Deep Space in the The Birds (1963)

By Na Ma, Ohio University

The Birds (1963), based on the 1952 story “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier, is a famous suspense/thriller film by Alfred Hitchcock. The film depicts a series of widespread and violent bird attacks that take place for unexplained reasons over Bodega Bay, California, for several days. It contains notable examples of deep-space cinematography.

Deep space, also called deep staging, is a part of mise-en-scène, containing depth of field from the front to the back in the different planes of one picture. Directors and cinematographers utilize deep space when significant elements of an image, such as actors and props, need to be positioned both near to and distant from the camera. In The Birds, the large expanse of deep space helps create great suspense, in both indirect and direct ways. The indirect ways are evident in the beginning of the movie with a very quiet and peaceful environment implying the coming of a potential but unseen danger, in contrast to the direct ways that are used in the latter part of the movie in depicting the riveting attack of the birds with deep space.

It is said that Hitchcock particularly uses deep space and low topography to capture the “overwhelming effect” (Paglia 18) of birds flying in the sky, which is his monumental canvas. Although the “state-of-the-art” effects and composite shots in the film can be seen as “rudimentary” (Paglia 19) by today’s advanced computerized graphics standards, The Birds is still considered “probably the most prodigious job ever done” (Paglia 19) by Hitchcock.

The first occurrence of deep space (See Image No.1) in The Birds is an intensive deep-space scene. It appears in the seventh minute of the film, shortly after Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) first encounters Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in the bird shop. Mitch wants to purchase a pair of lovebirds for his sister’s eleventh birthday present. He plays a prank by pretending to mistake Melanie for a salesperson, which gives Melanie a deep first impression. Melanie asks Mrs. MacGruder, the owner of the bird shop, “Who was that man?” Mrs. MacGruder replies with the same confusion, “I have no idea.” After these shallow spaces where the image either has Melanie and Mitch talking or Melanie and Mrs. MacGruder chatting, the camera turns to a wide and deep space showing Melanie leaving the bird shop. In this first space, the camera captures the Melanie walking downstairs with birds twittering in a surround of the bird shop. The audience can clearly see Melanie’s back and many decorations in the shop, including multiple bird cages, different colors of birds in the cage, a black and white painting of two dogs on the wall, and distant furniture downstairs. To give a better view of this whole pet store where Melanie and Mitch first meet and to emphasize the birds’ caged environment where the beautiful birds are managed by humans, Hitchcock combines the high-angle shots with deep space.

Another extensive deep-space cinematography occurs in an exterior space when Melanie drives along the coast. In this typical deep space scene, everything from foreground to sky is visible in full detail. The audience can clearly see the blue sky above and the waves of the seawater from a broad view, as if it were a still, but live landscape painting. Then the image turns to another deep-space scene. With giant mountains below the white clouds, Melanie’s car moves closer and closer to the screen (See Image No.2). As Melanie’s face gradually becomes clear, the background — the natural environment — is still clearly visible to the audience. One of the quick cuts is the scene in which the lovebirds are in transit as their cage rests on the passenger-side floor of Melanie’s sports car. They are swaying on their perch and seem so “patient and attentive” while Melanie drives along the “longer, winding, scenic coastal” (Paglia 28) highway in a hurry. After that, Hitchcock places the camera behind Melanie’s car and captures the movement of the car on a narrow path towards Bodega Bay with birds flying above the distant sea (See Image No.3). All this exterior deep space displays the beauty of the natural environment where the birds live and sets an unexpected quietness right before the danger of the huge birds’ attack later in the movie.

Hitchcock also uses intensive deep space to give better narration of the film settings. A deep-space scene with multiple characters moving around in the background first appears when Melanie enters a small town. This scene contains one unmoving boat on the left, with still buildings, moving cars and ten people walking in the street (See Image No.4). The back of a red Stop sign is placed visibly in the very front of the left screen, and on the left side of the road where Melanie is driving. Toward the end of the road with about twenty miles to the Stop sign, the audience can still see a store with a green colored sign reading Bodega Bay, which officially indicates the first appearance of the town. A large green building with another bigger sign “SEA FOOD” and “FISH MARKET” shows more clearly on the right side of the screen. Below the sign, the audience sees two women standing in front of the store purchasing seafood and a man in white bicycling past the seafood store. This lovely scene seems to tell the audience that people in this “Bay” town make a living on the sea or natural environment and they live a peaceful and happy life.

A deep space scene with shallow focus is a scene in which the camera does not put every element in focus. It is first displayed when Melanie leaves the post office after she first meets and talks to Annie about Mitch (See Image No.5). The image contains almost the same context information as when Melanie drives towards the post office the first time. This helps the audience recall the similar context that it already has viewed and to become more familiar with the film settings. The big difference is that Melanie’s car is driving in the opposite direction. After the scene cuts to another image showing Melanie’s car driving towards the Bay coast, this special mise-en-scène containing deep space is used again. The audience can see that many cars are in the parking lot near the coast and then Melanie is getting out of the car and walking towards the coast to take her boat (See Image No.6). This image not only gives the audience an impression that Melanie hurries to send the love birds to Mitch, but also a message that the boat transportation is a busy business in Bodega Bay. In the meantime all these happy images start to establish the first suspense for the audience about what will happen in this peaceful town.

Deep space is particularly used to describe the characteristics of Melanie. The process of Melanie crossing Bodega Bay in a boat contains multiple deep space images of high art quality. The first image depicts Melanie sitting in the boat with her back facing the screen and moving further and further away (See Image No.7). In contrast to the first image, which adopts the typical verizonal view from the back to the front, the second image uses a horizontal view to capture the movement of the boat from the west side of the sea to the east side (See Image No.8). The third image has a deep focus on Melanie’s body as she steers the boat across the water, with the town and mountain becoming “distant” (Paglia 33) but clear behind (See Image No.9). The fourth image has an extreme deep focus on Melanie’s face in the same surrounding. The previous two images use deep space to describe the broadness and largeness of Bodega Bay (See Image No.10). The latter two images purposely place Melanie operating the boat in this expanse, in order to create the impression that Melanie has a bold and adventurous personality, and is not scared of any potential danger. Melanie’s eyes open wide as if she is observing carefully what is happening on the other side of the harbor. This activity can explain why she is able to tell immediately that the red house is where Mitch lives. This foreshadows that Melanie is not afraid of the birds’ attack and can forget her safety so that she can rescue the kids in a scene that will happen later in the film.

Extensive deep space and intensive deep space are both used to display Mitch’s house from the outside to the inside. After Melanie gets to the coast, multiple similar images show a red house from the outside (See Image No.11 &12), using deep space to provide the audience a complete view of the neighborhood where Mitch lives. Then Melanie walks towards Mitch’s house with the lovebirds in her left hand. As soon as Melanie enters the house, the camera’s lens is set further from her with a small aperture when she stands beside the door (See Image No.13). This deep-space mise-en-scène of the long hallway provides the audience with plenty of details about the inside of Mitch’s house: blue painted wall, white carpet floor, wood coffee stairs, etc. After Melanie walks inside to the living room from the hallway and puts the lovebirds on the table, another deep space is used to give more details about this house: a red book shelf, a big gray fireplace, red chairs, tables, etc. (See Image No.14). Nice-looking furniture and decorations suggest that Mitch’s family lives a rich and cozy life.

After Melanie leaves Mitch’s house, the camera follows Melanie to the sea. In Melanie’s view, the camera is creating another deep-space scene. It captures the swinging water in the foreground of the screen and the activity in the background where Mitch is walking back and forth in front of his house after he finds the lovebirds (See Image No.15). Then the direction in the use of deep space switches to Melanie’s side, depicting the boat surrounded by a large body of water as Melanie desperately tries to start the engine of the boat quickly so that Mitch will not see her (See Image No.16). Soon the deep space shifts back towards Mitch’s house. In addition to seeing Mitch in the background running outside the house, the audience can also clearly see that several birds are flying and screaming in the foreground of this scene (See Image No.17). This provides evidence that the birds are beginning to become upset so that one bird’s attack on Melanie on her way back makes sense.

Voyeuristic scenes with deep space of clearly seen background can imply characters’ heterosexual interest in a positive way. There are two voyeuristic scenes where Hitchcock has incorporated subtle deep space. In the scene when Melanie peeks through the window in Mitch’s house to check whether Mitch is coming back, the small view of Melanie’s peeking scene also uses deep space to depict the outside environment and tells the audience that Mitch has not come back yet. This peeking scene not only shows the fear of Melanie’s inside world but also her hidden love interest in Mitch. Another deep-space scene occurs when Mitch peeks at Melanie. With the telescope that Mitch has taken from the house, the audience and Mitch can clearly observe Melanie’s boat leaving in a big hurry with the sea and mountain in the background, but in a deep space of a telescope shape instead of the normal wide square film screen (See Image No.18). The subtle use of a telescope in the voyeuristic scenes with deep space impresses the audience with the intelligence of Mitch and his possible love of Melanie.

It is hard to use deep space at night without light. In one scene, however, after Melanie asks to if she can stay one night at Annie’s house, the effect of deep space is used extensively to depict the outside view of Annie’s house at night. Though it is dark, the whole image is not blurry. The audience can see the dark tree bark in the very front foreground, the white car moving in the middle-ground, and the green mountain in the background (See Image No.19). This image creates a deadly quiet but horrendous atmosphere, leading the audience and the two female protagonists to guess that some danger will sooner or later approach this house.

The broad natural environment with the characters’ activities in deep-space scenes helps repeatedly to remind the audience of the long-term seemingly harmonious relationship between nature and human beings. After Melanie officially meets with Mitch, Mitch’s mother Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) and Mitch’s sister Cathy Brenner (Veronica Cartwright), are all walking on the front porch toward Brenner’s house. Placing multiple characters in a low-light key but deep space scene is much harder than any other deep space scenes. If the camera is set behind the characters’ backs and shoots their movement, the distance between the characters and the camera is greater and greater until the characters disappear from the view when they enter the house. If the camera can be set in front of the house and kept the same distance to the front porch, it can fully record that these characters are moving from the right to the left until they enter the house. Instead of using these two ways to place the camera, Hitchcock puts the camera in front of these characters in the hallway (See Image No.20). This not only clearly captures the talking and smiling of the four characters, but also displays the beauties of the distant Bodega Bay and the green mountain. Thinking backwards, large expanses of natural environment appearing in deep space scenes can also function to warn human beings, especially the four main characters, that harmony with nature is not stable and the hidden but unseen danger from nature is coming.

A defining characteristic of deep space is deep focus, which can also be called a particular type of deep space with deep depth of field. Like deep space, deep focus involves staging an event in a film so that significant elements can be positioned widely in the image in separated planes. Unlike deep space, deep focus requires that elements be placed at very different depths of the image and all objects in this deep space should be in focus. Using deep space with or without deep focus is an artistic choice. Some directors use deep focus only in some scenes or even in just some shots. Other auteurs like to use deep focus throughout the movie because they believe it represents reality better. Directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles and Jean Renoir all used deep focus as part of their signature style. In The Birds, Hitchcock employs deep focus in certain scenes.

All elements in a deep focus image can function integrally to help transfer the message or the theme that the director or the film wants to convey to the audience. One of the best examples of deep focus in The Birds is the second scene at Annie’s house where Annie is sitting in the foreground while Melanie is in the background on the phone. They are both in focus. The camera captures the front image of Annie smoking and the rear activity of Melanie standing and then sitting while talking on the phone. The frames appear sharp and clear. The audience can clearly see Annie’s upset and grouchy facial expression and her sexual jealousy while Melanie is talking to Mitch, Annie’s ex-boyfriend.

Through deep focus, all the different planes of the image are given equal importance, not only of the characters (such as Melanie sitting outside the school to wait for Annie’s appearance), but also of the spaces (such as the sky where large amount of birds are screaming and flying). A long-take scene with deep space shows Melanie sitting on a bench and waiting outside for Annie’s lesson to end. She takes a cigarette from her purse and proceeds to smoke, tapping and flicking the cigarette as her eyes rove. The long take shots of her “crisp, elegant” body language and the deep focus of her “rapid, fluid” facial expression display Melanie’s “boredom, impatience and anxiety” (Paglia 65).

The dinner scene at the Brenner house is also a good example of the use of deep focus. After the birds attack the party, Lydia tries to hurry Melanie off, but Cathy and Mitch want Melanie to stay. Lydia is in the foreground, while Mitch/Melanie are in the middle ground, and the table is in the rear.  Before the decision is made, Hitchcock sets an “intimate, angled” (Paglia 58) close-up of Melanie’s face when she sees a sparrow on the hearth. Meanwhile the audience can guess the house is in jeopardy through the portrayal of Melanie’s fear and stark facial expression.

Hitchcock also uses camera distance with deep space to make the picture more gripping. For example, when Melanie is trapped in the phone booth and the birds smash into the glass, the camera uses extreme close ups and wide angle shots to give the audience the feeling that there are more birds than there really are. The shots also create a breathtaking effect so that it looks as if thousands of birds are waiting to attack Melanie and there is no possible way of escaping them. The special effect of the birds’ attack is extraordinary, especially in the film’s closing scene, which is a “complex, trick” (Paglia 75) composite shot. Hundreds of birds including gulls, ravens, and crows are attacking Melanie, like a rapid wave targeting its “delicious” subject.

The film ends ambiguously with deep focus on human characters surrounded by a natural landscape and birds flying in the sky. Melanie, Mitch, Lydia, Cathy, and the lovebirds take the car and move out of the frame slowly in a broad view landscape while thousands of birds are landing. This is a hint that the relationship between human beings and nature or the environment will never end. Hitchcock never explains the reasons for the birds’ attack and how long the attack will last. The unsolved suspense leaves the audience guessing. However, it is very clear that Hitchcock has used a large amount of deep space in The Birds where human characters are placed in the natural environment. The many uses of deep space remind the audience that human beings should be more friendly with nature and never damage or destroy the environment, in order to avoid the same tragedy and to guarantee a better life for themselves in the future.

References:

Paglia, Camille. The Birds. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Print.

The Birds. Hitchcock, Alfred. Universal Pictures, 1963. PPS.tv.

“The Birds.”  Special Effects. Production. Web.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birds_%28film%29

“Deep Space.” Film Analysis. Yale. Web.

http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/cinematography.htm#38561



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