Four Frames: Petrol station attack in The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock 1963)

birdsOnly Hitchcock could use four moments of stillness to kick-start an action sequence. Having watched helplessly as an unwitting motorist is engulfed by fire, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is frozen in close-up by the horror of an unstoppable river of flame as it meanders towards a petrol pump to precipitate the inevitable explosion.

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Hedren, her gaping mouth reminiscent of Janet Leigh’s Psycho shower scream, is shown four times, four split seconds cut between shots of the stream of fire wending its way across the petrol station forecourt. Other diner customers move about behind her, but in each shot Hedren is as still as a photograph, a heart-stopped afterimage, holding her position ever so slightly longer than the viewer might expect her to.

The four shots possess an almost silent movie quality. There’s a camp simplicity to the emphasizing of the facial expression. And yet in those four moments Hitchcock is inviting the audience through a kind of visual autosuggestion to hold their collective breath. We share in Hedren’s powerlessness and stop breathing in anticipation of the big bang. Almost immediately we cut to the breathlessness of a bird’s eye view high over Bodega Bay and the carnage unfolds before us in a carnival of masterful editing.


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Four Frames: The Long Day Closes


Jez Conolly

About the author

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, Jez has contributed to numerous film-related books, magazines and websites. He has co-edited three books in Intellect's World Film Locations series, covering Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool and has contributed pieces to many more volumes in the series. His monograph on John Carpenter's The Thing in Auteur's Devil's Advocates series of books was published in 2013. He is currently working on another book in the same series, concerning Ealing Studios' Dead of Night.

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