Revisiting Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece ‘Psycho’ 60 years later
“The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.” – Alfred Hitchcock
It has been sixty years since Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal masterpiece Psycho was first released but it still remains one of the best psychological thrillers of all time, completely dominating the genre with its all-encompassing influence.
The enduring legacy of the 1960 film is absolutely justified because it marked the application of a new language of cinematic narrative as well as a deeper exposition of the framework of the human psyche. The impact and influence of Hitchcock’s masterpiece can never be exaggerated. At the time of its release, it dismantled the repressive societal norms with the depiction of widespread “immorality”. As for the cinematic world, it made its predecessors in the horror genre look inadequate. Psycho has been a continuing source of inspiration for generation after generation of filmmakers. Apart from the stylistic influences that changed cinema forever, films like Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath (2000) and David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) continued the discourse on psychological deviancy that Hitchcock conducted so forcefully, years ago. A relatively recent TV series called Bates Motel (2013-2017) is also a notable addition to the list since it is one of the more critically acclaimed adaptations of Psycho. However, Hitchcock’s intellectual and cinematic tour de force remains unparalleled. Psycho will always be remembered with great admiration for its monumental cinematic and narrative feats.
Hitchcock holds our eyes open and makes us witness the haunting symptoms of a diseased society that affect all its characters. From the very start, he insists that modernity has left all of us with some neurosis or the other. The camera pans across the afternoon skyline of Phoenix, Arizona and squeezes in through a window that is barely open. We are presented with a familiar scene of illicit love in a minimalistic hotel room. Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), a secretary in a real estate firm, escapes the monotony of life by engaging in secret rendezvous with her lover, Sam Loomis (played by John Gavin) who works in a hardware store in the fictional town of Fairvale, California. One by one, we encounter omnipresent middle-class concerns about debts, alimony and societal restrictions. Everyone has been reduced to the status of neurotics, scrambling for money and drugs. Hitchcock reveals his world through conversations and we slowly put all the pieces together.
Marion is subjected to all kinds of external influences as she tries to make sense of the system she is a part of. When she has a headache, her colleague suggests the use of tranquillizers while her client, the misogynistic Tom Cassidy, tells her, “You know what I do with unhappiness? I buy it off.” He makes a deposit of $40,000 and it is at this point that we see Hitchcock’s famous narrative device, ‘The MacGuffin‘. Even though the money induces most of the motivations for the characters’ actions, Psycho complicates the traditional use of the plot device. The most crucial events of the film have no regard for the existence of the money and the MacGuffin turns out to be nothing other than a red herring. Before all of that, however, the cash acts a signifier for the inevitability of our instinctual accumulation of capital. Marion rejects the sedative her colleague offers her, saying, “Can’t buy off unhappiness with pills,” but ends up trying to do precisely what she negates.
Hitchcock’s mastery over the cinematic medium has been widely discussed and dissected but it is something that is worth mentioning over and over again because it justifies the risk of redundancy. When Marion takes the $40,000 to go visit Sam in Fairvale, Hitchcock’s technical supremacy is on full display. The camera focuses on a close-up of Marion’s head in her car while her mind rushes through all kinds of guilty thoughts and imagined conversations. Her psychological distress is painted brightly on her face and Hitchcock employs frequent jump cuts to mimic the mechanisms of furtive glances. The seamless editing works in conjunction with the atmospheric anxiety to create all kinds of voyeuristic disruptions but, at the same time, it maintains a palpable tension that makes the viewer as fearful of the police as Marion is. Even though the idea of so many cuts seems to be antithetical on paper, it works and it works brilliantly.
Psycho is not only notable for the cinematic innovations but also the unforgettable recreation of the infamous Bates Motel. Based on the eponymous 1959 novel by American writer Robert Bloch, the heterotopic space is the conceptualisation of Bloch’s notion “that the man next door may be a monster unsuspected even in the gossip-ridden microcosm of small-town life.” The enigmatic caretaker of the motel, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins), takes Marion in out of the rain and incorporates her into a system that exists outside normative societal functions. They rarely welcome any guests but Norman’s comments about the performative role of the motel is beautifully subtle, “We keep on lighting the lights and following the formalities.” (which he stops doing later). Everything is in constant conflict in this unsettling space, the American gothic architecture of the Bates mansion overshadows the motel.
According to Hitchcock, the iconic house is based on Edward Hopper’s famous 1925 painting ‘House by the Railroad‘. It is evident that an inordinate amount of attention has been paid to the impeccable mise-en-scene. From the creepy parlour full of stuffed birds to the intricately decorated interior of the mansion, everything is placed with a definite purpose. A sense of foreboding and foreshadowing is weaved into this unsettling microcosm. Hitchcock takes us into the unfamiliar and indulges in the relevant social commentary: “We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw but only at the air, only at each other.” This is exactly where we are confronted with the contrasting figures of the neurotic and the psychotic. Unlike Marion, Norman has lost touch with socio-political obligations and only does what he has to in order to sustain his own psychological integrity. He just smirks and says, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
Like most of Hitchcock’s works, Psycho obsessively examines the process of voyeurism. The finest example of this is the scene where Norman takes the picture off the wall and looks at a semi-naked Marion through a hole that he has drilled. It’s almost as if Hitchcock is laughing at us because he knows, just like Norman, we will be drawn into this perverse process as well and focus on what is being shown instead of what is being discarded. The painting that Norman takes off the wall is called ‘Susannah and the Elders‘ by Willem van Mieris and it depicts an attempted rape from the Book of Daniel. We are complicit in this violation of Marion’s privacy because we can do nothing but watch what is being shown. The motel, ironically, becomes hostile instead of hospitable. Instead of a supernatural evil, Hitchcock is adamant in his insistence on the threat of human evil, something that Stanley Kubrick investigated so masterfully in The Shining (1980).
Although Marion regrets taking the money and plans to give it back, it is too late. The volatility of her ‘Psychosphere’ has translated to the absurdity of the physical space that she occupies. This is not just a metaphorical translation but a literal one that Hitchcock undertakes. When she first arrives, it is raining but the heterotopia consumes and internalises all these external forces. We are presented with one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema. Hitchcock claimed that he made Psycho just for this scene. Marion steps into the shower to take a bath but in a surprising turn of events, Norman’s mother (at least what appears to be her) comes in and stabs her. Hitchcock uses rapid jump cuts and over 90 breaks in about 45 seconds to signify this violent disruption. The great sound design rhythmically pulsates in synchronicity with the forceful stabbing gestures as the fabric of reality is completely destabilised by the illogical causality of insanity. Hitchcock shows us that no motivation is obvious and the psychology of evil is too dark for us to read. Although Norman appears to be cleaning up for his mother, he lets out an insidious smile as the desolate swamp swallows Marion’s body. This smile is a recurring one and continuously blurs the binary distinction between the maniacal killer and the obedient son. A sense of irony punctuates this horrific murder because Hitchcock follows this up with a scene in Sam’s hardware store where a woman examines a bottle of insecticide and exclaims, “Insect or man, death should always be painless.” She proceeds to buy it anyway.
The MacGuffin becomes different things for different people who are involved with the case. It was supposed to be the cash but all order and logic breaks down in this uncanny space. For the private eye, Arbogast, the main objective is to get the $40,000 but for Sam and Lila, Marion’s sister, the MacGuffin is Marion herself. In the second half of the film, the camera explores the strange mansion with extreme trepidation as the characters, first Arbogast and then Lila, try and search for answers. We feel like intruders inside the mansion as well because the moment we enter, we are greeted by a Cupid-like statue with a drawn bow aimed right at us. Although Norman’s mother was primarily supposed to explain all the unsettling details, we only discover what is left of her: her rotting corpse all dressed up and groomed, trying really hard to exist. The only resolution we get is when the psychiatrist explains that Norman was suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder and had been trying to sustain the illusion that he had not killed his own mother. This is supposed to put all the uncertainties to bed but it never really does.
Despite the psychiatrist’s claim that “Norman Bates no longer exists”, we cannot really believe it because we are not sure about who Norman is. The psychotic is a literal as well as a symbolic threat to the majority comprised of neurotics because he does not follow the same rules. Hitchcock constructs the myth of the psychotic through the presence of major character traits as well as minor details, like how Lila discovers Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ (Heroic) in Norman’s house. Is the madman suffering from a delusion of grandeur?
Norman is perceived as a threat because he refuses to subscribe to social systems like capitalism (he does not care about running an empty motel) or the idea of romance (he eliminates anyone he is attracted to, in an act of self-preservation). In the penultimate scene, we see him smiling as he indulges in yet another meta-fictional monologue about voyeurism, “I hope they are watching. They’ll see.” When the scene dissolves, for a brief moment, a set of teeth (presumably belonging to his mother’s corpse) is juxtaposed on Norman’s closed mouth which is easily missed if you blink.
Hitchcock is meticulous in his arrangement of minor details, revealing the duality of Norman’s psychology. However, if we know anything about Hitchcock it is that nothing is ever as it seems.