John A. Bertolini
Psycho at Fifty: Pure Cinema or Invitation to an Orgy?
As Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has now arrived at the age of fifty, the moment seems propitious for a reconsideration of the film’s significance and staying power. In The Moment of Psycho, David Thomson has used the occasion to situate this film in cinema history, and indeed in America’s larger cultural history. But Thomson’s unpleasant little book makes some rather large claims regarding the impact on movies of Hitchcock’s virtuoso exercise in cinematic anxiety. He charges Hitchcock with making a “breakthrough” in Psycho that led all of us, and filmmakers in particular, to take “bloodletting, sadism, and slaughter” for granted, to treat sex and violence ironically or mockingly, because they “were no longer games,” “but were in fact everything.” “Everything”? As Hitchcock himself might ask, “Whatever does the gentleman mean?” Thomson is given to such opaque assertions. For example, he summarizes how Psycho affected subsequent cinema by announcing that “The Orgy had arrived.” Presumably he means the term “orgy” to serve as a summary description of the subsequent films that doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled their quotient of sex and violence while simultaneously magnifying the crudeness and explicitness of representation. But Psycho neither caused nor was it even the occasion of such an “orgy”; all that had started years before Psycho—when, say, Lee Marvin disfigured Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) by throwing boiling hot coffee in her face, or when Richard Widmark, laughing maniacally in Kiss of Death (1947), pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death. The postwar push against censorship was relentless until the late sixties when everything became possible in the realms of porn and brutality. Psycho’s sex and violence merely reflected the changes at work in the larger society, especially the increasing insistence on greater frankness in the depiction of actual sexual behavior.
In the François Truffaut interview regarding Psycho, Hitchcock explained that he began the film with Janet Leigh in a brassiere and John Gavin stripped to the waist after a sexual tryst at lunchtime in a hotel because audiences were “changing” and young people would have “looked down” on a more chaste encounter. Hitchcock had the sense that “Nowadays you have to show them the way they themselves behave most of the time.” In other words, Hitchcock saw himself simply as keeping up with the times, not starting an “orgy.” Such an attitude may be associated with artists of all kinds: Noël Coward, for example, balked when asked in an interview whether The Vortex, his early play involving drug addiction and hinting at incest, was designed to make people “look seriously at these moral problems.” Later in the same interview, Coward commented on whether he ever sought to be considered a “significant” playwright: “I liked to be contemporary and bright as a button, but I don’t think I was all that keen on being significant.” (This interview is included in The Noël Coward Trilogy DVD.) Compare Coward’s remark to Hitchcock’s comment to Truffaut: “I didn’t start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation.” Thomson makes much of the daring sexuality of Psycho’s opening scene, but from Hitchcock’s point of view, he was just being “contemporary and bright as a button.” Besides, the sexuality implicit in the scene is subdued, understated, in keeping with the director’s usual mode in these matters: you get the idea, but there is no panting, no heavy breathing in Hitchcock love scenes.
Films are often a species of news the way novels are. You go to them partly to keep up with what’s going on, to find out what’s new—the latest slang, the new manners, changes in moral attitudes, styles of hair and clothing. That’s why the primary audience for films is teenagers (who do not want to stay at home, which is generally located somewhere behind the times): films help them escape to the neighborhood of the up-to-date. They find models on the screen for how to talk to one another, to be cool, to woo or be witty or wild within bounds—or out of bounds. Teens want their own language, their own coded words and cant to keep their parents out of their business. But filmmakers rarely set out to present their films as mirrors of the times. If they produce mirror images, they do so reflexively, but usually randomly. They may indeed incorporate the latest gestures and postures in ethics, customs, morality, and manners, but not deliberately and seldom with direct intention of changing or affecting such mores. So too with Psycho. Hitchcock believed (or knew) that his young audiences in 1960 were engaging increasingly in premarital sex and for him that warranted his opening the film with Marion Crane and her divorced boyfriend Sam Loomis having a postprandial/postcoital conversation. In his exchange with the director, Truffaut suggests to Hitchcock that for the sake of symmetry Janet Leigh should have been naked to the waist as John Gavin was, and Hitchcock agrees. Of course, it took about another eight years for that to be possible in American films.
Thomson would have it that filmmakers took such anticipations in Psycho as the signal that the time had come to let ’er rip. This is nonsense. Had Psycho not been made, movies would have followed the same path to the garden of earthly pain and pleasure. The audience reaction to Psycho was exactly what Hitchcock had intended—viewers experienced pleasurable anxiety, were scared out of their skins to a hitherto unseen degree, but only temporarily, and then they were eased back into their skins with sardonic humor. Laughter—sometimes nervous, sometimes not—was the sound heard almost as often at showings of Psycho as screams of fear. Pleasurable anxiety had always been the defining experience of a Hitchcock film, but this time the intensity of the fear increased to the danger level on the pressure gauge. That was what was new and inimitable about Psycho—the mixing of humor with extreme terror, not just with suspense. Suzanne K. Langer has theorized that comedy evolved as a way for human beings to celebrate their surviving natural disasters and other life-threatening experiences encountered by chance. Hitchcock makes us identify subjectively with Marion Crane and the detective, Arbogast, before and during their murders, but then lets us laugh and breathe a sigh of relief that we were not in fact the ones murdered. Audiences in 1960 reacted to the murder in the shower at first with shock and undiluted terror, since Hitchcock had placed them through his camera in the position of the victim; but viewers then came to feel bewilderment at the murder of the ostensible star only forty minutes into the film and reacted with nervous laughter, turning to the people sitting next to them for some explanation of the joke. Hitchcock’s way of shooting the murder scene terrified the audience much more than the murder itself: the sudden acceleration of the cutting, a succession of so many shots, most lasting less than a second each, and each one implying merciless, catastrophic violence to a completely vulnerable (because naked) human body—the manner was what was new, not the matter.
According to Thomson, after the violence of the shower murder in Psycho—or because of it (Thomson is not very clear about this)—the “bloodletting, sadism, and slaughter” of that scene “are now taken for granted.” We have become “a different species” because of “the cruelties we no longer notice” in film. George Orwell made an analogous argument about the novel-reading public in his essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944), where he asserted that the 1939 crime novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish, in which characters behave sadistically and amorally, signaled a major shift in the moral attitudes of the British public. What Orwell got wrong was a result of his assumption that people cannot find entertaining the amoral behavior of fictional characters as part of an escape to an aesthetic realm of free play for the imagination while simultaneously rejecting such amorality in their own personal lives. Miss Blandish takes place in the realm of imagination, for it is a highly artificial creation, with a plot borrowed from Faulkner’s Sanctuary, recast by an Englishman using a map of the U.S. and a dictionary of American slang; it’s an eccentric work, full of tough-guy talk copied from American crime films and novels of the thirties. Thomson makes a similar mistake about the reasons that audiences may have had for flocking to Psycho. The pleasure they took in the film did not signify an increased indifference to cruelty, but rather an elevated responsiveness to the intensity of emotions created by Hitchcock’s cinematic art.
With the next murder in Psycho, that of the detective Arbogast, Hitchcock put the audience through the same process of terror followed by laughter at their survival of the ordeal—but this time without the initial stage of bewilderment. It was the laughter of relief from anxiety, the pleasure of reassurance, however temporary. One might ask: what is there to laugh about in the brutal murder of a detective by an insane old woman? Nothing, of course, is the answer—except that we did not see an actual murder, but rather a succession of images and cinematic ideas carefully put together by Hitchcock in such a way as to make the audience constantly aware of his use of the camera. The medium close-up shot of Arbogast climbing the stairs is intercut with a ground-level shot of the door to mother’s bedroom opening to create a pointed shaft of light, then followed by the camera’s suddenly cutting to a high overhead shot of “mother” herself emerging from her room with knife in hand positioned to stab Arbogast. Then from this overhead shot, Hitchcock abruptly cuts to a close-up of Arbogast’s face being stabbed. In the Truffaut interview, Hitchcock compares that juxtaposition of shots to music that goes from violins to brass suddenly (it is not accidental that when Hitchcock reaches for a comparison to illuminate cinematic art he reaches for an analogous art that uses pure form for expressive purposes, i.e., to create emotion). As the camera then follows Arbogast in his falling backwards down the stairs, Mrs. Bates pursues him, and we see her on her knees next to his body, raising her knife-bearing arm aloft to plunge the blade into him a few more times.
As the image fades, we hear the sound of the knife penetrating the body and Arbogast’s last groans—and that’s when audiences in 1960 found themselves laughing. They laughed not because they were bloodthirsty callous brutes who lusted for more violence in art, but because they had been made conscious that they were being manipulated wittily for the promise of an experience of both terror and humor. And for one other reason: the idea of a knife-wielding old lady is funny (just as Aristophanes in Assemblywomen knew that it was a funny idea to have concupiscent old women pass a law that young men could sleep with their girlfriends only after taking an old woman to bed first). To understand how Hitchcock saw what he was doing, one need only recall his remarks to Peter Bogdanovich (included in The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, published by MoMA in 1963) about the improvisational nature of the script for the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). In recalling that script, Hitchcock reported that in the working out of the action the whimsical process went like this: “One said: An old lady with a gun, that’d be amusing.” Accordingly, one put into the film an old lady with a gun. The same sense of fantastic humor lurks behind the image of old Mrs. Bates plunging the knife a few extra times into the body of Arbogast as he lies writhing on the floor at the foot of the stairs.
As I’ve suggested, Thomson’s claim that Psycho opened the floodgates to sex and violence seems improbable, and it is not convincingly substantiated; what’s worse, though, is that his whole way of talking about the film is virtually useless. Indeed, he stays so much on the surface and in the realm of the general that he hardly ever says anything precise enough to qualify as an actual revelation of what previous viewers might not have noticed, nor does he offer any observations that might illuminate a pattern one might not have perceived, or any sustained analysis that might help us to understand the art revealed by this particular film. Instead, Thomson succumbs to the temptation that is the persistent bane of critics, the temptation to inflate their own importance by identifying the arrival of an innovative work of art as the inauguration of nothing less than a New Epoch in the History of Art. Even the great Pauline Kael was not immune to such vanity, as when she declared the opening of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973) to be the cinematic equivalent of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps; she must have been disappointed that there is no record of any audience rioting at any showing of Last Tango. (Does anyone, incidentally, still share her opinion that Last Tango was an epoch-making film?) The significant shift in American cinema’s treatment of sex and violence came with the Supreme Court’s effectively ending censorship of obscenity and thereby allowing pornography—in literature and visual media—in the early seventies, after several years of battles in lower courts. A Clockwork Orange in 1971 was genuinely offensive to many people in a way that Psycho never was. The killings in Psycho were removed from the moral realm by reason of the killer’s evident insanity; in A Clockwork Orange the violence was characterized by indifference to the suffering we cause to others, as Proust defined evil.
The weakest section of Thomson’s book—weakest because it feels like padding—comes about three quarters of the way through, when he assigns a paragraph each to selected films from 1962 to 2009 (Dr. No to Red Riding) because he thinks they all exhibit the influence of Psycho. But Thomson fails to note Blake Edwards’s actual homage to Psycho in particular and Hitchcock in general, Experiment in Terror, the one successful, high-budget, self-conscious imitation of Psycho, produced in the immediate aftermath of that film’s huge reception. In Edwards’s film, the murderer, played by Ross Hunter, is afflicted with asthma so that every time we hear heavy breathing we know he must be near. He terrorizes Lee Remick and her younger sister, and—in the film’s most frightening sequence—even disguises himself as an old woman. While it is true that Psycho inspired many directors through its cinematic artistry, and also occasioned some deliberate low-budget imitations, such as William Castle’s cross-dressing surprise party, Homicidal—a film that Time magazine asserted was in several respects superior to Psycho and worthy of inclusion on Time’s list of the ten best films of 1961, while Psycho itself had not been deemed worthy of the 1960 ten-best list (I wonder where the Time critics responsible for such judgments are living anonymously now)—Hitchcock’s film remains unique in the history of cinema, not mainly because of its success as a box-office and publicity phenomenon, but by virtue of its extraordinary power over the emotional response of viewers, a power attributable to two factors: Hitchcock’s ability to tap into the primordial fear of sudden violent death and his astonishing control of cinematic style. The trouble is that one can barely distinguish whether the former is merely an element of the latter, or even whether in the end the specific content of the film matters at all, given the way Hitchcock’s constant visual inventiveness continues to compel our attention.
The manifest content of the film, a series of murders committed by a criminally insane man, Hitchcock by his own admission did not treat seriously. The novel on which the screenplay was based (Psycho, by Robert Bloch) was a lurid but also eerie and scary thriller with a protagonist resembling the knife-wielding character Judd in Oklahoma! (played by Rod Steiger in Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film version)—that is, a fat, lonely man who liked to spy on women and threatened them with violence when they aroused his sexual feelings. Thomson notes that Bloch acknowledged that he intended Norman Bates to be a Rod Steiger type but does not indicate which character Steiger ever played who might have resembled Norman—surely it was not Marty (played by Rod Steiger in Paddy Chayefsky’s original TV version) that Bloch had in mind. Thomson observes that he can see no precedent for Norman’s character in Hitchcock’s own work, but he has forgotten the half-caste female-impersonator and murderer Handel Fane, in Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), who is referred to as “100 percent He-woman,” and who, as Norman Bates does, makes his first appearance in the film dressed like a woman (of course, Anthony Perkins did not actually come out in the guise of Mrs. Bates until the cellar scene near the end of the film). Confusion over sexual identity is always either deeply perturbing, as it is (mostly) in Psycho, or endlessly hilarious, as in Some Like It Hot (1959). The novel’s Norman Bates was based on Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsin serial killer and mutilator of women’s dead bodies (also a model for the perverted killer in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs), but Hitchcock emphatically denied that his film attempted to treat the case seriously. “If I were telling the same story seriously,” he said to Bogdanovich, “I’d tell a case history and never treat it in terms of mystery or suspense.” In 1957, he had made just such a film—that is, a completely sober treatment of a series of crimes and their effect on a family. That film was The Wrong Man, Hitchcock’s last film in black and white before Psycho, and the specific link between these two films shows that Hitchcock thought of them as in some way paired. It is as if Hitchcock had thought to himself: I have done an utterly sincere and serious treatment of insanity and crime with a lesser display of vivid cinematic style, its commitment to black and white being the guarantee of its unrelieved realism; now I will make that same black and white serve completely different stylistic ends—ends associated with what Hitchcock called “pure cinema,” moving the audience more by formal film means than by capturing great acting with his camera or by placing an involving and intricate narrative before the audience.
One can see the same pairing of a film where form is dominant while content is subordinated with a film in which style primarily serves content in Hitchcock’s two preceding black and white films: Strangers on a Train (1951) and I Confess (1952). As with Psycho and The Wrong Man, one film emphasizes formal patterns and produces laughter out of anxiety while the other is deliberately deprived of humor and moves the audience through identification with the psychological torment of an individual who is wrongfully accused of a crime but cannot exculpate himself and who is only saved by a kind of miracle. The remark he makes to Truffaut regarding the elaborately patterned exposition to Strangers on a Train shows Hitchcock’s artistic absorption in the issue of dominant form. Truffaut praises the sequence for “the follow shots on feet going one way and then another,” and for the “crisscrossing rails” and “the symbolic effect in the way they meet and separate,” and Hitchcock replies, “Isn’t it a fascinating design? One could study it forever.” Indeed, the same holds true for Psycho, made up as it is of visual set pieces whose “fascinating design” invites one’s contemplation “forever.” Andrew Sarris in his original review of Psycho called Hitchcock (in the Village Voice) “the most-daring avant-garde film-maker in America today.”
Hitchcock seems to have wanted Psycho to evoke corresponding motifs that manifest themselves in The Wrong Man—but by way of contrast. For one thing, both films have Vera Miles as a central character; she plays Lila Crane and Mrs. Rose Balestrero respectively. In addition, both films are black and white films flanked by Technicolor films produced before and after. Both films deal with insanity. One film, though terrifying, produces a number of big laughs; the other has no laughs at all. The Wrong Man seems to be inspired in part by the style of Italian neo-realist films such as Bicycle Thieves (1948) in its documentary-style shooting of travels by subway and through city streets. Were De Sica’s constant shots of the hat-wearing father’s marvelously anguished long face the inspiration for the lingering of Hitchcock’s camera on the long and pained face of hat-wearing Henry Fonda? As in Bicycle Thieves, the intense relationship between fathers and sons is a central motif in The Wrong Man. Perhaps Hitchcock was attempting to create a kind of film that was very different from the kind that’s usually associated with him. If so, one can see him returning to form in Psycho, as an acknowledgment of the cinematic limitations of The Wrong Man.
There are several specific moments in Psycho that I take to be allusions to The Wrong Man and that seem to serve as an expression of such an acknowledgment. The first involves Lila’s search through Mrs. Bates’s bedroom, where everything is old and old-fashioned, suggesting that Mrs. Bates is herself a figure for death itself, that hers is a dead world. Viewers will remember that when Lila (played by Vera Miles) notices a bronze sculpture of hands on Mrs. Bates’s vanity, the camera zooms in on the sculpture just as Lila sees in the vanity mirror her own back reflected from a mirror across the room. She gasps in fright, and the audience jumps. In The Wrong Man, while the two of them are in their bedroom in front of a mirror, Manny comes to realize that the ordeal of his being accused falsely of a crime has driven his wife Rose (played by Vera Miles) insane. When Manny moves to caress Rose, she picks up a hairbrush and strikes his forehead with it, drawing blood. As her wrist recoils from the blow, the camera cuts to a shot of the mirror reflecting Manny’s face just at the instant when the hairbrush hits the mirror and cracks it. What we see is the split reflection of Manny’s face, followed by a close-up of Rose’s face. Shortly after, she says, “You’ll have to put me somewhere.” The line will be virtually replicated by Norman with the words “put her in some place” in his conversation with Marion about his insane mother. Hitchcock seems to me to be using the two mirrors in Psycho reflecting Vera Miles’s image to recall the mirror split in half by Vera Miles in The Wrong Man as a way of showing that these two films are symmetrically paired as representing opposite approaches to the art of cinema. One last connection may be worth noting. In The Wrong Man, Hitchcock signals the miraculous exculpation of Manny by means of a lap dissolve from Manny’s face to the real criminal’s face (miraculous because the capture of the criminal occurs after Manny prays to a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). Hitchcock takes this heartfelt expression of sincere faith in The Wrong Man and turns it into a parallel moment in Psycho that is in contrast a witty bravura display of style. When in the police station Norman Bates finishes his internal monologue in the guise of his mother claiming that she is innocent and that it is Norman who is the guilty one, Hitchcock uses a lap dissolve of his grinning face turning into the face of his mother’s preserved corpse, which is then superimposed on the image of Marion’s car being pulled from the swamp. It is a sardonic joke between Hitchcock and the audience that always gets a laugh, and there is not a sincere bone in its body, nothing but the stylishness and wit of the visual gesture—the very opposite of the miracle in The Wrong Man.
If one searches for the main content in Psycho, one keeps running into dead ends. Various claims about what constitutes the core of Psycho have been proposed, but I believe none has proved persuasive. Some critics allege that Psycho critiques the materialism and false values of American middle-class society—motels, momism, the divorce culture, used car sales, real estate sales, conspicuous consumption, pill popping, police abuse, etc.—all of which Hitchcock jokes about but does not treat seriously. (No one walked out of Psycho thinking: this film has made me reexamine my view of some aspect of contemporary culture.) Manny Farber, who generally does not know what to say about films in which style is dominant, can only praise Psycho for the rich drabness of the interiors in which the characters find themselves. Thomson makes some gestures toward arguing that the film warns us about the “lies and limits” of the American Dream, but they are half-hearted. Other critics see either a feminist critique in the woman who asserts control over her destiny by stealing $40,000, or a misogynist strain in the killing off of the assertive heroine. Thomson leans toward the latter, but alternatively he describes the killing of Marion as growing “out of the unkindness of the world we have seen,” or yet again, he sees the killing “as passionate. This killer comes.” (Really?) No explanations of this sort account for the emotional power of the film nor its “overall visual impact”—which Hitchcock made it clear to Truffaut mattered most to him in all his films; neither do these general characterizations account for the achievement of the set pieces in the film: the hypnotic action of Marion’s packing her suitcase when the camera moves in mysterious sympathy, as if magnetically compelled to move as Marion does; her extended drive into the night toward the underworld of the Bates Motel; Norman performing the Elders spying on Susannah in the Bath; the murder in the shower and the subsequent mop-up; the sinking of the car in the swamp; the murder of the detective on the staircase; Lila’s eerie search through mother’s bedroom and Norman’s childhood room; and the final sequence in the cellar.
Thomson dwells on the opening sequence of the film as providing the signpost for rough, beastly things to come in cinema—the “orgy,” as he calls it—so let us reconsider those initial moments. The camera pans the Phoenix skyline in a series of dissolves, where each new image that is dissolved to is a kind of fractal of the image preceding it—that is, roughly the upper left (first) quadrant of the previous shot becomes the image subsequently dissolved to as the panning continues. In the last of the three dissolves, the camera also zooms in on the window of the hotel room where Sam Loomis and Marion Crane are coming to the end of their assignation. Hitchcock adds humor to the sequence by superimposing on the screen images the name of the city and state, the date, and the exact time of day—to the minute, the last always drawing a laugh from the audience because of its excessive and seemingly irrelevant precision. The sequence by any measure demonstrates a virtuoso visual style and narrative bravura, for the information given, that this is the room in all of Phoenix where our protagonists will begin to enact their drama, is wholly unnecessary to the narrative that follows. Hitchcock could have begun simply with the two lovers in the hotel room. But he did not because his purpose was not to represent the problems of illicit young lovers (except in the sense that he wanted to convey the tawdry humiliation of their circumstances), however up-to-date their behavior might be, and however daring it was and titillating to the audience it was to see Janet Leigh in her white brassiere. While I am on Janet Leigh’s brassiere, I note that Thomson displays a creepy obsession with that brassiere’s cup-size, offering his speculation on what size it might be: “(I’d guess a good 36 D cup.) But guessing is a fool’s romance.” Indeed, a fool’s errand. Thomson also refers to the thirty-three-year-old Janet Leigh’s having a “ripe carnal body.” It’s not certain what a “carnal body” might be, as distinct from a well-formed body. (Despite such observations, he seems perfectly comfortable calling attention to various rumors about Hitchcock’s putative sex life, judging such rumors as proof that that sex life was creepy.)
What probably mattered more to Hitchcock here was that in the composition of the scene between Sam and Marion in the hotel room, the opening shot places the actors in relation to one another as a vertical line juxtaposed with a horizontal one: Sam is standing up next to the bed while Marion is lying on the bed—still in her brassiere, oddly enough. In regard to verticals and horizontals, Truffaut notes how “pleasing to the eye” is Hitchcock’s “architectural contrast between the vertical house and the horizontal motel,” to which Hitchcock replies, “Definitely, that’s our composition: a vertical block and a horizontal block.” Hitchcock’s films often unify themselves around a particular graphic pattern such as this vertical/horizontal design. On Psycho as a manifestation of cinematic form, Hitchcock confided to Truffaut that he proposed this film to be a demonstration of the expressive power of cinema:
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 soundtrack and all 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. . . . 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. . . . Psycho, more than any other of my pictures, is a film that belongs to film makers, to you and to me.
What strikes one here is Hitchcock’s revealing to a fellow cinematic artist, in an almost conspiratorial way, his true intentions and his sense of what he was doing with Psycho. He did this piece of “pure film” for himself, for Truffaut, and for other artists of the cinema. In contrast, Thomson claims that for Hitchcock Psycho “was an act of insurrectionary defiance”—a claim that invites the question: shouldn’t an insurrection require some conscious intent? Perhaps Hitchcock just did not want word of his defiance to get around.
Moreover, while one can certainly see in Hitchcock’s remarks his characteristic tendency to abstract form, one can also see that the film draws on certain archetypal ideas as another source of its power to evoke terror in an audience. The figure of Mrs. Bates—old woman and mother—descends on Marion Crane in the shower, naked to her mortality, in the manner of an avenging angel, with eyes glimpsed as glaring through the torrential shower water (if you cannot discern them at normal speed, try running the DVD in slow-motion, and those eyes will stay with you forever). Mrs. Bates is at once the figure of everyone’s death, which can strike anywhere, anytime, relentless in her mechanically repeated and rhythmical down-strokes of the knife, and every child’s nightmare of the nurturing mother turned into the murderous mother, who having given life to the child retains the overwhelming power to take life away. As Norman says in his mother’s voice, “It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son.” (Gertrude announces to her son, Hamlet, in almost her first words to him in the play: “Thou know’st ’tis common, all that lives must die.”) The Wicked Witch of the West terrifies small children for this same reason. Like the father in Kafka’s “The Judgment,” Mrs. Bates is simultaneously sick/weak and unremittingly violent/strong. There are other films in which the villain or monster incarnates the impersonal and pitiless force of annihilating death—Jaws, for example—and there are films such as The Wizard of Oz where the villain/antagonist figures the bad mother, but no other film combines the two archetypal figures so seamlessly and so terrifyingly as Hitchcock does in Psycho. Anyone who saw Psycho as a child knows that the film’s secret source of terror is precisely the child’s fear that the mother will turn against the child, will turn from nurturer and nourisher to devourer and destroyer. Because of that secret source of terror, Psycho calls out from adults the fearful child within them, the unprotected child in us all. (The films that deliberately imitate Psycho, such as the Hammer Films production Crescendo , usually center on some disturbed mother who threatens to kill.)
Archetypal elements aside, one of the several set pieces in Psycho, the driving sequence, will illustrate Hitchcock’s meaning in his assertion to Truffaut about the achievement of his film in pure cinematic terms. In his set pieces, Hitchcock nearly always tends toward abstraction in representing human action, though always remaining within the canons of realism; he stylizes reality—even so mundane a thing as driving down a highway as darkness falls. Because he said it many times, we know that Hitchcock preferred a subjective camera; by this he had in mind a camera that does not show us merely what the character sees and then reacts to, but that functions so that through the particular way the camera sees what the subject sees, we are made to understand and identify with the subject’s feelings in the situation. But coexisting with this subjective emotional dimension, the evident stylization, the artificiality—shooting in a studio on a sound stage, shooting with back projection, and so on, because such procedures gave him greater control of what would fill up the blank rectangular screen—often has a methodical, almost mathematical, pattern as its structure. The sequence in Psycho in which Marion Crane drives from Phoenix, Arizona, to her lover in Fairvale, California, after she has stolen $40,000 and used $7,000 of it to trade in her car for a different one on a used car lot, lasts about four minutes, and a more ominous, disturbing, anxiety-inducing drive has never been put on the screen. During these four minutes, the time of day passes from bright midafternoon to a starless black night, the weather from airy sunshine to heavy rain. The headlights of oncoming cars turn into smears of blinding white light. During the first two minutes, the light thickens into darkness by degrees with each cut the camera makes from medium close-ups of Marion’s head as her hands alternately adjust themselves and grip the top of the steering wheel to shots of the road and oncoming traffic from her point of view. (If you want to see what distinguishes Hitchcock’s direction, compare this sequence to its counterpart in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 color remake of Psycho, where Anne Heche constantly blinks, grimaces, and fidgets during the ride in telling contrast to Janet Leigh’s almost unblinking eyes and subtly animated face.) The darkness becomes complete in the middle of Hitchcock’s sequence, and at that moment the rain begins to fall on the windshield, so that the second half of the sequence takes place during a blinding rainstorm, a driving rain that forces Marion to divert from the main highway onto the side road that takes her to her grim destiny at the Bates Motel.
The tendency to abstraction, however, goes beyond the collapsing of the six-hour passage of time by which day changes into night; it manifests itself in the patterning and duration of the shots that alternate between head shots and road shots, and in the patterning of the distance between the camera and Marion. In the first half of the sequence, as Marion imagines the comments and reactions of various characters to her crime, Hitchcock restricts the camera to medium close-ups (we see her head and shoulders as well as her hands on the wheel). These shots vary in length from ten to twenty-eight seconds; the length is dictated by the amount of imagined dialogue the script requires Marion to hear and react to. The alternating shots of the road are invariably two seconds. They form a rhythmic structure that accompanies the melody of Marion’s facial expressions and the voices she imagines in her head. As the sequence progresses it becomes more patterned—that is, more abstract. The shots of Marion ultimately become of the same duration as the shots of the road—two to three seconds each. The increased pace of the cutting expresses Marion’s growing anxiety about not being able to see the road through the darkness and rain. Now with each successive shot Hitchcock begins to move the camera a little closer to Marion’s face, so that he goes by stages from a medium close-up to a tight close-up. Here Hitchcock is following his own unbreakable rule: the bigger the emotion the bigger the close-up. The more afraid Marion becomes, the more closely the camera frames her, and the more closely we identify with her and her fear. Once Marion gets off the highway and away from the headlights of oncoming traffic, her anxiety begins to subside, an alleviation of intense feeling that Hitchcock has the camera enact by reversing the process of increasingly close shots of Marion: he moves the camera back from the tight close-up of Marion’s illuminated face through seven close-ups to two medium close-ups of her, where we can again see her hands on the steering wheel.
What I am calling here a tendency to abstraction is Hitchcock’s instinct, when he is faced with communicating or creating by cinematic means a powerful emotion, not to just let the camera sit still and watch an actor emote, but instead to organize the energy that arises from that interior emotion into an almost mathematical patterning of the cutting, lighting, and framing of the sequence’s actors and action so that the patterning approaches the condition of music, to which Walter Pater said all art aspires; indeed the emotion is erected and conveyed with maximum immediacy by the patterning. The shower murder, for another example, as Hitchcock told Richard Schickel (for the series The Men Who Made the Movies, 1973), “was forty-five seconds long, but was made up out of seventy-eight pieces of film,” or as he told Truffaut, that sequence required “seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage”—which means that Hitchcock cut up the reality into multiple glimpses, angles, framings, and visual juxtapositions, organizing the elements of an abstract representation of reality into a subjective experience of sudden, violent death.
In Ted Haimes’s excellent 1999 documentary, Dial H for Hitchcock: The Genius Behind the Showman, Brian De Palma (the most imitative of Hitchcock’s imitators) asserts that because Hitchcock “was always using the elements of cinema itself in its purest form,” directors “are always driven into areas that he has made the finest film in because it was the best idea, and he did it better than anybody.” In that same documentary, Norman Lloyd asserts that “Hitch had something that was only Hitchcock’s. It’s been imitated [but] never achieved by anyone who’s tried to imitate it. They can’t get that curious chemical mixture of suspense, of wit, of romance, of irony, of anxiety.” In Schickel’s documentary, the director complains that critics often pay attention only to the content of his films, ignoring the style altogether. He explains that a film director more interested in content than style is like “a painter worrying about whether the apples he’s painting are sweet or sour. Who cares? It’s his style, his manner of painting them. That’s where the emotion comes from.” Hitchcock defends his way of making cinema by insisting that content is essentially generated by style, and that style is expressive: it is what creates the emotion.
There is a strange allusion or homage to Hitchcock in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Early in the film, in one of the many chateaux where the enigmatic “action” of the film transpires, suddenly one seems to see Hitchcock standing next to an elevator, until one realizes that this is not actually Hitchcock but a life-size cardboard cut-out of the Master of Suspense. Marienbad was shot during the autumn of 1960 in various European locales, right around the time when Psycho was being released in England, France, West Germany, and the rest of Europe. Did Resnais see Psycho just before or during the Marienbad shoot? If not, then the representation of Hitchcock’s figure may be understood as allegorizing his general presence in French cinema. But if Resnais had seen Psycho, then the allusion in this film in which time and space become abstractions, in which intricate patterning seems to dictate the sequence of shots, in which mirrors and chandeliers dominate interiors and exteriors are sculpted gardens, in which unbounded subjectivity rules and form is dominant, would seem to signify Resnais’s recognition of Psycho, not as a cultural or sociological phenomenon, but as a work of “pure cinema,” which for Hitchcock meant creating a sequence of emotions through the dominance of style.
Peter Bogdanovich, The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1963).
David Thomson, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (New York: Basic Books, 2009).
François Truffaut (with Helen G. Scott), Hitchcock, Rev. Ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).