Psychoanalytic Critique of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud developed the first framework for psychoanalytic theory expressing that our unconscious mind is truly responsible for our thoughts, desires, and overall emotions. His theory establishes that childhood experiences are crucial in individual development and sexual or aggressive drives shape all of our basic needs and feelings (Summers, 2006).
Of course humans do not directly recognize that their underlying sexual drive would cause them to act in certain ways; this creates an artistic path for filmmakers to incorporate this theory into film.
In a film anything can happen because it is created in someone’s mind and acted out by unrelated individuals. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, an unusual family circumstance coupled with an outsider joining a small town creates havoc when the birds of Bodega Bay turn on humanity. Sexual desires driven by the unconscious create animosity in the small community as feelings are turned into brutal, physical attacks.
An important theme in psychoanalysis is narcissism and its contribution to the plot of a film. This is a good place to introduce Melanie Daniels, a beautiful socialite who has been brought up by the wealthy and will remain wealthy, the signature narcissistic character that we cannot help but love because of their ability carry themselves and play on our emotions. A very early sign of Melanie’s narcissistic behavior is when she is so greatly offended by Mitch’s poke at fun by pretending to believe she is a salesperson in the bird shop.
She cannot believe that he would even joke about her holding such a position. Melanie’s narcissism is a result of her upbringing in a wealthy family, as well as her recent travels to Europe which encourage her even more to view herself as a prominent individual in society. The film even contrasts Melanie’s pristine image with Annie’s obvious less favorable look when we first meet Annie in her gardening attire. This is a way to persuade the audience that Melanie’s appearance is superior to others (McCombe, 2005).
This theme is an important part of the film because it gives us no choice but to view Melanie as the victim of the birds, even when one of the diner’s customers says to Melanie, “They said that when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil- evil! ” (McCombe, 2005). The unconscious is represented within this film in the sense of oedipal drama (Summers, 2006). Male protagonist, Mitch, has a very unconventional relationship with his mother Lydia.
Not to mention the large age gap between Mitch and his younger sister Cathy that causes the two to span different generations. Due to the death of Lydia’s husband she has clung to Mitch as a replacement for him and becomes threatened by any chance of Mitch having another woman in his life. It first happened when Lydia drove away Annie Hayworth and now a similar threat is being posed by Melanie. Though Mitch works as a lawyer hours away in San Francisco all week, he returns to the family home every weekend in Bodega Bay to keep the family unit as a whole.
It is not just with Lydia that Mitch’s role seems ambiguous, but he also acts as more of a father to Cathy than a brother. The internal conflict that Lydia is experiencing as she is threatened by the arrival of Melanie Daniels, another woman that could take her Mitch away from her, is displayed through the repeated attacks of the birds in the small town. The birds are more of a representation of disruption to humanity rather than the perceived aggressive attackers that are displayed to the audience.
In some ways it is easier to start at the ending when finding the meaning in something (McCombe, 2005). The end of The Birds does not have any resolution or closure like we often expect from film. As humans we have a need for the fight, and expect a war between the humans and the birds, but the finale of this film is far from that. The ending may even be viewed as anticlimactic, but film is not about the birds, it is about the people. The birds represent the angst that resides with Lydia who is in fear of losing her beloved son to any other woman.
The attacks can in a way be interpreted as Lydia punishing Mitch for having sexual attraction for another woman (McCombe, 2005). A counterargument to this interpretation can be made involving why the various attacks were often targeting children if it was a representation of Lydia’s punishment for Mitch. Recall that it was Cathy however; who in the end begged Mitch to allow her to keep the two caged lovebirds that original brought Melanie to Bodega Bay (McCombe, 2005). Cathy took quite the liking to Melanie Daniels from the start, perhaps yearning for that maternal recognition she lacked from Lydia.
In a sense, Cathy’s regard for Melanie and her presence in the house could also be viewed as grounds for punishment quite like Mitch’s. The use of the children could also have been a trigger for the audience to make the birds even more intimidating and aggressive. The scene where the crows have built up on the jungle gym behind Melanie and then cut to the interior of Annie’s classroom imposes quite the threat on innocent children. The family dynamic in the film is a very important aspect of the underlying meaning for the birds.
The strangeness between Lydia and Mitch is obvious; from him coming home on weekends to acting like a father figure to Cathy, not much about it is normal. However, relating the family situation to the bird attacks in not as obvious. Lydia’s unconscious being represented with the brutality is not something we would automatically assume because we do not have much exposure to Lydia throughout the film. Except for her reactions to Mitch’s gestures, we learn much about the family situation from Annie. Annie’s character is interesting because she is a source of information for Melanie, and then ends up being killed by the birds.
It is as if Annie had served her purpose as a liaison to Mitch and then was removed from the situation, while still keeping Cathy alive to preserve the Brenner family (McCombe, 2005). The Birds is a very involved film that reveals a lot about the underlying desires of the characters through the action and horror of the plot. The overarching oedipal complex between Lydia and Mitch is one way to analyze the birds and their function in the grand scheme of Hitchcock’s hyper-romantic style in this film (McCombe, 2005). Melanie’s narcissism drives us to fall into her innocence at the price of Annie Hayworth’s death by birds.
Psychoanalysis relies heavily on the importance of one’s desires, and Melanie’s desire to please Mitch with two lovebirds quickly created a less desirable environment in Bodega Bay. References McCombe, J. P. (2005). “Oh I see…”: The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock’s Hyper-Romantic Version. Cinema Journal. 44(3). 64-80. Retrieved from http://0-www. jstor. org. libra. naz. edu/stable/3661141 Summers, Frank. (2006). Freud’s Relevance for Contemporary Psychoanalytic Technique. Psychoanalytic Psychology. 23(2). 327-338.
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