Exclusive Guest Article
By: Ken Mogg
This article is the third in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’
“Sam keeps Norman talking while Lila sneaks into the house to explore … As we can’t make up our mind whether the danger is coming from in front of her (Mom) or from behind her (Norman) … we yield to a helpless hysteria.” —Raymond Durgnat (Inside Norman Bates, Focus on Hitchcock, 1972)
EXACTLY! RAYMOND DURGNAT’S CLASSIC essay about Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho (spoiler warning: read no further if you haven’t already seen it) shows how well he understood the director’s capacity to outflank his audiences. Here are other examples: About the enthralling sequence of Marion Crane’s long drive with $40,000 stolen from her employer, Durgnat notes her two contrasting encounters. “The cop is saying, ‘I remind you of punishment: turn back!’ the garage hand, ‘I make crime pleasant and easy, go on.'” And again, after motel proprietor Norman Bates has cleaned up the scene of Marion’s murder in her shower by his homicidal Mother and disposed of the body in a nearby swamp, we are torn. Such filial protectiveness! “The spectator’s moral purity,” writes Durgnat, “is being outflanked at both ends—by morbid, pornographic interest, and by a sympathetic pity for charming Norman.”
Durgnat clearly sees how the initial conversation between Norman and the private detective Arbogast works. “In the battle of wits between [them] we sympathize with them both — Marion must be avenged … yet Norman’s motives are [seemingly] selfless …” Even so, Hitchcock has planted a hint of Norman’s more formidable side. Conversing with Marion, Norman leans forward, his eyes blazing angrily, and accuses her, “You mean [put Mother in] an institution, a madhouse?” Already he seems driven to protect his mother, even as next moment he admits, revealingly, that he had considered putting her away. “But,” he adds, “I hate to even think about it.” As critics have said about Psycho and Hitchcock, the director doesn’t cheat — just lets us leap to our wrong conclusions. About how nice Norman is, for example!
Initially, Durgnat isn’t complimentary about Hitchcock’s audience. “In Psycho nothing that isn’t disturbing or tainted ever happens, and to enjoy it (as most people do) is to stand convicted, and consciously convicted, of a lurking nostalgia for evil …” In the end, though, we arrive at “an unsentimental compassion towards insanity.” (The philosopher Schopenhauer claimed that humans are driven by an impersonal, non-rational force—which Psycho surely implies—and advocated an ethics of compassion to countermand it. He termed this ubiquitous force “Will”. Durgnat, for his part, sees Psycho as showing “the brutal Will of destiny”, implicit in Bernard Herrmann’s score and whose personification is the police patrolman, inscrutable behind his dark glasses.1)
At the same time, Herrmann’s score represents subjective dread, both the characters’ (especially Marion’s, on the road) and ours. Dread is fear, or, more specifically, a fear of what one nonetheless desires.2 Marion feels compelled to steal a wad of unmarked $100 bills (whose obnoxious owner had tempted her by remarking, “I never carry more than I can afford to lose”) in order to flee her job and marry boyfriend Sam. Once on the road, the dread starts to beset her. The pounding score alternates with a “yearning” music, for both of which the ubiquitous strings are well-suited.
To appreciate how Hitchcock and Herrmann are able to intimate a great deal in a short space—as they do—we need look no further than the credits sequence. It starts with the obligatory Paramount logo shown in a chilling black-and-white image incorporating horizontal lines and total silence. Never has that familiar snow-covered mountain top been more functional!3 A momentary fade to black follows, then a dark grey screen appears. After a beat, Herrmann’s skittering yet pounding music announces itself and the screen is invaded by sets of horizontal black bars which come and go, regularly uncovering white titles underneath, starting with the words “ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S” and then “PSYCHO.” Sometimes the clusters of horizontal bars give way to sets of vertical ones. Meanwhile, the successive titles shatter, and are wiped or seemingly pushed from the screen by the hostile bars. There’s a certain symmetry to all of this, but it’s hard to define — as I’m sure the filmmakers intended. Saul Bass’s description of his work on the titles for Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) comes to mind: the image of a “jagged” arm “expressed the jarring, disjointed existence of the drug addict.” Mutatis mutandis, the Psycho titles anticipate the psychosis of Norman Bates — and, to an extent, of us all. (“We all go a little mad sometimes”, Norman will say.) The blocks of vertical lines resemble city buildings, and at the end of the sequence dissolve to a real cityscape of Phoenix, Arizona.
The black bars will return at the very end of the film (after its final image of the turgid swamp) to obliterate everything. Nihilism anyone?! The question arises of how exactly Psycho manages to exhilarate most viewers. Here’s Durgnat again: “People [who have just seen Psycho] leave the cinema chuckling incredulously, groggy, exhilarated yet hysterical, half-ready to believe that everybody in the world is as mad as Norman.” Hitchcock, with his mastery of subjective cinema in which onscreen events mirror the mind-state of characters and/or viewers (the expressionist Marnie provides a classic example) well understood that none of us knows anything “objectively.” (That was certainly Schopenhauer’s thesis. We can’t comprehend Will, only it’s Representation/s.) Finally, having been put through the wringer by the film, which was an avowed aim of Hitchcock’s, i.e., full audience involvement, and an outcome of his subjective techniques, we heave a sigh of relief that Norman has got what he deserved. Well, it’s ambiguous! But at least we’ve been given a scapegoat!
As noted, what follows the credits sequence is a view of a city, with the camera gradually descending and slow-zooming into the space between a partially-open window and its sill, then into a darkened hotel room behind it. That image soon lightens, as if our eyes were adjusting to the gloom, and we see that a couple – Sam and Marion – have been making out on a bed. Successive titles have set the scene: “PHOENIX, ARIZONA”, “FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH”, “TWO FORTY-THREE P.M.” Each block of words has slid onto the screen from the side, then off again, just as the black bars did earlier. The fact that the words are all in capitals adds to the block-impression. The precision of date, place, and time is like an apt joke on Hitchcock’s part, no doubt evoking the police procedural Dragnet which had just finished its decade-long run on American TV (1951-1959; revived in 1967). The viewer feels another frisson of excitement to come. The track/zoom beneath the slightly-raised hotel bedroom window in order to show something illicit, i.e., love-making at lunchtime, troubles us not at all! We have paid our admission precisely to experience some vicarious thrills, and here are two Hollywood stars effectively doing our bidding! Carry on, Hitchcock and cast!
Of course, we have arrived too late for actual intimacy. Hitchcock allows us to see just enough necking to stir us; he’ll gratify us with a different excitement later in the film. He was well aware that “suspense” is analogous to sex. Psycho‘s early scenes are effectively about sexual frustration and prelude the images of the mother-dominated Norman spying voyeuristically on Marion. Director Richard Franklin (Psycho II) told me that Hitchcock regretted not being able to imply that Norman was masturbating as he watched Marion take her shower. Note too that there’s a relative “shortage” of women in the supporting cast of Psycho. Certainly, none of them is any match, photographically, for Janet Leigh’s Marion! There’s mousy Caroline in the real estate office where Marion works; there’s Vera Miles as Lila, whom for some reason Hitchcock dressed as dowdily as he could (though he had considered casting her as Madeleine in Vertigo!); and there’s the sheriff’s wife, for whom matters of the bedroom are, at most, to be whispered about. Interestingly, Psycho‘s several males, excluding Tony Perkins’s Norman, tend to be declamatory, and their virility is not in question. Hitchcock seldom left us uncertain about our allegiances. (Incidentally, I value Sheriff Chambers’s hearty enunciation of “Ar-bo-gast”!) By contrast, Norman is a charming conversationalist, once he gets going! (His opening gambit to Marion, “You eat like a bird!”, is a bit lame — but quite in character, given his boyish disposition!)
Visuals and Screenplay
Just as artfully employed are the film’s visuals. The road scenes, and the Bates Motel, continue the horizontal-lines motif of the credits; the tall buildings of Phoenix, the old house behind the motel, the Fairvale Church with its spire, and the courthouse with its columns, feature vertical designs, again recalling the credits. Marion’s drive to California offers a slice of Americana to go with the reference to “many motels in this area” by the patrolman — shades of Edward Hopper’s 1957 painting “Western Motel”, whose dreary rolling hillside visible through a window is a likely influence.4 Marion’s trip provides a rough parallel to, say, the road scenes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962); pessimistic later films like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1970) and Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) may be seen as likewise drawing on and contributing to such a road genre.
Something I hugely admire is the Psycho screenplay by the young Joseph Stefano. Himself in psychotherapy at the time (as I remember reading in Stephen Rebello’s richly rewarding Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, 1990), he had a remarkable ear for dialogue and a resourcefulness that quickly earned him Hitchcock’s gratitude. The scene in Sam’s hardware store with the lady buying the pesticide is very clever. The lady reads the label on the can: “They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world …” The idea of mass extermination of “every insect” already sounds excessive, but she keeps going. “But they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless …” Well, that’s as maybe! Is it to the point, though?! Do insects feel pain?! Then comes the topper. “And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless!” Her solicitude sounds somewhat misplaced. What exactly does she mean by “should always be painless”? She’s not talking of war, one assumes. (So much for her “always”.) Perhaps she’s talking of executions?! The deliberate killing of a human being — in which, apparently, she will have a say! (During all of this, the dull, adenoidal shop assistant says nothing.) No doubt the point of the scene, structurally, is that it comes within minutes of the bloody killing of Marion in her shower by Mother. The lady customer’s concern for pain-free death strikes a humane note, but she has no inkling of what has occurred up the road at the Bates Motel. Her opinion can’t help but seem inadequate in the face of what the audience has just witnessed. On the other hand, as a piece of “light relief”, it is perfectly judged — like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth which follows hard on the bloody murder of Duncan by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
Stefano had an excellent ear for repetition and other verbal mannerisms (like Norman’s stutter — though that may have been Tony Perkins’s own contribution). Caroline’s willing diffidence, for example: “Teddy called me; my mother called to see if Teddy called. Oh, your sister called to say …” Or the mad cunning of Norman’s seeming acceptance when he has finally become his Mother: “They’ll see and they’ll say, and [pause] they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly!'” Or Sam’s repeated disgruntled reference to his “sweating” to pay alimony.
Then there is the film’s motif of impatience, of not being able to wait. The two sisters are its embodiment. As Lila says, “Patience doesn’t run in my family.” When Sam announces to her that’s he’s going out to the motel, and that she should stay behind, she complains, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Just sit here and wait?” (“Yeah!”, he responds.) Marion’s impatience to get married is the wellspring of Psycho. Wryly, she tells the stolid Sam, “They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.” She means, apparently, that she feels demeaned by having to have their rushed trysts at lunch-hour. (She will be paying in another way before long, the $40,000 not availing her.) Curiously, her phraseology echoes John Milton’s famous line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It’s another example of the resourceful Stefano’s ability to inject poetry—literally or in effect—into his screenplay.
Psycho is full of little hints and prolepses that lead us on, invoking our curiosity and promising pay-offs. In effect, it is built on the principle enunciated by Freud for telling tendentious, i.e., risqué, jokes: establish a suitable mood, protract the listener’s wait for the punch-line, include lesser climaxes along the way that serve as foreshadowing. One classic Hitchcockian prototype was the amusement park sequence in Strangers on a Train (1951). Recall its river-caves sequence where Bruno begins to stalk Miriam, intending to kill her. His boat follows hers, in which she and her boyfriends are fooling around. In the darkness, we hear a girl scream, but it’s a false alarm — girls do squeal when having fun with their young men! Bruno is biding his time. Relentlessly he tracks her, even allowing her to notice him and giving her a come-on. (The trampish Miriam is happy to flirt back.) The group, including Bruno, crosses the park’s lake to its Island of Love where various couples are making out on the sloping grass. The licentious mood is now pronounced. When Miriam briefly becomes separated from the boys — she may even have engineered it to give Bruno his chance — he moves in for the kill, literally. In Psycho, the structure is punctuated by at least three shocking climaxes with frequent little prolepses, including musical cues (read on). Durgnat is perfectly correct when he says that the cumulative effect reduces us to a helpless hysteria! By the final scenes, we are sufficiently worked up and almost pleading with Hitchcock to deliver his coup de grace.
One of the director’s unfailing techniques was to work closely with Bernard Herrmann to arouse audience expectations, then relax the tension for a time. (There is a rhythm of suspense.) The score contains any number of ascending and descending passages, intimations of what this film is capable of, and what it will deliver, again and again, and again, i.e., its three main climaxes. Likewise, the script titillates us with little references that are only explained later. Norman refers to his mother’s involvement with a man, after her husband died, who “could have talked her into anything”. Only, when he died too, it was “just too great a shock”. “And,” adds Norman, “the way he died …” He trails off and changes the subject. Later we find out that the shock was Norman’s as much as his mother’s. (In fact, her intention to re-marry had already, in the psychiatrist’s words, “pushed him over the line” and he “killed them both”.) When Lila and Sam go to visit Sheriff Chambers, he mentions in passing “that bad business out [at the Bates Motel] about ten years ago.” Our ears prick up, but we have to wait until given a further clue about how “Norman’s mother has been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for the past ten years”. Confused, we still don’t know the details of “that bad business out there.” Finally, the Sheriff describes what he calls a murder-suicide: “Mrs. Bates poisoned this guy she was involved with, when she found out he was married, then took a helping of the same stuff herself. Strychnine.” (Clearly, the police concluded that gentle Norman had nothing to do with it!) And again, when in an overhead high long-shot, already used for the murder of Arbogast, Norman carries Mother downstairs, we hear her protest at being taken to the fruit-cellar: “You hid me there once, boy, and you won’t do it again, not ever again.” Again confused, we wonder to what occasion she is referring. Only when the psychiatrist clears up matters at the end — in a necessary scene that has been, I think, unfairly maligned5 — do we hear that Norman substituted a weighted coffin for his mother’s body, and, drawing on his taxidermy skills, kept the treated body in the cellar.
There’s a metaphysical truth underpinning Psycho, giving it weight. In 1960, after completing the film, Hitchcock told an interviewer: “Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.” The film’s psychiatrist speaks of reality coming “too close” to Norman, pushing him over the line into madness. Which is tantamount to saying that Norman represents something in all of us. Compare again Schopenhauer’s assertion that we are all bound in subjectivity, that we cannot know the one Will (though we may, he thought, sense it working in, and through, us), only its manifestation in endless Representations. But is your set of Representations ultimately any more real than mine?!
Generally, Hitchcock’s films draw a lot of their suggestive power from what I’ll call their Vague Symbolism.6 I’m thinking, for example, of the role Hitchcock assigns to Psycho‘s stuffed birds (an owl with outspread wings, a perching crow, a pheasant). And why, for that matter, is Norman himself given bird-like gestures (arms spread out, or twice “flapping” his upraised palm at Marion as if to say, agreeably, “Don’t trouble yourself!”). As noted, he tells Marion in that same scene, “You eat like a bird!” Later, Mother defends herself by putting all the blame on Norman: “As if I could do anything but just sit and stare like one of his stuffed birds.” Even Marion, at the end of the parlor scene, as she leaves to go to her room, trails her arm behind her like a wounded bird. Hitchcock loved such visual poetry, using images – “pure cinema”, he often called it – to say things beyond the everyday power of words to evoke. You might say that he was suggesting parallels between the diversity of the bird realm and the human realm — both have their aggressors and their victims, for example – and again Schopenhauer comes to mind, for his insistence that there is an unbroken continuity between humans and animals: all are part of Will (roughly, the life-force).
Here’s a different form of repetition, which may again suggest the life-force: again and again in the early scenes, Marion’s wide eyes are highlighted, as when, catching up after her lunchtime assignation with Sam, she applies make-up at her desk in the office. Then, when she goes on the road, we are again treated to those same eyes, belonging to the vivacious Janet Leigh. Gradually, though, the glare of the road, and — after night descends — the oncoming headlights of other cars, take their toll, and Marion’s eyes narrow. At one moment, she seems in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Precisely then, the illuminated “Bates Motel” sign looms up and, fatefully, Marion pulls in. Marion’s murder in her shower — occasioning unprecedented shock and horror for the audience — is aptly underlined by a bravura cut from an extreme close-up of blood running down a plughole to a view of her now lifeless eye, then an incredible sustained pull-back to take in the bedroom and the unattended money, concealed in a folded newspaper. Then on to the open window and a view of the tall house behind the motel. From one of its windows, presumably, the one where we saw Mother pacing when Marion first arrived in the rain (a sound now replaced by that of the still-running shower in Marion’s cabin), comes the voice of Norman: “Mother! Oh God! Mother, mother! Blood, blood!”
In some ways, the wordless scene where Norman, the good, dutiful son, cleans up the shower stall and bath (and, at the last minute, heedlessly tosses the newspaper concealing the stolen money into the boot of Marion’s car alongside her body wrapped in a shower-curtain — a grim parallel there), then sinks the car in the nearby swamp, is my favorite scene in Psycho. (Another is the entire road sequence. Another is Norman and Marion’s conversation.) Here, too, there’s an echo of Macbeth, as when Lady Macbeth says, dismissively and almost facetiously, “A little water clears us of this deed!” Only, Hitchcock wants to underline his grim situation in a cinematic way, at the same time giving us a “breather” after all that has just happened. Once Norman has stowed Marion’s body in the boot, he returns with a mop and pail to clean up. In a “prelude” that signals what will follow, he washes his bloodied hands in the basin. The music has gone high and eerie. His movements are rapid and efficient: no namby-pamby dabbing for Norman. Then he moves on to the bigger task of cleaning up the entire shower stall and bathroom. Again he does the job efficiently, and we watch, riveted. By now, the music is performing little swirling movements of its own in apt curlicues that seem to chase each other, maintaining the eeriness. In retrospect, we can appreciate that they are already evoking the title of the film, a mind that is unhinged (no wonder that Norman had spoken of his dislike of “creepy smells”).
But that’s enough. Psycho is primarily a film to be seen — and lived through. In North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock had Thornhill say, near the end, “I never felt more alive!” It’s the journey that Hitchcock offers us, that is so rewarding. Over and again!
- Too dogmatic? By Durgnat’s own description, the agreeable car-dealer California Charlie is part of what constitutes the Will that impels us all. (After all, Will is ubiquitous.)
- Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread defined Dread as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy”.
- Leading the way, Saul Bass’s opening titles for North by Northwest (1959) incorporated a stylised MGM lion roaring against a sinister green background.
4. Hitchcock acknowledged his admiration for Hopper’s paintings — among which, of course, is “House by the Railroad” (1925), a palpable model for the Psycho house.
- Employing a culinary metaphor, someone has said that many reviewers and critics appear to “have never been in the kitchen” — meaning, they’ve not considered every aspect of what it takes to prepare a balanced and satisfying meal.
- I don’t mean the elusive “figure in the carpet” of an author’s work, as incorporated in the title of Henry James’s novella (1896) to which Penelope Houston referred in her denigratory article on Hitchcock in the Autumn 1963 Sight and Sound. But nor do I mean a simple symbol like the final image of North by Northwest (a train entering a tunnel) which Hitchcock admitted was a phallic symbol!
Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999, revised 2008) covers every film “in loving detail” (Bill Krohn). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on “Hitchcock’s Literary Influences” for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (Wiley Blackwell 2011, 2014), and an essay on “The Cutting Room” in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012).