By Karen Jurgens
When I grew up in the 60’s, I developed a love of Alfred Hitchcock. I used to read from thick anthologies of his short stories, full of creepy suspense and surprise endings. When Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired on television late at night, I was a loyal follower, cowering afterward under the covers, too afraid to go to sleep. Later, his stories translated onto the big screen, and although I loved them all, The Birds has always been my favorite.
As a writer, I’m fascinated by the development of suspense, and this movie is a good model of study. Images of birds are sprinkled throughout the plot, beginning with the first scene where Melanie Daniel, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher, notices them flying in the skies of San Francisco. Is it a coincidence that the first scene also takes place in a bird shop? The idea of buying them as innocent pets sets the stage for later contrast when they turn into vicious predators, attacking children and killing adults.
The plotline centers around the idea of playing practical jokes on innocent people, and the moral question is raised—should nice people do things like that? The action centers on answering it, and by the end, we’re satisfied and teased with the blossoming of a potential romance between Melanie and Mitch Brenner, who have been flirting by playing practical jokes and getting even with each other throughout the film.
The plot lends itself to increasing conflicts, which in turn, escalate the suspense. After Melanie successfully sneaks into the Brenner house and delivers a pair of love birds for his little sister’s birthday present, a seagull swoops on Melanie’s head, as she returns the rented boat across Bodega Bay. The town buzzes with logical reasons as to why there have been isolated attacks, ranging from the drunk’s “It’s the end of the world!” to Mrs. Bundy, an expert in aviary studies, who shreds the idea that birds with such small brain pans could plan an attack against anyone.
Suspense grows as we watch hundreds of birds gather, and an attack follows each one. Beginning with the single death of a neighbor, Dan Fosset, and continuing with birds’ diving at frightened children at Cathy’s birthday party, it next explodes to an outbreak on the school children and the entire town. The audience is held spellbound in burgeoning fear through each scene, with no relief in sight.
The final two climactic scenes occur inside the Brenner home. During the first attack, the birds enter through the chimney, making it appear as though a war took place in the living room.
The second is the final pièce de résistance, ballooning our fear to the brink of bursting. Here is a brief synopsis:
In the deep night following a recent attack, Melanie hears a rustling upstairs. As the only person awake, she creeps silently up the steps to investigate. Twisting the bedroom doorknob slowly, she steps inside and beams a flashlight. The room is torn apart with birds perched everywhere, but before she can gather her wits and exit, the attack begins as the door slams behind her. The crows refuse to let her out as they peck at her, and she waves them off, struggling to escape before collapsing in a bloodied heap. When Mitch comes to the rescue, he finally heaves the door open with super human strength, pushing her body out of the way enough to pull her to safety.
In the final scene, we find out from a radio broadcast that almost all residents have already evacuated. Since Melanie’s condition requires immediate medical attention, Mitch decides to take her to a hospital in San Francisco. All four people, including the caged love birds, drive off in Melanie’s sports car, carefully picking its way through thousands of perched birds—the apparent victors in the battle for Bodega Bay. At that high point, Hitchcock, the master of suspense, leaves the ending to our individual imaginations.
Complete the prompt below for an extra entry in our quarterly drawings! Submit your completed writing prompt via Comments.
Writing Prompt: Finish the story with your own imaginative ending. What happens after they leave Bodega Bay and head back to San Francisco? Do Melanie and Mitch continue their relationship?