Film Comment (1978) - The Sound of one Wing Flapping
- article: The Sound of one Wing Flapping
- author(s): Elisabeth Weis
- journal: Film Comment (1978)
- issue: volume 14, number 5
- ISSN: 0015-119X
- publisher: Film Society of Lincoln Center
- Sloan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography (1995) — page 431, #510
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann, Blackmail (1929), Bodega Bay, California, Dial M for Murder (1954), Elisabeth Weis, Family Plot (1976), François Truffaut, Gaumont British Picture Corporation Limited, Jamaica Inn (1939), John Belton, Lifeboat (1944), Marnie (1964), North by Northwest (1959), Penelope Houston, Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Rebecca (1940), Robert Altman, Rod Taylor, Rope (1948), Sabotage (1936), San Francisco, California, Secret Agent (1936), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), Suspicion (1941), The Birds (1963), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Wrong Man (1956), Tom Gunning, Under Capricorn (1949), Vertigo (1958), William S. Pechter, Young and Innocent (1937)
The only directors whose sound styles have attracted wide critical attention are those whose aural styles are most obvious, like Orson Welles, whose soundtracks are as flamboyant as his visuals; Robert Airman, whose use of multiple tracks and mumbled dialogue sequences draws attention to the non-cognitive aspects of his dialogue; and Michelangelo Antonioni and Jacques Tati, whose absence of dialogue calls attention to the presence of sound effects that help describe the depersonalized modern environment. In three films where Hitchcock eliminates scoring, for example, he uses sound effects to much the same atmospheric effect: wind in Jamaica Inn, waves in Lifeboat, bird caws in The Birds. At first a person sounded like a machine; now a machine sounds like a person.
The Sound of one Wing Flapping
In a famous attack on Alfred Hitchcock's work, Penelope Houston complained that in The Birds "most of the menace [comes] from the electronic soundtrack, to cover the fact that the birds are not really doing their stuff" (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1963). We shall see later how The Birds' great reliance on sound effects is not only an aesthetic strength but a logical outgrowth of Hitchcock's creative development at that point in his career. But Miss Houston's comment is fairly representative in its implication that Hitchcock's use of film sound is a "poor relation" to his manipulation of the image.
The belief that aural techniques are a means of expression inferior to visual ones is shared by most film scholars and, indeed, by many filmmakers. It lingers from the beginning of the sound era, when visual expressiveness was limited by the technical necessities of recording sound. Sound technicians ruled the set for several years, and, as the traditional film histories rightly say, early talking pictures - with a few exceptions - were inferior to their silent predecessors.
Hitchcock himself appears to have accepted this bias by constantly defining "pure film" as film which expresses its meaning visually - specifically through montage. But a close examination of his statements reveals that he is objecting not to sound but to an excessive reliance on dialogue. His condemnation of static dialogue sequences does not include effects or music. His often-stated goal is to hold the audience's fullest attention, and to this end he will apply whatever techniques seem most effective for his purposes. In his desire to maintain close control over his audience's reactions he has never overlooked the possibilities inherent in the soundtrack.
From his first sound films, Hitchcock has treated sound as a new dimension to cinematic expression. He has hardly ever used it redundantly, but rather as an additional resource. Indeed, he is actually very proud of his control over the soundtrack. As he told François Truffaut: "After a picture is cut, I dictate what amounts to a real sound script to a secretary. We run every reel off and I indicate all the places where sounds should be heard." Such attention to sound is rare in commercial filmmaking. Most American directors leave all but a few important decisions to their editors and sound editors.
The only directors whose sound styles have attracted wide critical attention are those whose aural styles are most obvious, like Orson Welles, whose soundtracks are as flamboyant as his visuals; Robert Altman, whose use of multiple tracks and mumbled dialogue sequences draws attention to the non-cognitive aspects of his dialogue; and Michelangelo Antonioni and Jacques Tati, whose absence of dialogue calls attention to the presence of sound effects that help describe the depersonalized modern environment. But when it comes to less conspicuous sound styles there is almost no research.
An analysis of aural styles might begin by characterizing directors according to their overall approach to sound. They might be divided between the expressionists (such as Welles and Sergio Leone), who exaggerate their aural techniques, and the classicists (such as Frank Capra and John Ford), whose styles are more subdued. This latter category would include the majority of film directors who merely follow convention without giving much thought to the creative possibilities of sound. But it also includes a figure like Howard Hawks, who, while he does not draw attention to his soundtrack, characteristically uses sound in counterpoint to his images; the tension in his films often derives from the contradiction between what his characters say and what they do. Hitchcock is an expressionist who moved closer to classicism as his style evolved.
It is also possible to characterize directors according to whether their aural styles are closed or open. Directors operating in a closed mode (like Hitchcock and Fritz Lang) are selective, stylized, and more in control of their material; their world is self-contained. Directors operating in an open mode (like Altman and Jean Renoir) are more realistic and less in control of their materials; there is an implication of life beyond the frame and independent of the camera. This distinction has been made in terms of visual techniques, but only minimally in terms of aural style.
Thus, Renoir's open soundtrack is characterized by sounds that emanate from beyond the left or right edges of the frame and by what I call "deep-focus" recording, which allows us to choose between listening to the characters in the foreground or those in the background. Hitchcock's soundtrack, by contrast, allows for less freedom. When sounds are heard from beyond the frame, their intrusion does not seem accidental, as in Renoir's case, but threatening. And when Hitchcock uses deep-focus sound, he controls which sounds we attend to; background sounds contrast with or comment on foreground sounds. Major sounds rarely overlap, as they do in Renoir's films, and sound effects are sparser, more selective.
To appreciate Hitchcock's attitude toward sound, it is necessary to understand the way sound is conventionally handled. In the Hollywood studio tradition, the film soundtrack is divided among three categories: dialogue, sound effects and music. These categories reflect a literal separation of the sound elements on separate tapes, or tracks, that is maintained until the three are combined at the final mix, where each of three technicians controls the relative volume of one track.
Despite the studio tradition of separating the three soundtracks, Hitchcock does not conceive of them as separate entities. One distinctive element of his aural style is a continuity in his use of language, music and sound effects that reflects his ability to conceive of their combined impact before he actually hears them together. Hitchcock does not take for granted the conventional functions of a given track; there is an intermingling of their functions in many instances. In three films where Hitchcock eliminates scoring, for example, he uses sound effects to much the same atmospheric effect: wind in Jamaica Inn, waves in Lifeboat, bird caws in The Birds. Indeed, if in The Birds avian noises imitate the functions of music (instead of musical cues, bird cries maintain the tension), in Psycho music (screeching violins) imitates birds at various points.
This intersection of effects extends to Hitchcock's use of the dialogue track. Although Hitchcock does play a large part in the creation of the sceenplay, he has shown less creative interest in the dialogue per se than in such non-cognitive forms of human expression as screaming and laughter. Their value as sound effects is usually as important as their significance as human utterances. Similarly, Hitchcock pays less attention to what a character says than to how he says it. A person's actual words are less significant than his definition as glib or taciturn, voluble or silent. And if language sometimes functions as sound effects, conversely, Hitchcock's sound effects may function as language. He often ascribes very precise meanings to his sound effects. He told Truffaut: "To describe a sound effect accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue."
Hitchcockian music, too, is interesting less as a separate entity than for its connections with other aspects of the film. Film music is traditionally divided between source music (music that supposedly originates from a sound source on the screen) and scoring, or underscoring (background music unacknowledged by characters within the film itself but accepted as a movie convention). It is both too problematic and misleading to analyze scoring as an integral part of Hitchcock's aural style. For Hitchcock, as for other directors, the composition of the music is the aspect of filmmaking over which he has had the least control.
Much more valid in an analysis of Hitchcock's aural style than a study of the scoring for his films is a study of his attitude toward source music. Hitchcock has had an abiding interest in finding ways to incorporate music into the heart of his plot. Indeed, music is an essential component of the story in over half of his sound films, and eight of his protagonists are musicians. He thus can manipulate the audience's familiarity with and expectations about popular music as a way of defining character and controlling our responses without having to introduce any extraneous element. Hitchcock turns a piece of music into a motif which he handles like his other recurring aural or visual images. He loves to yoke music with murder: Think of the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much or the association of the villains with innocent tunes in The Shadow of a Doubt ("The Merry Widow Waltz") and Strangers on a Train ("The Band Played On"). By using source music he has control over the music because it is available before production - unlike scoring, which is normally written only after the rough cut of a film is assembled.
Hitchcock's incorporation of musical ideas into the thematic conception of his films is yet another example of how he uses the traditional elements of the soundtrack in unorthodox ways. But if one distinctive attribute of Hitchcock's soundtrack is the frequent intersection of the functions of the sound effects, music and dialogue tracks, his soundtrack is also distinctively contrapuntal to the visuals. That is to say, the sounds and images rarely duplicate and often contrast with each other. During a Hitchcock film we are typically looking at one thing or person while listening to another. By separating sound and image Hitchcock can thus achieve variety, denseness, tension and on occasion, irony.
It is possible to generalize about Hitchcock's overall aural style because many elements of it remain relatively constant and distinctive. It is also possible to distinguish several different aural styles within his oeuvre. To some extent, the various aural styles correspond with chronological periods in Hitchcock's career, and they also correspond roughly with his visual styles during those periods. But it would be an oversimplification to restrict any given film entirely to one category. Although Hitchcock's visual style generally involved a shift of emphasis from montage in his English films to camera movement in his American films, he did not forsake his dependence on montage for suspenseful or violent sequences. Similarly, his shifts in aural style are also primarily shifts of emphasis from some techniques to others.
The most important shift of style in Hitchcock's films involves a move from expressionism toward greater realism. From the beginning of his career until about 1966, Hitchcock became more and more interested in audience involvement. He moved toward realism in an attempt to increase audience identification through his protagonists, an emotional identification which depended to an extent on a relative invisibility of technique.
Not surprisingly, the biggest shift in his career came with his move in 1939 from England to Hollywood, where the American predilection for stylistic realism matched his own interests. (In subject matter the American films are in many ways less realistic than the finely observed films about English behavior, but that is another matter.) The bigger budgets and technical expertise available to Hitchcock in American studios enabled him to switch to a style less dependent on such techniques as miniatures and editing, which are more distracting, even to the untrained eye, than are full-scale sets and lengthy tracking shots. In his British films Hitchcock resorts to both aural and visual expressionistic effects in moments when he wants to reveal the feelings of his characters. In his American films he uses sound as a way out of visual expressionism. His distortions of sound draw less attention to his style than would their visual equivalents because audiences are less likely to notice aural than visual distortion.
In his American films Hitchcock generally works harder to establish connections between the audience and his characters. Whereas his British villains are likely to be overtly psychotic or criminal characters, in the American films the audience is forced to identify with the evil impulses in relatively attractive and normal people. Hitchcock in America is interested in the malevolence of so-called normality and in destroying audience complacency by making the viewer complicitous with evildoers. In order to force the identification between character and viewer he has to move the audience inside the minds of his characters without resorting to distracting techniques. Thus, expressionism - a film style originally developed to get inside a character's mind - is paradoxically discarded by Hitchcock when he is most seriously interested in exploring the psyche.
Tom Gunning has referred to Hitchcock's shift from the British to the American films as "a shift from melodrama to psychodrama" - a shift in focus from external events to a character's mind. Gunning's distinction implies a lessening in distancing devices in the American films. In the British melodramas Hitchcock does not hesitate to draw attention to a clever technique or to the literary, stage or cinematic convention with which he is working. (In Blackmail, the villain stands before a chandelier which throws the shadow of a handlebar mustache across his face; in Secret Agent, the villain draws a mustache on his own photograph.) It is as if Hitchcock wishes to lessen a slight embarrassment at working in the genre by acknowledging it. Gunning observes that in the American psychodramas, events may be just as melodramatic but the exaggerations of technique or plot are motivated within the context of the films because they are presented as the perceptions of one or another character. It is the character's perceptions that are melodramatic, not Hitchcock's, and thus he can present the most outrageous situations or characters without worrying about their verisimilitude. He can present the most exaggerated techniques as a realistic re-presentation of a character's perception.
The manipulations of sound in Hitchcock's earliest sound films, by contrast, are quite openly experimental. In his first and third sound films, Blackmail and Murder, Hitchcock can be observed trying both to overcome the technical obstacles of early sound shooting and to establish his personal attitudes toward the relationship between sound and picture. Most of the experiments are in the expressionistic mode, the two most famous examples being the subjective distortion of the word "knife" in Blackmail and the interior monologue in Murder. Both experiments are attempts to convey a character's thoughts and feelings. Yet at the same time both techniques draw attention to themselves as tricks and leave the audience emotionally outside the characters.
In the British films that followed, Hitchcock continued off and on to experiment with expressionistic sound techniques; but with one exception the techniques tend to be bravura effects in films that are otherwise less interested in penetrating the psyches of their main characters. The exception is Secret Agent, the film in which Hitchcock most consistently sought to use expressionistic techniques to convey the feelings of his protagonists. Secret Agent is the British film in which aural techniques clearly predominated over most other considerations when Hitchcock was planning the film.
At about the point when Hitchcock settled down to make a series of widely acclaimed films at the Gaumont studios, he consolidated what might be called his classical style - an apparent simplicity of form, an art that conceals art. Starting in 1934 with The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock found ways of building aural ideas into the very conception of his screenplay so that they did not seem so obtrusive as the expressionistic techniques. In both versions of that film, for example, the heroine's need to scream during a concert represents a concrete embodiment of a central tension running through many of Hitchcock's films: the problem of how to reconcile the need for personal expression with the need for social order.
Whereas the Gaumont films combine a relatively invisible, classical style with occasional outbursts of expressionism, the American films operate in a more fluid, consistent style - Hitchcock's subjective style. Most of the American films of the Forties and Fifties can be called subjective films because in them Hitchcock is concerned with presenting things through the distorted interpretation of a character. In a subjective film Hitchcock may never bother to provide an objective alternative to the way things are presented. The quintessential subjective films are Rebecca, Suspicion, The Wrong Man, Marnie, and Rear Window.
Rear Window is one of four American films made between 1943 and 1954 in which Hitchcock experiments with highly restricted space. In Lifeboat, Rope, and Dial M for Murder, as well as Rear Window, Hitchcock limits himself to a single set. Having established such stringent visual limitations, he uses sound in a highly creative way, often depending on it to establish tension. In other films Hitchcock often creates tension between what is in frame and what is out of frame. In the single-set films he creates tension between on-set and off-set space. People outside the room (or, in one case, boat) are a source of either menace or salvation. And in all of the single-set films but Lifeboat, Hitchcock suggests that on-set space may be subjective while noises from off-set space represent reality. The use of what I call "aural intrusion" as a metaphor for the penetration of the psyche by this reality is a dinstinctive component of Hitchcock's style.
It is possible to argue that The Birds continues the subjective tradition in which aural intrusion plays an essential role. But I find that in The Birds Hitchcock moves beyond audience identification with any character. And just as there is no sole victim whose perceptions we share, there is no single source of fear that can be attributed to a mere misperception of reality. In The Birds Hitchcock deals abstractly with fear itself, rather than with any particular manifestation of it. He does give shape to these fears in the form of the birds, but the birds are less important for what they are than for reactions they elicit. Thus The Birds is especially dependent on sound because of the non-specific quality of sound effects.
Indeed, The Birds, together with Secret Agent and Rear Window, is one of the three Hitchcock films in which sound is most important. And it deserves some extended analysis because it is the film in which Hitchcock combines the greatest interest in controlling sound with the greatest technical capacity to do so. Hitchcock's emphasis on sound effects is indicated by the fact that he foregoes background music in The Birds for the first time since Lifeboat twenty years earlier. (In both cases, the starkness of the scoreless soundtrack emphasizes the vulnerability of a human community in a hostile natural environment.) The Birds is also Hitchcock's most stylized soundtrack: It is composed from a constant interplay of natural sounds and computer-generated bird noises. The particular emphasis on the soundtrack at this point in Hitchcock's career would seem to have resulted from two converging developments, one technical, one personal.
The technical development was the new sophistication of electronic sound. "Until now," Hitchcock told Truffaut, "we've worked with natural sounds, but now, thanks to electronic sound, I'm not only going to indicate the sound we want but also the style and the nature of each sound." Such an interest in new technical challenges was, of course, characteristic of the director who immediately experimented with synchronized sound, elaborate camera movement, and 3-D as soon as each became available to him. Indeed, the challenge of mastering a new technology has provided a major creative stimulus for Hitchcock in many films.
The Birds deals abstractly with fear; thus it is especially dependent on sound because of the non-specific quality of sound effects.
The personal development involves Hitchcock's interest from about 1958 to 1963 in going beyond point-of-view shots indentified with a given character - an interest begun in Vertigo, developed in Psycho, and culminating in The Birds. In these three films, which to varying degrees might be called the "extrasubjective" films, the director sought most seriously to touch directly the fears of the audience. They are his least detached, most unsettling and haunting films. The extrasubjective films introduce terror through the experience of a character with whom we identify, but then Hitchcock removes the surrogate and we experience the sensation more directly. At the end of The Birds the characters may or may not have escaped their assailants, but the audience is left behind, in a world where the birds - which represent any terrifying, incontrollable forces - have prevailed.
When Hitchcock aims toward direct audience involvement, he often shifts from a dependence on the visuals to a greater dependence on aural techniques. In Vertigo the emphasis is still visual. Bernard Herrmann's score, with its hypnotic arpeggios, is important, but it is part of an overall effect. In Psycho the scoring generally maintains the tension in moments of relative tranquility. But during the killings the music picks up the visual motif of birds as predators; violins are scraped during the three attacks to sound like shrieking birds. Sound and visual effects work together to provide three of Hitchcock's most terrifying sequences.
A crucial aspect of the Psycho scoring is that the shrieking not only associates Norman Bates with his stuffed birds of prey, but it also associates the viewers with the on-screen victims. The cries of the victims, the screeches of the violins, and the screams of the audience merge indistinguishably during violent sequences. The distinction between screen victim and audience is broken down. In the subjective films, the violent sequences (the cornfield attack in North by Northwest, the struggle on the carousel in Strangers on a Train) rarely elicit screams. But the attacks in Psycho almost always incite the audience, and Hitchcock has guaranteed these screams by inserting them into the soundtrack to prime the viewer's response. During Norman's attack on Lila there are screams added to the violin shrieks that may or may not be attributed to Norman or Lila. It does not matter who makes them. The moment is one of abject terror for attacker, victim and viewer alike.
If each attack in Psycho evokes such strong identification between victim and viewer, how then does Hitchcock move beyond identification with the characters to more direct audience involvement? The impact derives from the severity of the attacks plus the interchangeability of the victims. The viewer suffers more intensely and more often in Psycho than he has in past Hitchcock films. But because the viewer survives the attacks on each character with whom he had identified, he begins to feel a generalized terror dissociated from any specific victim.
By the time of The Birds, screeches are even more important than the visuals for terrorizing the audience during attacks. In fact, bird sounds sometimes replace visuals altogether. Moreover, Hitchcock carefully manipulates the soundtrack so that the birds can convey terror even when they are silent or just making an occasional caw or flutter. As Truffaut points out. "The bird sounds are worked out like a real musical score." Instead of orchestrated instruments there are orchestrated sound effects. In Psycho, music sounds like birds; in The Birds, bird sounds function like music. Hitchcock even eliminates music under the opening titles in favor of bird sounds.
Once Hitchcock has established the birds as a menace, he controls suspense simply by manipulating the sounds of flapping and bird cries which recur quite unrandomly for the rest of the film. At any point in the film a bird noise can be introduced naturally, so Hitchcock has a means of controlling tension even more effective and less obtrusive than musical cues. Of course, ha also introduces birds visually, but the audience is much more conscious of their appearances than of their sounds. To introduce a bird visually without an attack is to tease the audience with a red herring, and so Hitchcock cannot manipulate the visuals as freely for suspense as he does the soundtrack.
One reason the sound effects in The Birds directly touch the fears of the audience is that they are relatively abstract - especially the bird cries. It is probably the abstract stridency of bird cries that accounts for their appeal to Hitchcock in Blackmail (the heroine's chirping canary), Sabotage (a saboteur's bird shop), Young and Innocent (the sound and sight of shrieking seagulls which precede the disclosure of the corpse), and Psycho (the violin shrieks). (Some mewing seagulls may be heard in Under Capricorn and Jamaica Inn, but there Hitchcock uses the sound simply for atmosphere and not for emotional resonance.) Since the bird cries are partly computer-generated in The Birds, that sound is particularly nonspecific, as is the electronic flutter that indicates the flapping of wings. The bird sounds are often so stylized that if the visual source were not provided, the sounds could not be identified. The effect of the resulting ambiguity is to universalize the noises.
The bird sounds are all the more abstract and terrifying when they come from unseen sources. As in Rear Window the enemy is most threatening when invisible. Perhaps the film's most frightening attack is the sixth, in which only a bird or two is seen. Mitch has boarded up the windows of his house. (His hammering, which is heard before it is seen, sounds like the tapping of beaks, a dominant noise during the attack.) The situation is claustrophobic: As the human victims listen to and fight off the assault, they realize that the home is as much a trap as a protection. The attack's end is signaled by the receding of bird noises. Meanwhile the audience has felt as threatened as the characters. By keeping the menace aural rather than visual, Hitchcock has once more broken down the barrier between audience and screen. The theater and the living room have seemed one continuous space - one continuous trap. If this were the only attack, The Birds would be a subjective film (from Melanie's perspective). But the attacks are not restricted to any character's private space.
There is a second scene in which the bird noises clearly are more menacing than the sight of them alone. In his essay "The Director Vanishes," William Pechter describes the shift in mood: "In one of the most amazing images of the film, we suddenly see the town, now burning in destruction, in a view from great aerial elevation; from this perspective, one sees everything as part of a vast design, and the scene of chaos appears almost peaceful, even beautiful; then, gradually, the silence gives way to the flapping of wings and the birds' awful shrieking, and the image, without losing its beauty, is filled with terror as well." We can distinguish the added effect of the sound because it is introduced later than the visuals and changes the mood of the shot.
At other times, however, the silence of the birds can be more frightening than their shrieks. There are seven attacks in all, and Hitchcock clearly was challenged by a desire to differentiate them. There are two sets of variables which he seems to be manipulating in relation to the sound effects: whether the birds are introduced first aurally or visually and wether the birds are ominously noisy or ominously silent.
One of the reasons The Birds is so unsettling is that there is no apparent logic or predictability about when or whom the birds will attack. (Hitchcock has said, "I made sure that the public would not be able to anticipate from one scene to another.") Part of our unease is determined by Hitchcock's shifting of whether we first hear or see the birds. The choice depends on whether he wants suspense or surprise for the attack.
The first attack is made by one gull on Melanie as she drives a motor boat. The gull enters the frame well before Hitchcock adds the sound of wings or the bird's screech. He has now established suspense; after having surprised us the first time we now know that the birds can strike without warning. Any bird caw can make us nervous.
For the second attack, at a children's birthday party, Hitchcock uses visuals and aurals simultaneously. At the height of the attack, the screams of birds and children are indistinguishable. Hitchcock extends the havoc both visually and aurally by having the bird pop balloons with their beaks. It enables him to add to the avian destructiveness without his actually having to show birds pecking at children's heads. (He saves the more gruesome sights for later impact.)
The third attack, in which finches flood Mitch's fireplace, also involves simultaneous sounds and images. It is not so terrifying in effect except for our realization that the birds are now inside the home.
Before the fourth attack on the school children, Hitchcock shows the birds building up silently, unnoticed at first, for an attack on a schoolhouse. In counterpoint to their ominous silence we hear the innocent voices of children singing. The preparation for the scene is considerably more terrifying than its realization. (The attack itself is so ambitious as a special-effect project that the more sophisticated viewer tends to speculate about how Hitchcock created the effects rather than to identify with the victims.)
The fifth attack alternates between silence and screaming. In a restaurant Melanie and other onlookers watch in silence as a man lights a cigarette next to a puddle of spilled gasoline. The people are inside a window and gesticulate wildly in pantomime. When they suddenly get the window open they all scream at once at the man to not throw down his match, but their babbled screams are as ineffective as their silence; they simply startle the man, and he tosses away the match, igniting an explosion. Hitchcock ends this sequence with the high overhead shot described above by Pechter in which the silent image takes on terror when the bird cries are added. It is significant to the viewer's response that the sequence begins from Melanie's point of view but shifts with the overhead shot to the apparently safe perspective of the birds themselves. At first we feel relief at our emotional removal from the holocaust below, but with the introduction of the terrifying screams we soon feel that even this space is threatening; there is no place where we can feel secure.
The sixth attack is the assault on Mitch's house that is created almost entirely through sound. By the end of this attack the birds have gained the advantage.
Hitchcock himself has described how for the seventh and last attack he no longer needed to have the birds scream: "When Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds we inserted the natural sounds of wings. Of course, I took the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all. To describe a sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, 'Now we've got you where we want you. Here we come. We don't have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.' That's what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to achieve that effect through electronic sound." Thus Hitchcock has characterized his birds in the same way that he characterized many of his villains; their silence is a sign of their control. (Most recently this central Hitchcockian motif of the villain who keeps control by keeping silent was seen in The Family Plot, which juxtaposes a pair of kidnappers who operate in mute efficiency with a pair of bumbling, inefficiently garrulous heroes.)
Having established this connection between silence and supremacy, Hitchcock maintains it for the rest of the film. In his words: "For the final scene, in which Rod Taylor opens the door of the house for the first time and finds the birds assembled there, as far as the eye can see, I asked for a silence, but not just any kind of silence. I wanted an electronic silence, a sort of monotonous low hum that might suggest the sound of the sea in the distance. It was a strange, artificial sound, which in the language of the birds might be saying, 'We're not ready to attack you yet, but we're getting ready. We're like an engine that's purring and we may start off at any moment.' All of this was suggested by a sound that's so low that you can't be sure whether you're actually hearing it or only imagining it."
The shift in terror in The Birds from noise to silence is essential to its extrasubjective style. The film eventually makes us feel just as vulnerable in moments of relative tranquility as during attacks. It is one thing to feel threatened when under attack; it is another to be frightened at all times, to feel that life is a permanent state of siege. Thus Hitchcock has achieved his career-long aim of making us wary, not so much of blatant evils, but of our precarious daily condition.
Another aspect of the film's soundtrack which is so insidiously frightening is the cross-identification of noises human, mechanical and avian. Although the major antagonists in the film are the natural order (birds) and the human order, the distinctions become blurred when we consider that both worlds are associated at times on the soundtrack with mechanical sounds. The associations can be made precisely because Hitchcock has established a norm of abstracted, stylized sounds. The birds, when screeching and flapping their wings, sound at times like an engine screeching and crackling.
Hitchcock describes the low hum of their menacing silence as "like an engine that's purring," and throughout the film motor noises seem to link bird and human noises. Under the opening titles the electronic flapping sounds of wings are intermingled with the almost imperceptible sound of a truck motor. Although we see birds during the titles (the titles, as abstracted as the soundtrack, are presented as fragments that converge and then disintegrate), we do not see a truck till their close, when a van roars by shortly after a trolley car, on a busy San Francisco street where Melanie is walking. She enters a bird shop where she will meet Mitch and attempt to talk to him over the loud sounds of bird chatter. The sequence ends with Melanie rushing into the street to watch Mitch's car take off noisily. The bird store has no doors, and the sounds of chirping cross-fade into the sounds of traffic. Thus Hitchcock has shifted by the end of the first sequence from bird sounds with an undercurrent of truck noise, to obvious truck noise cross-fading to bird noise, to bird noise plus human speech, to bird noise cross-fading to motor noise.
A few minutes later Melanie is herself driving a sports car. During this sequence (in which Melanie takes two birds to Mitch's sister), Melanie shifts gears noisily and often. In one shot the car is initially hidden by a hill, and we know of her impending approach only by the noise of the car motor. A close-up of the love birds swaying on their perches as she rounds the corners too fast is accompanied by the sound of screeching tires and shifting gears.
It may be that Hitchcock wants us to identify Melanie with mechanical noises because at this point we are to perceive her behavior as cold and mechanical. Her intrusion into the peaceful hamlet of Bodega Bay is suggested predominantly by the noise of the sports car as she drives through the quiet streets. Soon Melanie is associated with the noise of a motorboat she rents to deliver Mitch's birds. It is possible to interpret the film, as John Belton does, as implying that Melanie does indeed bring the bird attacks with her to the town. This interpretation is supported by the emphasis Hitchcock puts on Melanie's noisy approach by car to the town and by her noisy departure in the last shot of the film (an extremely long take of the car in which she and Mitch's family are escaping), the motor sound gradually dying out as they disappear into the distance.
Motor noise is associated with a second woman in the film, Mitch's mother, who resembles Melanie in appearance and apparent coldness. Hitchcock has described his use of motor noise as an extension of the mother's feelings just after she discovers a neighbour who has been killed by the birds: "The screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish. We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would….It's not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that's like a cry. It's as though the truck were shrieking."
By the film's end, the birds are in control, but so is the director. His final shot is a composite of 32 pieces of films and dozens of artificial and natural bird sounds.
Insofar as the women are doubles, there has been an aural reversal. Earlier, when Melanie was still untouched by any deeply felt experience, she was identified as something less than human by being associated with her car motor. Now the mother is indeed suffering, and the motor is taking on human qualities. At first a person sounded like a machine; now a machine sounds like a person.
But the machine also sounds like a bird. Hitchcock uses the word "shrieking" to imply that he was anthropomorphizing the truck, but the word he has chosen also describes bird noises. The Birds develops all sorts of crossreferences: The birds sound like machines because of the electronic origins of their sounds; the human beings sound like birds (especially when the children shriek during attacks); and, at times, the machines sound like birds or people. The aural exchanges in the film match it's overall visual exchanges. It starts in a bird shop where hundreds of birds are caged. By the end of the film it is the human beings who are caged by the birds - in phone booths, homes, and vehicles. All in all, the film offers a bleak picture of humanity as trapped by forces beyond its control; the world depicted seems all the more impersonal and hostile because of the mechanical nature of the soundtrack.
There is one more issue raised by the aural continuities of things human, avian, and mechanical, and that is the nature of filmmaking itself. Any film requires a certain subordination of human subjects to mechanical and technical necessities. Hitchcock's closed style has always emphasized that technical control, and The Birds is the most mechanical of all his films. Not only does the soundtrack incorporate computer-generated noises, but the visuals include 371 trick shots combining drawn and model animation and elaborate matting techniques. The birds, then, are the mechanical creation of a director who fully exploits the mechanical resources of his medium.
But Hitchcock further emphasizes his connections with the birds. The shift from Melanie's point of view at the start of the gas-station sequence to the final aerial shot is quite literally a shift to a bird's-eye view. But it is also a shift to the omniscience of the director himself. Hitchcock is fond of overhead shots that reveal his characters to be trapped by a destiny they cannot control. Within the world of film, however, it is not fate but the director who is in control. Hitchcock's avian and human attackers are simply the agents of a malevolent fate imposed by the director on his characters.
The birds are in control, but so is the director. His final shot is a composite of thirty-two pieces of film and dozens of artificial and natural bird sounds. In previous shots the predominant sound has been that low, artificial hum of menace. This "electronic silence" is so important to the tension that when Mitch tenuously starts up and drives Melanie's sports car out of the garage there is absolutely no motor sound - from the same car that Hitchcock has previously shown to be particularly noisy. Thus, the silence which Hitchcock ascribes to the birds is ultimately a sign of the director's control over his characters, his viewers, and his art.
(c) Elisabeth Weis / Film Comment (1978)