Bodega Bay was the idyllic, at peace and unruffled slice of Californian life seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 motion picture, The Birds. The west coast harbour town appeared to be nested safely from any kind of violence, until it, bizarrely, became the sudden target of a vicious, amassing attack from the skies above. The wings of the birds blitzed the bay, and what was once a seemingly innocuous, high-flying flock was now a cycling tornado of cackling crows and diving gulls. Alfred Hitchcock’s film was a disquieting one, permeated with a sense of unease which lingered despite being set in the midst of a sun kissed paradise. The tranquil turned terrifying, and the normally warm breeze turned chilling, exposing Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense.
As evidenced in Psycho, there is no such thing as a safe haven, be it an intrusion behind a shower curtain, or an invasion into the privacy of one’s home via a chimney-descending cyclone of flurried activity. The film largely focused on Melanie Daniels, a high-flying socialite played by the young Tippi Hedren, although the feathered flock of birds really stole the limelight. The unexplained series of attacks seemed to occur as soon as she arrived in the bay with her gift of lovebirds. An innocent flirtation which promised a blossom of romance had suddenly turned into a very frightening experience. We will never know if the arrival of the birds acted as the catalyst, or if it was an attack on her previously lavish lifestyle. Influenced by the film, AJ Nutter has captured the very essence of the atmosphere Hitchcock so wonderfully created, setting the scene as an alternative soundtrack to the film. Nutter’s love for Hitchcock’s vivid cinematography and the colourful aura his films still possess is clearly evident, and it makes for a highly effective backdrop to the film. The air of menace found in the film is similarly found here, permeating the threatening atmosphere with brooding drones. The imagery the music creates could easily fit with Hitchcock’s clever use of camera positioning, direction and cameos. Nutter’s music carries the similar, foreboding feel throughout, but he remains out of sight unlike the director; it’s very much a dedication to the film and not an indulgent work, and Nutter’s own camera work transitions effectively from the screen to the sound wave, reeling off on the projector of the camera-eye.
The rising tension could be cut with a knife, which Hitchcock did so abruptly in the infamous shower scene of Psycho. Striking above all else in The Birds was the lack of any soundtrack, which was critical to the mounting tension. The screeching and cooing of the incoming birds made for their own soundtrack, leaving silent, powerful pecks on the bay. The only fluttering of melody in the film echoed repeatedly out from the schoolhouse, sung by children. The threat was a natural one and the silence reflected this, but Nutter’s soundtrack is just as chilling.
Ominously arriving on the sea breeze, the incoming flapping of wings approach, as dismally suggestive as the opening drone on “Sea Breeze 2”. The use of a wire organ creates an eerie mood, slightly wavering like the turbulent air currents it rises on. It sets an appropriate air of menace that leaves the listener slightly flustered. “Bodega Bay”, with its electronic drone, offers a feel for the town on a first arrival, as a rhythm rolls over the track like wheels driving through the countryside, on course for the coast. Thick grass blows in the breeze, while Melanie’s lovebirds hold on for their life in the back seat. Under a crisp azure sky, the ominous drones hang over the bay like the spread wings of gulls gliding in the air. The cries of the gulls on “Up And Down” announces their presence as a very real threat, circling in the skies with calculating eyes emitting an evil intent. It’s possible to imagine crows hanging ominously on a children’s playground, jerkily waiting to strike at any moment.
Soaring high, “Lifted” displays an emotional side to the beautiful birds and their ballet of the air, like a romantic intake of breath amidst the chaos and kamikaze carnage. It’s the loving kiss that releases some of the tension and adds the emotional sympathy for the victims caught up in the attack. In terms of harmony, and even ambience, this is the high point, flying amongst the birds. This is another set-up, though, as the final track, “Wings of Design”, claws away in unexpected intensity, a security lost inside the chirping synths. The finale pulls the listener in, claws as sharp as daggers and beats pecking at the ears instead of the eyes, like the way the opening credits were steadily and savagely erased in a frenzied attack.
At times, the tension swells up and strikes when it is least expected, like a gull’s swooping attack on a lonesome motor-boat as it crosses the gently undulating waters of the harbour. The crisp technicolour of the film is felt through the lo-fi recording, nested in a wish-you-weren’t-here postcard. Finally, a rushed escape is made via the freeway that leaves Bodega Bay behind without so much as a second glance.
The Birds leaves behind both a fear and a renewed appreciation for the film, and it stands on its two clawed feet unaided. As the listener escapes a cacophony of black shadows and unsettling cries, the cause of the attack is never revealed. It could be a coordinated revenge, a retaliation against their cocooned imprisonment inside San Francisco birdshops, or a reclamation of the land, but the beauty is that the event remains a mystery. The record also comes with a cardboard crow cut-out, silently staring, just to keep us watchful. Outside, a crow caws and a shadow passes the window. Something is stirring. (James Catchpole)