Alfred Hitchcock is commonly known as “the master of suspense!” Does he achieve this in the “climbing frame” scene in the film “The Birds”?
“The Birds” is a melodramatic film produced in 1963 based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier. It was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a British-born film fanatic. Rod Taylor (Mitch) and Tippie Hedren (Melanie) star in “The Birds”, which is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s abstrusely unnerving psychodramas. The action takes place in a small Californian town, known as Bodega Bay. Before long the town is attacked by marauding birds, and Hitchcock’s skill at staging action is brought to the fore. What really unnerves the audience is not the birds skirmishes, but the anxiety and the eerie quiet between attacks.
Hitchcock’s dominant suspense thriller sees Melanie taking fate into her own hands to hook up with a rugged fellow (Mitch) in the coastal town of Bodega Bay, after he had purchased some love birds. This film gives light to some of Hitchcock’s most unnerving images such as a seagull casually gliding into a shot aloft a blazing petrol station and when Melanie was on a playground bench, unaware of the menaces flocking to the playground climbing frame behind her. This essay will go into great detail about the ways in which the “master of suspense” creates tension and suspense in the infamous “climbing frame” scene. The climbing frame scene comes after the scene where the farmer is found with his eyes pecked out, and straight after this scene, you can find Melanie in the local hotel talking on the phone.
Birds had been used in the previous part of the film, to create tension, to cause panic to the audience and the characters in the film. The birthday scene is a perfect example of this. A group of birds started attacking some Bodega Bay locals (and Melanie) for no apparent reason. This showed the audience the killer potential that the birds possessed, and told the characters that they can expect more spontaneous attacks later on.
In the first part of this scene Melanie is seen driving to the school. This is a “normal” part which sets the scene up with reassurance that nothing will go wrong. This creates tension because we know that with birds about, trouble is not far behind. The effect of this is that the audience is left wondering what will happen. We then hear children singing. Their youthful voices create a sense of naivety and innocence in sharp contrast to the tension generated by the ever increasing number of birds outside. The effect of this is that we realize just how defenseless they are. They are wide open to a brutal attack from say, some birds.
The contrast between Annie and Melanie is exposed in this scene. Melanie is portrayed as a little bit rude. She waltzes in to the classroom without knocking which some people may view as impolite. Annie is shown as quite an old fashioned person, a fairly polite person as well because she quietly tells Melanie that it is not an appropriate time to talk. This causes Melanie to have a cigarette.
The next section of the scene is the infamous “climbing frame” scene. This is the most important scene for close analysis. Tension is built up here through the use of symbolism. The children singing and the crows outside is an example. Inside, the children represent heaven, all which is good in this world. Outside, the crows represent evil, all that is bad in the world, miscreants that pose a threat to the whole of Bodega Bay. The symbols of blithe, childhood innocence are a stark contrast with the evil birds, these two societies being within a stones throw of each other. This can only have bad consequences, as we shall see. This creates tension because the audience is left scratching their heads over who can be crowned victorious in the struggle between good and evil.
Hitchcock uses a wide variety of camera shots in this particular scene. There are some head level shots, some zooming shots, and some following/fixed shots. The camera focuses on Melanie while she is having a cigarette and also uses some fixed shots of the birds. The fixed shot of Melanie can show her expression in detail. The effect of these shots of Melanie on the bench is that we get to realize that she is expressing her nervous disposition. I know of this because she is smoking. She also keeps on looking to the side of herself. This shows her as quite agitated, she is constantly twitching. This creates tension because the audience knows that the crows are behind her but Melanie never sees them until they have all flocked together. This is an example of dramatic irony. This makes the audience feel uneasy because they know the threat being posed to Melanie, but Melanie is just sitting down, smoking her cigarette as if there is not a murder of ravenous crows behind her.
Sound is used to create tension. While the birds are flocking together, you cannot hear them. They are deathly silent. If the birds were making noises while they grouped together, the people would have noticed their threat and ran. However, as the birds were silent, when Melanie realized they were there, there was no escape. This creates tension because we were left wondering how Melanie and the children would escape without becoming bird feed.
One after the other the crows perch themselves on the climbing frame. The alternating camera shots of Melanie and the birds create tension because it builds up a gradual sense of danger, every time the camera is back on the birds we realize more of their malignant friends have joined them. The audience does not know how many birds there will be the next time the camera takes a look at them. This creates tension because the future of the children is bleak and uncertain. The effect of this is that the audience is left feeling quite scared and insecure.
When Melanie does realize that the birds are but some twenty yards away from her, the audience would probably be thinking about the children. This is because they would feel that the children would not stand a chance of surviving against scores of ravenous menaces and that Melanie and Annie would have more of a chance of protecting themselves on the fact that they are adults. I think that the audience would hope that Annie would protect the children because that is her job. The characters are oblivious to the birds outside. The children cannot see the birds because as the audience already knows, there is a wall between the children and the birds, which obstructs their view. This is another inclusion of dramatic irony. The effect of this is that we realize the children will probably not escape unharmed. This creates tension because their future is in doubt.
Melanie then goes back into the school to tell Annie what is wrong. Another contrast between the two is shown, how they reacted under pressure. Melanie is quite calm and collective, obviously trying to keep hold of the situation. Annie, on the other hand, was perceived as a little bit hysterical. She took a glance out the window and judging by the expression on her face, she was quite distraught. Annie then told the children to show Melanie how good they are at practicing a fire drill. That was a decoy; there was no fire drill, just a group of vicious crows in close proximity to them. She did not want to tell the children the truth because she would have created panic. This makes the audience anxious and tense. Tension is created because the audience realizes that the children have little chance that they will come out of this ordeal unharmed. This is because they know the crows are there and the children do not. This is one more inclusion of dramatic irony. This creates worry amongst the audience because they know the children are in danger, but the children themselves do not. Annie thought that if the children evacuated the building quietly, then they could escape unharmed.
The camera shots in this particular section of the scene follow Annie as she paces up and down the class. This tells me that Annie is in charge, she is the most important person in this part of the scene. She is the one employed to look after the children. Annie is the one the children trust, they do not know Melanie so they rely on Annie to keep them safe. In this part of the action, Melanie is not the one in the lime light; she has to play second fiddle to Annie. The effect of this is that the audience are trusting Annie to keep the children safe. They want the school teacher to control her class and lead them to safety.
The audience sees more of the action then some of the characters in this part of the scene. This was done purposely so the audience becomes riddled with suspense. The audience would know that the people should remain in the school until the birds vacate. However they go outside and end up being attacked. There were just simply too many birds to be able to slip away unnoticed.
The last section of the scene is the attack, the part where the crows erupt like a volcano and strike. Sound plays an important part in this section. As the children quietly exit the school, they try to not draw attention to themselves. This creates tension and suspense because the audience does not know whether the children will be noticed or not.
The reality is that the children did get noticed by the crows. The sound suddenly changed from being really quiet to really loud. The sound was dreadful. It created panic. Children screaming, the flapping of crow’s wings and the squawking they made was truly atrocious. This created tension for the audience by showing the vicious nature of the crows and the threat they pose to a group of children and two women.
During the attack several different types of camera shots were used. Long shots were used to give the effect of an overall view, how many birds there were and how many screaming children were running away from them in fear. The close up shots was used to show the birds in detail. It gives the effect that the birds are evil. It makes the audience feel uncomfortable and uneasy. Then there were the close up horror attacks of individuals. When the little girl got knocked over you got to see the attack close up. She lost her glasses although she was helped to her feet by some of the frightened people around her. The effect of this was that the audience was shocked because they got to witness graphic violence close up. This created tension as the audience was wondering whether a little girl can survive a mauling by a group of crows. The attack on the little girl was showed me something. She got knocked over by just a single one crow diving in to her. That showed just how vulnerable and exposed the children were to the birds. If they cannot handle one bird how are they going to fair against numbers of them?
The attack created tension because you saw the crimson blood and you could hear the muffled screams of the children. You were able to witness the torture they were put under. You also have to realise that there was no music being played in the background like there is in so many other films of this type. This helped to make the film more unique and memorable.
The characters, quite understandably were terrified during the attack. Their facial expressions showed this. The children blanched visibly. Annie and Melanie also looked petrified. They reacted in a way you would expect someone being chased by a murder of crows to react. They screamed and panicked and ran away as fast as they could. This made the audience feel disturbed and worried that the characters were getting viciously attacked. The assault only stopped when Melanie and some children quickly got in her car and Melanie sounded the horn. Even this created tension though. While Annie and some children were in the car the audience did not know whether they would be safe in the car, or whether the birds could make it through the roof of the car, which as it was a convertible, the car roof was made of rather weak fabric. This created tension because the characters immediate future was uncertain. As quickly as they attacked, the birds left leaving a sour after taste in the mouths of those that they had just previously violently assaulted. The audience at this moment must have felt a sigh of relief. Annie, Melanie and the school children had escaped with little physical damage
In my opinion this scene is very effective; Hitchcock did create suspense in this scene. He used all the methods at his disposal. He used camera shots, sounds, characters expressions, silence, and imagery to create suspense. He used contrast to create suspense, such as the contrast between the crows and the children, the contrast between Annie and Melanie. He kept the gathering of the crows quiet to build up the suspense and to keep the characters at high risk from a bombardment. Then and only when there were scores of crows did they make a noise, but by then it was too late to walk away without being attacked from the sinister crows.
The birds seemed particularly frightening in this film. They psychologically affected you. It played on your mind. Birds do not normally strike fear into people’s eyes. You would not normally walk down the street, see a bird and quake in your boots. However, I can imagine after watching this film, some people may be a little panic-stricken if they saw a group of crows flying over their heads! The audience must believe that if it can happen to a bunch of people in Bodega Bay, then it can happen to then. Alfred Hitchcock deserves credit because he has made a relatively “nice” group of animals feared by a lot of people using this film.
A modern audience would react far differently then an audience of the sixties would, watching the film when it first came out. You have to realize that the “cutting edge technology” used in “The Birds” is pretty primitive by today’s standards.
When the film first came out, the audiences were not “immune” to the graphic violence that we would now call “tame” by today’s standards, they were not used to seeing horrific violence in that much detail.