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Friday, January 22, 2010

Psycho Semi-Centennial: This Movie's for the Birds

Welcome to the first installment of a brand new feature here in the VoH that will be running through 2010, celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the finest horror films ever made (possibly the finest), Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. And no, contrary to what you might think from reading the title of this initial post, I'm not about to bash this seminal classic. Rather, I mean what I wrote in a very literal sense.

Let me explain. I won't be the first one to break any new ground here, as anyone who's ever taken a rudimentary film course is likely to have come up against this interesting phenomenon. Nevertheless, I've always been fascinated by it, and figured this would be the perfect opportunity to expound upon it. What I'm talking about is Hitchcock's very apparent avian obsession. Because there is a bird motif about a mile wide running through his 1960 masterpiece.

Hitch was a master of symbolism, and he weaves it all in with great dexterity, but it's there--watch the flick closely a couple times and the bird imagery will start hitting you in the face like guano from the sky.

Let's break it down, shall we?

  • The opening shot of the film appears to occur in mid-air, as we approach the window-ledge of an apartment building. Like a bird flying over the city.
  • Our story begins in the city of Phoenix. Phoenix, get it? The legendary bird that rises from its own ashes? Myth and folklore majors, quit looking through the unemployment section and help me out here.
  • Our main character (well, until she's bumped off halfway in) is named Crane.
  • This same woman is later described as "eating like a bird" by Norman Bates.
  • Speaking of Norman, and this is a bit more abstract, but Anthony Perkins actually is somewhat bird-like in his physical features. I'm willing to bet this was a conscious casting criterion. (Oooh--alliteration!)
  • OK, where was I? Oh, Norman. Yes, our favorite momma's boy has a creepy little hobby, doesn't he? Taxidermy! Specifically, stuffing dead birds. Many of which are birds of prey.
  • My favorite of all: During Norman and Marion's lunch conversation, Norman turns away from her and twists his neck in a very odd way to look up at something. The camera shoots him at such an angle that the silhouette of his neck, chin and nose actually resemble the head of a bird. Check it out if you don't believe me -------->
  • During conversation, Norman mentions that his mother is "as harmless as one of these stuffed birds". Hence directly comparing her to the predators.
  • Bernard Herrmann's famous score, with its instantly recognizable screeching violins, literally sounds like birds attacking. And when do we hear it most prominently? During the shower murder scene.
  • And finally, what was Hitchcock's next movie? Yeah, I think you know.

And there's lots more too, including the picture of the bird that Norman knocks off the wall upon "discovering" Marion dead in the bathroom (oops, spoiler y'all! *rolls eyes*). It's all there right in front of you--birds, birds, birds. But what's it all mean?

Well, this is where the wonderful world of film criticism comes in. I'm firmly of the belief that as long as you can back it up with evidence, then any theory of interpretation is valid--whether the filmmakers intended it or not. So I can't speak for Hitchcock, or even Robert Bloch for that matter, when trying to analyze this movie. Who knows why he did it, but I do not I have my own theory.

More than anywhere else, the bird motif seems to hinge upon Norman himself. Marion may be the one with the bird name, but Norman is the one actually represented as a bird-like character. Yet, he's certainly not a mature bird--rather, he's more a child, a weak little chick, who needs to be protected by his momma, the mother bird. The mother who is not only compared to a bird, but literally stuffed like one by Norman.

This mother bird is, even after her death and living only in the mind of her offspring, out to shelter and protect him from the harsh outside world. The home, or nest, is high on a hill, elevated off the ground like an actual nest. And it's most imperative that Norman, the baby bird, be kept in that nest, that he not leave and go out into the world to become a mature adult. In this way, the bird motif serves the purpose of driving home the relationship between Norman and his mother, how it warps his development, and how it informs his sublimated murderous rage.

Just a theory, but I'm pretty convinced of it after repeated viewings. Let me know if the bird thing has ever occurred any of you as well. And if it has, what's your take on it?


Robert Ring said...

Very nice commentary. You've got me convinced.

Stuffed animals also show up prominently in The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second version). I'd like to hear your take on that film at some point.

Since you brought up the fact that Hitchcock has a lot of motifs that he returns to, I'll point out a meager few that I've noticed (aside from some of the more obvious ones that have already been discussed greatly):

People falling down stairs

People meeting on public transportation

People being strangled

People struggling with language barriers

People encountering harrowing situations outside of their home countries, hometowns, etc.

More abstractedly (and probably discussed on somewhat of a widespread scale -- though I don't recall haven't read anything about this myself), truth becoming progressively muddled as people try harder and harder to find it.

I swear there's more that I've thought of before, but it's not something I've given much consideration too in a while.

Really good analysis, though. Did you notice that on the picture of Norman, aside from his head looking birdlike, if you sort of keep the image just in your peripheral vision, the white kinda sorta maybe looks like a white silhouette of a bird?

Any hint on which of Hitch's movie's you're doing next?

Wings1295 said...

Great analysis. And while I never went into such depth, I did notice the bird-theme as it wove through the movie. Great job pulling it all together. I am pretty sure you are on the right track, if not already at the station!

Anonymous said...

B-Sol, you are really in my head with this post :) Back in my senior year of high school, we watched, re-watched and analyzed Psycho for 2 weeks in my AP English class. Yes, this film was studied in a high school English class. The symbolism is absolutely incredible and I love how the whole he stuffs bird/he's a bird of prey/angle of the camera effect was worked so masterfully.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

You're not alone in your theory. Here's a comment from a March 2000 post on the issue. It's the first hit if you Google "Bird Imagery in Pyscho":

Actually, birds are simply a recurring theme in the film. Notice that Marion's last name is Crane, and she is from Phoenix. Anthony Perkins was specifically chosen because he looks like a bird. Some of the ideas drawn from this are that of the young bird being unable to leave the nest, and Norman Bates has rarely traveled from the home and the hotel. He is also portrayed as a bird of prey. Many of the birds in the parlor scene are birds of prey, and several are aimed directly at Marion Crane, foreshadowing her demise. Norman also compares Marion to a bird by saying that she eats like one. There are many things like this, but they have nothing to do with Hitchcock's "The Birds."

Great minds think alike. They write very alike too sometimes.

To reinforce the trapped baby bird image, you missed the dialog, "You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps . . . and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other."

As for defending the thesis, you're on fairly solid ground. A quick tour of Hitchcock flicks reveals sinister bird images throughout: 39 Steps, Sabotage, Juno and the Peacock, Young and Innocent, Foreign Correspondent, Spellbound, Vertigo, and on and on. There's a whole page about this on the Hitchcock wiki.

B-Sol said...

Robert, this is actually going to be a year-long series on Psycho alone, kind of like what I did last year with A Nightmare on Elm Street.
And Anonymous, that's pretty amazing, I knew I couldn't be the only one who had given a lot of thought to this bird thing!

Christine Hadden said...

Psycho is one of my favorite movies, and I really hadn't thought too much about the bird thing, other than noticing he seemed to reference them alot. But after reading your post I was truly enlightened - so much so that the film is finding its way to my DVD player this weekend.
Great post!

Andre Dumas said...

Awesome! As an avid Hitchcock lover I have read and explored countless ideas on the bird thing and I just love it.

What's your take on the idea of mama birds regurgitating food into their young ones mouths? ...Hehehh Now that Mother is dead who will feed baby Norman? I suppose Mother's murders are like her regurgitated food for Norman. She does the dirty work and Norman cleans it up or "digests" it. Nifty nifty.

I also love Hitchcock's dependence and use of mirrors. It's especially prominent in Psycho, my favorite being the shot where Marion is reflected in the cops sunglasses.

B-Sol said...

Christine, I'm glad I could inspire you to rediscover Psycho. And Andre, that's some fascinating stuff. I think you might be on to something, since I've also heard it postulated that the human practice of kissing has its origins in the method some animals use to feed their young--which would also tie into Norman's serious intimacy issues as well...

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