Boredom never looked so good
Psycho boring? What blasphemy!
Psycho is unusual for many reasons, but in some ways the most important is the mere fact that it is in black-and-white. By the time Hitchcock came to make the black-and-white Psycho he had already been directing color for years. Color cinema is very different from black-and-white, of course, and for many reasons. To go from black-and-white to color means that major changes in technique are essential – lighting, use of shadows and contrast, even composition require a very different approach from black-and-white. Such changes are comparable to the transition from silent to sound movies, if not quite on the same scale. Psycho, reverting to the earlier conventions, is thus not simply a black-and-white movie (very boring for many non-film aficionados). It is a throwback, but not exactly, since it is a black-and-white movie made in the light of extensive work in color cinematography.
Apart from the extravagances of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s use of color as he shifted to the new post-b/w era is comparatively restrained and modest, as if in a process of acclimation to the new visual regime. Hitchcock was, needless to say, acutely aware of color and its powers, as in his use of the red blast at the end of the black-and-white Spellbound, when Murchison’s gun goes off, aimed directly at the viewer. The effect anticipates similar color shocks in Vertigo (like Spellbound, Vertigo is about mental breakdown) – as well as in Rear Window, with its astounding flashbulb sequence.3Rope, Hitchcock’s first color movie, has a definite experimental interest in the use of color.4 The changes to sky color seem to be there as much for their own sake as to look like reality, and for some are the most memorable thing about Rope. It is a self-conscious display, as if daring a viewer to find fault with this reproduction of the sky – watching those clouds and that evening sky change could easily get away with us. Still, Rope is restrained – until it gives in to a burst of color madness at the end, but again, as in Spellbound, intense color is brief, precise: to indicate mental crisis, breakdown, and a life-and-death twist in the plot.
But typically, Hitchcock’s pre-Psycho color movies keep color in hand, in order to do what movies should do, in Hitchcock’s view: tell a great story. Color, like everything else, must be subordinated to this primary function of creating a gripping story. For its use of color, Vertigo is exceptional, as Vertigo is exceptional in so many other respects: its display suggests the excitement of uninhibited experimentation, as of a director finally cutting loose with the paint-box. In spite of its delirious color and light effects, at times not far off the kind of color explosion of movies such as The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus by another experimental English director (Michael Powell), Vertigo keeps these effects within the orbit of the story as vivid expression of the subjective turmoil of its protagonist and the intrigue of the plot that engulfs him. One never feels that the color displays are there for their own sake, but because the plot demands them. The protagonist is plunging into a crazy world: the use of color suggests entry to another dimension of existence.
Then comes Psycho. Hitchcock returns to black-and-white for a major movie, after years of working in color, after years of exploring and mastering color possibilities, as well as getting to know firsthand the harsh restrictions of pioneer television. Psycho was probably impossible without that training. Many people now have never watched a black-and-white movie. For them, Psycho can be a shock, simply because it is not in color. They have the attitude, how can a movie that isn’t in color be interesting or even tolerable? (Perhaps with the rise of 3D movies, the now familiar “2D” movie will elicit a similar oh-no reaction in the future.) But if any movie can change people’s minds about black-and-white, it is Psycho. So how dare it be called “boring”!
Psycho is not boring in the sense of being tedious. All right, all right: the zombies among us may find it so. No: it is boring in the sense of being deeply engaged with boredom. It is a movie about boredom. In the regime of color, black-and-white is boring, anyway. This at least was the experience of TV viewers when color television dislodged its inferior b/w predecessor. In Psycho, even the settings, with few exceptions, are relentlessly boring. Look at the Bates Motel: as dull and shabby and dead looking a place as one can imagine. Nor is it dead in an interesting Gothic-Romantic or even merely morbid style: no, it is just boring. Even the trees, barely more than sticks, look dead; they look like impossibly cheap props. Not a lot of eye-catching flower arrangements around this motel! It is deliberately boring – more important it is visually deliberately dull.5 It looks like a place no one would give a second thought to – just like the nondescript “cheap” hotel at the beginning, like the real estate office Marion works in, like downtown Phoenix, like the used-car lot, like the highway to nowhere that is Marion’s highway to heaven . . .
What is interesting about Marion – and about Psycho – is that Marion is guilty. She is not in the classic Hitchcock predicament of being an innocent accused; she is not on the run because she is falsely accused. She did indeed steal the money, and she is indeed guilty of a serious crime. This is not the usual Hitchcock protagonist. Usually the protagonist is framed by the bad guys, and the frame gets tighter as the story progresses, each episode increasing desperation. But here it is different. The curious thing about Marion, however, is that she is innocent, and we feel it, as an audience. She is an innocent criminal, as are, in a different way, the falsely accused figures in other Hitchcock movies.
In Psycho, rather than glamorous settings, there is a drab, cheap-looking office (note the huge picture of a barren desert hanging above Marion’s work station); a cut-rate hotel (Sam actually describes it as “cheap”) that could be anywhere on the planet; a highway that could be anywhere in the western United States; a featureless used car from a featureless used car lot (complete with a tour of its dark and spartan gas-station washroom); a hardware store crammed with dusty-looking household stuff with only a single customer – an elderly party who talks about killing bugs; a motel room whose most notable feature is a toilet; a small-town police station interchangeable with any low-level bureaucratic government establishment in its ugly furnishings. There are no Long Island mansions or luxury hotels (North by Northwest), no over-the-top costume parties (To Catch a Thief), no grand galleries (Vertigo, Torn Curtain) – not even the glamorous locales of many of the earlier b/w films of the 1930s. No upscale thé-dansant scene, even, such as we find at the end of Young and Innocent.
Psycho doesn’t furnish even the cheerful small-town look of Shadow of a Doubt, where the complacent quotidian is emphasized, without any sense of tedium or oppressive routine. Young Charlie in Doubt complains of being bored, but we know that her boredom is just the itchiness of adolescence and not the real thing, not the malady that Marion steals and dies to rebel against. Family typifies the world of Shadow of a Doubt – and is utterly absent in Psycho. In Psycho, human beings are atomized and disconnected. The closest we get to any sense of social community in Psycho is the scene of the sheriff and his wife after church – going to church being the formal marker of approved social conformity: boring! (Are there other church-going scenes in Hitchcock?)
What the drabness of the film does is to intensify, by virtue of contrast, the acting, the emotion, the script, direction, and camera work – but above all the bravura acting, especially by Leigh and Perkins, whose careers in some respects never recovered from the unforgettable performances they gave in this film. They are too good in these roles: they are overpowering in their dramatization of the predicaments of their characters. This is a stripped-down movie, almost an experiment in eliminating anything that could distract from the drama itself. Hitchcock was fascinated by the possibilities of deliberately stripping things down and letting the action emerge full force – one thinks of Lifeboat or Rope, for instance, movies where physical movement, setting, and cast are minimized. But unlike those movies, Psycho has a driving, anxious, turbulent pacing that pushes the drab settings aside one after another as we rush to the final tableau of Norman, alone, in a deadly white room with nothing but a fly – followed at once by the shot of a car being pulled from the swamp, laden with dead Marion, returning from the oblivion to which Norman had judge-like condemned her.
For such a drab-looking movie, there isn’t one single scene that isn’t visually gripping.8 Psycho is an extraordinary achievement – to make such cinematic brilliance out of such minimal, in fact boring, materials.
But she is also stripping away illusions. She realizes she must return. Marion now accepts the truth: she has made a terrible error and must retrace her steps. She has in effect become a new person; she must now make some decisions about her life, having discovered that her desperate wish to have her love – to do something, no matter the consequence – won’t work. It is at this point that Norman – Norman the enforcer, as it were – takes action and makes sure that Marion will never deal with her boredom in a more constructive, successful way. In the world of boredom, desire is forbidden. One wish acted on may well be fatal.
Though “born” in this “trap” (his words), he resists any idea of leaving his house – his home. The motel may be a white elephant forced on him by the carpetbagging lover of his mother, not something he ever wanted, but he’s stuck. Norman may own the motel and the house behind it, but the money theme persists even here, too. For the motel was a kind of swindle, whereby the ancestral money of his dead father was drained away and replaced by a business for losers. Garry Leonard notes, “The Bates Motel is a particularly stark example of how badly one can get trapped by the abstract market system” (13). It is hard to imagine the boringness of Norman’s existence – no friends, no sex, no activities (he “lives like a hermit,” says the sheriff), nothing to do except stuff things and listen to his dead stuffed mother tell him what a flop he is – oh, and change the sheets in an empty motel every week. Fun!
The boringness of Psycho fills the lives of the people in the action, but it has definite visual power. Against this drab scene, Marion is a visual angel, a flash of brightness in the mise-en-scène. But by minimizing visual interest in things and objects in this film – by boring it down, so to speak – Hitchcock enables himself to do something else: to use ordinary objects to create extraordinary visual scenes, extraordinary visual compositions. Hitchcock’s camera work creates “surprise by the unexpected shapes that a familiar object can assume,” to borrow Rudolf Arnheim’s expression (42). This is notoriously true of the shower scene, but it is also true of almost any moment in this film. Particularly striking, in visual terms, is the handling of the Bates Motel itself. In terms of something to look at, as I mentioned, it is hardly of interest; indeed, it is depressing to the point of being a pain to the eyes – even its ugliness is of an uninteresting variety.
The stark contrasts and abstract shapes that the ugly motel furnishes, the brutal horizontals and verticals, furnish black-and-white blocks and lines for the viewer, a composition reminiscent of a Franz Kline painting – painting in the style of Abstract Expressionism, which was at its apogee at the time of Psycho. Against these blocks of horizontal and vertical lines and frames, the figure of Norman –first as a bouncy, boyish, candy-eating youth; later as a frighteningly mean, spare, and powerful killer cleaning up after the dirty deed – comes forward with doubled dramatic effect. The very drabness and abstractness of the motel’s lines allow Norman to stand out visually as the fearful bogey he truly is. In this aspect, he comes from the swamp – he does not merely go to it for convenient disposal needs.
* * *
The pain that Marion refers to in the real estate office is the pain of frustration and boredom. Even sex has lost its joy for her; she is tired of meeting clandestinely in a rundown hotel, over and over again with a man she wants – but without any growth of relationship with him: sex as rutting, not as love.13 Boredom implies not merely tedium but exhaustion, the sense of coming up against a limit beyond which there is nothing, “Your gaze fixed forever on the vanishing point of your own future,” as Garry Leonard puts it (17). One becomes a mechanical or ersatz human being, like the mummified mother who is actually heard to complain of her boring existence, and who is in so many ways the central figure of this movie.
What Psycho points to – what the boringness of Psycho points to – is in fact apolitical theme. Marion is trapped by her economic situation. Sam, her gormless boyfriend, is trapped by his economic situation. The other secretary in the office is trapped by her economic situation, given a dead-end job in a male-dominated business like real estate in the late 1950s. Women were expected to quit work as soon as they got married – the Patricia Hitchcock character is married, but continues to work: clear indication of the weakness of her domestic finances. She also is trapped, as her regimen of boring phone calls indicates.
Psycho is not thought of as a political movie, but that is clearly its underlying direction and point. What obscures this dimension of the film is the eye-catching, gripping spectacle of Norman Bates’s madness, above all its psychoanalytic bonanza the Oedipus Complex!, which the film obsessively delivers to the audience. What is wrong with Norman is thus his mother: “a clinging, demanding woman,” as the psychiatrist intones in his explanatory sermon. In the pop psychology of the 1950s, a dominating mother is the worst thing imaginable for a boy and the likely cause of all his problems, including an impulse to dress up in women’s clothes, an aberration especially shocking to the macho boyfriend Sam.15 Trapped by this woman’s fatal possessiveness, Norman thus had to start murdering people. His relation with her, his “love affair” with her, as it were, is the motor of the plot. Nevertheless, somehow, he wants a woman, even though he sort of has the woman he supposedly wants already, but his clinging, demanding mother prevents him. He had already killed her man out of jealousy, and he also killed her, too. The psychiatrist regards “matricide” as the worst crime of all, just as a “clinging, demanding” mother is the worst thing of all for a boy. Young Norman then – somehow – “incorporated” the mother into his own personality, but at the same time somehow split himself totally, to the point of becoming a kind of drag queen who kills women he is attracted to while he is in the guise of his mother impersonation. Having murdered his mother, he then becomes his mother, who then takes on the role of murdering women he likes, all because of (what else?) sex – or is it lack of sex, or . . .
From the point of view of understanding Marion, who is the true protagonist of this tragic story, Norman’s arcane problems, whatever their nature, are irrelevant. What is relevant is that Marion is bored and frustrated. In a moment of powerful impulse, she steals money that she thinks will enable her to seize the happiness she yearns for, once and for all. Her situation – her problem – is an economic one. That is the plot. It is money – or lack – that drives her rash impulse and all its disastrous consequences. That is why the figure of Cassidy at the outset of the action is so important to this movie – so important.
Hitchcock films often feature wealthy people. But Psycho has only one: Cassidy, who stands out all the more because of that lofty status. He personifies money. He personifies ownership, in an almost abstract way. Thus in the spirit of entitlement, he openly boasts. He is clear that he can have and do whatever he wants. It is as if desire means nothing to him, because frustration means nothing to him. He is the master of bounty, choosing who and when to receive the perks of the American Dream. Because he has lots of money, happiness is irrelevant. He can buy it. His ideal? Las Vegas, what else, “the playground of the world,” he crows ecstatically – the land of gamblers and satyrs, a perfect place for a man like Cassidy – money nirvana, where dollars buy anything, including “happiness.” Gleefully he boasts of his tax evasion. Only little people pay taxes, after all. If his eighteen-year-old daughter wants a house, he buys it. He has the cash, because the restrictions that enclose others – the Marions and debt-hobbled Sams of this world – do not apply to him. The role is a small one, but Frank Albertson plays Cassidy with consummate brilliance: Hitchcock’s small parts are often vital, and often, as here, played brilliantly. Indeed, it is his performance that triggers Marion’s impulsive and rash and desperate revolt.
Everything about Marion, apart from the theft, suggests someone who is responsible, deliberate, dependable. Far from being crazy, she is, Hitchcock says, “perfectly ordinary” (Truffaut 282). Her boss without hesitation hands a huge wad of cash over to her on a Friday afternoon. He knows her very well, and she knows him very well. She knows him to the point of predicting what he will say about her privately. Thus, driving in her car, she imagines his reaction to her absence, complete with dialogue. In the truly boring situation, everything is predictable, most of all what has not yet happened – it couldn’t be different. The movie poses the question, the boredom question: hasn’t everyone had the impulse to do something like what Marion does? We all go a little crazy some times: precisely what Norman explains to Marion in his “scratching and clawing” speech: the moment when Marion realizes her mistake and realizes that she must return.
Almost the first thing Arbogast says is that dependable people are often the ones who are least trusted: a surprising and interesting observation.17 He emphasizes that the employer just wants the money back – not prosecution – a significant concession, given the money involved, though of course covering the crime up will also cover the mistake the boss made, and the mistake that Cassidy made, as well as their potential conflict over it. As Marion herself knows, this Cassidy is the sort of man who would never admit to making a mistake.18
In the world of Psycho, the Marions of this world are trapped. There is no way out for them. That is the tragedy of Marion Crane. Her tragedy is not the unique one of encountering an aberrant “psycho” – it is the tragedy of many, many people of whom Marion is a representative example. Boredom is lethal, not because it is boredom, but because boredom is the manifestation of something even worse: deprivation and the frustration that goes with deprivation. The Cassidys of this world, meanwhile, will get their money back, most of it anyway, even if a bit soggy and a bit smelly. For them, money has no smell.
But there is more boring activity in Psycho. In this film, more than in any of his others, Hitchcock is not going to let us forget the money – that is, money as a physical material object, boring as the sheer physical handling of money in itself is. He goes out of his way to dwell on this tangible reality, far more than would logically be required or even reasonable. We know what money looks like – we do not need extended shots of it being wrapped, folded, tied with elastics, carefully packed and unpacked, moved, placed – and replaced – with appropriate sound effects of crinkling and folding. But that is what Hitchcock gives us. More than once, he presents us with detailed scenes of the money, the actual bills. Money being awkwardly withdrawn from sight when the traffic cop stares at Marion through the window of her car, after finding her asleep. Money being counted, one $100 bill at a time, and taken out, as in the ugly washroom of the used-car lot, where the scene is doubled by the mirror above – seeing it once is not enough. Money being carefully wrapped in newspaper (after the newspaper has been folded neatly to contain it). And lastly, money in its newspaper packaging being tossed – the final thing to be taken care of – into the back of murdered Marion’s car when Norman prepares to disappear his victim along with every trace of her existence.
Money in this movie is not an abstraction: it is never simply a cipher in an account book. It is a physical, sensory reality, indeed a visually magnetic reality. We are never allowed to forget its presence once Marion takes off with it. Even the final clue of the number written on the paper which “refused to go down” the toilet when Marion flushed it away, is a physical tangible reality, not an abstraction. It is the power of life and death, because that is precisely what money is.
Nothing could bring home to us the banality of evil, in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, better than this over-the-top emphasis on the physical details of cleanup. This is what Marion’s life comes to. That is, no matter how bizarre, how inexplicable and horrific Norman is, how cruel and sick his actions, somehow he belongs to the same world that Marion belongs to, the boring world, the world where work goes on whether there is any point or satisfaction to it or not, whether it makes human sense or not, whether it pays or not. In an automated existence, spiritually identical with the stuffed birds and the stuffed woman in the basement – and the stuffed woman in the bed – explosive energies begin to build up, and bizarre things happen. Sensible women run off with their boss’s cash on a quixotic errand of love, and not so sensible men murder and rob graves. Welcome to the underside of 1950s domesticity: a regime of alienation, of boredom on the verge of the explosive 1960s.
Norman is bored. Perhaps boredom has something to do with his pastime of dressing up as a woman and indulging the bizarre fantasy world he has created, a world in which his dead mother is somehow still alive and with him, a world in which, thanks to a few inexpensive materials (just sawdust and a few chemicals, he explains modestly), he can bring to life a whole flock of birds. Norman even emphasizes how inexpensive the hobby is – reminding us again of that boring topic, money. We don’t want to spend too much, especially since Norman’s stepfather had wasted the money left to his mother back when the cycle of Psycho began, in the original sin of the Psycho epic. In a boring world, fantasy lights up, whether the fantasy of escape to Fairvale with a magic bag of cash, or the intoxicating fantasy of living the “very happy” life with mother that Norman recalls for Marion in her last night on earth. Irrational fantasy is what you get when you’re very, very bored.20 Some day my prince will come, and everything will be all right. Or, in the meantime, why not murder out of boredom? Isn’t that what the bored boys of Rope do?
As long as Psycho is treated in terms of personal psychology, its real depth remains inaccessible.21 Feminist analysis has helped, in investigating the power relations that sustain this movie, but Psycho is broader in reference than the shocking oppression of women: it is oppression itself, oppression in general, that is the concern. If this is so, then the insistent popularity of this great movie owes a good deal to its underlying radical point, its presentation of the plight of so many of its actual viewers.22
For most people, as the song in Cabaret reminds us, money – not love – makes the world go round. Or, for some of us, not.
Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.
Barton, Sabrina. “Hitchcock’s Hands.” In Gottlieb and Brookhouse, eds. 159-79.
Kolker, Robert, ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Livingston, Paisley, and Carl Plantinga, eds. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. London: Routledge, 2009.
Currie, Gregory. Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Delgado, Sergio. “Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and the Phenomenology of Perception.” Film Criticism 34.1 (Fall 2009): 1-16.
Durgnat, Raymond. A Long Hard Look at Psycho. London: British Film Institute, 2002.
Giralt, Gabriel F. “Realism and Realistic Representation in the Digital Age.” Journal of Film and Video62.3 (Fall 2010): 3-16.
Gottlieb, Sidney, ed. Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Gottlieb, Sidney, and Christopher Brookhouse, eds. Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from The Hitchcock Annual. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002.
Leonard, Garry. “Monsters and Mortgages: The Horror Movie as Prime Economic Indicator.” Film International 8.1 (2010): 11-17.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Regan Books, 2003.
Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much. New York: Routledge, 2d ed., 2005.
Morris, Christopher D. The Hanging Figure: On Suspense and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
Naremore, James. “Remaking Psycho.” In Gottlieb and Brookhouse, eds. 387-96.
Nicholson, Mervyn. Male Envy: The Logic of Malice in Literature and Culture. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
“Stranger and Stranger: Male Envy in Hitchcock.” BrightLightsfilm.com 55 (2007).
Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: Marion Boyars, 1999.
Orr, John. Hitchcock and Twentieth Century Cinema. London: Wallflower Press, 2005.
Schmidt, Michael. “The Parlor Scene in Psycho: Images of Duality.” http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/features/psycho.htm
Sharrett, Christopher. “The Myth of Apocalypse and the Horror Film: The Primacy of Psycho and The Birds.” In Gottlieb and Brookhouse, eds. 355-72.
Street, Sarah. “Hitchcockian Haberdashery.” In Gottlieb and Brookhouse, eds. 147-58.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. New York: Simon, rev. ed., 1984.
Walker, Michael. Hitchcock’s Motifs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.
Whittock, Trevor. Metaphor and Film. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Zirnite, Dennis. “Hitchcock, on the Level: The Heights of Spatial Tension.” Film Criticism 10.3 (Spring 1986).
- “It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show? I used a complete television unit to shoot it very quickly. The only place where I digressed was when I slowed down the murder scene, the cleaning-up scene, and the other scenes that indicated anything that required time. All of the rest was handled in the same way that they do it in television” (Hitchcock describing the making of Psycho, in Truffaut 283). [↩]
- Psycho is totally different from Hitchcock’s other American black-and-white movies — it seems to be in an entirely different generation, for instance, from Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, or I Confess. The only earlier b/w film that is like Psycho is The Wrong Man, but even it, with its noir New York setting and motifs, feels like a stray from some earlier decade. Psycho, on the other hand, is definitely a movie of its time, the early ’60s. [↩]
- Hitchcock wanted to avoid such an effect in Psycho, interestingly. Hence he speaks of doing the film in black-and-white, because he wanted to avoid the color of blood in the shower scene where Marion is murdered (see Truffaut 335 and Gottlieb, ed., 331). The use of such a shock — such a visual shock, too — became the very basis, visually-cinematically, of the “slasher” genre that followed in the wake of this scene (see Modleski 15ff), possibly the most famous single scene in movie history. Hitchcock’s wish to avoid red blood in this terrible passage is interesting for many reasons, even apart from censorship anxieties. Hitchcock is sparing in his use of shock. It is never there for its own sake. [↩]
- For Rope, “As would be characteristic of him throughout the rest of his career, he chose a generally subdued palette” (McGilligan 411). “I was determined to reduce the color to a minimum,” Hitchcock said of Rope (Truffaut 181). [↩]
- Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is particularly good on the bareness and unattractiveness of the sets; his commentary for the 2008 special edition of the movie is also very good. [↩]
- The question of how Psycho’s black-and-white technique differs from Hitchcock’s earlier usage of black-and-white — the difference that working in color made, especially after dealing with the black-and-white world of television — is a fascinating one. But fascinating as this question is, it would take us beyond the scope of the present exploration. The key point here is that Psycho is of a piece with the existentialist, Modernist culture of Samuel Beckett and other explorers of boredom and alienation. [↩]
- “Alfred Hitchcock Presents had developed a split personality: half of the shows were stubbornly English; but as the series progressed, it increasingly explored the dark side of the American Dream — the artificiality, hypocrisy, neuroses, violence, and evil that lurked in boardrooms and bedrooms across the United States. Psycho would be the culmination of this trend in Hitchcock’s thinking” (McGilligan 581). [↩]
- There is an exception — the wooden-looking figures of Lila and Sam seated in the police office listening to a professorial psychiatrist explaining everything away — or failing to explain it away — in the closing explanation speech. This boring scene is intentionally boring, in the sense that it is designed to restore calm and routine, to remind the audience that everything can be explained when not everything can be explained. See n15. [↩]
- Curiously, Michael Walker’s encyclopedic study of Hitchcock’s use of hands in his great book on Hitchcock motifs does not discuss Psycho, but see Barton. [↩]
- The best comment on this motif remains Robin Wood’s great description. [↩]
- Orr’s comment on Hitchcock’s handling of the American Dream sums up its bizarre subtext, which he associates with the hard-boiled and film noir tradition: “America is the dreamland of opportunity, where all possibilities can be considered and soon you can lose sight of all contexts and all limit in your delirium” (160). [↩]
- “‘I must say that the architectural contrast between the vertical house and the horizontal motel is quite pleasing to the eye,'” remarked Truffaut to Hitchcock, and Hitchcock agreed: “Definitely, that’s our composition: a vertical block and a horizontal block” (Truffaut 269). Hitchcock’s self-consciousness about the abstract look of the scene needs emphasis. Cf. Michael Schmidt on the “parlor scene”: “Norman is immersed in straight lines, many of which are set at angles that create a sense of conflict rather than curved line harmony.” [↩]
- In Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock, Hitchcock speaks of “a visual impression of despair and solitude” for the scene of Marion and Sam in the hotel room (415). Truffaut’s book is the one absolutely indispensable book on, about, or related to Hitchcock. [↩]
- Sam belongs to a recurring character type in movies (and in fiction), a type I refer to as the “ineffectual lover” in my book Male Envy. [↩]
- For discussion of the “pop psychology” of Psycho — and a very different reading of the issues raised here — see my “Stranger and Stranger: Male Envy in Hitchcock.” [↩]
- Psychoanalytically minded readers will find plenty to whet their appetite in the numerous psychoanalytic diagnoses of Psycho, a movie that furnishes an unprecedented banquet for Freudians, Lacanians, Kleinians, and others in this department. The prestigious journal Screen is a veritable treasure trove for psychoanalysts. It is as if this movie were designed to make psychoanalysts go crazy. Nonetheless, critics who favor this approach do not much like the psychiatrist’s analysis, but then no one does. His discourse does more than provide reassuring words for those wanting closure. As Stephen Rebello makes clear, the scene was there for a practical reason: to avoid further collisions with censors. Hitchcock was aware, too, of its function in terms of the structure of the movie, compared to which its plausibility was irrelevant, in the same way that the “explanation speech” in a murder mystery provides a rhythmic space required by the form, forget plausibility. The psychiatrist effectively renders Lila and Sam asleep. We leave them, as in a trance, staring woodenly. Then it’s over to Norman, the fly, and the death car rising from the darkness of the swamp. Images for Hitchcock always mean more than words. [↩]
- His exact words: “We’re always quickest to doubt people who have a record for being honest.” [↩]
- Curiously, rather than alienating the viewer, Marion’s criminal act draws us to her: as the feminist analysis of Sarah Street puts it, “our identification with Marion as heroine . . . becomes stronger once she has committed the theft. It is of prime significance that the money she has stolen belongs to a rich tax-evader . . . . Marion’s ‘transgression,’ therefore, is not just stealing, but stealing money which has a clear patriarchal function” (Street 151). For feminist arguments over Psycho see Modleski 123-52. [↩]
- In his shot-by-shot survey of Psycho, Durgnat describes Norman’s cleanup but has little to say about it. Durgnat’s comment about the scene that follows (loading the body into the car) is observant and suggestive, however: “A lesser director, going by the book, would strive to simplify Norman’s activity for speed and avoidance of repetition. Hitchcock has Norman go in and out of the cabin five times (the variation is within the repetition). Instead of putting everything in the boot at once, Norman makes four trips (once to open the boot, once to lower the body into it, once to put the case in too, once to unconcernedly toss the newspaper in)” (131). The point is that Hitchcock emphasizes the practical, material aspects of the plot — the work aspects of murder, so to speak. [↩]
- Christopher Sharrett notes: “Hitchcock develops a narrative that continually reveals itself to be a systematic analysis of American life. The frustration and confinement that form the bleak atmosphere of the film are established in the furtive affair . . . the dismal financial legacy Sam inherits from his father” (Sharrett 359). [↩]
- Another approach that makes key features of Psycho inaccessible is summed up by Christopher D. Morris: “Psycho depicts a world in which the ‘why,’ or rational interpretation, is superseded by hanging figures of groundlessness and unending suspense” (216; italics in the original). Morris’s book is textbook deconstruction, where “suspense” is a kind of pun on Derridean/deManian “undecidability.” I find this approach unsatisfying, but his discussion of the psychiatrist’s speech is useful (218-21). [↩]
- As James Naremore reminds us, “Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most profitable pictures ever made” (388). Hitchcock himself was particularly proud of its extraordinary popularity and its outstanding commercial success. [↩]