Posts Tagged ‘The Birds’

Hitchcock & Coincidence

“Is there are difference between crows and blackbirds?”
The Birds

Since I mentioned coincidence in the post Screenwriting and Coincidence (2.0)  I’d like to add what could be called one of the biggest (blatant?) misuses of coincidence by a major director in a major film. When Alfred Hitchcock used coincidence in The Birds he didn’t try to hide it or underscore it in any way. Heck, he highlighted it in a key part of the script and then used it as an expositional dump.

Here’s the crazy thing, he pulled it off like the theft of a car in front of a police station. I guess when you’re known as the master of suspense you can pull off things that mere mortals can’t.

The scene in question is in the restaurant after children have been attacked by birds at the school yard. For some reason there just happens to be a woman at the restaurant who at the right moment overhears a conversation about birds and says “Ornithology happens to be my avocation.” (Ornithology being the study of birds.)

Spielberg and his writing team handled this much better in JAWS when a shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) is drawn to the town because of the shark attack of the girl on the beach. He didn’t just happen to be there. So he becomes the perfect person to explain shark behavior to the others in the film (and that is how the audience is also informed).

But Hitchcock just has a lady buying a pack of cigarettes in a restaurant just happen to be a bird expert. Granted she does say avocation rather than vocation, but still. Keep in mind that The Birds was made after VertigoNorth by Northwest and Psycho.

Seems like I recall Hitchcock once being asked about why the bird expert was there and his response was in line with he thought it would be a fun break between all of the suspense activity, and that people wouldn’t notice. (If I can find that quote I will post it later. And if you find that exchange post it in the comments and I’ll add it here.)

Guess the key lesson learned there is if you do use coincidence (on top of an expositional dump) make sure the rest of your film is good enough that no one notices or cares.

P.S. A fun Hitchcock fact via his daughter Patricia; A couple of Alfred Hitchock’s guilty pleasures were two films from the 70s— Benji and Smokey and the Bandit.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting & Exposition (Tip#10)
Cary Grant & Exposition (Tip #38)

Scott W. Smith

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Hitchcock loved The Hurt Locker? As in Alfred Hitchcock? Really? Hasn’t he been dead for like 30 years? Yes, I guess I should have said that “Hitchcock would have loved The Hurt Locker”—but that’s a long title, and less interesting. So why do I think the master of suspense and a psychological thrillers would have appreciated the film that picked up the best picture Oscar Sunday?

Well, in part because The Hurt Locker was suspenseful and psychological. But there are three other reasons that come to mind of why I think director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal tapped into the Hitchcock creative mindset as filmmakers.

1) Hitchcock said that the difference between shock and suspense was the difference between having a bomb suddenly going off surprising the audience (shock) and the audience seeing that there is a bomb under a table with a timer ticking down (suspense). The later being able to hold your attention for a long time no matter what the conversation is above the table. Bigelow and her editors knew they didn’t need to rush certain scenes and used the built in suspense to their advantage.

2) Little dialogue/strong visuals—Hitchcock came from the world of silent films and believed you only used words when the visuals didn’t tell the story. (Watch Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Birds to see excellent examples.) Bigelow studied painting before she became a filmmaker and The Hurt Locker is strong on visuals. Hitchcock embraced simplicity at times sometimes using little or no sound effects. Sometimes pulling the effects and music altogether for a dramatic effect. I’ve only seen The Hurt Locker once so far but I seem to recall the music and effects track being spartan at times. I’m sure much effort went into the sound design of The Hurt Locker but it didn’t overpower the track and at times seemed to be just actor Jeremy Renner breathing in his protective suit.

3) Hitchcock didn’t care about reality. There have been a few articles about how some bomb experts in Iraq don’t feel like the film was realistic. One used the words “grossly exaggerated.” Bigelow wasn’t making a documentary. She was making a movie. And movies as I learned in film school are “heightened  reality.” Some cops never shoot their gun in their whole career, but that tends not to make for good drama. Hitchcock didn’t worry about reality and I’ll let him explain his reasoning, after all he’s the guy who had a chase scene on top of Mount Rushmore, a killing inside the UN building, as well as many other “grossly exaggerated” situations;

“To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately…We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow…I don’t want to film a ‘slice of life’ because people can get that at home, in the street, or even in front of the movie theater. They don’t have to pay money to see a slice of life. And I avoid out-and-out fantasy because people should be able to identify with the characters. Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Truffaut

Of course, the military leadership has to go on record saying that they aren’t looking for lone-ranger, hotshot cowboys on their bomb squads. And they probably don’t. But I image they realize  this will do a little for recruiting what the cocky, hotshot pilot Tom Cruise and Top Gun did back for Navy recruiting in the 80s. Bigalow and Boal have made rock stars of guys that risk their life to defuse bombs. (I read one reviewer who went as far as to say the movie felt like an Army recruitment film.) The movie hasn’t been seen any where near as much as Top Gun and flying a jet plane seems a little more glamorous, but I think that bomb disposal experts should be sending thank you notes to Bigelow and Boals because they have brought dignity and awareness to a job most Americans knew little about.

And if any bomb disposal experts in Iraq or Afghanistan read this, thank you for what you’re doing. I hope you come home safely soon.

And congrats to Bigelow and the whole Hurt Locker crew on the Oscar wins.

Related post: Pandora vs. Baghdad

Scott W. Smith

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It’s been 50 years since the release of the great Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest and Warner Bros. just released a Blue-ray 50th Annivesary Edition of the film. Here’s part of one review of the new release.

“During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hitchcock went on one of the greatest winning streaks in cinema history, cranking out Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds in quick succession. Of these, North by Northwest—with all the director’s trademarks in place—is arguably the most iconically Hitchcockian, and has also served as the template for numerous espionage thrillers to come, its influence easily seen in the James Bond films and even the Bourne trilogy.”
Casey Broadwater
North by Northwest Blu-ray Review

Broadwater also points out a comment that Hitchcock was reported to have told screenwriter Ernest Lehman during the making of North by Northwest; “You know, we’re not making a movie we’re constructing an organ, the kind of organ that you see in the theatre. And we press this chord and now the audience laughs, we press that chord and they gasp, and we press these notes and they chuckle. Someday we won’t have to make a movie, we’ll just attach them to electrodes and play the various emotions for them to experience in the theatre.”

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