsized alarm. Through the credits and opening sequence Hitchcock takes the opportunity to introduce us to the film’s main antagonist. While he doesn’t frame them explicitly as such, he plants them in our minds as both ever-present and threatening from the outset.
Another technique that Hitchcock utilizes throughout the film’s first half is either introducing or elevating the sound of birds at moments of uncertainty and tension. Shortly after the opening sequence, at the six minute mark, Melanie attempts to take a canary out of its cage to show to Mitch. Listen to how the birds’ pitch and volume escalate as the canary escapes Melanie’s hand, and how they fall as Mitch recaptures it:
While this escalation of the birds’ volume is obviously painted as a natural response from all the birds in the shop to the escaped canary, it also comes in what is undeniably a moment of chaos and tension. This effect recurs later in the same scene. Notice how the same pulsing screech erupts when Melanie asks Mrs. MacGruder who Mitch was, and how it continues as Melanie runs down the stairs:
Here we have a moment of tension and uncertainty, especially for Melanie, and it coincides with a rise in volume from the birds. It’s entirely possible that this is accidental, or a byproduct of how Hitchcock recorded and mixed the sound, but it also seems feasible that Hitchcock engineered this increase in volume on purpose, and that he is associating birds with tension and conflict through sound.
Another example of this arises later in the film, when Melanie is attempting to sneak up on the Brenners’ house by boat. After she’s crossed the bay and cut the motor as she approaches, the only sound we hear is of the waves lapping against the boat. But as Mitch’s sister and mother leave the frame in the truck, we cut back to Melanie, and we begin to hear birds ever so faintly as she starts to paddle toward the dock:
The same thing occurs as Melanie spies on Mitch later in the scene. There is silence, until right before Mitch spots Melanie, at which point the sounds of the birds are reintroduced:
In this sequence the noises are more pronounced, and we even see birds fly rapidly in and out of the frame around Melanie. This occurs at a moment of tension between Mitch and Melanie, as he is attempting to find her out, while she presumably wishes to get away without being discovered. This is perhaps the clearest example in the film of Hitchcock amplifying the role of the birds during a moment of tension that is not directly caused by them. This sequence would function perfectly fine without the noises of the birds and without their intrusion onto the screen. It seems likely then that Hitchcock has included them for another reason: to strengthen our association between birds and conflict, preparing us for their later direct association. This scene, I think not coincidentally, takes place shortly before the first gull attacks Melanie, and we’re given a more explicit reason to consider the birds a threat.
A final technique Hitchcock uses that inundates us with the sounds of birds, and perhaps also reveals how well he’s done so, is to allow their sounds to come from seemingly unrelated sources. The clearest instance of this occurs before and during Cathy’s birthday party, immediately before the first mass bird attack. After Annie and Melanie have discovered the dead gull on their doorstep in the previous scene, the screen fades to black. The soundtrack for the next scene begins before we come up from black. Focus on the audio in the second before the video fades in.
It’s really only a second, right there at about the 0:03 mark on the video, but it sounds remarkably similar to the audio of the birds. For a split second before the video fades in, perhaps the viewer assumes, at least subconsciously, that it is indeed birds. This is a testament Hitchcock’s cleverness both in recognizing the similarity of the sounds and in having trained the viewer to this point to expect the presence of birds. The children’s shrieks and laughs return later in the scene, shortly before the actual birds attack:
Again, when off-screen, they sound close to indistinguishable from the sounds of swarming birds Hitchcock has laced throughout the film up to this point, and from the swarm of birds that is about to attack. Having the children emit the shrieks and cackles we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from the birds right before the first attack serves to lengthen and smooth the transition to the film’s second half, and marks the point where the focus of the film shifts from people to birds by literally shifting the source of sound from people to birds.
These are the ways Hitchcock saturates the viewer with the presence of the birds. Occasionally through visuals, but very often simply through sound and timing. He makes sure we hear them early and often, especially when there is conflict on screen, and immediately before the first mass attack, when the film takes its most decisive turn, he substitutes another source for a now-familiar sound before he yanks out the rug.
This is why I wasn’t shocked when the film turned from a simple romance to disaster film. I already knew the birds were everywhere, I knew they were threatening, and I knew they arose at moments of conflict. But crucially, I also didn’t know any of this. I had registered it somewhere, but Hitchcock had kept the hints fairly subtle. I noticed them without paying attention to them, observed them without registering them. Hitchcock gave away the twist to my subconscious self, but not my conscious one. So I was a little surprised when the film turned, but really, I expected it all along.
An important question that I haven’t touched on remains: Why? Why would Hitchcock, who so famously protected the secrecy of the twist in Psycho, give away what could’ve been a twist of similar magnitude? Perhaps the birds are a thematic device that needs to exist throughout the whole film, perhaps it was because he didn’t think viewers could handle another twist, or maybe it was simply to avoid being formulaic. I’m really not sure myself. I suppose I’ll leave that question for others to answer.
Good luck on finals everyone, may they go significantly better than this: