Hitch’s – and by now the whole damn culture’s – seminal Oedipal nightmare revisited
Read the companion photo essay “Alfred Hitchcock: A Hank of Hair and a Piece of Bone” (elsewhere in Bright Lights)
Psycho is one of the most famous movies ever made; the shower sequence depicting the murder of Marion Crane is quite possibly the most celebrated sequence in all of film. Yet it is easy to think of Psycho as nothing more than a contrived potboiler, held together by blatant deceits that prevent the audience from guessing the “secret” right off the bat. Compared to classically great films like Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion or Carné’s and Prevert’s Les Enfants du Paradis, Psycho may seem like little more than a malicious joke.
Hitchcock himself did little to discourage this sort of thinking. Although he clearly didn’t mind being called a genius, he liked to present himself as being in the business of selling tickets, and that alone. Money, not art, was his concern.
Certainly, Hitchcock did like selling tickets. As a boy, he was fascinated by the popular London theatre that flourished prior to World War I. He liked the stars, the glamour, and the melodrama – the brave, handsome heroes, the pure heroines, the wicked villains, and the triumph of good over evil.
But Hitchcock also believed that this picture of reality was as false as it was alluring. Within the conventions of popular melodrama, he explored themes more often linked to the avant garde than popular entertainment: loneliness, loss of identity, sexual ambiguity, passivity, voyeurism, the triumph of evil, and the oppressive weight of a dead past.1
Hitchcock explored these obsessions through an elaborate set of images and cinematic devices that he worked and reworked from film to film. Sometimes his treatment could be lifeless, and sometimes powerful. In 1948, for example, he bought the film rights to Rope, a pathetically bad play based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case2 depicting two young homosexuals who plan and carry out a “perfect murder,” which he improved not one whit by bringing it to the screen. A few years later, he revisited the same themes in Strangers on a Train (1951), one of his most satisfying thrillers.
When he came to make Psycho in 1960, Hitchcock had been making movies for more than 30 years. Prior to Psycho, he had stepped out of the thriller genre to make two “personal” films, The Wrong Man (1956) and Vertigo (1958), neither of which was successful at the box office.3 In Psycho, which was a thriller, and also an enormous box office success, Hitchcock gave powerful release to the obsessions within him, cutting deeper than he ever had before, and deeper than he ever would again.
In his highly enjoyable book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Stephen Rebello identifies the myriad of factors that came together to create the film. Donald Spoto’s excellent biography Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius supplies the necessary information from Hitchcock’s personal life.
Prior to Psycho, Hitchcock made two films about serial killers, The Lodger (1928) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which he often rated as his favorite film. Both films bear a great similarity to Psycho. All three killers are men; all three prey on women. The killer in The Lodger, like Norman Bates, kills women because they are young and attractive; in Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) kills them because they’re old and ugly.4
We never see the killer in The Lodger (he’s known as “the Avenger,” though we’re never told what he’s avenging). The film is really about “the Lodger” (Ivor Novello), who is the Avenger’s double. (We never get the name of either man.) The Lodger is a rich, Norman Batesian young man who rents rooms from a working-class family who happen to live in the area of London being terrorized by “the Avenger.” Their daughter, Daisy (played by an actress simply identified as “June”), is an attractive young blonde who works as a fashion model (she’s called a “mannequin” in the film), exactly the type of woman who attracts the Avenger! Naturally, the Lodger acts in ways that excite everyone’s suspicion, particularly Joe (Malcolm Keen), Daisy’s policeman boyfriend.
Many elements in The Lodger link directly with Psycho. Perhaps most interesting is the scene where the Lodger is first shown his rooms, which are filled with the same sort of “classic” erotic paintings that Norman has in his “parlor.” The Lodger is a timid sort, and demands that the paintings be removed. In an interesting shot that shows Hitchcock’s fascination with mirrors, the Lodger stands facing the camera, pointing to a picture that we can’t see and describing how much it upsets him. But we can see it, because on the wall behind the Lodger is a large mirror, and the painting (as well as the Lodger’s back) is reflected in it.
Eventually, we learn the Lodger’s story. He is linked to the Avenger because his sister was the Avenger’s first victim! He has been pursuing the Avenger ever since, because his mother, on her deathbed, exacted a promise from him that he would never rest until his sister’s murderer was apprehended. In a flashback, we see the murder, which occurred at the sister’s “coming out” party.
Both The Lodger and Shadow of a Doubt play on the notion of “doubles” or “twins,” which occur endlessly in Hitchcock. Your double is the Mr. Hyde to your Dr. Jekyll, the person who does the things you might dream about doing, the person for whose crimes you might be found guilty. The Avenger is the double of the Lodger. Uncle Charlie is the double of his niece (Teresa Wright), named “Charlie” after him. At the start the film she tells him they are “more than twins,” and she must spend the rest of the film coming to grips with the fact that her “more than twin” is a serial killer. Norman, of course, simplifies the situation by being his own double.
The Lodger, Uncle Charlie, and Norman are all fastidious men who share an interest in women’s clothes.5 The Lodger buys Daisy a dress, and Uncle Charlie buys Charlie one as well. Norman, once again taking things to extremes, not only takes care of “Mother’s” dresses, he wears them himself.
Another Hitchcock film that has many similarities with Psycho is Vertigo. In both films, a man attempts to bring a woman back to life through hair and clothing. In the case of Vertigo, the woman, Madeleine Elster, that Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) thinks he is trying to revive is actually still alive, in the form of Judy Barton (both women are played by Kim Novak). The payoff for both films occurs when it is discovered that two characters are in fact one and the same person. In Psycho, the payoff comes when the audience realizes it; in Vertigo, the payoff comes when Scottie realizes it.
The Lodger, Uncle Charlie, and Norman all have problems with women. In Shadow of a Doubt, there is ample evidence that Uncle Charlie enjoyed a “too close,” quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge) before her marriage, and is bent on establishing a similar one with his niece Charlie. The murder of the Lodger’s sister can be seen as reflecting a prudish young man’s desire to prevent his sister from announcing herself as “available.” Norman, of course, murdered his mother when she deserted him for a lover. In all three cases, it is sexual behavior on the part of a female relative that breaks up a “happy” home6 and sets murder in motion.
But Psycho does not begin with Norman. Psycho begins with the camera drifting lazily from left to right across the skyline of Phoenix, Arizona. Hitchcock used similar shots in the beginning of both The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Shadow of a Doubt, implying a movement from the general to the particular and from the objective to the subjective.7 Here, the drifting of the camera, and the fact that it seems to go past the window of the room where Marion Crane and Sam Loomis are having their affair before returning to it, gives a powerful suggestion of randomness. The camera just happened to stop at this window. It could have gone elsewhere. If it had, we would never have seen what we are about to see.
It would be difficult to find a Hitchcock film in which chance encounters and occurrences do not play a major role.8 Ultimately, Hitchcock is interested in randomness because it reflects his belief that the world is indifferent to our suffering. As other critics have pointed out, the random movement of the camera at the beginning of Psycho is picked up later in the film by the random movement of Norman’s hand as he reaches for Marion’s room key, reaching first for “3” but then moving his hand back to the left for “1”. By choosing the key for Cabin One Norman dooms Marion to death, because if she is in Cabin One he can spy on her, and if he spies on her he will become aroused, and if he becomes aroused he will murder her. If he had chosen another cabin he would have spared her. And if the camera had chosen another window, we would have been spared all the suffering that we are about to endure when we watch Psycho.
Once we are inside the hotel room, the camera closes in on the “fine, soft flesh” of the lovers, Sam and Marion (John Gavin and Janet Leigh), with a level of sensuousness unprecedented in Hitchcock. While he always reveled in close-ups of kissing, prior to Psycho Hitchcock kept his lovers clothed. Hitchcock was never kind in his comments about John Gavin,9 but visually, at least, he and Leigh make a lovely couple.
In the exposition that follows, we are quickly back in Hitchcock territory. Both Sam and Marion feel overwhelmed by the dead weight of the past. Sam is burdened by alimony payments and the debts of his dead father, while Marion fears the moral judgment of her dead mother – if she had Sam over to the house, she’d have to “turn mother’s picture to the wall” before making love to Sam.
Marion Crane, as played by Janet Leigh, is blonde and beautiful, but clearly not a Hitchcock blonde. For most of his career, Hitchcock delighted in films featuring elegant society blondes, spoiled bad girls like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955), girls who thought they were better than you and really deserved to be taken down a notch.
Hitchcock liked to parade his disdain for the “vulgar” Marilyn Monroe style of glamour girl, whose appeal was openly sexual. (Hitchcock gallantly divided women into two classes: obvious sluts and secret sluts.) In Psycho, he deliberately switched gears, trading in the society girl for a “common bourgeois,” as he pompously told Francois Truffaut in their famous series of interviews.10
Hitchcock, in fact, had to work with a real glamour girl, Kim Novak, in Vertigo, and did not enjoy the experience, even though part of the twist of the story is that Scottie’s idealized “Madeleine” turns out to be Judy, who is so “vulgar.” In her first scene as Judy, Novak did not wear a bra, which scandalized Hitchcock. “As a matter of fact, she’s particularly proud of that!” Hitchcock told Truffaut in horror.11
When Marion gets back to the office (the poor dear has to work for a living), she encounters Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), waving the fateful $40,000 that’s going to buy “his little girl” a new home. A swaggering bully, Cassidy is immensely unlikable, and a perfect device for putting us on Marion’s side. He sits on her desk and levels a lecherous, unwavering gaze on her, no more than a foot from her face. Since the camera is right behind her, we learn how unpleasant it is to have someone stare at you and be unable to do anything about it.12 (This is the first of many times in Psycho that we see men staring at Marion. We, of course, were just staring at her ourselves a few minutes ago.)
Hitchcock’s job in the office scene is to make Marion’s decision to steal the money as little her decision as possible. If Cassidy hadn’t insisted in making the deal in cash, Marion wouldn’t have stolen the money. If he hadn’t been so obnoxious, she wouldn’t have stolen the money. If her boss hadn’t asked to take the money to the bank, she wouldn’t have stolen it. If her sister hadn’t been out of town for the whole weekend, she wouldn’t have stolen it. But all of these things did happen, and she does steal the money.
In the brief scene in Marion’s bedroom that follows, the camera, which has remained passive up to this point, silently moves forward to examine first the money and then the suitcase, letting us know what Marion is up to. The scene is filled with typical Hitchcock touches – the twin lamps13 at either side of the large mirror in Marion’s bedroom, which are themselves “twinned” by their reflections; Marion in her black bra and half slip, echoing the white bra and half slip in which we saw her in the opening scene; and the brief view of Marion’s bathtub and shower as she exits.
But it is the close-up of the money that counts the most. The money is Marion’s hope. It should bring her freedom and power, but of course it does not, because she cannot use it openly. She must keep it a secret. The necessity of keeping the money a secret is a burden on her that pulls her life further and further out of control.
Marion’s sad, desperate getaway is one of three long “silent” sections of Psycho.14 Hitchcock’s fascination with the idea of telling a story pictorially, along with his roots in silent film, encouraged him to construct a large number of such set pieces in his films. The concert hall section of the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), for example, and Cary Grant’s high plains rendezvous with “Mr. Kaplan” in North by Northwest (1959), as well as the “win the tennis match/get the lighter” section of Strangers on a Train (the last two have minimal dialogue).
Marion’s flight from Phoenix consumes about 17 minutes of the film, and fills us with an ever-increasing sense of her isolation. Her plan naturally goes awry from the start – on the way out of town her boss crosses the street in front of her car and recognizes her (the aggressive “Psycho” theme, which we heard over the opening credits, here makes its first appearance in the film itself).
In the first “driving” sequence, Marion’s inner confusion and discomfort are made manifest to her reaction to the harsh lights of the oncoming cars. In Dial M for Murder (1954), Grace Kelly’s “trial” is depicted by showing her in close-up while bright lights play across her face. The opening credits of Vertigo show Kim Novak’s face in a similar manner, and in the “transformation” scene later in the picture, where Jimmy Stewart has “Judy” take on the appearance of “Madeleine,” green light from a conveniently located neon sign plays on her face.15 In Psycho, as Marion’s distress increases, the camera moves closer and closer to her darkened, back-lit face. This is an image that we will see again.
We then cut abruptly to a day-lit long shot of Marion’s parked car. For the most part, Hitchcock uses his camera to tell us exactly what to see, but there are times when he takes precisely the opposite tack. The camera simply stares off into space, telling us nothing, leaving us to decide for ourselves what is and what is not important. The shot of Marion’s parked car is a case in point. There is nothing to inform us even that it is her car. As we strain for something to focus on, we see a police car, which we expect to move into the center of the frame. Instead, it passes the first car, comes to a stop, backs up behind the first car, and then parks there. Finally, we cut to the cars, so that we can see what is going on.
Marion’s encounter with the “death’s head” policeman (the sightless gaze of his dark glasses looks forward to Mother’s blind, staring sockets at the climax of Psycho) makes the implicit desperation of her flight explicit. Once more, she knows she is being watched, and once more is powerless to do anything about it. She flees from the policeman’s gaze as quickly as she is able, and rushes to buy a new car, an utterly useless gesture, because he is watching her do it. Her interactions with the car salesman, “California Charlie,” repeat her experience with the policeman: the more she tries to escape notice, the more she attracts it.
The driving sequence that follows is similar to the one that we saw before. The lights of oncoming cars nearly blind Marion. In her mind she plays over the likely reactions to what she has done. She surprises us with the explicitly sexual twist she gives to Cassidy’s imagined response – his threat to take vengeance on her “fine, soft flesh” – and surprises us too with her reaction, a wicked smile. She is glad that she aroused him sexually, and looks forward to frustrating him. Unfortunately for Marion, she will “pay” for this wantonness. At this point it is her face that looks forward to Mother’s lipless grin.
The rain and the slashing wiper blades increase Marion’s tension. At this point the vague image of the Bates Motel sign emerges out of the darkness, an image that will, of course, draw Marion into its darkness. Hitchcock used a neon sign in The Lodger, a sign for a nightclub that announced “To-Night Golden Curls.” In The Lodger, it was the sign that drew the murderer out in search of his victims. In Psycho, the sign draws the victims to the murderer.
The first shot of the famous “Psycho house” is intriguing, because it’s practically a quote from a scene from Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart follows “Madeleine”16 to the McKittrick Hotel, formerly the house of Carlotta Valdez, with whom Madeline is supposed to be obsessed. The McKittrick Hotel is a gothic pile, quite similar in appearance to the Bates home. Scottie watches Madeline enter the hotel, and shortly thereafter we see the light go on in the left second-floor window, the same window in which we briefly see the tall, imperious figure of Mother. (We could note as well that in both films we are seeing women who, in effect, don’t exist.) Hitchcock returned to the gothic house a third time in his next picture, The Birds (1963). The schoolhouse where Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) teaches is an intriguing gothic cube.17
Marion was about to leave the Bates Motel when she catches sight of Mother.18 She honks the horn and Norman, making an exceedingly quick change, comes dashing out into the rain to offer her succor. Hunching his shoulders, grinning, stammering, trembling at bathrooms, cunning, ruthless, endlessly ambiguous, Norman Bates is his own double and doppelganger, the most famous murderer in film history.
In appearance, Norman is surprisingly reminiscent of the (very) young Gregory Peck of Spellbound (1945), although Hitchcock reportedly did not want Peck for the role, thinking he was too young. In Spellbound, Peck plays a neurotic, though heroic, soldier who thinks that he has murdered his therapist, a false conviction rooted in the fact that as a young boy he accidentally killed his brother (naturally, he has suppressed the memory of this event).19 Norman also resembles a famous murderer from the silent film era, Conrad Veidt, the “Somnambulist” from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).20
After Marion has checked in, for a third time we see her anxiously moving about a bedroom. Once she has found a new hiding place for the money, wrapping it in the newspaper she bought at “California Charlie’s,” she can relax a little. She puts the package in plain sight, ostensibly as a clever hiding place, though really so that Hitchcock can include it in the scenes that follow.
The long, talky scenes between Marion and Norman drain away all the accumulated tension of the film and bring it to a virtual standstill. Norman and Marion seem to move toward a mutual recognition of themselves as somewhat forlorn and desperate characters, and Marion at least resolves to mend her ways.
Norman of course does not. Their long conversation over Marion’s dinner in the “parlor” under the watchful eyes of Norman’s birds has a number of intriguing shifts in tone. At first Marion is rather condescending, although a bit intimidated by Norman’s menagerie. Hitchcock has said that the birds see Norman’s guilt, and he knows it. However, it seems to me that the birds are expressions of Norman’s secret desires. (They don’t look at all “passive,” to use his term.) The watchful owl (as watchful as Norman) about to take flight over his right shoulder seems to be headed directly toward Marion, while the mournful raven, with his long, drooping beak, casts his shadow against the wall over her head.21
Throughout this and the following sequences, Hitchcock works endlessly with contrasts between black and white, which alternately conceal and reveal the characters. It is always night at the Bates Motel, except for the climax, when the secrets are finally illuminated.
Norman at first wins our confidence by making embarrassing revelations about himself – “A hobby should pass the time, not fill it”; and, much more surprisingly, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.” But his anger over Marion’s suggestion that he have Mother committed, an anger that seems to grow with its expression, almost without limit, is frightening. Rather than an equal, Norman is an example from which Marion can profit.
For the fourth time, with Norman’s assistance, we will spy on Marion in a bedroom. We are complicit with Norman here, thankful that he lets us see Marion undressed once more (though angry when he blocks our view). The extraordinary close-up of Norman’s eye, filling the screen, reminds us of the watchful camera (the first entrance into Sam and Marion’s hotel room, the tracking shots of the envelope stuffed with cash and the suitcase) and the relentless eyes of Cassidy and the state trooper, and look forward to the bathroom and shower scenes, which blend images of the eye and circling water – the vortex – in a remarkable manner.
After Marion puts on her robe, Norman retreats to the house, which we enter for the first time. The layout of the Bates home is exactly the same as the McKittrick Hotel, a large, ceremonial staircase to the right of the screen, and a passageway to the left. The staircases have a remarkable similarity – the first post of the banister is an elaborate affair, supporting a lighting fixture that reaches up toward the second floor. In the Bates home, there is a bronze statue bearing a triple arrangement of lights. (Where did the Bateses get their money, one wonders.) In the McKittrick Hotel, a long, slender column bears a Tiffany-style lamp.
As he enters, Norman approaches the foot of the stairs aggressively, then slumps and retreats to the kitchen. Somehow, he was going to defy Mother – it’s hard to imagine exactly how – but he lost his nerve. This staircase, of course, will play an extremely important role in Psycho, as staircases do in many of Hitchcock’s films.22 This particular scene is quite similar to one in Notorious, when unrepentant Nazi Claude Rains, burdened with a living Mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), does make it up the grand ceremonial staircase in his mansion and does defy her, marrying Ingrid Bergman.23
While Norman frets, we cut back to the beginning of the famous shower scene. Bathrooms were another of Hitchcock’s obsessions. The Lodger has a “bathtub” rather than a shower scene, in which Daisy takes a bubble bath while conversing with “the Lodger” through a closed door.24 In later Hitchcock films, bathrooms are used for more prosaic purposes. People hide in them (Cary Grant in North by Northwest) or count money in them, as Marion does earlier in Psycho.
However, the bathroom scene that most resembles what takes place in Psycho occurs in Spellbound, when a dazed and confused Gregory Peck stumbles into a bathroom almost as snowy white and glowing as the one in Psycho. (The fact that bathrooms are often “pure” white is of course a sort of denial of the dark deeds that occur there. Hitchcock both relished this denial and shared it.) Peck’s problem is that white reminds him of snow, and snow reminds of a murder that he witnessed while skiing, a murder for which he feels guilty. His psychosis activated by the glowing white tiles, Peck pockets a straight razor and stumbles out to do God knows what. Fortunately, a kindly old Jewish psychologist (Michael Chekhov, one of the very few sympathetic male authority figures in Hitchcock) slips him a mickey before he can do any damage.
Marion, of course, receives no such protection. In a rather forced sequence, we see her write down the sum of money she spent on the car from California Charlie and subtract it from the $40,000 – as if she needed to do this to keep track of how much she owes. We see the real purpose of her action when she tears up the sheet of paper and, instead of throwing it in the trash, flushes it down the toilet instead. Thus, the coiling vortex of the water washes away all traces of her sin, as though it never happened. If only it could be that easy, says Hitchcock.
The vortex, for Hitchcock, is closely linked to sexual desire, the loss of self-control, the dark, hidden side of human nature that seems so much stronger than the rational and the good. The image of the vortex is most vivid in Vertigo and Psycho – in fact it dominates both films – but it does occur in his earlier work. In fact, the very first shot in the very first Hitchcock film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), is of chorus girls descending a spiral staircase. In The Lady Vanishes, when heroine Margaret Lockwood is hit on the head, Hitchcock superimposes a shot of swirling water over what Lockwood is seeing, to suggest her confused state.25 In his conversations with Truffaut, Hitchcock says that when he and his wife Alma were in Paris in the twenties they once tried to locate a club that featured belly dancers, because Hitchcock wanted to get a shot of a belly dancer’s navel as an instance of the vortex.26
But it is not until Vertigo that the vortex image comes into its own. The opening shot of Vertigo (the credits) shows a twisting image spiraling over Kim Novak’s right eye. Later, this spiral will be associated with spiral in “Madeleine’s” hairdo (Grace Kelly wore her hair in exactly the same style in the 1954 Rear Window), as well as the curls in “Carlotta Valdez’s” hair. The spiraling petals in the roses that Carlotta carries in the portrait of her pick up the same image, but the real payoff, of course, is the spiral staircase in the mission, the staircase that so intimidates Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) that he is unable to prevent “Madeleine” from leaping to her death.27
In Psycho, the spiral is perhaps not as obvious, but it is even more pervasive. After Marion has flushed the scraps of paper down the toilet, she steps into the shower. She turns on the water and it pours down on her. A shot taken directly beneath the showerhead shows it staring down like a great blind eye, the water spiraling out of it.
Hitchcock succeeds remarkably in making Marion’s shower a near-religious experience. Her relief at her decision is palpable. She is being cleansed, relieved of the burden of her folly. No longer will she flinch at the staring eyes of strangers. She is a free woman once more.
Then we glimpse the dark image of Mother against the light filtered through the shower curtain, inverting the image of the neon “Bates Motel” shining in the darkness. Mother approaches the shower curtain and pauses for just a second, as if even now she could reconsider, and turn back, as if there might be time for mercy, even now. But there will be no mercy in Psycho.
When Mother draws back the shower curtain, as Hitchcock himself wrote in the script, we have “an impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film.” When Mother pulls back the shower curtain, it is Hitchcock himself who is ripping open the screen, Hitchcock himself who is taking the knife to all the impossibly beautiful actresses who have taunted and teased and betrayed him.28
As Norman stands before Marion, he pauses to let her take in the full horror of her situation. Her scream is the great turning point in Psycho, the point that announces how far beyond ordinary experience we are going to go. Too late, we realize that we are trapped inside a movie where the most basic expectations of human decency will be deliberately violated.
After Marion’s first scream, Hitchcock cuts to an extreme close-up of her mouth, linking it with the images we have already seen of the shower drain and the toilet. Like these, a woman’s mouth is a vortex that draws us inward. This time, however, it is the woman who will pay the price.
The cutting of the shower scene was first worked out by Saul Bass29 rather than Hitchcock. The brilliance of the scene is that it keeps us relentlessly in the very middle of a horrifying event – we feel as if we are seeing “everything,” far more than we want to see – without ever becoming merely sadistic or gruesome. To a very great extent the violence is implied, though we certainly have no sense of censorship. In part, we are caught between two desires, the desire to see the naked body of a beautiful woman (Hitchcock has been teasing us with this for the whole film), and the desire not to see a brutal murder. But Hitchcock won’t give us the one without the other.
It is only as Mother ceases her assault and strides away that we realize that we haven’t quite seen everything. We haven’t seen her face. All we saw was a back-lit, black-faced demon. This is an image that Hitchcock has also used before, notably in Vertigo once more, though not nearly with such effect. We see it for the first time in Vertigo when “Madeleine” comes to see Scottie at his apartment early in the morning. He has the lights off, and the only source of light is the sunrise behind her. Later, after Madeleine’s death, this image is re-created when Scottie is in the process of changing Judy into the image of Madeleine. Finally, when Scottie takes Judy back to the mission tower in what turns out to be an all too accurate recreation of the murder, a nun suddenly appears (“I heard voices”) wearing a veil that renders her features completely black. Confronted by this dark vision, Judy topples over the edge of the tower and falls to her death.30 In Psycho itself, the shots of Marion at the end of the first driving scene were back-lit, and we will see this again.
Once Mother has left, Marion, slumped against the bathroom wall, briefly recovers from the passivity into which she has fallen, reaching a hand directly toward the audience. Her hand continues forward and to the left, reaching for the shower curtain. There is a last desperate sense of life and purpose here as she grasps the curtain. Clutching it, she lifts herself to her feet – and the eyelets pop, one by one, beneath her weight, and she sprawls lifelessly over the edge of the tub.
Over and over again in Hitchcock, hands reach out for help, for kindness, and for mercy. And over and over again, that help, and that kindness, and that mercy are denied.31 In Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger is holding desperately onto the pole of one of the horses of an out-of-control merry-go-round. Robert Walker smashes his foot into Granger’s hand, over and over again. In a very similar scene in North by Northwest, Cary Grant is clinging to a ledge, his arm around Eva Marie Saint. Cary cries for help, and Martin Landau smashes his foot on Cary’s hand.
But perhaps the most striking image of all occurs in The Lodger. Like so many Hitchcock heroes, he’s wrongfully arrested for murder and handcuffed. He escapes, of course, and races through the London streets, chased by a mob. He attempts to leap a cement wall topped with ornamental spikes. Instead, the handcuffs catch on a spike, and in close-up we see his hands writhing helplessly.32
When the shower curtain collapses, Marion’s life is spent. Her grotesque posture tells us more about Hitchcock’s attitude toward women than we want to know: she lies with her bare fanny upward, her head resting against the toilet. The pitiless showerhead continues to drench her, the water bearing her life’s blood down the drain.
As we watch the bloody water circle down the drain, Hitchcock makes the famous dissolve to Marion’s eye. The camera tracks backward, circling as it does so. Having spiraled down into the vortex, we have to unspiral to get out of it. And a woman’s eye, like a drain, like a toilet, is an entryway to the darkness, the sewer, the fury and mire of human veins.33 The camera continues to back away, and then turns, panning across the bathroom and finally moving through the bathroom door. Then, in deliberate repetition of the shot that occurred when we saw Marion preparing for her flight from Phoenix, the camera advances for a close-up of the folded newspaper containing the $40,000, now so horribly useless, before moving to the window for a shot of the house, where we can hear Norman shouting “Mother! Oh, God, Mother! Blood! Blood!”
Norman’s clean-up, which follows, is as harrowingly clinical as the murder itself. Norman switches off the lights in the motel room, but leaves the bathroom light on, so once more he is illuminated in violently contrasted shades of light and shadow. We watch him relentlessly removing every trace of Marion’s agony, hoping against hope that he will somehow miss the money, that somehow some good might come of it, that Marion’s suffering might somehow not be completely in vain. But Norman doesn’t miss the money. At the last second he grabs the package, not even bothering to open it. He doesn’t care. It’s a sign that Marion lived, and therefore it must be destroyed.
The scene at the swamp recalls the sewer imagery once more, in a rather “Tales from the Crypt” manner. The swamp, a hideous black bog, swallows up Marion’s white car as efficiently as a toilet disposes of a load of crap. Out of sight, out of mind.
We escape at last from the Bates Motel, to the text of a letter to Marion that Sam, sitting in his own “parlor” at the back of his hardware store, is writing, a letter proposing marriage. It’s a pretty cheap, and cruel, shot on Hitchcock’s part, but at this point we’re too stunned to care. The voiceover, a woman customer complaining to a clerk about insect poison – “Man or insect, death should be painless” – is a little too cute. Fortunately, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles34) enters almost immediately, with news of Marion’s disappearance.
Lila barely has a chance to fill Sam in when Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a fairly sleazy private detective, appears, having followed Lila from Phoenix. Arbogast is shrewd, self-satisfied, and cunning, a small-time hustler who thinks he’s seen it all. He knows from broads, boyfriends, and bucks, and he knows how the three work together. He tells Sam and Lila to stay out of his way, and he takes off in search of Marion’s trail.
By the time Arbogast reaches the Bates Motel, it’s night again, the same near-Stygian darkness that prevailed on the night of Marion’s death. Arbogast and Norman spar in the motel office in a fascinating scene. Arbogast is lit from his left only, in the sort of harsh half-light that Hitchcock had used earlier with Norman. Arbogast is the aggressor here, tough, manipulative, and worldly, while Norman is the hapless mama’s boy, twitchy and defensive. The camera cuts back and forth between them, and then drops down for a very low-perspective shot of Norman. Just at this point, Norman apparently leans forward (to look at a sample of Marion’s handwriting that Arbogast is using to determine if she signed the motel register), so that we are looking up directly under his chin, watching the convulsive working of his throat muscles.
Norman can’t quite keep his mouth shut about Mother, and, when going to change the bed sheets, can’t quite get the nerve to enter Cabin One. This is all Arbogast needs to know, or so he thinks. He pretends to be stymied by Norman and departs, intending to return in hopes of getting a little one on one with Mrs. Bates when Norman isn’t there. Norman, for his part, smiles contentedly as Arbogast departs. Arbogast has been around, but he’s never been around anyone like Norman.
Arbogast then drives to a pay phone, stepping out of character to phone Lila and tell her everything he’s learned or suspects, including the fact that Marion stayed in Cabin One and that he’s planning to return for a chat with Mrs. Bates, and that he’ll call again in about an hour with the results of that conversation. Since Sam and Lila are really “the enemy,” there’s no reason for Arbogast to do this. In the course of his conversation with Norman, Arbogast has somehow turned from bad guy to good guy.
Arbogast enters the Bates home with his hat off, holding it before him with both hands, like a man entering church. He seems quite abashed at this point, far different from the pushy tough guy we met only a few minutes ago. He glances to his right, to a doorway that is never opened in the film, one of the many mysteries of this house, apparently guarded by a Cupid-like statue. (We will catch another glimpse of this statue when Lila makes her ascent of the stairs, but we never get a good look at it except in the trailer that Hitchcock made after Psycho took off.)
A number of critics have remarked on Arbogast’s near-penitent attitude as he prepares to meet Mrs. Bates, quite similar to Marion’s state as she takes her last shower. I would point out that as a boy Hitchcock was required to make a spiritual accounting for himself before his mother every evening, a ritual that was not uncommon in Catholic homes.35 Whether Hitchcock half-expected his mother to come at him with a carving knife is another matter, but it wouldn’t surprise me.36
The camera at first lags behind Arbogast as he begins his climb, then jumps ahead and above him, and then to the terrifying shot of the thin band of light that runs from the crack in the door of Mother’s room, a band that quickly widens as Mother prepares to launch her assault. Once more, Mother’s presence is heralded by a contrast between light and shadow.37
As the door widens, we return to the shot showing Arbogast ascending the stairs. Instead of returning to show Mother coming through the door, we switch to an overhead shot. Just as Arbogast reaches the top of the stairs, the Psycho strings enter and so does Mother, brandishing her carving knife once more. There is a strange, herky-jerky character to her assault, almost as if we were watching an old, speeded-up silent film, that at once distances us from the action and yet makes it more horrible. A sudden close-up of Arbogast’s stunned, bloody face throws us back into the action, and the camera follows him as he staggers backwards down the stairs. He collapses at the foot of the stairs, where Mother finishes him off.38
Although it looks (to me, at least) that Arbogast is stumbling backwards at he makes his descent, Hitchcock apparently envisioned him as being almost in free fall. “The back must have been broken on impact,” he says, in the trailer. The shot was filmed with the camera gliding down the empty staircase. Balsam then sat in a chair and waved his arms wildly while the staircase shot was projected behind him. Hitchcock obviously had a great fear of falling, and it comes out in this scene.39
Meanwhile, Sam and Lila are waiting to hear from Arbogast, in a hardware store that is hardly better lit than the Bates Motel. Twice we see Lila back-lit so that her face is completely obscured, reminding us of our first encounter with Mother, and suggesting that the two of them will eventually have a showdown. Prodded by Lila, Sam goes out to the motel, but is unable to find anyone. His shouts of “Arbogast!” carry out to the swamp, where Norman is supervising the disappearance of the private investigator’s car. Norman, dressed in black so that he almost disappears against the swamp, here appears as Lucifer, ruler of the Underworld, contemptuous of the mortals who would enter his realm, and a far cry from the little boy who’s afraid to say “bathroom.”
Sam returns to Lila, and together they go to the deputy sheriff’s house. The deputy, John McIntire, and his wife, Lurene Tuttle, are almost caricatures, and are given a number of bad lines, which they deliver with all their badness intact. It is at this point that we learn the Bates’ unfortunate family history, that ten years ago Mrs. Bates, a widow, murdered her lover and then committed suicide. (Norman had told Marion that the lover was dead, but of course didn’t specify the means.) The deputy calls Norman, who admits to having seen both Marion and Arbogast, which is sufficient evidence for Sam and Lila, but not for the deputy, particularly because Sam and Lila won’t file a missing person report for Marion, apparently because this would involve charging Marion with the theft of the $40,000.
The deputy’s call is enough to push Norman into action, however. We follow him as he heads for the house once more. His fanny-swinging trot up the stairs, which always gets a laugh from the audience, is a bit of a cheap shot, because Norman isn’t gay. He’s hetero, but with a twist.
Norman runs up the stairs and enters Mother’s room, but the camera holds the shot of the staircase. We hear Norman and Mother arguing. It becomes clear from their conversation that if the camera remains in place we will soon be face to face with Mrs. Bates. At this point the camera apparently decides that discretion is the better part of valor, and it gently glides upwards toward the ceiling. The screen goes dark as the camera seems to press itself into a corner and then turn around, so that it is now looking directly down on the second-floor landing, the same position from which it viewed Mother’s assault on Arbogast. (This also usually draws a laugh from the audience.) Then we see Norman emerge from the bedroom carrying Mother, who, seen from above, looks quite doll-like and helpless. (Although we can’t quite see it, the descent to the root cellar is the familiar spiral of the flushing toilet and the gurgling drain.) At this point, we are fully aware that information is being withheld from us, and that Psycho will not be over until we have looked Mother fully in the face.
In fact, Hitchcock went to great lengths (one might say he cheated) to conceal the fact that Mother and Norman are one and the same. For example, Perkins never “did” Mother’s voice. Hitchcock used several voices, male and female, to try to prevent the audience from getting a fix on Mother.40 He also used several different people to play Mother. Margo Epper, a 24-year-old actress who had worked largely as a double in Hollywood, played Mother in the shower sequence. Epper, who is described in Rebello’s book as “long and lean and [having] almost a male set of hips,” probably also played Mother when Marion sees her in the second-story window.
However, for the Arbogast murder scene Hitchcock used “Mitzi,” whom Rebello artfully describes as a “little person,”41 so short that Mother seems to be stabbing up when she attacks Arbogast. It’s also Mitzi rather than the “mommy mummy” that Perkins carries downstairs. But I wonder if it was not Epper rather than Mitzi who put the finishing touches on Arbogast at the foot of the stairs.
The image of a tall, almost skeletal woman appears in several of Hitchcock’s films from the thirties. In the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Cicely Oates plays “Nurse Agnes,” who is apparently Peter Lorre’s lover (he embraces her woefully when she is killed in the shootout that concludes the film). Oates, who is referred to by almost every critic as a “strange-looking woman,” is tall, slender, and broad-shouldered, with a fierce, rigid look on her face. The gang of spies led by Lorre use a sort of cultish church of sun worshippers as a cover for their activities, and Oates serves as the pastor or priestess for the congregation. Presumably in connection with this activity, Lorre once addresses her as “sister.” Hitchcock goes to curious lengths to show Nurse Agnes in a sympathetic light. During the shootout, she crawls on her hands and knees, dragging a heavy box of ammunition alongside her while the police blaze away.
Four years later, in The Lady Vanishes, the greatest “train” thriller ever made, Hitchcock used a similar character, played by actress Catherine Lacey,42 supposedly both a “nurse” and a “sister” – that is, she is supposed to be a nun, though in fact she is a member of a gang of German/Italian spies who intend to do away with the sweet Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who is also a spy, but a “good spy,” an English spy. In the film, the heroine, Margaret Lockwood, suspects that Lacey is not really a nun because she is wearing high heels. When we hear her speaking with a Cockney accent, we know she is a fraud, because there are very few English nuns.43 (Hitchcock of course was Catholic, and his mother undoubtedly spoke with a sort of Cockney accent.)
Once Lacey realizes that the gang are out to kill an Englishwoman, she turns on them and joins forces with the English on the train. It is she who leaps from the train, races ahead of the engine, and turns the switch that lets them escape the Germans.44 She then clambers back on the locomotive, getting shot in the back for her troubles. (She says it doesn’t hurt, but the last time we see her she doesn’t look too chipper).
In both films we have a tall, strange, masculine-looking woman who seems to have mysterious inner resources, dressed in an outfit that covers all of her body except her face and hands. Mrs. Bates makes a third, though she is by far the least sympathetic of the three.
With Mother stowed in the root cellar, Norman is as ready for assault from the outside world as he ever can be. Sam and Lila appear, and for a third time Norman defends himself against outsiders in the tiny office of the Bates Motel. Lila’s persistent gaze, looking right by Norman into his parlor, suggests that he will be hard pressed to keep his secrets this time around.45
Once Sam and Lila register as man and wife, they make their way rather easily into Cabin One. Sam is surprised to notice that there is no shower curtain, and Lila finds a scrap of paper with Marion’s handwriting on it, Hitchcock’s way of telling us that we can’t just flush our sins down the toilet.
Sam and Lila are vaguely coming to terms with the idea that Norman may have killed Marion for the $40,000, and killed Arbogast to conceal the first crime, though they don’t say so specifically. Sam engages Norman in a conversation that quickly turns ugly, while Lila sets off to confront Mrs. Bates.
Sam’s conversation with Norman largely re-creates Norman’s earlier encounter with Arbogast. Sam’s theory, that Norman stole the $40,000 so that he could leave the Bates Motel and find a new start, is wildly off base, but it serves to get Norman’s goat, as though Sam were accusing him of wanting to abandon his mother. “This house is my only world,” he tells Sam with an almost pathetic intensity. Indeed, Norman is hardly separable from his environment. He both presides over the house and is imprisoned by it, locked in a house of hidden corruption, where repressed desire flourishes unchecked in the basement and childish things are not put away.
While the two argue, Lila makes her way up to the house. Hitchcock cuts back and forth between Lila and the house, as though it were advancing on her. Lila looks increasingly frightened, as though she were suffering from a form of vertigo, but she seizes the doorknob decisively and enters.
We see the dreaded staircase for the fourth time. The camera follows Lila as she opens the door to Mother’s bedroom. At last we are going to see everything. Hitchcock makes time stand still as Lila explores the suffocating Victorian décor, the armoire with the carefully spaced dresses, the famous, horrible crossed hands46 on Mrs. Bates’ vanity table, and the mattress indented with Mrs. Bates’ seated form. Along the way we get perhaps the best scare in Hitchcock, when Lila sees her image from a mirror behind her reflected into the mirror before her.47
Lila doesn’t confine her investigations to Mother’s room. Going up another half-flight of stairs, she comes to Norman’s room. As we look at the worn toys, the filthy, unmade bed, we realize that we are inside Norman’s mind. On Norman’s record player we see Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. (Hitchcock surely assumed the audience would think “erotic” rather than “heroic.”48) Then Lila pulls a book from the bookcase and opens it. However, we aren’t allowed to see what it is. Some secrets remain secrets.49
We have learned more from Lila’s explorations than she has. She descends the stairs only to see Norman coming up the path. She cleverly hides beneath the cellar stairs as Norman ascends, but then, to the screams of the audience, decides to inspect the cellar rather than escape. Unwittingly, we have been headed toward this moment for the entire film, and it does not disappoint. The swinging overhead light, stolen from The Picture of Dorian Gray, works perfectly, although Lila has to work a little too hard to set it in motion.50
The appearance of Norman as Mother is a bit of a disappointment. Unless you’re seeing Psycho for the first time, you’re likely to be struck by how little Norman looks like Mother. Perkins was as thin as a rail when he made Psycho, but he still looks like nothing but a guy in a dress. When Sam arrives to put the arm on Norman, it can be said that neither actor inhabits his role. Gavin looks like he’s afraid he’s going to hurt Perkins (or perhaps even afraid to touch him), while Tony practically throws his neck out of joint trying to get that damn wig off his head.
But get it off he does, and the shot of that terrible, harmless tangle of hair lying on the floor is one of the most important in Hitchcock. For Hitchcock, women’s hair had a totemic power. By daring to cross the line that divides men and women, Norman had stepped into the realm beyond good and evil. Now he has been stripped of that power.
Hitchcock came of age during World War I,51 one of the great turning points of Western Civilization. For decades before the War, women had long hair, very often waist length, always wearing it “up” in public. No doubt Hitchcock’s mother wore her hair in this manner. When women started getting their hair cut short, it came as an enormous shock, far surpassing the fuss over long hair in the Sixties.
An obsession with women’s hair comes up over and over again in Hitchcock’s films. In The Lodger, there are several scenes where the Lodger tremblingly removes the heroine’s hat and runs his fingers through her short hair. In The Lady Vanishes, before the “nun” jumps off the train to turn the switch, she tears off her wimple, or headdress, so that we can see her dark hair, which appears to be plaited in a curious manner. In Suspicion, caddish Cary Grant goes so far as to suggest to Joan Fontaine that she change her hairstyle. In The Paradine Case, when the well-bred Mrs. Paradine enters prison, a stern-looking matron unpins the unfortunate lady’s hair and runs her fingers through it (looking for contraband, apparently). In Vertigo, of course, the final transformation of Judy into Madeleine occurs when she changes her hairstyle. In The Birds, both the heroine (Tippi Hedren) and the hero’s mother (Jessica Tandy) have the same hairdo. In Marnie (1964), Hedren always wears her hair up, but when she goes riding (the only time she feels free), her hair is loose and flowing in the wind. At the close of the film, when she begs forgiveness from her mother (and doesn’t get it), she puts her head on her mother’s knee and her tousled blonde locks fill the screen.
There is also at least one reference to “crossing” in Hitchcock. In Saboteur (1942), hero Robert Cummings is involved in a conversation with an effeminate saboteur who is nonetheless a family man, who tells him “My wife and I have just had our second son. I’m thinking about letting his hair grow quite long. When I was a boy, I had the most beautiful golden curls. People used to stop me on the street just to admire them.”
After Norman is subdued, we get the official wrap-up from “Dr. Richmond” (Simon Oakland), in a scene that many fans don’t care for, because it’s so un-cinematic. In fact, it’s hard to believe that Oakland really got this story from “Mrs. Bates” (“Yes, Norman poisoned my lover and me and put us in bed together”), but the audience wants, and needs, some sort of explanation in order to come down from what they’ve just seen. Oakland’s finger-pointing summation does as well as any.52
When Oakland is finished, a police officer enters, carrying a blanket for Norman, who is suffering from a “slight chill.”53 We then get our final glimpse of Norman, staring helplessly, while Mother gives us her side of the story through the voiceover. She finishes by saying that she’s just going to sit here like the harmless old lady she is. Suddenly, the focus returns to Norman’s eyes. He looks right at us and grins menacingly. Logically, it may not make much sense, but dramatically it’s perfect. The film has unmasked Norman, and now he unmasks himself, to reveal the leering monster that lurked beneath all his personae. To drive the point home, Hitchcock superimposes Mother’s death’s head grin over Norman’s own.54
The last scene in Psycho shows Marion’s car being pulled from the swamp by a chain-winch. It recalls Marion’s dying gesture, as she reached toward us in the shower for help. Now, at last, we have extended a hand. The chain stretches directly toward the audience, disappearing on the right-hand side of the screen. It is as if we were reaching into the screen to pull the car from the swamp. But we are, of course, far too late. Unlike the phoenix, there is no resurrection for Marion Crane. She is being pulled from an unmarked grave only to be buried in a marked one. Now that her death is known, it can be mourned, and accepted, and life can go on. But that is all.
In Psycho, the two halves of human nature, passion and reason, fall apart, and passion devours reason as the greater devours the less. Psycho lacks the completeness of works like La Grande Illusion and Les Enfants du Paradis because Hitchcock did not believe in completeness. Psycho is very close to the bleakest of the Greek tragedies, such as Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis, and Euripides’ Medea and The Bacchae, plays in which the gods, if they appear at all, come as the destroyers of hope rather than its source.55 And Marion Crane’s fate seems even crueler than that of her Greek predecessors; she tempted the gods not through vanity, or even virtue, but through vulnerability. Somehow, the death of the common bourgeois with the big boobs never loses its sting.
Both Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and Donald Spoto’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius make excellent reading. William Rothman’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze includes extensive reviews of eight Hitchcock films, including Psycho. Rothman, like many academics, manages to be both wooden and windy at the same time, but he’s studied these films carefully and has some interesting things to say. In his Web article “Touch of Psycho?,” John W. Hall looks at the impact of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil on Hitchcock.56
The web sites devoted to Hitchcock and his films are almost without number. The MacGuffin Web Page is a good place to start. The Psycho home page is slow-loading but has numerous downloadable images and audio and video files, as well as links to other sites.
- Hitchcock was a declared fan of the films of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, recruiting Dalí to do the dream sequence for Spellbound, although little of what Dalí did was ultimately used. The arches of the mission in Vertigo look like deliberate homage to the “Metaphysical” landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico. [↩]
- In 1924, two wealthy young men, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, kidnapped Loeb’s distant cousin Bobby Franks and murdered him in a deliberate attempt to commit “the perfect crime.” Aside from its content, Rope is unique in that it is the only major release ever made with no cuts. It consists entirely of eight-minute “takes”–eight minutes being the length of a single reel of film. It also possesses perhaps the most deafening subtext in the history of Hollywood, the love that dare not speak its name raging so loudly between the two leads (John Dall and Farley Granger) that you can barely hear the actors speak. With all this going for it, Rope ought to be at least an interesting failure, but it isn’t: it’s just terrible. [↩]
- The Wrong Man proved how boring truth can be. Hitchcock’s obsession with Vera Miles may have weakened the film. Vertigo is considered by many Hitchcock admirers to be his masterpiece. For what it’s worth, I am not one of them. [↩]
- In Hitchcock, women can’t win for losing. [↩]
- The interest that Hitchcock’s characters take in women’s clothes palls before the interest that Hitchcock himself took in them. He frequently had the fashion designer for a film design clothes for the leading lady off the set as well as on, so that she always looked the way Hitchcock wanted her to look. Janet Leigh did not have to put up with this in Psycho, because she was not Hitchcock’s type, and because Hitchcock deliberately gave Psycho a non-glamorous look. [↩]
- “More than happy,” as Norman puts it. [↩]
- In The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock pans across a model of an Alpine village, coming to rest before the window of a hotel and then cutting to the interior. In Shadow of a Doubt, he uses a double progression of similar images, first of exterior shots of a city before moving into the bedroom of a cheap apartment, where a desperately bored Uncle Charlie lies in bed, wondering if he has the will to go on living. We then move through a comparable set of scenes set in a small town, ending up in the bedroom of his niece Charlie, who lies wondering if she will ever escape the ennuiof adolescence. Cotten lies with his back to the right of the screen while Wright lies with her back to the left. [↩]
- See, for example, the openings of such films as Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, and The Birds. [↩]
- Reportedly, the chemistry between Gavin and Leigh was so poor that Hitchcock despaired of getting the scene off the ground. According to Rebello, Hitchcock took Leigh aside and asked her to supply Gavin with some “motivation,” which she apparently did. Gavin’s work with Perkins in the closing scenes of Psycho has won more praise. [↩]
- Thank you, Lord Alfred. [↩]
- Hitchcock’s disdain for uncorseted knockers did not prevent him from building Psycho’s original ad campaign around Janet Leigh’s looming bust, photographed from below to emphasize its resemblance to the Hindenberg. [↩]
- To have people “spying” on you and not be able to do anything about it was clearly one of Hitchcock’s deepest nightmares. Joan Fontaine, the nameless heroine of Rebecca (1940) is always turning around to discover the pitiless eyes of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). The elegant Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli), in The Paradine Case (1947), imprisoned for murdering her husband, is similarly hounded by vulgar, disturbingly masculine matrons. (Both films have a fairly explicit lesbian undertone.) In Psycho itself, Marion’s suggestion to Norman that he institutionalize Mother, thus submitting her to the unrestricted gaze of others, first reveals to us Norman’s capacity for violence. And, of course, Psycho ends with Mother struggling to maintain an appropriate demeanor for the prison guards. [↩]
- Hitchcock had an endless obsession with lighting fixtures. He seems to have hated overhead lighting. His films are filled with wall fixtures and table lamps of all sorts. He used them for composition, but their significance seems to go beyond that. [↩]
- Naturally, there is some dialogue between Marion and the policeman and “California Charlie,” and she also hears the voices of many of the film’s characters in her head. [↩]
- One wonders if Hitchcock, who spent a great deal of time lighting his leading ladies to make them look beautiful, didn’t also fantasize about lighting them to make them look ugly or uncomfortable, to show them who was boss. [↩]
- The “Madeleine” whom Stewart is following and with whom he falls in love is a made-up character deliberately invented to deceive him. [↩]
- In The Birds, hordes of crows assemble on one side of the school. When Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette lead the children out of the school, the birds come swarming over the roof and descend on the children, driving them toward the town and lake. Since the crows, as they come over the roof, are rendered through animation, they look like bats flying out of a haunted house, a cheap and hackneyed image, not worthy of Hitchcock. One of the posters for The Birds uses this shot. [↩]
- This is another of Hitchcock’s “if onlys”. If only the policeman had followed Marion to the motel and Norman had seen him; if only Marion had kept on driving; if only she hadn’t seen Mother. [↩]
- He kills his brother by sliding down a balustrade that flanks an outside staircase leading up to a house. The brother, seated at the bottom of the balustrade, is knocked onto an iron fence that is topped with spikes. Hitchcock’s real (older) brother, with whom he was not close, died shortly before Spellbound was made. Staircases play an enormous role in Hitchcock’s films. [↩]
- Veidt, who sleeps in a coffin, commits murders under the orders of Dr. Caligari. One might say that Norman commits murders under the orders of Mother. Caligari is the most famous example of German Expressionist film, and is well worth seeing today. Hitchcock was in Germany in the early twenties, working with many of the leading figures of Expressionist film. The Lodger shows many influences of Expressionist film. [↩]
- Birds occur endlessly in Hitchcock’s work. Donald Spoto, Hitchcock’s biographer, refers to them as the “birds of chaos,” Birds may have symbolized chaos to Hitchcock – if all birds see our guilt, as Norman’s saw his, then they might become the chosen instruments of God’s wrath upon us – but he doesn’t convince me of that. Hitchcock’s next film, The Birds, made possible by the enormous profits from Psycho, collapses under the weight of his ornithological obsession. However frightened Hitchcock was of birds, they just aren’t that dangerous, and the lengths to which he goes to convince us that they can be lethal only make the film ridiculous. The character of both The Birds and its successor Marnie was radically affected by Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading lady. The real “purpose” of both films, one might say, is the rape of Tippi Hedren. [↩]
- The staircase at the mission in Vertigo is, of course, an essential part of the film. Staircases are crucial in Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (front and back), and Notorious, and play an important role in The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, and Marnie. [↩]
- Later, Bergman collapses at the foot of these stairs, fleeing from the pair when she realizes that they’re poisoning her. Finally, Cary Grant rescues her by leading her down the same staircase under the noses of Rains and the other Nazis. [↩]
- Nothing else happens. Lavish bathroom and bathing scenes were standard in films made during the twenties. [↩]
- Because of this blow on the head, she at times wonders if she ever saw “the lady” (Dame May Whitty) or only imagined her. [↩]
- Instead they were taken to a brothel. “Now, I have never had anything to do with that sort of woman to this very day!” Hitchcock told Truffaut. [↩]
- What happens in fact is that he is too late to discover what really happened – too late to see his “friend,” Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), throw his wife (the real Madeleine) from the top of the bell tower while the false Madeleine (Kim Novak) stands by. [↩]
- I think it is significant that Norman seems to stand carefully on his “side” of the screen, stabbing into it, but never crossing over. It does not seem as though he ever touches Marion except with the blade of the knife, although she does grab his wrist at first. [↩]
- Bass also mapped out the other murder scene in Psycho, of Arbogast on the staircase, and also designed the opening credits of Vertigo. [↩]
- The “black” veil of the nun is a crude special effect that detracts significantly from the impact of the scene. Why would a nun be wearing a veil in the first place? Everything about the scene is quite unconvincing, in my opinion. In Psycho, the shots of Margo Epper, the actress who played Mother in the shower scene, had to be retouched as well, but the work here is subtle and doesn’t call attention to itself. [↩]
- In the Jesuit school that Hitchcock attended as a boy, misbehavior was punished by blows to the hand with a sort of rubber truncheon or club. Only three blows to each hand per day, because after the third the hand became numb. In Sabotage (1936), a kindly grandfather who manufactures bombs sticks out his hand for his grandson to smack when the grandfather has been naughty. ((In the first scene in Vertigo, after the credits, we see an enormous bar stretching across the entire screen. A hand smacks into it. As the camera draws back, we realize that we’re seeing the rung of a ladder. [↩]
- Other remarkable images of hands in Hitchcock’s work include the painful close-ups of Robert Walker’s hand in Strangers on a Train as he struggles to retrieve a cigarette lighter that has fallen down a sewer. And in Dial M for Murder, Grace Kelly reaches her hand desperately toward the audience when she’s being strangled by Anthony Dawson (in the 3-D version, her hand would be going right out into the audience). In the “scene of the crime” trailer that Hitchcock made for Psycho, he embellishes his account of the murders with elegant hand gestures. [↩]
- The phrase comes from the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, whose attitude toward sex and women appears similar to Hitchcock’s (“But Love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement”), though more accepting. [↩]
- Hitchcock “discovered” Miles when he saw her in a television show in the early fifties. He planned to make her “the next Grace Kelly” and used her in The Wrong Man, starring with Henry Fonda, as well as a number of episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. Miles, who did not enjoy Hitchcock’s obsessive attentiveness, never got the sort of classy bad girl roles that Hitchcock gave to Ingrid Bergman and Kelly. He wanted her for Vertigo, but she was pregnant with her third child (she was married to actor Gordon Scott, who played Tarzan in five films). Apparently, Hitchcock found this level of fecundity unprofessional and thereafter wrote her off as a complete cow. But he still had her under contract, and so used her in Psycho. It’s also Miles, not Janet Leigh, who screams in the shower in the trailer for Psycho that features Hitchcock. [↩]
- Alfred E. Smith, twice governor of New York State and the first Catholic to run for President (in 1928) as a grown man used to kneel before his mother every night to receive her blessing. [↩]
- In Sabotage, the heroine, Sylvia Sidney, kills her husband with a carving knife (because he blew up her brother with a bomb). In Blackmail (1929), the heroine, Anny Ondra, kills a would-be date rapist with a knife as well. In Dial M for Murder, Grace Kelly dispatches her assailant with a pair of scissors. [↩]
- Hitchcock uses light from under a door in several earlier films to suggest the presence of a threatening consciousness or will. See Suspicion and Spellbound. [↩]
- The fury of her assault here causes the audience to laugh throughout the rest of the film whenever anyone refers to Mrs. Bates as “a sick old lady.” Psycho is a film that benefits greatly from being seen with an audience. [↩]
- Vertigo is practically built around falling. Jimmy Stewart also takes a dive in Rear Window, though it’s not fatal. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint almost fall to their deaths at the conclusion of North by Northwest, and Cary almost falls off a roof a number of times in To Catch a Thief. For a rare Hitchcock hero who isn’t afraid of heights, see Saboteur, where Robert Cummings jumps off a high bridge, and lives! [↩]
- The final voice-over, when Norman is in prison, was done by a young actor, Paul Jasmin. [↩]
- Rebello quotes Anthony Perkins as referring to “Mitzi” as “she,” but avoids a gender-specific reference himself. [↩]
- Lacey is simply referred to as “Nun” in the credits, even though she is not a nun. She wears a very elaborate habit that does not look at all as though it were designed for nursing. [↩]
- Prior to World War II, most Englishmen and women were openly anti-Catholic. Nuns were generally regarded as sinister freaks. [↩]
- And if you think it’s easy to run on a railroad track in heels and an ankle skirt, try it sometime. [↩]
- One might also note that Marion, Arbogast, and Sam all saw Mother in the window. Lila, however, sees Norman. [↩]
- Hands, the symbol of human vulnerability in Hitchcock, here are turned to stone, or at least bronze. The camera zooms in to show them in extreme close-up. [↩]
- At this point we see three Lilas, the “real” Lila, from the back, in close-up, a small Lila, also from the back, reflected in the mirror behind her, and a third Lila, from the front, reflected in the mirror before her, still looking at the crossed hands. [↩]
- The Paradine Case has a similar, but much less interesting “bedroom investigation” episode: lawyer Gregory Peck visits the flamboyant chambers of the imprisoned Mrs. Paradine – the style could be described as late Scarlett O’Hara – and sees the score for the “Appassionata” on her piano. [↩]
- In Joseph Stefano’s script, the book was supposed to be pornographic (Stefano made the Norman/Mother relationship explicitly incestuous). However, for all we can learn from Lila’s reaction, the book may as well have been Ivanhoe (one of Hitchcock’s childhood favorites – Edna Mae Wonacott, the middle daughter in Shadow of a Doubt, is reading Ivanhoe). [↩]
- Hitchcock had earlier used the device of a shifting light source himself in Foreign Correspondent when Joel McCrea hides in between the gears of a windmill. [↩]
- He avoided service because of his weight. With death and casualty figures running in the millions, draft avoidance during World War I was not the same as during the Vietnam War. Young men of draft age in civilian clothes were quite likely to be publicly insulted as cowards. Some young women carried white feathers for this purpose, which were handed to the victim. In 1939, Hitchcock left England for America, almost immediately before the outbreak of World War II. Obviously, he felt fighting was someone else’s business. [↩]
- Hitchcock apparently thought it was terrific, thanking Oakland on the set for “saving my picture.” [↩]
- Imagine a prisoner making such a request on NYPD Blue. [↩]
- This was left off many of the prints of Psycho as too shocking. Amusingly, Blockbuster Video, which rents a cut-down, “TV version” of Psycho (although it’s not marked as such), with some of the stabbing taken out of the two murder scenes, includes the death’s head superimposition, at least in the copy that I rented. Blockbuster’s versions of The Birds and Marnie are similarly edited, and similarly unmarked. [↩]
- All three plays involve murderous deceptions. In The Women of Tracis, Deianira, the wife of Hercules, seeks to regain his love through a magical potion that proves fatal to the big guy when applied. In The Bacchae, Agave kills her son Pentheus in the midst of Bacchic revelry, and bears his head home on a stick, thinking she has killed a lion, only to be disillusioned. In Medea, when Jason announces to his wife Medea that he is divorcing her and taking a new wife, she pretends to acquiesce, presenting the bride to be with a beautiful cloak of hammered gold links. When the girl puts it on, her flesh bursts into flame, and her father, seeking to rescue her, is likewise consumed. To further ruin Jason’s day, Medea murders their two sons. [↩]
- Among other things, both films featured Janet Leigh having a bad day in a cheap motel. In Psycho, Leigh was only stabbed to death in a shower; in Touch of Evil, she was raped and shot full of heroin by a pack of Mexican leather boys. Something about Janet brought out the worst in fat film directors. [↩]