John Colella analyses the bird imagery in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds.

Psycho

In the famous interview conducted by François Truffaut of Alfred Hitchcock, the topic of birds arose during their discussion of Psycho (1960).  “I was quite intrigued by them: they were like symbols.”  Sure, this might sound like a bland statement, but it hints at a more substantial thought.  Indeed, birds, to Hitchcock, aren’t arbitrary;they are reflections of characters and representations of ideas.   He uses birds craftily in Psycho, but in his following film, The Birds (1963), the animal dominates the film, as the title suggests.  What is this particular “intrigue” that inspired Hitchcock to feature birds in these two films?

Hitchcock first introduces birds in Psycho during the scene in which Marion Crane is eating dinner with Norman Bates in his parlor.  While on the run after having stolen a large sum of money from one of her employer’s clients to help out her divorced boyfriend, Marion has just found refuge at the Bates Motel during a rainstorm.  As the parlor scene progresses, Marion and Norman’s conversation slowly tends more toward the topic of Norman’s mother.  All the while, Hitchcock has made the viewer aware of Norman’s collection of stuffed birds, with some perched on shelves or hanging from the ceiling, but at the moment of this subject change, the birds take on a more significant role.  As Norman begins to discuss his mother, Hitchcock deviates from the previous match cutting to introduce a new shot of Norman, in which he is sitting on the right side of the frame while a large, ominous owl looms over him on the left side.  Here Hitchcock is clearly making a connection between the bird and the conversation, linking the animal more closely to Norman’s mother as he begins to discuss the possibility of defying her.  Owls, in nature, are birds of prey, and it is no coincidence that Hitchcock would be likening Norman’s mother to an owl.  She may not physically prey on him (how could she; she’s dead!), but psychologically she has done all but killed her son.  Even in this particular shot, Norman’s head is framed right near the beak of the owl, as if mother is pecking away at his head, or, more importantly, his brain.  When Norman admits that he could never defy his mother, he sits back in his chair, making the owl more prominent within the frame.  This, again, helps to demonstrate the immense power mother has over Norman, as if she is literally looming over him and watching his every action.

Birds loom over Norman, but they prey on Marion.  When she first enters the parlor, Hitchcock places a close-up of the previous owl in between two shots of Marion, worriedly looking up at it.  Even before Norman talks of his mother, the birds in the parlor have a predatory relationship with Marion.  Hitchcock establishes a sense of uneasiness in the scene through her worried expression, but what is making her worried?  The birds.  At first, this tension is a general idea of threat, but once the owl becomes associated with mother, the relationship between Marion and the birds takes on a heightened significance.  This relationship is strengthened after the famous shower scene when Norman knocks down a picture of a bird while cleaning up.  This small detail demonstrates mother’s physical predation, as it is her surrogate who makes the picture fall, a motion that reflects the way Marion falls over the edge of the tub after mother “kills” her.  Certainly as the non-predatory “crane,” Marion had no chance of survival, but instead was doomed to be mother’s prey.

If Psycho uses birds to hint at fear and death, then The Birds is the physical manifestation of these ideas.  The film tells the story of Melanie Daniels, who comes to the small town of Bodega Bay in pursuit of her lover, but is soon caught up in a frenzied attack on the whole town by birds.  Marion’s role as prey carries over to Melanie Daniels, and the two characters are physically and emotionally similar.  Both characters  find themselves to be unsatisfactory in the eyes of a mother: for Marion, it was Norman’s mother, and for Melanie it is Lydia Brenner, her lover’s mother.  There’s a sense that Lydia is the mother bird, fearing that Melanie is going to take her son Mitch away from the home nest, but unlike Norman’s mother in Psycho, Lydia is herself a victim as well as Melanie.  Although she may be the mother bird to Mitch, the birds that terrorize Bodega Bay don’t recognize her authority.  So, then, what are the birds in this film?  At first, they represent an impending doom, apparent through Hitchcock’s brilliant pacing of their violence.  When Melanie first arrives in Bodega Bay, the birds aren’t even present, it is only until she rides back from Mitch’s house on her motorboat that a bird swoops down and pecks her head, the first indication of their existence.  This small act of violence is built upon throughout the film, becoming more intense when the birds terrorize the children at a child’s party and then again at the school.  The school scene in particular is an interesting microcosm of the tension Hitchcock builds in the film, as he slowly increases the number of birds on the jungle gym behind Melanie, until the whole structure is covered in them, as they wait menacingly for the children to leave the building.  In addition, before this scene, the birds looked primarily like seagulls, but now they have changed to crows, a more foreboding bird that has historically represented death and decay.

All of the anxiety Hitchcock builds up through these small snippets of violence culminates in the final sequence.  Boarded up inside of their home, Melanie and the Brenner family experience a deafening onslaught of birds trying to force their way inside.   Hitchcock doesn’t actually show the birds, but instead floods the soundtrack with their croaks and pecking, creating an aural attack on both the characters and the viewer.   Here, Hitchcock is building suspense for Melanie’s personal confrontation with the birds in the attic.  The confrontation scene is oddly similar to the shower scene in Psycho: Hitchcock exclusively uses close ups, and he intensifies the editing to give a visual sense of the birds’ attack and to suffocate the viewer, extending the birds’ violence onto us as well as Melanie.  Whereas in an earlier scene Hitchcock allowed Melanie and the viewer to be trapped safely inside of a telephone booth as the birds attacked the town, in the attic both Melanie and the viewer are trapped without any protection.   Finally, despite Melanie and the Brenner’s escape from Bodega Bay, it is the birds that have dominated the town and the film, as Hitchcock leaves the viewer with a haunting image of the birds surrounding the house.  The sheer number of them consumes the image, a fitting final note to their accumulated violence and terror over the course of the film.

Isn’t this all merely coincidental?  Indeed, both of these stories aren’t original Hitchcock works (they are both based on written works), so his inclusion of birds is almost compulsory because of the material.  In the interview with Truffaut mentioned earlier, there isn’t any attempt to connect these two films based on birds; for that matter, there’s no reference to bird symbolism other than in that small section about Psycho.  Maybe this is just a fan’s wishful attempt to form a deeper connection between the films of one of his favorite directors.

However, this can’t be.  It may be farfetched that one director really put as much emphasis on birds as suggested, but this isn’t outside of Hitchcock’s realm.  Hitchcock was widely known for his borderline sadistic enjoyment of toying with audience members.  Using devices such as the MacGuffin, which is essentially an object that he makes us believe is important but really isn’t, or briefly appearing as a passerby in almost all of his films, Hitchcock considered the film medium not only an outlet for expression, but also a playground.  The bird imagery is no exception, albeit not so playful as menacing.  While appearing most prominently in the two films discussed, he also uses them as symbols for violence and death in some of his previous films.  The Lady Vanishes (1938), in particular, includes a short scene in which two men are fighting in a train car and a bird gets loose from its cage and flies into the middle of their scuffle.  The association between birds and violence continues in Vertigo (1958), although a bit more subtly.  When Madeleine “dies” for the first time, her death is connected to birds through the hummingbird pin she wears on her lapel.  This is further emphasized by the manner of her death: falling out the window of a bell tower, as if she was an injured bird.  These moments, and others, certainly build up to the heavier uses of bird symbolism in Psycho and The Birds, demonstrating a traceable progression of birds in his works.  Hitchcock was too smart of a director for these moments to be arbitrary.  It’s simply another testament to his genius that he was able to turn one of the lesser intimidating animals on the planet into a nightmarish demon from hell, terrorizing characters and audience members alike.