Searching for the MacGuffin in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”

It was the great Alfred Hitchcock himself who coined the term MacGuffin. Simply put, a MacGuffin is a plot trigger used to propel a movie’s storyline along. It is why a movie’s characters do what they do, go where they go, but apart from this, it holds little or no importance. It exists to create an engine for sending characters on their movie mission. In North by Northwest, for example, the MacGuffin is Cary Grant’s James Mason. In Notorious, characters keep making reference to “secret papers” and to some sort of “sand” hidden in a wine bottle. Is it plutonium? We are never told and Hitchcock assures us that a MacGuffin is “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about, but the audience don’t care.”

The MacGuffin in The Birds is harder to pin but I think it is the birds themselves. They get the story going but their existence, their purpose in attacking the people in the sleepy hamlet of Bodega Bay is never explained. Through the years, film analysts have offered many explanations for why the birds do what they do. I have read everything from Freudian dissections, to Biblical apocalypse theories, to searing psychological connections between the four women in our story.

Some aspects of these theories have merit. The plain fact is there is no explanation for why the birds suddenly explode in relentless bursts of murderous rage. In Daphne Du Maurier’s short story upon which the movie is based, Du Maurier herself offers no rationale. A reason would be detrimental; it would reduce the power, the sheer horror of our story. The best thrillers, those that worm their way into us viscerally, are those where the chaos, the mayhem go unexplained, where life and the world go berserk without warning. If we are given a rational, or even an irrational reason for why the birds attack, we will be less afraid. It is the not-knowing that brings unspeakable fear.

It is more fun to focus on the Hitchcockian style. His trademark invention of the quick cut (employed so brilliantly in Psycho, especially the now-legendary shower scene) is in evidence here; a technique of stitching together a rapid-fire sequence of razor-quick cuts – flash flash flash – they produce alarm, ensure an audiences’ shock. Watch for a scene in which a character goes to the home of a neighbor she hasn’t heard from in days. Frightening! The series of shots dare you not to keep looking but you must.

Hitchcock had a knack for dropping perfectly ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances. Take Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). All these years later, it is still hard to forget the terror in her eyes when the birds descend. She is such a cool cat character, self-assured, with the repressed French twist hairdo, the clipped, almost British reserve. To watch the birds unhinge her, make a mess of her hair, head butt her, draw blood. Horrifying to watch. The birds undo her, reveal her human side. There is a delicious perversity in this and Hitchcock knew it. Equally perverse — the sight of carefree school children suddenly set upon by lunatic crows. You can smell their stink, hear their beaks puncturing young flesh. The maelstrom happens fast — no sooner does the first crow strike than — right after — Apocalypse now!

Hitchcock notifies us early on that not all is going to stay A-OK in Bodega Bay; note the dark nature of the island’s schoolhouse looming stark against a forbidding sky (shades of the Bates house in Psycho). Or the spooky, unseen voice in the grocery store. Or the crack the sudden strike by a seagull makes as Melanie appears with girlish glee at the house of the attractive man she means to snag.

The appearance of our feathered friends does throw a wrench into already-established relationships – Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) feels threatened by Melanie’s interest in her son (Rod Taylor), as she is by the interference of any woman; sad schoolmistress Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) has already walked the Mitch’s Mom gauntlet and lost. The bird-induced mayhem serves, too, to upend the peace and camaraderie of the townsfolk; under attack, they attack one another, engage in infighting, in fear-based treachery, in blame.

The director was one of the first to make voyeuristic films – he calculated that when an audience is allowed to sneak a peek at people’s lives, their behaviors, their surroundings, they (we) are being offered a chance to be Peeping Toms, to be given a secret window into private lives. The thrill of this very real aspect of human nature draws us in, even up and onto the screen itself. Hitch’s penultimate voyeur is Rear Window‘s Jeff Jeffries, the ex-cop confined to his apartment by a broken leg who spends his idle time spying on his neighbors through a telescope. The delightful irony is – unknown to Jeffries, we are spying on him. This double illusion of voyeurism is part of what causes Hitchcock movies to fascinate.

Other than a brief scene of school kids singing a ditty, The Birds has no music; a soundtrack of electronic bird sounds, squawks, caws created by an electroacoustic Mixtur Trautonium by Osker Sala and Remi Gassmann is the only “music” heard throughout. Many of the movie’s most uncomfortable scenes are played out in utter silence, much like in Torn Curtain in a scene where Paul Newman and Carolyn Conwell murder a gestapo officer in total silence. The tension is unbearable.

At its core, The Birds, is a story about love, the many forms it takes (romantic, maternal, filial), and its curative power. The performances by all four leads (Hedren, Taylor, Tandy and Veronica Cartwright) are terrific as is the support of some of the best character actors of the time: Ruth McDevitt, Richard Deacon, the great Ethel Griffies.

Analyze the movie all you want. For my money, I strongly feel the suspense-making Alfred Hitchcock just wanted, once again, to scare the hell out of us.

Leo Racicot Ever since my father took me to the drive-in theater when I was five, I have loved the movies. I am a total movie nut and will watch anything, from the five-and-a-half hour, uncut version of Bertolucci’s 1900 to SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (both are do-able if you pop a NO-DOZ before you hit PLAY). My sister, Diane, who keeps track of these things, says I have watched close to 3,000 movies in the last 6-7 years. In the 1970s, I worked as film programmer for The Paris here in Boston and for Dollar Cinemas in Las Vegas, in the early 90s. I have written movie reviews and commentary for Z Magazine (produced by Jerry Harvey for his wonderful “Z” Channel), Cineaste, Film Comment, Cahiers du Cinema, Empire, and for—ta-dah!—The Brattle! I am currently working on a long retrospective of the work of one of my all-time favorites, Jeff Bridges!

Leo Racicot Written by: