Psycho and The Birds

by kebullock / Jun 5, 2013 / No Comments

The Helpless Viewer in Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds

The term identification is utilized frequently when discussing Hitchcock’s suspense films, yet during Tippi Hedren’s audition for a role as one of his infamous blonde leads, Hitchcock demonstrates a different form of emotional audience interaction that is central to his films. In her screen test for the role of Melanie Daniels in Hitchcock’s The Birds, Tippi Hedren stands in a medium shot directly facing the camera. She is instructed to look directly at the camera by the disembodied voice of Alfred Hitchcock himself. “Now look at those people there,” he says, indicating the invisible viewers watching the film. “Who the hell do they think they are? Very interesting.” Hitchcock highlights this interaction between Tippi Hedren and the audience as he puts thoughts in her head about the audience members beyond the camera. The audience and the character on the screen are two different entities that can acknowledge and sometimes interact with one another but ultimately resist assimilation into one being. This interaction between two distinct entities, his characters and his audience, is central to Hitchcock’s films and is often revealed in unexpected and jarring ways throughout his repertoire. One effective way in which he highlights this relationship is through the use of violence.

Despite his reputation as the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock also has a penchant for violence in many of his films. In two of his most disturbing films, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), violence is utilized to achieve vastly different goals in the context of the films while at the same time indicating a separation between the characters and the viewers. While in The Birds there is no single villain, the mass violence carried out by the thousands of birds in the Bodega Bay is enough to make one’s skin crawl. On the other hand, the equally disturbing violence in Psycho involves the intimate interaction between two characters that are seemingly central to the narrative. While each of these films uses violence to achieve different outcomes, Hitchcock chose to use it in crucial aspects of the narrative, moments when the audience connects fully with the diegesis and the characters in it. Yet this connection is not one of identification but rather sympathy and separation.

Hitchcock’s The Birds focuses on the small town of Bodega Bay as it suffers from sudden and erratic bird attacks. Late in the film, after it has been made indisputably clear that the birds are attacking and killing innocent people, Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, leaves the safety of a boarded up living room to investigate threatening noises in the attic. After she cautiously enters the attic, the camera cuts to a point of view shot of a large hole in the roof. Melanie gasps in horror and the camera cuts to her as she lifts her flashlight to reveal what is hiding in the shadows of the room. Startled by the sudden artificial light, a swarm of crows suddenly takes flight, the sound of sharp birdcalls and violent flapping punctuating the audio track. At this moment, only diegetic sound can be heard as the scene is devoid of a musical score. The birdcalls and Melanie’s helpless whimpers are all that can be heard. Hitchcock’s skill in the editing room becomes apparent as he cuts rapidly between the amorphous bird shapes frantically scattering throughout the attic and close-ups of Melanie’s flailing body parts. Melanie instinctually raises her arms to cover her face as the birds repeatedly hit her. As the attack continues, deep scratches appear on her pale skin and her bleach-blonde hair accentuates the color of the bright red blood. Bloody tears appear on her stylish green suit and her legs buckle as birds surround her feet. As she sinks to the floor, Melanie closes the door behind her and whispers, “Oh, Mitch. Get Cathy and Linda out of here.”

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While many of the shots could be considered point of view shots of the birds attacking Melanie, there is a sense of disconnect between Melanie and the viewers. Whenever she is shown on the screen, she is never in long shot. Instead the frame truncates her body, showing only her feet, or hands, or face. She is never shown as a full human being but rather pieces of one. While the audience can feel a sense of horror as they watch the swarm shamelessly peck away at a helpless Melanie, they are never granted a view from her eyes for more than a split second at a time. The fact that these point of view shots are so short brings us closer to Melanie but does not allow us to fully embody her for long enough to identify with her. The audience is instead called to sympathize with her and feel horror at what they see rather than what they feel.

While this scene is overall traumatizing and hard to watch, it is the exact moment when Melanie is at her most vulnerable that Hitchcock’s obsession with audience sympathy becomes apparent. It has been established throughout the film that when the birds attack, one of the ways in which they inflict their damage is by pecking out their victim’s eyes. For example, when Linda discovers Dan Fawcett has been killed in his home, she sees his mangled body on the floor of the bedroom. Hitchcock creates a series of jump cuts that get incrementally closer to Fawcett’s hollow, bloody eye sockets until his disfigured face fills the entire screen. This jarring editing choice emphasizes the importance of the eyes and the birds’ fascination with them. When Melanie is being attacked in the attic, the first thing she does is shield her face in an attempt to ward off the violent attack. As she weakens, the birds get closer and closer to her face and eyes.

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The scene is at its most threatening when, partway through the attack, we see a single bird fly towards Melanie’s neck and face and the camera cuts to an extreme close up of her terrified eyes. At this moment, the bird is inches from her eyes and she looks directly into the camera. Her eyes widen and you can see fear and desperation in her expression, as if in this moment she is simultaneously pleading for the audience to help her and resigning to her gruesome fate. Until this moment in the film, the story has provided a confused set of characters with which the audience is called to sympathize. The viewer is tossed back and forth between characters, never spending intimate time in the heart and mind of a single character for long enough to identify with them. At this moment in the film, we are given one last look into Melanie’s mind as she is violently attacked and pleads for our help. Given this is the last moment in the film when we connect this closely with a character, the viewer is able to finally settle on one character and realize their sympathies for Melanie.

Much of this scene consists of point of view shots as the viewer sees Melanie being attacked. Birds fly directly at the camera and fill the frame with frantic and amorphous movement. Yet in this moment when Melanie’s pleading eyes turn to the audience, we are reminded of the separation between the film’s characters and its viewers as we sympathize with, rather than identify with, Melanie. We do not become one with Melanie as she is attacked, we remain all too separate. We remain too separate to save her when her expression pleads for help and too separate to feel the same pain she feels when she slumps to the floor. In fact, we are just as helpless as her on the other side of the screen.

We are reminded of our passive position as viewer as her desperate eyes call out to us. Breaking the fourth wall is a technique that is often used to threaten the audience. The invisible barrier that divides an audience from a film is rarely broken and when it is, it is with emphasis and purpose. Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho and Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) both address the audience directly so as to make the viewer feel uneasy and in some cases unsafe from the horrors of the film world. Yet this time, amidst a threatening attack, we are offered a moment of clarifying helplessness rather than danger as the fourth wall crumbles.

This scene of violence near the end of the film, can be considered the climax of the film. After this moment, the characters quietly go about packing into Melanie’s car and driving away from the overrun house. The film itself ends ambiguously, as if it were a song ending on an unresolved dissonant chord. We are left wondering whether Melanie and her friends will survive. By not helping her in her attack, were we, the viewers, condemning her or saving her?

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Three years prior to making The Birds, Hitchcock made one of his most famous films, Psycho. Hitchcock’s Psycho, is punctuated by two particularly violent scenes: the famous murder of Marion Crane and the murder of Detective Arbogast. Psycho was made in a time when there were tight regulations and censorship on films. Graphic violence on screen was considered almost taboo and was rarely given any screen time. Psycho not only changed the way in which we go to the movies but it also changed the way audiences react to violence on screen. While the scene in which Marion is murdered in the shower seeks to achieve a different goal than the attic scene in The Birds, this scene also demonstrates a physical separation and emotion sympathy between the viewer and the victim.

For the first thirty minutes of Psycho, the viewer is pulled into the seductive life of Marion Crane. Hitchcock uses every method imaginable to indicate that the audience should feel a connection with Marion. We are first introduced to her in an intimate situation between her and her lover. We see from her point of view as she drives out of town with stolen money in her purse. We are even privy to her thoughts as we hear a voice-over of her imagined outcomes as she drives. Yet, just when we feel the most for Marion, as she realizes her faults and makes plans to right her wrongs and return the stolen money, she is literally sliced off the screen and out of the narrative by Mrs. Bates.

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Marion Crane is at her most vulnerable, both emotionally and physically as she steps into the shower in her run-down motel room. The audience is shown several long shots of Marion enjoying the warm water, all from the shoulders up so as to avoid breaking censorship rules. We are then shown a high angle shot of Marion, her head in the bottom right corner of the frame. The shower curtain obscures the rest of the screen. Movement slowly becomes apparent from behind the shower curtain and the silhouette of the door opening and a person entering becomes clear. The camera tracks in to a close-up of the shower curtain as it is suddenly pulled back by the shadowy figure behind it. In contrast to the silent attack in the attic in The Birds, a sharp violin score and an off-screen scream punctuate this moment in the shower. The next minute of footage is cut rapidly, with more than ninety shots.

In contrast to the very visceral violence shown on the screen in The Birds, Psycho hides the actual murderous strikes from the audience off-screen. While the audience is present for the murder in Psycho, they are never given the satisfaction of the knife penetrating flesh. In the ninety shots that make up this minute of violent footage, we only see the knife touch skin once and it does not penetrate the skin. We are never given the satisfaction of seeing a fatal blow. That is left to our imagination. This is in contrast to The Birds, where every scratch and blow is shown inside the frame. Similar to the attack in the attic during The Birds, part of the terror associated with the violence is the never-ending repetition of strikes. Mrs. Bates does not kill Marion quickly nor quietly but rather stabs her multiple times, attacking her again and again in an impulsive and crazed fashion reminiscent of the frantic, flying birds.

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While in The Birds the violence in the attic serves to clarify a sympathetic character, in Psycho this act of violence severs us from our only connection with a character and leaves us unsure of whom to follow next. Despite this stark difference between these two uses of violence within the narrative, we are again called to interact with the victim rather than become the victim at the end of this violent scene. As Marion slumps down with her back against the shower wall, she stares off into the distance, her eyes glossed over with pain. She then slowly lifts her hand and reaches directly at the camera and the audience watching her beyond the screen. Her fingers are stretched in tension. It is as if she is grasping for the viewer, reaching for their help. And once again, as with Melanie in The Birds, the viewer is reminded of their helpless, passive position as a viewer. They cannot help Marion when she is at her most vulnerable, dying naked in the shower, and by denying her the help she asks for, the viewer is, in a way, condemning her to die.

Throughout the scene, the viewer is privy to both Marion’s and Mrs. Bates’ point of view. Yet we are more inclined to sympathize with Marion given the context of the scene. Up until this point we are led to believe that Marion is the sole vehicle for sympathy as we follow her closely through her travels to the Bates Motel. This is the first time in the narrative that we see Mrs. Bates. We know nothing about her, other than what the biased Norman Bates has told us. We see the knife moving diagonally across the screen as if the hand in which it is held belongs to us, yet we cannot sympathize with the murderer because we know nothing about her. Sympathy is not merely a visual point of view, but rather a combination of shot framing and narrative content.

Similar to our relationship with Melanie in The Birds, we cannot purely identify with Marion as she is attacked. The murderer is often framed from Marion’s point of view, yet the cutting is so rapid that we do not remain in her position for more than a split second at a time, not enough to truly identify with her. The moment in which she reaches for the audience with her dying breaths, is the closest we come to identification and it is more akin to sympathy, as in the scene with Melanie Daniels.

In both the shower scene in Psycho and the attic scene in The Birds, violence is not shown on screen for violence’s sake. There is a method to Hitchcock’s madness. He uses these violent actions to both clarify and destabilize our relationship with the victims while at the same time highlighting out helpless position as a third-person onlooker. By stylizing these violent actions and framing them in the context of film, he is, in a way, elevating the status of violence as a medium through which to express his art. This act of elevating the status of violence portrayed on the screen could be easily misinterpreted as a morose love for the gruesome. While in fact, it is not the act of violence itself that is of interest to Hitchcock but rather its use as a tool in the larger creation of film and manipulation of audience reception.