Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds"

The opening shot has the camera angle at a distance from the space where the action is taking place. The action in this case is the setting out of the boat from the shore. The distance of the camera is such that it is difficult to see who is in the boat until two shots later, when the boat becomes the centre of the frame. The viewer is first of all made aware of what is being crossed, rather than what is doing the crossing: the boat is shown in proportion to the expanse of water. Other composite elements of the second shot emphasise what the character is leaving behind: we see the cluster of buildings around the river mouth and the hill range backing it. The cloud cover over the port acts as a reminder of the unpredictable nature of weather, and the boat’s departure from the port also suggests a departure from the safety the port may have provided.

The character’s actual journey across the bay is significant as it dwells on her incongruous appearance to the setting. After the first two shots of this scene the camera closes in on the boat and its occupant. Against the grey, uniform background of the water and shoreline she seems to radiate light and colour. Her glowing skin, her yellow hair, and her long fur coat seem so unlikely in this dull place that it gives her an almost regal aspect. Her capabilities are made obvious as she powers her own boat across a wide stretch of water and her awareness and focus are apparent in her controlled, relaxed expression. She maneuvers her boat with ease, stopping the engine and reverting to an oar when she wants to approach more quietly.

When the main character enters the house carrying the Love Birds the camera is very distant from her, emphasizing the length of the hallway and the size of the house. Any number of possible rooms are left for the viewer to imagine. The camera does not move until she has come already halfway down the hall towards it, and then it moves in time with her until she reaches the living room and dining room. It keeps her the focus as it pans, following her entrance into each room. The ease with which she is able to move around the lower floor suggests the emptiness of the house but the upper floors cannot be seen and therefore may not be empty. This helps to create an atmosphere of tension – if there is no one in the house there is no one to welcome her in. However she is in the house anyway and is therefore trespassing on private property. Her quick check out of the window shows her nothing, which is what she wants to see. She makes a swift exit out of the front door and down from the veranda. Eyeline match technique is used here, as she looks again at the barn to check if she has been spotted. With this the viewer expects to see someone or some action, but none is forthcoming. The camera tracks along the jetty as she leaves, and also uses this tracking technique to show what she sees as she looks back while moving at the same time. This increases the suspense further as the time is slowed and we expect to see something new, and are disappointed.

The mobile framing technique used while she is returning to the boat pulls the audience along with her, giving them the same perspective as she and maybe even less because she turns round to check her back, a luxury not permitted to the audience. However it also gives the viewer the perspective a pursuer would have, which again builds the mood of suspense, as we expect her to get caught. The fact that she is not caught is peculiar but when she is finally spotted by the second character from the shore the viewer feels a sense of relief. The second character smiles, the first character smiles and the joke has seemingly gone off well. However, it is when she attempts to restart the boat a reverse shot sequence shows movement finally on the shore. This is the first sign of things not going to plan as she has to try a few times to get the motor started. It is during one of the shots of the shore that seagulls appear, swooping down at different heights and apparently coming towards the point of view of the camera – which is seemingly mounted on the boat. In this way the viewer finds himself complicit in the experiences of the main character. It is interesting to note how the seagulls appear just as the point of view changes from one character to another. The camera follows the eyeline match of the character on land as he looks through his binoculars to see the character on the water and finally it re-establishes the shot by focusing again on his face. His arrival occurs at the same time as the arrival of the seagulls. This not only anticipates the next sequence of shots where a plot disturbance occurs, it relates back to this character’s first arrival on the scene where he was the cause of an earlier problem.

As the motor starts and the protagonist journeys towards the harbour the time for anything to go wrong has passed. We followed her in such close detail as she delivered the birds and left the shore that anything that could have gone wrong should have gone wrong then. That is why the mood is considerably lighter when something finally does happen, and it is more shocking because of this. The seagull attack is frightening because there has been no precursor to it, other than the arrival of the second character onto the scene.
 

References

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin (1990) Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill

Mcgilligan, Patrick (2004) Alfred Hitchcock; A Life in Darkness and Light. United Kingdom: Harper Perennial