Death from above. That is the key to this movie. But it is only one key. It unlocks one very important door, but others remain locked.
I credit Jean-Luc Godard with finding this key. In Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard draws a visual analogy between Hitchcock’s birds and WWII bombers. This is the key which unlocks a very important part of the mise-en-scène. The scene Godard chooses is that of the children running from the school. Hitchcock was in his early 40s when the London Blitz raged on for 37 weeks. At one point the capital was bombed for 57 straight nights.
But Hitchcock was not in London. In March of 1939 he was signed to a seven year contract by David O. Selznick and the Hitchcocks relocated to Hollywood. In April of the same year his film Rebecca was released. It would be Hitchcock’s most lauded film till his canonization by the French New Wave. Rebecca won, among other awards, the Oscar for Best Picture (then known as Outstanding Production). The story was by Daphne du Maurier (whose novelette “The Birds” would form the basis for the film in question).
Foreign Correspondent would be released not long before The Blitz began (Mr. & Mrs. Smith at its height). By the time Suspicion was released later in the year (1941), The Blitz had been over for some months.
So what? The story was by du Maurier and Hitchcock was a successful filmmaker in Hollywood during The Blitz. The answer is mise-en-scène. Only a boy from London (Leytonstone, Essex) could have made birds so terrifying. Perhaps. We must remember that the Allied bombing of Hamburg (to use just one example) killed (in one raid) about 42,000 Germans: approximately the same number killed over the entire 37 weeks of The Blitz.
To further stray…how would a resident of present-day Baghdad handle the filming of The Birds? Or a citizen of northwestern Pakistan? Or a civilian in modern Afghanistan?
To be sure, this is a horror film. It is the only Hitchcock film I have seen which approaches the archetypal status (in that genre) of Psycho. Hitchcock made a career of suspense–of thrillers. The Birds is sheer terror.
Unlike many of the horror films by lesser directors which followed in the decades to come, The Birds succeeds is being both creepy and artful. This tenuous balance is perhaps best epitomized in the scene where Tippi Hedren smokes a cigarette on the bench in front of the playground. In a film with no proper soundtrack (save for the squawks and warbles of Oskar Sala’s Mixtur-Trautonium), it is the children’s voices singing “Risseldy Rosseldy” in the background which makes this scene both so spooky and so timeless. Composer Mauricio Kagel would employ a similar effect (the use of children’s voices) in his haunting composition entitled 1898 (from 1973).
As an added irony, the special effects shots of the murderous birds were achieved through the indispensable help of Walt Disney Studios. Indeed, it’s a small world after all. And that, in some strange way, might answer the most pressing question of all: why?