Off-screen Mise en Scene: Acousmatic Sound and Suspended Mise en Scene in The Birds

Michel Chion, in his work Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, claims of sound that, “…through the phenomenon of added value, it interprets the meaning of the image and makes us see in the image what we would not otherwise see, or would see differently.”

 Here, Chion states explicitly the way in which mise en scene can incorporate sound into its definition. On a basic level, mise en scene is the way in which a film is constructed visually to present the onscreen narrative space to an audience. In this way it is relegated to support of the narrative. Yet, there is another key level at which mise en scene operates.

The second level, is the definition of mise en scene Chion utilizes. This is the level of the analytical on which the mise en scene may be constructed to produce meaning for the viewer. With this meaning mise en scene is capable of rising above its point of relegation to the story. Victor Perkins references these two levels in Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies: “Initially, then, the decor derives its meaning from the character and action. But once its relationship to them has been established, it begins to make its own contribution to the film.”

 Perkins hierarchizes these two levels through the concept of credibility, wherein a film must maintain a certain consistency of its mise en scene before it may rise to a meaning beyond the story. A film that maintains this consistency will have more credibility than that which hierarchizes the second level of mise on scene over the first. 

Perkins carries this view over to sound: 

The primary function of the sound-track is to let us hear, to fill out the illusion by recording for our ears just as the image records for our eyes. The sound-track is sufficiently justified when it tells us what the characters are saying and how they say it.


In Alfred Hitchcock’s case, he would agree, but only to an extent: “Well, the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises. But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in.”

 Hitchcock, however, only makes this statement in defense of what he calls “the technique of the pure motion picture.”

 He is simply mourning the loss of the focus on a visual perfection that resulted when sound had been introduced. 

This is not to say that Hitchcock would disagree necessarily with Chion’s statement of sound’s function, as his work may illustrate Chion’s point perfectly. Of his films, none coincide better with both Chion’s claim along with his own opinions, than The Birds (1963). Here, Hitchcock forgoes the use of any nondiegetic sound by excluding a music score. Indeed, Hitchcock was meticulous of the function of sound, and adamant about the lack of musical accompaniment. This diegetic sound, though, differs between natural and electronically produced noises.

In relation to sound, off-screen space plays a key roll in the film. In any filmmaker’s construction of the diegesis, offscreen space must necessarily be accounted for. Mise en scene does not only illustrate what is visually presented, but must also allude to what is not framed in the screen. Mise en scene is a director’s way of showing one aspect of the diegetic world, while not ignoring other spaces in its composition. In the case of The Birds Hitchcock constructs an elaborate mise en scene wherein offscreen space plays a vital role, for this is precisely where the birds come from. Every attack is an invasion from the offscreen space on the visible mise en scene. Much like sound, the recognition of this offscreen space becomes a part of the mise en scene as it forces it to incorporate and acknowledge this space.

Of offscreen space, Chion claims it is “entirely a product of the visual and aural. It is really a relation of what one hears to what one sees, and exists only in this relation.”

 When offscreen space becomes prominent in a film, then, the mise en scene is bound to be affected audibly and visually. Throughout key scenes of The Birds, “acousmatic sound,”

 as it represents offscreen space, is incorporated in the mise en scene’s derived meaning and construction by Hitchcock. Prior to each massive bird attack, and culminating in the birds’ unseen attack on the house, the mise en scene is put into individual moments of suspense: some long and some only momentary. By suspense, it is meant that the mise en scene’s credibility is momentarily disregarded, in order to generate a visceral reaction in the viewer. In these moments the offscreen space the birds are coming from is made prominent, thus overtaking the narrative. Hitchcock’s use of acousmatic sound, through both its revelation and suppression operates as a part of the mise en scene’s creation of this new definition of suspense.

In his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock explains, briefly, the film’s establishing scene: “The opening of The Birds is an attempt to suggest the normal, complacent, everyday life in San Francisco.”

 Indeed, the first shot of the film shows, through a basic set up, a typical busy city. Yet, what is quiet but unmistakable are the sounds of birds amongst the bustling city noises. Melanie is used to the city, as visualized by her confident gate and lack of notice or care for those around her. She is unaware, however, of the extra-diegetic title of the film or the opening credits which fade into the establishing shot, featuring the birds and their sounds which seamlessly blend in with the city, being drowned out (though never vanishing) by the cars and people of San Francisco. Immediately, with the continuation of the birds’ sounds the audience has a moment of suspense, built on mise en scene, with acousmatic sound being the cornerstone. With its focus on the audience’s visceral reaction, the mise en scene is placed above the story, yet both are subservient to the feeling of suspense.

The initial panning shot remains unbroken until her attention is directed offscreen. Only after her point of attention is broken will she take notice of offscreen space, as she has cause for this distraction. The long, panning shot presents a control, by her, of narrative agency. Without ever meeting Melanie, the mise en scene reveals her to have a necessary control over the narrative as she is in the center of the frame, followed by the camera. Despite this, there remains an opposition with the viewer as Melanie remains oblivious to the birds. Thus, the mise en scene Hitchcock presents to the audience during this take is different than the reality experienced by Melanie.

It is not until this long take is broken that the relationship between the audience and Melanie is rectified. The audience is made aware of the acousmatic sounds of the birds, while Melanie is not. Hitchcock, here, plays with the function of passive and active offscreen sounds. In his notes on dubbing of the film, he points out, “After the Main Titles the bird sounds should fade away – they should slowly diminish all the time, and be almost lost, until Melanie goes into the Pet Shop.”

 Hitchcock intended to make the cries seem passive, as they blend with the environment, yet the initial cries in the opening credits work to prevent such a reading. Out of context, the cries would, at the most, simply act as an index of the location as being seaside.

The camera halts with Melanie as she is drawn from her task by a young boy, whistling at her. She turns to look, as he leaves the shot, directing Melanie’s gaze offscreen. Melanie becomes distracted, her eyes glancing up. The subsequent cut, the first of the film, breaks the long take with a long shot of the sky, swarming with birds. This simple shot takes on a great deal of meaning. As long as the initial take continued, the sounds of the birds would have remained acousmatic, and the spectator would be in a position completely separate of Melanie. Likewise, any elements of suspense for the audience would awkwardly fade and be lost. With this cut, Melanie’s experience and the audience’s are realigned. 

Hitchcock’s definition of suspense is vital to both this scene and the subsequent bird attacks, as it is this very feeling with which he intends to imbed in the mise en scene during the moments of suspension. Hitchcock gives his definition of suspense to Truffaut through the story of a bomb under a table:

The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene… The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.


For Hitchcock, suspense is built upon his audience’s knowledge of coming events through mise en scene while the characters often remain incognizant. From the onset of the film, the audience knows of the birds’ importance. Likewise, the high pitched wailing and electronic noises of the birds dashing and biting away at the opening credits blending in with the fade to the initial shot of San Francisco gives the audience further information: the birds are active creatures, they are present in the city, and they will probably act in this violent manner at some point in the film. All of this is information the audience, not Melanie, is made aware of. Whether the audience has a visceral reaction to the sounds or not, the construction still fits unmistakably within Hitchcock’s definition of suspense.

Without the sound of the birds there would have been no reason to break the initial shot, as it is enough to establish Melanie’s agency over the narrative. Any interpretation of the mise en scene would not differ from Melanie’s as the camera tags along with her. Similarly, without a reason for Melanie to catch the birds out of the corner of her eye, she would not have seen anything, the initial take would have continued, and the catharsis of a point of view shot of the sky full of birds, foreboding their danger, would have been lost, leaving any feelings of suspense incomplete.

This also, however, brings in the second notion of suspense: that of the mise en scene, wherein the story is put in to a subservient role to that of mise en scene as it suspends its own credibility. The birds, obviously, do not attack here, but are merely accumulating. Nonetheless, their presence offscreen breaks the continuity of the mise en scene that was established for the story. What was once relegated as being offscreen, passive noise, fills the screen, and what was once onscreen now takes the passive role. The acousmatic sound has been revealed suspending the mise en scene already constructed. The suspension has given both the audience and Melanie a chance to witness the offscreen space. As the birds are not attacking, the narrative is affected in a positive way, allowing Melanie to gain further narrative agency. This, however, is a precursor and the suspension will vary and increase once the attacks begin. 

It is important that this be the first scene, as it establishes the relationship between mise en scene and acousmatic sound. When the camera shares Melanie’s point of view and the birds appear, finally, in the view of the lens, the intended suspicions are confirmed that something is indeed occurring with these creatures. Likewise, the break in the long take occurring as Melanie looks up signs that this is a shot from her point of view. Both her and the audience know something is going on with these birds, but what this is and to what extent, neither could be aware of: there could only be hunches.

 Furthermore this sequence provides a preamble for mise en scene’s suspension when the birds attack. 

A large attack of the birds does not occur until much later. While individual attacks occur twice, little is done to place emphasis on them. They only serve to remind of what is to come. In the initial attack’s establishing scene, Melanie, having traveled to Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of love birds to Cathy Brenner for her birthday, is convinced by her brother Mitch Brenner to stay for the party. At the party Melanie speaks with Mitch on the nearby dunes, after which the children are attacked by a swarm of gulls. The initial attack, while not a suspenseful occurrence for the audience per se, sets up the mise en scene’s moments of suspension in subsequent attacks through the establishment of a significant relationship with the offscreen space.

Chion states that “…in the cinema there is a spatial magnetization of sound by image. When we perceive sound as being offscreen or located at screen right this is a psychological phenomenon…”

 This is vital to the development of offscreen space as a part of the diegetic world. The offscreen space is constructed in two ways. Either an aspect of onscreen space becomes offscreen due to a cut or character and/or camera movement, or offscreen sound uses this phenomenon of spatial magnetization to inform the audience of what is there. It is necessary to construct multiple onscreen and offscreen spaces in order to have a holistic view of the diegetic world. 

The initial shot of Mitch and Melanie defines where they are in the scene. The subsequent pan from them relates their spatial relation to Annie Hayworth, who is helping the children play blind man’s bluff in the Brenner’s yard. As she releases Cathy, the offscreen space of the children, which is seen only in the scene’s opening shot, is now defined by their laughter and the direction that Cathy leaves the frame. Mitch and Melanie, it is known, are walking toward the location of the current shot, and it is known the children are offscreen right of the camera. In this way, the offscreen laughter of the children functions identically to the pan from Mitch and Melanie in keeping continuity over the scene, relating one space to another.

The first bird to attack, then enters from an offscreen space that has yet to be established in the scene: presumably the sky. Unlike the film’s opening shots, the birds’ sounds are not present to establish their presence in that space. This moment of suspension, wherein the setup of an entire diegetic space is momentarily disrupted by the intrusion of offscreen sound (the child shouting “Look, look!,”) and offscreen space, is the moment that leads to the subsequent montage of bird attacks. The bird swooping down cuts to the first shot of the children, as Cathy is attacked. The following shots show the bird swooping back up, another child being attacked, Annie running toward the children, and Mitch and Melanie reacting. The invasion of the bird from this unestablished offscreen space combines itself with the already established spaces into the montage attack.

The previous two analyses are simply preambles, setting up the moments that occur prior to each bird attack. These moments take mise en scene’s suspension to a further degree, wherein the intrusion of offscreen space suspends mise en scene’s credibility and subjection to the diegesis in favor of the audience’s feelings of suspense. These moments of the invasion of offscreen space completely alter the presentation and function of the mise en scene. In this way, offscreen space and sound enter into mise en scene’s definition. 

The first of these occurs directly after the party sequence. Melanie chooses to stay with the Brenners and they are about to sit down for dinner. The shot begins in the kitchen with Lydia and Mitch preparing food while the caged lovebirds, far left, chirp away. As Cathy enters, she eyes the lovebirds questioning their noise. Here, Lydia, categorizing them with all other birds, covers the cage with a blanket, muffling their noises. As they cross towards the screen, into the living room, the camera dollies back to reveal Melanie sitting, now joined by the Brenners. Suddenly the lovebirds pick up volume once more. As Cathy points this out, the film cuts to Melanie at a downward angle, her eyes raising slowly. All sounds fade out as fear envelopes her face. The next shot is of the fireplace with a single bird chirping. A reverse shot of Melanie intercuts quickly as she tries to warn Mitch, barely getting his name out before a swarm of birds enters the room making a noise that Hitchcock describes as “…something like the effect of the screech that you get if you scrape two pieces of metal together.”


What was lacking in the party scene had been a previous bird attack. Now that it is established that the attacks are beginning, the audience’s suspense can coincide with the mise en scene’s. This suspension does not occur without warning, though, as Lydia’s action of covering the birdcage, an act of awareness that the birds belong offscreen, places the lovebirds in an awkward position. They are still a part of the onscreen mise en scene, yet hidden in the space. As the camera then pulls back, the cage disappears offscreen. It is soon after this that their volume picks up again. The mise en scene established the presence of the lovebirds, and so, unlike the attackers, their location is known in the offscreen space. This knowledge leads to the mise en scene’s suspension. The birds volume quickly raises as the cut to Melanie takes place. This happens quickly and naturally, as their chirping never completely vanished, and so in case the viewer had not realized the increasing volume, Cathy’s dialogue serves as a reminder of why the cut takes place.

In his work Almost Silent, Paul Theberge claims, 

It is important to note, however, that diegetic silences – silences that are then filled by music or other nondiegetic sounds – are used not only to represent the inner life of characters, their dreams, fantasies, or moments of mental anguish, but also occasionally, in a somewhat different fashion, to represent any moment in which reality exceeds our expectations, when the real becomes the surreal.


The cut to Melanie leads into a diegetic silence, yet unaccompanied by nondiegetic music. Rather, the silence represents this moment wherein reality and credibility are subverted by excess. Hitchcock’s film, thus far has bordered between realistic events and utter fantasy. Inside the house, it seems implausible that the offscreen domain of the birds can interfere. And so immediately this silence acts as an index of the coming events. Yet the unnatural drop in diegetic sound also signifies a drop in the mise en scene’s credibility in maintaining spatial and temporal relations. Thus, this moment of suspension interferes with the synchronization of sound and image. The shot of the bird synchs its noises and actions, but Melanie’s line, “Mitch” occurs before a cut back to Melanie. Subsequently, the sound of the birds’ sudden storm out of the fireplace begins precisely before the cut away from Melanie where the birds are shown first coming through the chimney. 

The image’s lack of synchronization with sound affects temporal linearization of the film. Again, there is a moment between the mise en scene’s construction of a space literally walled in from the offscreen space, and the birds’ invasion of it. It is difficult to say, however, how long exactly the moment lasts. Visually it lasts only a few seconds, however the lovebirds fade out is highly unnatural, signifying a suspension in time for Melanie, the already established wielder of narrative agency, as she realizes the bird’s presence. The sound’s desynchronization afterwards further signifies a gap between diegetic time and image. Therefore the mise en scene no longer serves the story, but calls upon itself and its own suspension to produce a visceral moment of suspense for the audience immediately before the birds storm in.

The following attack, that of crows on the school children, reverses this conversation between time/sound/image. This time, offscreen sound will be used to keep temporal linearization of the diegetic world with images that, temporalized in this way, do not work. Likewise, the scene reverses the previous on/offscreen relations, as the victims are offscreen while the viewer watches the birds amalgamate. The constf

ruction of this entire scene is the moment of mise en scene’s suspension.

Melanie has been sent by Lydia to the Bodega Bay school to pick up Cathy, out of fear of an attack. As Melanie pulls up to the school, the faint noise of children singing is heard. Melanie enters the school and is asked to wait outside. She exits, sitting on a nearby bench in front of a playground, as crows gather on a jungle gym behind her. Soon Melanie sees the birds, warns the children, and the attack begins.

As with the moment before the attack on the house, diegetic sound is dropped as soon as Melanie exits the school, however, the children, now offscreen, continue their repetitious song. This song acts as the basis for the scene’s temporal linearization of the diegesis. This influence that the music has over the mise en scene is illustrated by Chion: 

…for sound to influence the image’s temporality, a minimum number of conditions are necessary. First, the image must lend itself either by being static and passively receptive or by having a particular movement of its own. …In the second case, the image should contain a minimum of structural elements – either elements of agreement, engagement, and sympathy, or of active antipathy – with the flow of sound.


In this case the mise en scene, through its rhythm and continuity works against the diegetic sounds. The song signifies the scene as having continuity between shots, yet the birds’ gathering behind Melanie antagonizes this linearization of sound. Chion points out in Film, a Sound Art that “the visual scene construction could possibly give us the impression of a jump in time… But that must not happen here. The suspense depends on the impression that the accumulation of birds has taken… no longer than ninety-five seconds…”

 Indeed, the length of the shots and the rhythm of the birds’ entrance does not line up with the amount of time taken. Their relation can be measured by the the children’s song. When Melanie first sits, the jungle gym is placed in the middle, between the foreground of Melanie and the background of the school. A single crow lands before a cut to Melanie at 3/4 angle with the school in the background and the playground out of frame. The children get through one verse of the song before a cut back to the jungle gym with now three more birds. A cut back to Melanie for only one half of a verse occurs before another shot of the jungle gym with one more bird landing. Another chorus and half verse with a shot of Melanie again precedes a shot of the gym with two more birds landing, suddenly bringing the total to nine. The next take of Melanie, the longest, incorporates the ending of a chorus, the next verse and chorus, and the beginning of another verse. Melanie then glances up to find a single crow swooping down. As she turns in a series of shot/reverse shots, the camera follows the bird until it lands in the playground, suddenly covered in, what Hitchcock intended to be at least 200 crows.


Further emphasizing this is the lack of diegetic sounds other than the children. Revisiting Theberge’s view on diegetic silence’s effects, yet now accompanied by music that forces temporal continuity, the mise en scene signifies another break in reality. Each shot of Melanie, between the crows landing is not only longer, but closer. The closer the shots of Melanie get, the larger the amount of offscreen space becomes. Likewise, the length of time the shots remain on Melanie increases the suspense of the viewer according to Hitchcock’s definition, as the audience is aware of the birds accumulating offscreen. The shrinking onscreen space and lengthening of shots becomes a symbolic, not diegetic, way to allow for the birds to secretly increase in number. The scene’s climax occurs when Melanie turns to see the mass of birds that, diegetically according to rhythm of shots, should not have been able to land so quickly. Without the accompanying singing, it could be assumed that time was simply compressed. However, the continuity of the children singing reveals that the mise en scene was suspended, and the narrative subverted, for the suspense of the audience. The suspense then leads to catharsis when the birds do attack the children.

The following scene is of the attack of the birds on the town after a meeting between Mitch, Melanie, and some townsfolk at The Tide’s Restaurant. The moment before the attack begins in a way not dissimilar to the attack on the children. Inside the restaurant Mitch and a sailor discuss the situation while the camera stays on Melanie in a medium shot. Her eyes begin to wander offscreen when an unseen bird caws. Her attention focuses towards this as she turns to the window. In two following long shots of a gas station, from Melanie’s perspective, gulls swoop down at the attendant after which a single gull knocking him over, spilling gas on the road. The gulls’ screams grow quiet as they retreat offscreen.

The choice of shots following this event is dictated by the sound of the running gas presented on and off of the screen. The shot/reverse shot sequence depicts Melanie and the others watching from the restaurant as Mitch and two men help the attendant. Again, the events of the narrative thus far are subservient to the mise en scene’s depiction of suspense. The only sound outside of the restaurant in these shots is the running of the gas. Unlike the singing children, who’s chorus and verses vary enough to establish continuity between shots, the gas running is one continuous sound, forcing no continuous temporality of moments. The shots here reverse from Melanie to the gas station, but not from her point of view, as the gas running is always at the frame’s bottom. The camera then begins to deviate from her perspective entirely in downward shots of the gas running, which, if Melanie’s agency were kept, would have remained acousmatic sound. Despite Melanie’s concerns, the camera follows the sound of the gas.

Temporal continuity is in no way assisted by the lack movement from the men who kneel, surrounding the attendant, immobile in every shot. Still, there has been no reason to doubt the continuity of shots until the gas finally reaches a destination: the tire of a car that is below the station, but with a distance that has yet to be spatially related in the mise en scene. Now that the car has been reached, Melanie notices and draws the attention of all of the onlookers as a man at the car lights a match. They scream to stop him, but to no avail as he drops the lit match, blowing up the parked cars.

Again, here the diegetic sound fades unnaturally, leaving only the explosion heard. The explosion does not cover up their screaming, however, as it is not until after the fire begins running up the gas stream that the voices are lost. The next shot/reverse shot of Melanie and the fire further disrupts the continuity. In each of the four shots of her she remains immobile, her head being turned at each cut to signify the traveling flame. The only sound, here, is the fire, which increases volume each time it is shown cutting across the frame, before finally reaching the gas station, at which point the men have just now left. The final shot from above the town now shows the stream of fire having travelled much farther than the mise en scene had depicted in the series of shots. The feeling of suspense derived from mise en scene’s own suspension of credibility takes precedence over the continuity of the narrative in order to prepare for the final shot from the sky as the birds make their way onscreen and begin to attack.

It is important to note, here, the birds’ appearance throughout these moments. Despite their continual presence in unestablished offscreen spaces, the constant invasion of offscreen space has grown over the course of the film. In the first attacks on the party and the house, the invasions come suddenly with no establishment whatsoever of the birds’ physical presence or location in relation to the onscreen space. The attack on the school, though, presents the birds’ initial amalgamation onscreen. Although they mass outside the camera’s view, where this occurs is clear. The attack on the town constitutes the first time the birds’ perspective is taken, as the shot preceding the attack is situated in the sky, as the birds float onto the screen. After this attack, shots of birds massing, sitting and waiting, are placed consistently throughout following scenes. Likewise, attention is being placed, by characters on the sky through point of view shots. Slowly, the offscreen space where the birds’ lofty domain exists unseen, closes in on both onscreen and offscreen spaces established by mise en scene.

This culminates in the film’s climax of the unseen attack, wherein the only onscreen space is inside the boarded up house. This attack sequence is both a moment of mise en scene suspension in and of itself and the precursor to the final attack on Melanie. The reason being is that the attack comes entirely from offscreen, expressed by the acousmatic sounds of the birds. Despite the lack of revelation of the attack, the audience is never lead to question what these sounds are. The reasons for this are the obvious association these electronic noises have had with the birds throughout the film, and the differentiation between natural sounds and the electronic sounds Hitchcock used to create the birds’ screeching.


Hitchcock, himself, notes the way in which his mise en scene is suspended against the story in his interview with Truffaut:

…I gave the mother and child searching for shelter. There is no shelter. But I gave movement. Darting movements, like scurrying animals. Now the girl I deliberately photographed from a distance because I wanted to show that she was recoiling from nothing.


Hitchcock acknowledges, here, the force of the acousmatic sound on the mise en scene. It no longer works toward the narrative, but to increase suspense. This quote also alludes to the fact that the characters are presented in separate shots. At the onset of the attack, the shots suddenly separate from one establishing shot of the four characters, to Cathy and Lydia, Mitch, and Melanie all in distinct separate spaces; all of these being either medium shots or close ups. Chion claims of the scene, “It is as though the sound were attacking the image.”

 Indeed, all one need see is that as soon as the sound commences, the images break apart.

The framing of shots, as Hitchcock noted, and the movement of the camera with Cathy and Lydia emphasize the claustrophobia of the onscreen space. The diegetic world established throughout the film is relegated to being offscreen, as the birds, who have taken the offscreen space as their domain, have enclosed around the house. The close shots and darting movements of the girls, and Melanie’s movement toward the wall signify the complete lack of space that can be made onscreen. No matter how much they move, they get nowhere.

The only one who differs is Mitch, who interacts with the invading force as he fights a bird crashing through the window. Those who do not interact with birds are relegated to immobility as there is a significant lack of possible spaces to traverse to. Hence why the only shots that combine characters’ spaces are mobile shots of Mitch. Likewise, any diegetic sound aside from the birds is attributed only to Mitch. Shots of the women, who are recoiling from the acousmatic sound, drop diegetic sound: an action which has been the constant signifier of mise en scene’s creation of suspense over story.

The scene climaxes when a loud shrill sounds as the power goes out. Assuming a bird struck a power line, this is a moment when acousmatic sound literally changes the mise en scene of a singular shot. The only light in the shot becomes the eerie yellow glow of the fireplace, stressing the situation’s horror and the amount of power over mise en scene that the sound’s representation of offscreen space has. Subsequently the sounds begin to fade as the birds leave. As the attack ends, three static shots of the ceiling show Mitch, Melanie, and Lydia entering frame in three close-ups, with Mitch speaking the first audible words: “They’re going.” The final shot of Lydia then dollies back, putting her and Cathy in the background, revealing Melanie in the middle, and Mitch in the foreground. As the attack of sound ends, the mise en scene begins to stabilize itself with all three securely in the frame, as it had prior to the attack, though still distinctly separated. The shot fades to the fireplace crackling where, once again, onscreen diegetic sound is heard.

The significance of this moment is derived from the culminating conflict of the onscreen and offscreen spaces as they are presented through mise en scene. The offscreen space has finally encompassed the onscreen space’s structure. The role of the mise en scene establishing offscreen space has ceased as the question of what could be offscreen is gone. The answer is known. Anything that could possibly be in the frame of the camera will either be one of the people in the house, or the birds outside. Only if the offscreen space invades the image could this change, hence why shots of Mitch, who tries to keep the birds out, are the only shots wherein the mise en scene is not suspended. While shots of the others exist solely for the audience, shots of Mitch exist to maintain the literal division between spaces, prolonging the suspense until the attack stops.

This scene is the tipping point where an attack and its preceding suspension are one in the same. Now that the birds’ location is no longer a space estranged from the mise en scene, the attack is reversed. Each moment of mise en scene’s suspension of credibility brings offscreen space physically closer to the mise en scene. Now that the mise en scene’s construction illustrates the unseen locale of the birds in relation to the onscreen space, there can be no more invasions from unfamiliar spaces. Instead, Melanie traverses to the attic where it is revealed that there is a hole, allowing the birds to claim that space as well. The offscreen space becomes the space traveled to instead of the space invading. It becomes the onscreen space where the birds’ final attack on Melanie occurs. The point of view shots where the birds fly directly into the camera, along with the close ups of Melanie during this sequence signify visually what the previous attack had audibly: that this space, which Melanie now traverses to, is littered with birds. This reversal is finalized in the film’s closing shot, where the entirety of the frame is covered in birds, leaving little to the imagination of what lies offscreen.

Clearly, mise en scene constructing a visualization of onscreen space alone is not enough for this film, or others. It must also bear the labor of presenting the surrounding diegetic world. It is in this way that mise en scene goes beyond the visual and, in the case of The Birds, beyond the narrative. As sound is vital to the establishment and continuity of offscreen spaces, it also plays a key roll in the sudden emergence of unestablished spaces and their incorporation into the mise en scene. Yet in each subsequent attack, the space of the birds grows as the space that can be placed onscreen shrinks. As this occurs, the mise en scene constantly suspends its initial meaning, temporarily creating a new type of space free of diegetic constraints, which builds up over time. The attacks become bigger throughout the film, and so the more the birds attack, the more intense each attack becomes. Finally, this allows for the build up, through the moments of credibility’s suspension, of the visceral reaction Hitchcock aims for: suspense.














Works Cited

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. (1990) Print.


Chion, Michel. Film, A Sound Art. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. (2003) Print.


Hitchcock, Alfred. Interview by Francois Truffaut. Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1983. Print.


Mr. Hithcock’s  Notes on Dubbing. Jan 10, 1962. Margaret Herrick Library.


Perkins, Victor F. Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993. Print.


Shot list for “Crow Sequence”. Jan 30, 1962. Margaret Herrick Library.


Theberge, Paul. “Almost Silent: The Interplay of Sound and Silence in Contemporary Cinema and Television.” Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound. Beck, Jay, and Grajeda, Tony, eds. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Print.


Transcription of the Hitchcock – Truffaut Interview. 1962. Margaret Herrick Library.