Pure Psycho: The Art of a Midnight Masterpiece

NOTE: Please click on frames to enlarge.  Also, this piece may contain spoilers, and most likely won’t make any sense if you haven’t already seen the film.  Go watch it.  Right now.

My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film…That’s why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to film-makers, to you and me.

- Alfred Hitchcock to director François Truffaut in 1962.

Hitchcock wasn’t being grandiose in his assessment of Psycho.  It really is his purest, most effective visual accomplishment.  The Master of Suspense was an alumnus of the old school of silent-era directors that lived by the first rule of cinema: Show it, don’t say it.  They believed in the pre-eminence of visual storytelling – communicating emotion with only the moving picture – and understood that dialogue should be used as a supplement, to underline and augment the story being told with the images on the screen.  Pure film.  One doesn’t need sound or dialogue to understand the voyeurism, surprise, and claustrophobia communicated when Marion is discovered sleeping in her car by a passing Highway Patrolman, one only needs to see the sequence of compositions the director gives us:

Hitchcock is a master of manipulating an audience’s emotions with film.   He not only uses the medium to define his characters and the peculiarities of their situation, he also tells us (his audience) who we are by defining our relationship to the image on the silver screen.  The process begins immediately.  The opening shot of Psycho offers us a bird’s eye view (keep that in mind, it’ll be important later) that carries us over a city, to a window sill where we creep inside and see what we instantly recognize as the aftermath of a discreet sexual liaison.

We are intensely aware of the intimacy of the couple’s relationship, but Hitchcock never invites us to share that intimacy.  He keeps us at an awkward distance, leaving us to see the backs of heads and making us too aware of the surrounding room to be comfortable.  The lighting is deliberately naturalistic, denying us the glossy romanticism of Hollywood sex.  It is the vantage point of a peeping tom.  As we watch what unfolds before us, we are overcome with a seedy, perverse feeling.  We feel that we’re prying, witnessing something that we shouldn’t. Yet, we can’t look away.  This is exactly as Hitchcock wanted it.

While this is, in effect, the film’s opening scene, Hitchcock has already laid substantial groundwork for a theme that plays on our subconscious for the rest of the film.The famous title sequence, designed by Saul Bass, is a series of strong lines that fly violently in and out of the frame.  From every direction, they cut and break the visual flow we expect (along with the names in the credits) while Bernard Hermann’s frenzied, nerve-wrecking, but oh so utterly appropriate score shrieks in our ears.
The titles create in us a distinct feeling of unease, the memory of which the director will later evoke with the use of strong compositional line, unnaturally rigid horizontals, verticals and diagonals that tell our subconscious mind to be wary.  Hitchcock obviously enjoys this motif, using everything from fenceposts, street lines, telephone wires, and heavy rain to create these powerful, disruptive lines, lines that grow as Marion nears the Bates Motel.
Though at first, we don’t know why the lines make us uneasy, the reason is revealed in Marion’s motel bathroom.  They foreshadow murder.  We see strong lines of water from the shower, the lines of grout between tiles on the wall, the choppy lines that trace the slashing of a dagger, lines of blood that drip from the side of the pure-white bathtub.

The line motif is reprised to warn us of Aborgast’s murder.


Hitchcock is so invested in the motif that he cheekily sets the date of action at December 11th. When Marion checks into the Bates motel, she is given the only possible room.

The story’s titular Psycho is ostensibly Norman Bates (again, we’ll return to this later), a seemingly affable but odd young man living in the shadow of his domineering mother.  He is in fact psychotic, and you can’t have a good Psycho film without exploring what goes on in his strange mind.  Hitchcock proves that even something as complex and intangible as this can be endeavored visually.Remember the bird’s eye view in the opening sequence?  The one that led us to the peeping-tomfoolery in the bedroom that we weren’t supposed to see?  This is where it comes into play.  That first scene after the credits is the first time the film draws a connection between birds and sex and women (we fly in from the sky to see a sexual liaison and the beautiful Janet Leigh in her underwear).  We learn that these three things (birds, sex, and women) are inextricably linked in the twisted mind of Norman Bates.  In the dinner sequence that takes place in Norman’s parlor, Hitchcock delineates Norman’s mental associations in a manner that can be laughably blunt, yet still subtle enough to be missed by Gus Van Zandt in his “shot for shot” remake.The scene unfolds like this:After joking that eating in the office was too “officious” (a pun Vince Vaughn embarrassingly fails to recognize in the remake), Norman leads Marion back to his parlor, the walls of which are disturbingly decorated with clues to his psychological makeup.

Namely, stuffed birds and classical paintings of women being molested.  Pretty direct, eh?  Hitch uses the dialogue to support his visual thesis, and clue in the perceptive viewer to the horror that awaits Marion, and the fate that has already befallen Norman’s mother.

	        NORMAN
	You eat like a bird.

		MARION
	You'd know, of course.

		NORMAN
	Not really. I hear that expression,
	that one eats "like a bird," is really
	a fals...fals...fals...falsity, because
	birds really eat a tremendous lot.
		(A pause, then
		explaining)
	But, I don't know anything about birds.
	My hobby is stuffing things...
	taxidermy. And I guess I'd just rather
	stuff birds because...  well, I hate
	the look of beasts when they're
	stuffed, foxes and chimps and all...
	some people even stuff dogs and
	cats... but I couldn't do that... I think only
	birds look well stuffed because
	they're rather...  passive, to begin
	with...
So we hear (as well as see) Norman drawing the connection between Marion and the dead birds on his wall.  The next bit is exceptionally telling.  Marion flatters Norman by telling him “a man should have a hobby”.  Norman reacts by leaning back, placing one hand on the inside of his thigh (near his crotch) and his other hand on one of his stuffed birds.  He then replies, looking directly at her, “It’s more than a hobby”.

This is what I meant by laughably direct.  Hitchcock is literally drawing the audience a picture of Norman’s mental associations in as blunt a way as can be decently imagined.  Van Zant’s remake completely misses this!  It’s what happens when a lesser artist can see the ‘what’ when copying a master, but doesn’t grasp the ‘why’.The bird/woman associations in the dialogue continue.  When Marion suggests that Norman place his mother in an asylum he reacts with indignity.  “She’s as harmless as… one of those stuffed birds.”  We will later discover that he means this literally, having killed and preserved his mother in the exact manner as his favored fowl.  The words Norman chooses to describe both Marion and his mother draw the same connection:  “they cluck their thick tongues”, “[she's not] a raving thing”.  Perhaps most importantly, it is during this sequence that Norman learns the full name of his visitor: Marion Crane.As Marion leaves the parlor to return to her room, we see her from Norman’s view.  Hitchcock is careful to place birds in his compositions alongside her, to make tangible for the audience the association that Norman makes mentally.  We again see birds in framed pictures on the wall beside Marion as Norman watches her undress though a peep hole.  Creepily eyeing her in her underwear, he re-enacts what we were party to in the movie’s first scene.

The similarity between our role in the first scene of Marion’s liaison and Norman’s in the scene that directly prefaces her murder is an important one.  On one level, it strangely compels us to sympathize with a character we know we should abhor.  On another, it suggests that Norman’s scizophrenia, the duality that has consumed him, exists within all of us – kept in check only by our fragile consciousness. In fact, Norman Bates isn’t the first split personality we’ve seen in the film.When we are introduced to Marion Crane, she is shown to be a woman grown tired of living a secret life with her lover.  She longs for a relationship that can be lived openly.  “We can see each other”, she tells her lover, “We can even have dinner… but respectably, in my house with my mother’s picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three!”  Yet, when she is tempted with the luminous spectre of $40,000, she steals the money and begins another secret life.  Marion, too, contains multiple personalities.  Hitchcock uses mirrors to show us both personalities in every pivotal scene involving the stolen cash.

And there are others.  Through shadow and reflection, the dual nature of every key character is revealed; Marion, Norman, Marion’s boyfriend, even her banal sister Lila carries multiple versions of herself with her.
In the journey that takes Marion to the Bates motel, we observe her decent into madness.  She transforms from Good Marion to Bad Marion (or at least normal Marion and abnormal Marion) before our very eyes, while she imagines what her persuers must be saying about her.  The voices in her head speak harshly, and with increasing intensity.  Hitchcock traces Marion’s transformation by subtly manipulating the lighting on her face as he cuts between shots of girl and highway.  What begins as a naturalist shot of a normal Marion, ends with a highly expressive one as she reaches the brink of insanity.

This stylistic shift throws the audience into the same off-kilter paranoia that Marion experiences.  We become less sure of what is real and what is illusion.  Which of her thoughts are reasonable and which irrational.  This is key to the film’s power to disturb and unnerve.  It doesn’t just tell us about someone going crazy, it takes us along for the ride.  The film’s structure even denies us the grounding of a “main character”, forcing us to shift sympathies (and empathies) from person to person.  It makes us vicariously experience multiple personalities.

Look again at Marion’s expression in that last frame of transition.

Look familiar?

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