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Alfred Hitchcock was a trendsetting director, to say the least. He constantly pushed the boundaries of the thriller/horror genre. In the 1960s film, Psycho, he especially pushed these limits as, by this time, he has perfected his uniquely masterful directorial style that he has been since the 1930s. With this film, Hitchcock redefines horror and shifts it from the universal monster movies to something much more terrifying, exploration of the self. He does this by weaving elements of Freudian psychoanalysis and a clever use of the camera.
The plot of the film is seemingly simple to follow in the beginning when the audience is introduced to the first protagonist, Marion Crane. The opening shot reflects the audience, thrusted into the story line and looking for a subject to follow. The camera is panning over Phoenix and slowly comes in on a window where the audience has found subjects to watch, unaware of the story they have begun to observe. With some dexterous cinematography, Hitchcock quickly establishes Marion as the story’s protagonist. He begins with placing both Sam and Marion on an equal standard, but this quickly shifts as Hitchcock places much favor on Marion. Both characters are in an adulterous relationship as Sam is a married man, who lives in Fareville, California. Marion expresses her desire to see him under “respectable” circumstances. She suggests that they share a “respectable” dinner with a picture of her mother on the mantle (or more simply, a gaze of authority), and her sister in the kitchen helping her, “broil a steak for three.” This scene also establishes that the conflict in their relationship is mostly economic. Sam explains to Marion how he is tired of, “sweating,” for people that treat him poorly. This is also a foot as to why the two cannot live together, flourishing a happy, healthy relationship. All important aspects to remember as the film progresses.
In the later scene, a very boastful business man comes into her place of work and flirts with her. He waves his money in her face saying, “I never carry more than I could afford to lose,” which is an important line that justifies the audience when encouraged to sympathize with Marion's later decision to run away with the money she is tasked to take to the bank. During a subsequent scene, Marion is in her room packing her things, we see her debating whether or not to steal the money and run away. Hitchcock tells us this by focusing the camera on the envelope of money then moving the camera to her suitcase that she is packing up, alluding to her plan to run away. This scene further accentuates the conflict found in the relationship between Marion and Sam, and that being one of economical in nature as previously established. This desire is what pushes Marion to act. At this point, the audience is sympathetic with Marion and her decision to run away to be with her boyfriend in Fareville and not against her for the very obvious crime she has committed; the audience is rooting for her escape from the law and for a successful arrival to Sam.
As Marion nears the motel during her fleet from her crime, the lighting darkens and the camera shots come much tighter into Marions face, alluding to the coming danger; the view that Marion and the audience have becomes intensely blurry and unclear, until she sees the sign for the Bates Motel. During her tense drive, the transitions between shots change. Up until this point in the movie, the shots are transitioned by fades, which alludes to the passage of time. During Marions run from Phoenix, however, Hitchcock uses cuts between shots. This is used to emphasize the anxiety that Marion feels as she runs away and also how she does not feel the passage of time; in each cut, the environment becomes darker but no passage of time is alluded to.
Also here, the style of the film moves from the very realist and objective to one painted in much subjectivity. This happens through the subtle shift of seeing the world through Marions perspective instead of viewing the story from an outside stance. I think that this shift mirrors that of when someone meets a new person. People are not the most sympathetic or empathetic with someone they just met. However, after coming to understand their motives behind their actions and judging them to be justified, only then does someone really become fully sympathetic towards that new person.
Finally, we meet Norman Bates (his name derived from the word “normal” which becomes clearly ironic at the end of the film) as Marion arrives at the Bates Motel. Norman is perceived as slightly socially awkward with his odd hobby in taxidermy and offsetting dialogue. The audience is made to have pity on the lonely and pathetic existence that Norman lives, which is brilliantly done by Hitchcock as it only makes the story that much more interesting as we are forced to view Norman in a relatively positive light.
When Marion arrives to the motel, it is dark and stormy and Norman has an attraction towards her and offers her dinner in the house with him, presumably to get to know her better. Some small details of Normans actions when we first meet him will almost go unnoticed, but they all allude to this idea of attraction and feelings. When reaching for a room key to give to Marion, his hand hovers over several different room keys before he deliberately decides to choose room key one. This hesitation can be seen as him trying to go against his feelings of attraction towards Marion, an action that of which the audience is not made to understand until the end of the film. Furthermore, his reluctance to say the word “bathroom” gives light to his nervousness to be in the same room, alone, with a woman of which he fancies. He is constantly glancing back and forth between the wall (where the peephole is) and Marion, another action that's reason is not made clear to the audience until later in the film.
When Norman goes back up to the house to prepare dinner for Marion, we hear a voice, which is his mother, yelling at him and criticizing his idea of having dinner with a woman that he just met. Norma Bates, his mother, is characterized as someone who is immensely jealous, abusive, controlling, demeaning and manipulative, and can be further understood as the plot continues.
This next scene is pivotal to the rest of the film as it sets the stage for the famous “Shower Scene” to come. Norman brings down a sandwich (this contrasting the sandwich that she left uneaten in the beginning of the movie while she was with Sam) and some milk. They sit in his parlor behind the front desk and talk while Marion eats. Here, Marion reaches her fantasy of a “respectable” dinner. There is a gaze of authority, through the stuffed birds and also from the shadow of the house where mother lives. Norman, at one point during their conversation, even makes a comparison with his mother and the stuffed birds. Marion desires to become “normal” and here she takes one step closer to that ideal.
The camera work in this scene is quite remarkable as it alludes to important details that are to come and that of which would be missed without knowledge of what happens in the rest of the film. Every shot is subtle-ly imposing; Marion is distant and vulnerable in the beginning of the conversation, which is a similar state to Norman’s stuffed birds in the room. The framing of the shots are also not consistent in any manner. The actors are constantly changing position, as there is an ongoing struggle and shift in dominance between the characters. These changes in position are exactly what points out Normans underlying conflict between him and his alter ego, Norma. In particular, when Marion questions Norman about how his mother speaks to him, the camera takes on a low angle on Norman, only showing one side of his face. This shot highlights how the audience (and Marion for that matter as the audience is now seeing the world more or less through her perspective) is only seeing one side of the story, and only one side of Norman. Once Hitchcock moves to a new shot composition, he does not revert back to an old one. This unending change and shift of cinematography reflects the unending change and shift of both characters in the scene.
Marion and Norman pass dominance back and forth in this scene. This is seen through the cinematography, where the camera is tighter on either character or how either actor moves closer in or farther out in the frame. For example, at one point where Marion has dominance, the camera shifts to focus on Norman and he leans into frame further regaining dominance.
This scene is also interesting because of the banter between both characters we can analyze a Freudian concept of the uncanny double. The uncanny describes an unease of experiencing something that is familiar but in a very unfamiliar way. Freud was mostly interested in the idea of doppelgangers or uncanny doubles because they are like the self yet strangely other.
Norman and Marion can be seen as uncanny doubles of each other. Author, Slavoj Zizek, in his book, The Parallax View, writes, “Marions world is one of contemporary America while Normans is the nocturnal reverse.” Additionally, the characters names are constructed with much of the same letters, a deliberate choice by Hitchcock as Marion's character was originally named “Mary”. In the same way, Marion's last name “Crane” is ironic because of Normans hobby with taxidermy, in particular stuffing birds. Norman also delivers a line telling Marion that she, “eats like a bird,” darkening the importance of the stuffed birds. Also, both characters are spoken down upon in a condescending manner by those in a parental role so to speak. Marion is spoken down to by Cassidy, the millionaire whom she stole the $40,000 from. His character is flirtatious, but also very paternal as he has safety in money and in marriage. Similarly, Norman is spoken down upon by his mother. There is also placement of mirrors in scenes where Marion and Norman interact, again emphasizing that they are doppelgangers. All in all, this scene furthers this idea of these characters being each others opposites.
After this, something new happens, the audience is without Marion for the first time. Now the audience gets a view from Normans perspective, looking at the book where she signed and through the peephole in the wall where Marion is objectified by Normans harsh male gaze. This doesn’t last very long as the audience is thrown back into the view of Marion as she takes a symbolic shower, cleansing herself of her sin that she admitted when she mentioned to Norman her, “small trap,” that she had to get herself out of back home. However, Hitchcock does not allow Marion’s sins to go unpunished. In Marion’s desire to become “normal” she becomes Norman; she is taken over by her uncanny double.
The audience is tricked into believing Normans innocence and our sympathies quickly move from Marion to Norman. This is shift is most predominantly seen when the suspense is revolved around whether or not the car holding Marions body will sink or not to the bottom of the lake, completing the cover up of her murder almost to its entirety. Hitchcocks successful switches in the audiences sympathizes are what add to the films tension and brilliance.
Now the audience is introduced to three new minor characters who we are to follow for the rest of the film; Marion’s sister, Lila, her boyfriend, once again, Sam and the private investigator, Arbogast. Arbogast is given the tightest close up and so he is the character that the audience follows again. With these introductions, the audience switches sympathies again and there is a slight fear of Norman. Mother then carries on to murder Arbogast as well, but this time the audience does not have full sympathy with Norman but with Lila and Sam (here, note another shift in sympathy.)
When Lila and Sam go in search for Arbogast and Marion, the audience gets a better look at the inside of the Bates’ mansion. Now, another Freudian concept can be used to analyze Norman. The Bates’ mansion can be seen as having all three levels of personality as described by Freud: ego, superego and id. The top floor, representing the ego or what is considered to be “self” and the most mature of the three, is where both Norman and Norma live. Norma says at one point in the film that she won’t leave her room, being the top floor. This is interesting because we come to understand Normans idea of “self” being both Norma and Norman. Next, the ground floor represents the superego, being concerned with social rules and morals. There isn’t much analysis with this floor of the home with reference to this part of the personality as nothing much really happens here other than the murder of Arbogast and its clean up. So moving forward, the fruit cellar represents the id portion of identity. The id is the most primitive of the three sections of personality and operates entirely outside of an individual's conscious. This is where Norman mostly keeps his deceased mother from fully decomposing and further links the idea of a different identity of mother being housed in Normans mind.
There is also this progression of sin throughout the film. It begins with adultery then moves to theft. After that the murders of Marion then Arbogast and finally, psychopathy as clearly portrayed in Norman. Each passing crime puts us at a higher point on the scale.
At the end we come to better understand the odd character of Norman Bates. His father died when he was young, causing him to suffer from an immense trauma. Another Freudian concept can be used as a lense to analyze Norman's character as he has an extreme love and sexual fixation with his mother, especially after the death of his father. His mother then brought home another man, escalating his psychosis, and in an intense fit of jealousy and anger, Norman kills them both. He does this particularly after he finds out that her boyfriend is married. Norman successfully makes the police think that it was a murder suicide, and he now suffers from terrible guilt of matricide which causes him to take on an alter ego of his mother.
With this in mind, the audience comes to understand the scenes where we first meet Norman. His mother alter ego becomes ravenously jealous and fearful of losing her son to another woman which then pushes his mother identity to kill them; Norman is forced to never abandon his mother and enter into a romantic relationship. Thus explaining the harsh criticism received by Norman from his mother near the first part of the movie.
Another note on the idea of Norman and Marion being uncanny doubles, is the detail of their smiles. While Marion is driving towards the motel and with tightening close-up shots, Marion stares directly at the viewer and gives a slight grin. The same ominous grin can be seen on Norman's face at the very end. Interestingly, at the same moment of Norman's version of this smile, there is, for a split second, a superimposed skeleton grin over the superimposed picture of Marion's car being retrieved from the lake, which connects all three uncanny doubles, Norma, Norman and Marion, together. Another parallel is found with the imaginary and internalised voices of authority in the characters heads. Again, as Marion is driving towards the motel and away from her “small trap,” in Phoenix, she hears the voices of Cassidy in her boss criticizing her in her head. Likewise, Norman hears the internalized voice of his mother criticising him at the end of the film.
Objectivity is brought back in full force at the end of the film bringing the entire story full circle. The final shot is one of Marion's car being drug out of the lake. Here, in the light of day Marion is surfaced again, almost resurrected. The antagonist does, indeed, end up winning at the end simply because as for Norman, he is overcome by his uncanny double, just as Marion was.
In this 1960s masterpiece, Hitchcock uses the self to induce horror in his audience. His analysis of the human condition is done in a new, terrifying way, but only through interrogation of the characters, their motives, their desires can we as the audience come to better understand ourselves.