Examining Madness in Alfred Hitchcock’s 'Vertigo,' 'Psycho,' and 'The Birds'

Updated on March 5, 2019
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Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University.

Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo.'
Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo.' | Source

Warning

This article contains major spoilers of all three movies discussed.

Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films center on an ordinary person experiencing an unexpected or extraordinary situation. These situations then cause the ordinary person to act with violence or extreme behavior in order to solve or escape the new conditions. In The Lodger, The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, and several other Hitchcock films, the male, wrongfully-accused hero must go to great lengths to clear his name and attempt to bring the real criminal to justice. In other films such as Blackmail, The Lady Vanishes, Sabotage, and Suspicion the female protagonist reacts violently or rashly in order to cope with the terrifying realization that she cannot trust those around her. However, it's in Hitchcock’s later movies, Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), that we see protagonists reacting to uncanny circumstances with horror and madness – two themes that haven’t truly been approached in Hitchcock’s previous films (with the exception of Rebecca, which touches upon these themes). In this essay, I will examine the leading characters of Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds in order to expose the role of madness as an equalizer among seemingly very different persons. Discussion of some of Hitchcock’s motifs, such as psychoanalysis, will be used to strengthen my claim that the madness of the “villains” in these movies is mirrored in a type of madness in the heroes. In these films Hitchcock demonstrates the ease in which an ordinary person can become mad, in order to induce a level of horror onto the audience. And by building up the relationship between the audience and the mad characters, Hitchcock pushes the audience to be horrified by their own potential for madness.

In the film Vertigo, the leading character, John “Scottie” Ferguson (played by Jimmy Stewart), does not immediately come across as a mad character. For nearly three-quarters of the film, Scottie is portrayed as a “normal,” witty guy, who, despite his fear of heights and the trauma he obtained from watching a man fall to his death, is still able to joke-around and live a somewhat normal life. For the first part of the film, Scottie does not display the qualities of a mad character, and, instead, we are presented with a story based on the eerie madness of Madeline Elster (Kim Novak), the wife of an old friend of Scottie’s from his college days. Believing that she is possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes – Madeline’s great-grandmother who had a tragic life and death – Madeline’s husband, Gavin, hires Scottie to come out of retirement as a detective and follow Madeline in order to solve the mystery of her increasingly strange behavior.

As a detective, it is in Scottie’s nature to gather clues and solve mysteries, and before Madeline’s “suicide” he frustratingly says, “If I could just find the key!” as if there was one logical thing that could explain everything that was happening to Madeline. It is the search for the “key” that causes Scottie’s breakdown, and his rejection of the notion that there are things that cannot be explained. It is Scottie’s preoccupation with cause and effect that leads to his rejection of the “facts” surrounding the case. His love for Madeline strengthens his inability to let go, until the mystery consumes him, which is evident in his dream of Carlotta and his obsession with recreating Madeline in Judy. It is not until after Madeline’s faked “death,” that we see a drastic change in Scottie that throws him into the spotlight as the truly mad character of the film. In Madeline’s absence, Scottie absorbs and adopts her madness as a result of his being in love with her. After her “death,” he is now haunted by both Carlotta and Madeline, and also by the puzzle he could never solve, the connection between Carlotta, Madeline, and Madeline’s inexplicable behavior.

What makes Vertigo different than Psycho and The Birds is that there is in fact a “key,” as there is an explainable answer for almost everything that Scottie has experienced. In Vertigo, that key is Carlotta’s necklace: material proof of the connection between Judy, Madeline, and the underlying scheme for the murder of the real Mrs. Elster. What is interesting is that the audience is given this information before Scottie discovers it. This knowledge held by the audience, in contrast with Scottie’s strange and startling behavior in the reconfiguration of Judy into Madeline, makes Scottie’s actions all the more alarming. It is clear that Scottie doesn’t even really know why he’s doing what he’s doing, which he reveals when Judy asks him, “Why are you doing this? What good will it do?” to which he answers, “I don’t know.” Though Scottie discovers the “key” that reveals the supernatural circumstances that appear to surround Madeline, there are still unsettling issues left unresolved. By the end of the film, Scottie still doesn’t understand the workings within his own mind. He doesn’t understand his acrophobia, nor how to overcome it; something he proves in the beginning of the film when he tries to prove to Midge that his fears may be solved by slowly acclimating himself to heights, and at the end with his surprise at overcoming his fear unintentionally. His fear of falling reflects his fear of loss of meaning, something James Vest notes in his essay on Vertigo when he writes, “Falling symbolizes instability and powerlessness, loss of control and balance in both a physiological and an existential sense. In Vertigo it serves as a correlative to the collapse of reason” (6). For Scottie, the collapse of reason culminates in both the death of Madeline and his relationship with Judy (ironically the same person). Through Madeline’s supposed suicide, Scottie becomes lost within her madness as if it is a riddle that has no answer. Through Judy, Scottie comes to the realization that he can never have Madeline back, and we get no sense of closure for him by the end of the film, only the potential for further psychological damage as he witnesses yet another death by falling.

Our attachment to Scottie is fostered throughout the majority of the film, and is essentially what makes the second part of the film unsettling. Throughout most of the film, Scottie is likable and relatable, but after Madeline’s death he becomes unpredictable, closed-off, and difficult to understand. Our relationship with Scottie is mirrored in the character of his friend Midge, another likeable, relatable character who gets along well with Scottie. In the beginning we get to know Scottie and like him, particularly due to his friendly relationship with Midge, and we are comfortable with his character despite his frightening experience of vertigo in the very beginning of the film. Towards the middle of the movie, like Midge, we detect changes in him as he becomes more and more intrigued with Madeline, and we start to understand him a little less as he distances himself from both the audience and Midge. After Madeline’s “death,” he becomes someone we can no longer understand, which is reflected when Midge visits him at the hospital and is unable to elicit any type of response out of him.

As the unsuspecting mad character, and as the investment of our time and empathy, Scottie and his actions in the second part of the film create a sensation of horror. This horror stems from the notion of the normal person turned mad, and from the danger of becoming invested in another person’s life – perhaps a comment on the dangers of voyeurism and movie-watching in itself. Scottie's investment is in Madeline, and for the audience, it is in Scottie. As a result, we too are affected by the instability of another person, and the audience comes to mirror Scottie just as he comes to mirror Madeline. However, both Scottie and the audience are stuck solving the complexity of fictional characters, and therefore come to unsatisfying answers. Scottie solves the mystery of Madeline’s case, but in a way that causes him not only to lose her forever, but to admit that she never existed in the first place. John McCombe mentions the dissatisfaction in Vertigo, in his essay on The Birds, writing, “There is an answer, of course, but it is one [Scottie’s] fragile psyche will later be unable to accept: the dreams do not exist, because Madeline does not exist” (66). Similarly, the audience is left fully invested in the circumstances surrounding Scottie, but it is an investment that has no closure or satisfying resolution.

Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in 'Vertigo'
Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in 'Vertigo' | Source

Like Vertigo, Psycho can also be seen as a two-act play, in which we are presented with the madness of one character and then the more prominent madness of another, unsuspecting character. These two characters happen to be the villain and the hero, or in this case the heroine – that is if we can consider Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to be the heroine of the film since she dies rather early on. Marion is at least presented as the leading lady throughout the first part of the film, in which we follow her story of stealing money from her employer and then running off to meet up with her boyfriend who doesn’t know that she’s taken the money. Different from Vertigo, in Psycho it is the leading character that shows early signs of madness that are later mirrored in another character who becomes invested in her life.

Though many viewers may not consider Marion to be mad, her odd behavior and increasing paranoia throughout the first part of the film foreshadow the more prevailing sense of madness portrayed later on through Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). After submitting to temptation and deciding, on a whim, to steal the forty-thousand dollars that has conveniently been put in her possession, Marion leaves town and becomes increasingly paranoid as she gets further away from the people who will be affected by her crime. As she drives away from town she imagines conversations of her boss, coworkers, and sister, and what they will say when they discover both she and the money are missing. She also gets rid of her car, switching it for another, wraps the evidence of her crime (the money) up in a newspaper, and lies to the police over minute details in order to cover her tracks.

All of the paranoid and impulsive actions of Marion are mirrored and magnified later on with Norman’s character. Committing a crime on a whim, without planning or provocation, Norman (dressed as his mother) murders Marion while she is in the shower. Much like the small company where Marion works, the bathroom seems a safe place where nothing shocking or criminal should occur. Where Marion’s crime may seem almost understandable to audience members – as we have the ability imagine the temptation that comes with holding on to such a large sum of money and therefore understand her “temporary insanity” in stealing it – the more heinous crime of murder both shocks and horrifies the audience, particularly because it is the murder of a woman with whom they have invested time and empathy. The audience’s horror, however, could also stem from the subtle parallels of the crimes committed. The fact that the audience at this point believes the murderer to be Norman’s mother creates even more of a parallel, as both the crimes are committed by women. Norman’s cleaning up of the evidence parallels Marion’s paranoid actions after her own criminal act. Norman wraps the evidence of his crime, Marion’s body, in a shower curtain, in almost the exact same way Marion folds the forty-thousand dollars in a newspaper. He also packs up her bags, and gets rids of her car, two things that the audience watches Marion do in painstaking detail earlier in the film. Later, Norman also tells nervous, trivial lies to the detective who comes around asking questions about Marion, mirroring Marion’s lies to the police officer that follows her. The fact that Norman Bates hears voices and holds conversations with the mother in his head also invokes Marion when she imagines the conversations in her head as she drives away from town. All these similarities connect the “temporary madness” of ordinary people such as Marion, with the incomprehensible madness of horrific killers such as Norman Bates.

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in 'Psycho'
Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in 'Psycho' | Source

Much like Marion from Psycho, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) from The Birds does unusual things that connect her to the villain of the movie, though in this instance the villain, or villains, are not human. From her first introduction into the film, Melanie is associated with birds, as we see her entering a bird shop in order to purchase a special bird for her aunt. Melanie’s purchase of birds may not seem particularly special, but throughout the film she is often compared to a bird and shares many qualities with the birds that later attack. In his first encounter with Melanie, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) catches a loose canary in the bird shop, and says “Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels,” establishing a connection between Melanie and birds early on in the film. As the audience gets to know Melanie, it becomes clear that she is a woman that doesn’t like to be caged or restrained from doing whatever she wants. Again a two-part movie, in the first part we see Melanie doing many things that will later become mirrored to a horrific extent by the birds of the film. Apart from living a lifestyle that is much like a bird free from its cage, Melanie enters the small, safe town of Bodega Bay, and pushes herself onto the townspeople and invades Mitch’s home. She in fact breaks into Mitch’s house while he isn’t there (though the door is unlocked, it can still be considered breaking-and-entering) in order to surprise him with lovebirds. Later, Melanie convinces Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) to allow her to stay in her house, though it is clear that this is a bit of an uncomfortable situation for Annie, considering she is Mitch’s ex-girlfriend and still has feelings for him. Melanie’s lifestyle and her status as outsider within the small town also make her a source of fear and distrust among many of the characters of the film, including Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy).

It is not until the second part of the film, in which the birds begin attacking more viciously, that the parallels between Melanie and the birds become apparent. Though Melanie’s actions come across as harmless behavior, it is not until the birds mirror some of these actions that we begin to become horrified by them. Like Melanie, the birds invade the Brenner home unannounced, causing much physical damage and anxiety among the characters. They also terrorize the town, a magnification of the anxieties surrounding the outsider (Melanie) that they don’t understand, and the birds seem particularly attracted to the children – perhaps mirroring Melanie’s search for the name of Mitch’s sister, Cathy, during the first part of the film. They also literally end Annie’s life; as Annie appeared only to live for Mitch, this could reflect the fact that Melanie and Mitch’s romantic relationship may have figuratively ended her life as well.

Unlike Vertigo and Psycho, however, in the first part of the film the audience is not presented with any prominent forms of madness, only the eccentric behavior of Melanie. Again we see a character become overly invested in another person’s life, in this case Melanie becoming invested in Mitch, but unlike Vertigo, this investment does not come across as unhealthy or dangerous. It is not until the middle of the film that Melanie begins to reveal some of her issues with her mother, and it is around this time that the madness of the birds increases. In this film Melanie’s madness seems to correspond with violence and madness of the birds, and it is often when she is alone with the birds that audiences are able to witness the increase of this madness. When the birds are attacking the town, Melanie runs into a phone booth, and the glass phone booth allows her to witness the madness around her created by the birds, while at the same time trapping herself within a more private world of madness. As she witnesses the inexplicable behavior of the birds, she loses pieces of her own identity, becoming less sure of herself and more of a submissive character. It seems that Melanie completely loses herself when she is personally attacked by the birds, trapped in a bedroom with them, and like Marion from Psycho, comes face to face with the monstrous version of herself. David Sterritt also recognizes the connections between The Birds and Psycho, in that “The Birds is very much a follow up to Psycho, with Hitchcock seeking to go further beyond the bounds of rationality than even Norman Bates’s grim adventure allowed. It projects Norman’s disequilibrium into the world at large”1. Taken in this context, it seems that Melanie is merely one of the ordinary people that have been subjected to the madness of the world, and of the parts of herself that she doesn’t yet understand. As Cynthia Erb puts it in her essay on Hitchcock and madness, “The subject of madness is the one who does not know herself” (47). I would also add, in the cases of Melanie and Marion especially, that the subject becomes mad when presented with a side of herself that she never realized was there.

1 Quote taken from McCombe, 67.

Tippi Hedren in 'The Birds'
Tippi Hedren in 'The Birds' | Source

The relatable leading characters of The Birds, Psycho, and Vertigo all delve into madness that is mirrored by the more blatantly mad characters of the films. By having this connection between characters, Hitchcock demonstrates a meaninglessness in relation to cause and effect, in that the motivating factors for the leading characters amount to nothing, leaving the audience with a prolonging sense of uncertainty and horror that persists long after the film is over. These portrayals of horrific meaninglessness were perhaps a sign of the times, as a demonstration of the lack of knowledge people have of psychological motivations. Erb highlights this claim when she writes, “As the effects of deinstitutionalization spread in the fifties, films began to emerge that showed less investment in portraying the wonders of therapy than in the spectacle of psychosis unleashed” (51). As fictions in which psychosis becomes “unleashed,” it seems that meaninglessness is in itself the “key” to understanding these films – as it is both in our nature and in the nature of the leading characters to find a “key” within the plot – something David Humbert recognizes in his analysis of The Birds: “the very randomness, irrationality, and suddenness of the attack is the key to understanding the film” (88). Along with being presented with the unsolvable psychological motivations of the characters, the audience is also forced to establish a relationship with madness, in that they are coerced into becoming invested in the lives of characters that are subtly connected to those characters who we consider horrific and incomprehensible. As Robert Genter puts in his essay on the film Psycho, “Psycho was just the most visible document to issue a warning about the deviant behaviour lurking within each individual” (135). Genter’s statement could be applicable to The Birds and Vertigo as well, since they are less blatant, but certainly relevant, examples of the madness within the ordinary person. Norman Bates seems to sum up the underlying themes of all three of these films the best, when speaking with Marion in his parlor: “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

Works Cited

The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. Universal Studios, 1963. DVD.

Erb, Cynthia Marie. ""Have You Ever Seen the Inside of One of Those Places?": Psycho, Foucault, and the Postwar Context of Madness." Cinema Journal 45.4 (2006): 45-63. Project MUSE.

Genter, Robert. ""We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes": Alfred Hitchcock, American Psychoanalysis, and the Construction of the Cold War Psychopath." Canadian Review of American Studies 40.2 (2010): 133-62. Project MUSE.

Humbert, David. "Desire and Monstrosity in the Disaster Film: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds." Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 17 (2010): 87-103. Project MUSE.

McCombe, John P. ""Oh, I See....": The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock's Hyper-Romantic Vision." Cinema Journal 44.3 (2005): 64-80. Project MUSE.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Universal Studios, 1960. DVD.

Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. Universal Studios, 1958. DVD.

Vest, James M. "Reflections of Ophelia (And of "Hamlet") in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo"" The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 22.1 (1989): 1-9. JSTOR.

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    © 2019 Veronica McDonald

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