Posted by: Paul | 09/08/2009

Some “Cheep” Thrills

I’ve been a diehard fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies ever since I discovered them as a teenager. So it’s a great thrill now to rewatch some of those classic films with my own teenagers.

This past weekend found us gathered around “The Birds.” Afterwards, I asked my 15-year-old daughter what she thought of it, and what scene do you supposed she mentioned? Not the attack in the upstairs room or any of the other dramatic assaults. No, she brought up the scene when Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) discovers a neighbor who has been killed by the birds.

It’s easy to see why this is a stand-out scene in anyone’s mind — the poor guy has had his eyes pecked out. But it’s remarkable to see how well Hitchcock sets it up and stages it.

Notice, first, how the scene is virtually wordless. Hitchcock’s grounding as a silent-film director again helps him conceive of a visual way to clue us in — and since film is, after all, primarily a visual medium, the extra effort pays off with memorable images.

Take, for example, the broken china Mrs. Brenner notices when she first enters the house. This scene, I should note, comes right after the one in which the Brenner family has had its home invaded with countless sparrows (via the chimney). Left in their wake: broken china, which we watch Mrs. Brenner clean up as the family reports the attack to the sheriff. Thus she knows as well as we do what the broken china at her neighbor’s house heralds: a bird attack.

However, there have been no casualties (hardly any injuries, in fact) to this point. So although the broken china and other debris induce a sense of dread (as Hitchcock intends) they don’t fully prepare us for the sight of the neighbor’s gruesome corpse.

We’re informed, but not completely informed. So Hitchcock can scare us and surprise us (which, as any student of Hitchcock can tell you, is not the same thing).

Note, too, the reveal of the body. Not the stereotypical quick zoom, but a series of three rapid shots — long view, medium view, closeup. Also, no crescendo of music is heard as we see the neighbor’s face — another cliche avoided. No scream from Mrs. Brenner — just a horrified sprint from the scene, followed by her tearing off in her truck. The whine of the engine and the clouds of dust behind it convey her anguish and shock far more effectively than any conventional film method.

At the risk of sounding somewhat cliched myself, I have to say it: Hitchcock was almost without peer when it came to creating suspense and horror. And this one scene beautifully showcases his technique.

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