Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was a British film director. Having established his reputation in Britain in the 1930’s with films such as The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), he moved to Hollywood where his first film was Rebecca (1940). Outstanding among his numerous later works are the thrillers Strangers on a Train (1951), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).
Though considered tame by today’s standards, Psycho has done more to advance the horror genre than any other film of its time. Despite its low budget of ï¿½800,000, which was cheap even by 1960 standards, no other Hitchcock film had greater impact.
The main themes that Psycho is based around are guilt, voyeurism, madness, paranoia and duality in people, parental influences, sexual desires and murder.
Hitchcock invokes the guilt of the audience by making us see things we think we should not be watching, such as Marion in the shower, Marion in her underwear in the scenes where she is changing her clothes and she has just had sex with her boyfriend, Sam. In films in the 1960’s, shower scenes or any other nudity was very risky. In the first scene, lots of flesh is shown as we see Janet Leigh in her bra. Bras were not shown in films before Psycho, as they were considered to be exposing too much. It was shocking for the audience, because areas such as the bathroom and the bedroom were thought of as private areas, not to be seen in films. However, this scene links to our own sexual desires, as the nudity of Janet Leigh in the shower scene provided a form of titillation for the audience, especially as she appeared to be enjoying herself so much. The audience is punished for the watching the shower scene, by seeing Marion’s ruthless death.
The beginning of the first scene is an establishing shot of the Phoenix skyline. The camera pans across the skyline, searching and scouring its subject like an eye, relating to the notion of watching or following someone. The camera goes past the window of Sam and Marion’s hotel room before returning back to it, similar to the movement of Norman’s hand as he chooses a room key for Marion. The camera focuses on the window and goes in under the blinds, suggesting that we are going to see something private and seedy, because the blinds are closed even though it’s the middle of the afternoon.
The theme of voyeurism is portrayed further by the highway policeman that follows Marion, Norman that watches Marion through his peephole in the wall and the lecherous real estate customer Cassidy that stares at Marion in the office. All of these scenes set up Marion as the victim. In the scene where Marion is invited to have dinner with Norman, he asks her to come into “the parlour”. The use of the word “parlour” – as in “come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly”, establishes the route that Marion will inevitably take as the victim. The significance of this brief line becomes all the more apparent at the end of the film when Mother, who has now consumed Norman’s mind and soul, looks directly at the camera and says that she “would not even hurt a fly”. This perhaps impels the audience to question whether the real victim of the film is Marion or Norman, because Norman is the victim of Mother, who has completely taken over his mind and body by the end of the film.
An example of how the guilt of the audience is evoked is the last scene where Marion’s car is being pulled out of the swamp, by a chain wrench. It recalls Marion’s dying gesture as her hand reached out towards us for help after being stabbed in the shower. Here, the chain stretches directly towards the audience, so it is a point of view shot, from the viewpoint of whoever is operating the wrench. It is as if we are reaching into the screen to pull the car out. But we are, of course, too late.
The feeling of guilt is evident in Marion, as she has stolen the $40,000 that she was meant to take to the bank, she is guilty of skipping work to sleep with her boyfriend, she feels guilty because of her dead mother’s disapproval of her relationship with Sam which links with society’s disapproval with their relationship, as they are not married and they have sex in seedy hotels.
Marion’s shower is a near-religious experience for her, as the water gushing over seems to cleanse her of her sins, shown by the shot of the shower head from underneath. After calculating how much money she has spent out of the $40,000, Marion rips the piece of paper up and flushes it down the toilet. There is a close-up shot of the coiling vortex of the toilet water as it washes away all traces of the paper – all traces of her sin. This looks forward to the famous image of the circling water down the plughole superimposed over the Marion’s eye. Here, the water washes away the blood from her body, the plughole almost draining the life from her. The blended image of the eye is shocking because it is fully open, linking to voyeurism – the audience watching Marion in the shower, and it also emphasizes the fact that she died in isolation in a private place, which should not have been invaded.
The idea of Marion washing away her sins in the shower relates to Norman’s own guilt connoted by the close-up of Norman washing the blood from his hands. He is guilty of murdering Marion and we find out at the end, that he has killed other women in the past. Norman’s fear and guilt is also revealed by his meticulous mopping up of the death scene. Here (not consciously but in a deeper place) we identify with Norman – not because we could stab someone, but because, if we did, we would be consumed by guilt and trepidation, as he is.
The motive for Norman killing these women is sexual desire. As explained in the scene where the psychiatrist provides an explanation for the murders, Norman feels guilty when he finds himself sexually attracted to women because he was sexually jealous of his Mothers boyfriend, and as a result killed her. When Norman finds himself drawn to a woman such as Marion, the other personality comes out in him, his Mother. It is Mother who kills the girls as a punishment for matricide.
Within the narrative, there is sexual chemistry between Marion and Norman. When she arrives at the Bates Motel, there is a sequence where the only sound is diagetic and there is an awkward silence because of their attraction. In the parlour scene, both characters are again, uncomfortable because of the sexual magnetism between them. Marion is subconsciously drawn to Norman because of his perverted side. This connects to Freud’s theories of all of us having secret sexual desires in the deep subconscious of our minds.
There are lots of two-shots of Sam and Marion in the hotel bedroom to show the closeness in their relationship and there are two-shots of Marion and Norman when she comes to the Motel, to show their connection and that they are two significant characters in the film. Another two-shot is used when Norman brings a tray of food for dinner to Marion. Between them, in the background is Marion’s bedroom door – perhaps this is a signifier for sex and intimacy, as the bedroom is the place where this normally goes on. It is interesting to note that Norman could not say the word “bathroom” when showing Marion around, because it is a private place that shouldn’t be mentioned and ultimately, the place where Marion would die. It also connotes the sexual repression and boy-like lack of experience in life.
Parental influence is one of the major themes in Psycho. Norman felt sexually envious of his mother’s partner and so killed both his mother and her boyfriend. Although he knows that “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”, he felt as though he was being displaced. This links to the story of Oedipus, about the boy who fell in love with his mother and then married her, not knowing it was his mother. Later, Freud came up with the Oedipus complex, a theory that people develop sexual desires for their opposite sex parent when they are young. In boys, this is a conflict in which they wish to possess their mother sexually and perceive their mother’s partner as a rival in love.
Sam’s theory that Norman killed Marion for the $40,000 to leave Bates Motel, is wildly off base, but serves the purpose of distressing Norman, as though he is accusing Norman of wanting to abandon his mother. “This house is my only world”, says Norman. He is inseparable from his environment because the house imprisons him. The hotel seems to be Norman’s reign, whereas the house represents Mother; When Norman is in the hotel, he is Norman, but when he is in the house, he becomes Mother. The house overlooks the hotel, almost as if Mother is overseeing Norman. What links the house and the hotel together is the long zigzagging pathway. This is where the transformation from mother to Norman occurs, for example when Marion first arrives at the Motel she sees mother in the window, but moments later, Norman comes down the pathway. The pathway could be likened to an umbilical cord, as the womb is where mother and child are closest, and if the cord is cut, the child and mother are separated.
Similar to Norman, Marion fears her mother’s moral judgements despite the fact that she is dead. In the dialogue in the first scene, a picture is built up of Marion’s respectable home. She talks about herself and Sam having dinner with her “mother’s picture on the mantle” – she wants their relationship to be proper and respectful towards her mother. Sam, however, says he would turn her mother’s picture to the wall, so she could not see them. Marion says, “You make respectability sound disrespectful”. It is interesting that the hotel they are in is “seedy”, the antonym of “respectable”. Marion is fed up of secretly meeting in shabby hotels.
Sam, too, is being strangled by the problems of dead parents. He is unable to marry Marion because of his dead father’s debts that he has to pay off, as well as alimony fees to his ex-wife. Marion’s mother and Sam’s father are hindering the relationship, even though they are dead.
Norman Bates is most definitely the only schizophrenic character in the film, but Marion also displays signs of duality in her. Mirrors and reflections in windows are a device that Hitchcock uses to symbolize split personality. There is a shot of Marion in the office, holding the money and deciding what to do with it. We see her reflection in the mirror, creating two Marion’s. One is the innocent ordinary secretary that would not commit a crime. The other is the darker side of Marion that would steal the $40,000. Another shot of Marion and her reflection in a mirror is at the reception desk of the motel. One side of her, we see her bag with the newspaper she is carrying, and in the reflection, we see the envelope of money she has stolen, showing her corrupt side. In the scene where Norman brings Marion a tray of dinner, there is a faint reflection of himself in the window behind him. This could be his other personality, Mother, watching over him.
It is also significant that when Marion is at work, whilst playing the reliable secretary role, she is wearing a white outfit. On the other hand, in the scene where she is packing her things to leave town and insert shots of the envelope of money are shown, she is wearing black underwear. This reveals her darker, more dishonest side. During the scenes where Marion is driving at night, she hears voices and imagines scenarios where she might meet Sam again which could be perceived to be a symptom of schizophrenia. Her inner confusion and discomfort are made manifest to her reaction to the harsh lights of oncoming cars. The camera moves closer to her dark backlit face as her distress increases. The music and the rain raise the tension. She is having a conflict with herself, almost as if she has another persona.
In the parlour scene, Marion represents normality and structure, whereas Norman represents the insane. Nevertheless, Norman and Marion have a mutual recognition of themselves as forlorn, desperate characters, that both have secrets to hide. Marion’s face is well lit and she, like the tiffany lamp beside her, seems to radiate a glowing warmth. Despite the fact that she has stolen a lot of money, she is not hidden in the shadows or consumed by the darker side of her nature. The light creates a softness around her and suggests she can be redeemed, and we find out later, that she intends to give the money back. Norman, however, is positioned away from the light source and slightly to one side. The effect is harsh – light and shadow – across Norman’s face, re-emphasizing the clash of his dual personality. The camera frequently moves to the left side of Norman, obscuring his other side. This could signify the side of him that the audience will not have seen yet: Mother.
Hitchcock uses camera angles to reveal all the audience needs to know about the troubled mind of Norman Bates. The camera is placed near eye level for the shots of Marion so the audience sees Marion as two people might see each other while sitting and talking. This angle provides a sense of normalcy and comfort within Marion’s presence. However, Norman is shot from an unnaturally low perspective, suggesting that Norman’s world is skewed and distorted. The props within the mise-en-scene emphasize the contrast between these two characters. In front of Marion is a milk pitcher with soft graceful line, suggesting Marion’s essential goodness. Towards her right, is the Tiffany lamp with it’s rounded shade. The curved shapes are repeated in the picture frame directly behind her. Unlike Marion, Norman is immersed in straight lines, many of which are set at angles to create a sense of conflict rather than comfort. On the walls hang straight frames and to Norman’s right, is a chest with straight heavy lines.
In Norman Bates, not only is there the clash of Norman and Mother, but there is also the clash of the host and the murderer, and the clash of the shy stammering boy and the ruthless man. Anthony Perkins shows us there is something fundamentally wrong with Norman, and yet he has a boy’s likeability, hunching his shoulders, jamming his hands into his pockets and grinning.
The most unusual and curious feature of the parlour, and one of the most graphic clues to the twisted mind of Norman Bates, has to be the stuffed birds mounted on the walls and standing on the table. Norman likes to stuff birds because he likes the idea of preservation and keeping things alive, just like he has preserved his mother and kept her alive by taking on her persona. Norman described them as “passive”, although they look anything but passive as they present a rather frightening image and seem poised to swoop down. He says about his mother, “She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds”. Yet we find out that this is completely contradictory, as it is his mother that drives Norman to kill. Birds are also symbolic of freedom, something that both Norman and Marion feel they haven’t got. In their conversation they talk about “private traps” and Marion states, “I am trapped”. The stuffed birds in the parlour are all hunters, such as the owl, that watches and preys. This correlates to Norman preying Marion. Additionally, the theme of birds is continued with Marion’s surname, Crane, and the town she is from, Phoenix.
I think Hitchcock enjoyed using words that were similar to others or almost anagrams of others to create meaning. For instance, when Lila goes into Norman’s untidy bedroom, on the record player, she finds Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, which is similar to “erotica”. Another example is “Marion”, rearranged is “Normai”, which is similar to the words “Normal” and “Norman”. Marion signifies the normal, the mundane, as an ordinary secretary. She finds that she has had a moment of madness when stealing the cash, similar to Norman killing his mother in a moment of madness. It is the long discussion with Norman that caused Marion to go back out into the normal world and give back the money.
Hitchcock’s ideology in the film, Psycho is summed up perfectly by Norman Bates’ statement, “We all go a little mad sometimes”. Hitchcock is trying to say that whether you are an ordinary, perfectly sane person or a murdering schizophrenic, you can impulsively do something out of insanity. Psycho connects directly with our fears: Our fears that we might spontaneously commit a crime, our fears of being watched, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course, our fears of disappointing our mothers.