Bright Lights Film Journal

Watch It Again! Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Norman Bates

Hitchcock’s one-word titles have never been so instructive. Psycho is the feeling of being preyed on by your self, as by one of Norman’s stuffed birds. It is the primal fear of oneself being a rapist or thief deep down, stopped only by useless proprieties like law and marriage and the delusion of being the protagonist in one’s life. Psycho makes a farce of these rules.

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Psycho is a film with no present. It’s obsessed with its past to the point that on closer inspection, all of its events seem psychologically inevitable. There is no inciting incident that makes Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steal $40,000. She does so because she is made that way, just as she will never marry Sam Loomis (John Gavin) because instead she will accidentally twinge a nerve of empathy in someone who is so abjectly terrified of losing his own past that he will become that past, even if he must kill to prevent such feelings from affecting him.

I’m speaking, of course, of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who shocks the audience after the film is over by forcing them to remember that they identified him as another protagonist. With chummy indifference, he casts such a confident alibi that even the modern viewer could be pressed for the ending and not know it accurately until it’s in the nude, beaming in the light of his basement.

The girls will undoubtedly be lured with Crane into Bates’ candy eyes and unassuming shyness (Bates Motel picks up on this, casting button-nosed Freddie Highmore as Norman instead of, say, Ezra Miller). The guys meanwhile will jolt guiltily to their own past when Norman peeks in on Crane as she changes clothes; they were doing the same thing when the film began. Against the hard-shadowed slats of her secret apartment, Crane sat indifferently on her bed, beaming white in her brassiere. With her, Hitchcock begins his film by creating in the audience the psychology he plans to undermine, in a film that uses a predictable structure as the lure of its own narrative con. He does so not with story, but with the camera alone.

Hitchcock follows Crane closely when her paranoia sets in, the kind that any of us would feel if we flew from our better upbringing to take what we wanted without considering the outcome. Hitchcock shows us in the frame the importance of the money, which Crane hides conspicuously in a newspaper on her nightstand at the motel. He reminds us where it is because this movie is about who knows where the money is, about a woman’s redemption in the face of a hasty impulse, to return to the familial normalcy that Hitchcock protagonists always value, or face the consequences of her actions.

Marion and the money

And then she is dead.

A shot from 78 camera set-ups and seven days of filming, known for its penetrating score as much as for its gruesome intimacy, ends with the sink drain of Marion’s unblinking eyes and a cruelly steady pan (I imagine such silence in the theater) from the corpse of a limp sex icon laid on tiles as blindingly white as her hotel’s bedsheets.

What’s more, the money goes down with her into the swamp and with it, all that we had held as important in the intrigue, all of our expectations for a resolution. Suddenly, the typical Hitchcock protagonist’s plea for a romantic ending becomes, not just in Psycho but for all of his films, its own farce. Love becomes a sickening irony after the shower scene, so often written on that I could scarcely do so again redeemably. I’ll take on a single detail instead. Sam writes her a letter. “So what if we’re poor and cramped and miserable, at least we’ll be happy!” But she’s already dead. His love is a farce on itself, a plea to a corpse. This isn’t the film’s only reference to necrophilia, but it’s the first. At this point we’re still wondering, 47 minutes in, who the protagonist is.

As Norman sanitizes the death scene, we end up taking him in. We know what a shady prospect that is, but the camera leaves us no other choice.

Perhaps the critic Slavoj Žižek had something when he equated the structure of Bates’ house, and his ascent and descent through it, with Norman’s mind. The second floor, where he keeps his mother at the height of his preservative delusions, is his superego; the first floor, where he keeps himself in a stasis within his only present, is his ego; and the basement, to which he flees when his delusion is challenged by the film’s plot, is his deep id.

The house

This is a notion interesting in its creativity, to use a film as an example of itself. But I believe it over-intellectualizes, and so misses, the real structural purity of Psycho, which is not to have a clear psychic or moral structure but to take the structure of its views at even greater priority than a moral message. Did Hitchcock plan to have the manor illustrate the superego, ego, and id, terms that few would have been able to define accurately in the psychosocially newborn 1960s? No more, I suspect, than Orson Welles planned to have a Napoleon complex evoked by young Charles’ distance from the frame, playing in the snow within the window of his childhood in the beginning of Citizen Kane. That is to say – these are planned to the extent that they are instances of human states in pictures, framed around an emotion, but not that they’re literally demonstrative psychology or morality (Kane’s yard, for instance, is not his hippocampus, and the interior of the house is not his thyroid).

Bates’ descent into the manor may be viewed as a descent into psyche or memory, but let’s take symbols out of it (as Hitchcock seems to). The layers in the house are the layers in images of our depth in the film’s more crucial purpose: to twist the plastic of the audience’s expectations. The second floor is filled with lofty bird’s-eye views that breed uncertain images, slipping in from the side of the frame. The first floor is level and never explored, transitory because the plot represses the present impulses for the past of Norman’s inherent nature. The basement is close-angled, harshly lit, the portrait of what a terrifying resolution feels like, not to a schizophrenic, but to an audience.

The basement

Hitchcock’s one-word titles have never been so instructive. Psycho is the feeling of being preyed on by your self, as by one of Norman’s stuffed birds. It is the primal fear of oneself being a rapist or thief deep down, stopped only by useless proprieties like law and marriage and the delusion of being the protagonist in one’s life. Psycho makes a farce of these rules. Since Hitchcock values such rules in any of his Technicolor epics the likes of Rear Window and Vertigo, in its stark monochrome morality Psycho plays as a mirror image, not just of decency, but of Hitchcock himself. It is a sheer economy of views, where Hitchcock would normally have dwelled on drama. Where he would have strived to develop a character into normalcy, Psycho offers them only its own technical purity in perfectly suspended animation. Every movement becomes a feeling mummified by its own irony. For all its gratuity, nothing in it is beyond understanding.

Could anything be scarier than that?

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All images are screenshots from the film.