The Birds, starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, remains one of Alfred Hitchcock's most compelling and mysterious films. The quasi-supernatural premise, derived from a Daphne Du Maurier story, pits a teeming horde of viciously vengeful birds against a group of people in a small bayside town.
Terrifying scenes of physical violation punctuate, and comment upon, the drama of repressed and twisted human relations.
The Birds' "icy dramatisation of a stark reality" – as filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau vividly described Hitchcock's mise en scène in the first part of the film – assuredly has as much to do with its radical soundtrack as its unusual framings, spatial arrangements and travelling shots.
It is well known that the music of the movie is comprised of bird noises – and that those sounds were produced electronically. However what the critic-theorist Nicole Brenez would call the figural logic of Hitchcock's experiment here has never been, I feel, fully grasped. The Birds is a remarkably prescient – and again highly modernist – example of what I think of as drama without melos, literally without (extra-diegetic) music, in a tradition that extends forward to the films of the Dardenne brothers in Belgium (Rosetta, 1999) and Tsai Ming-liang in Taiwan (What Time Is It There?, 2001).
Where these directors create their own naturalistic flow (however stylised) from music-less drama, Hitchcock insists precisely on its disconcerting absence in a Hollywood context. The cold or clinical aspects of the film – and what so many critics take as its scorn for the nuclear family unit – surely has much to do with the fact that the conventional embraces (between lovers, or parents and children) deliberately have no accompanying musical swell, only a stark silence (or a muffling blanket of quotidian noise).
In conventional film melodrama (i.e., most narrative film), music cues the characters' emotional release or free expression. In The Birds, on the other hand, there is no such humanist release: only frozen, mute, strangled postures where no vocal sound comes forth, those 'silent screams' that chill us. No voice, and no music either to act as a surrogate voice – for it is the birds who, in this nightmare, have taken control of melos in its modern, steely, technologically rendered and mediated form.
But, to my surprise, I found later that this was not Hitchcock's first crack at the disconcerting effects possible from drama-without-melos. For the entire ten-minute length of the fairground murder sequence early in Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock keeps the score on hold, and trusts an interplay of voices, noises and grindingly repetitive fairground muzak to carry the suspense and horror of the unfolding action.
This magisterial lesson in film style will be echoed in the creepy soundscapes of Roman Polanski or of Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1993), with its accordion tune that goes around and around, inside a loveless bar that recalls the besieged diner in The Birds .
© Adrian Martin August 1993/January 2002