After stealing money from her boss, Marion Crane drives out of town and stops at a motel off of the main freeway. There she meets Norman Bates, the young owner of the motel. Marion decides to return the money but is murdered before she can do so and Norman disposes of her body. Marion’s sister, Lila, and her lover, Sam, come looking for her along with a private detective, and together they uncover Norman’s intense relationship with his mother.
As with several Hitchcock films, Psycho has at the heart of its plot the violent abuse of a woman by a man and could be read as a misogynistic text. Through both the central character of Marion Crane and Norman Bates’ mother, women are represented as deceptive, manipulative, controlling and, from a male perspective, unfailingly unpredictable. The key passage in the film that has become one of the most famous scenes in the history of cinema – the shower scene – focuses in intimate detail on the brutal murder of a vulnerable woman. In a film often seen as the original ‘slasher’ movie this is the central action towards which everything prior to this leads and from which everything after it follows. The scene is graphic for the period – only being passed for viewing after well-documented tactical exchanges with the censors (and retaining one frame in which the knife penetrates flesh) (Rebello 1998: 145–6). Marion is ‘raped’ via Norman’s preceding voyeuristic act as well as through the use of the phallic dagger.
Adding to the disturbing nature of the attack is the fact that as a result of the preceding voyeuristic observation of the ‘prey’ the violence is clearly presented as sexually motivated. As an infant who the domineering mother has not allowed to develop into adulthood the discovery of a woman who rouses the sexual adult can lead it seems to only one outcome. Furthermore, from a ‘male’ perspective, as viewers we could be said to be implicated in the voyeurism, not only by sharing Norman’s view of Marion through the peephole in the previous scene but also as a result of any pleasure we may gain from viewing Janet Leigh as Marion in all her naked vulnerability in the shower prior to the attack.
On a first viewing the spectator would not be expected to see the attacker as Norman (although this would depend upon how much prior knowledge of the storyline has been gained from friends or background reading before coming to the film). On subsequent viewings the spectator’s involvement in the scene will essentially shift from the shock or surprise created as a result of the original restricted perspective on events to a sense of expectation attaching to our now omniscient knowledge of the narrative. Our identification with Marion (and hence our sympathy for her) should never be in doubt since it has been her and the events that have happened to her that we have followed from the beginning of the film. In the parlour we have heard her announce her intention to return to Phoenix to seek redemption and in the shower we have seen her symbolically washing away her guilt (so that she goes to her death with a restored sense of innocence). But, still, we do spy on her from Norman’s perspective, we do observe her in her nakedness beneath the shower, and we do experience the knife attack from the attacker’s perspective. The positioning of the viewer, whether male or female, via film construction, and more importantly the way in which that position is accessed and activated by the viewer, becomes critical for the individual’s reading of the shower scene moment.
If we move beyond the issue of whether or not this scene and this film might be said to be misogynistic, Psycho offers the possibility of an even more disturbing overall perspective. If the central image of woman is of someone at the mercy of voyeurism and physical abuse, the image of man in the form of Norman is of a creature at once vulnerable and weak while also being predatory and brutal. This is not presented as an unsympathetic portrait of a serial-killer; Norman is not seen simply and comfortingly as a monstrous aberration, on the contrary, in both his importance to the narrative and the achieved emotional impact upon the viewer his presence completely overpowers the role of Sam as the conventional heroic Hollywood male. John Gavin (Sam) has a cardboard cut-out of a part that reflects not just Hitchcock’s lack of interest in (and therefore, weak focus upon) this aspect of the narrative but more fundamentally the shift of attitudes within society away from confident idolisation of the ‘good guy’ hero towards an almost mesmeric fascination with the darkness existing just beneath the veneer of civilisation. This may be too simplistic in that films and filmmakers have always shown an interest in darker characters but to see Psycho within the context of a loss of faith in John Wayne-style heroes at least moves us towards considering this film within a wider social context rather than as a simple expression of the vision of Hitchcock the auteur.1
Furthermore, if the image of man that is presented could be said to be as bleak as that of the brutalised woman, the image of male-female relationships hardly reinforces the concept of the ‘American Dream’. The opening scene makes the bitter failure of Sam’s first marriage clear; and in the next scene the best Cassidy can do for his daughter, even with all of his money, is to buy off unhappiness. Moments of pleasure, like that of Sam and Marion in the hotel room, it seems have necessarily to be obtained surreptitiously and against society’s wishes. The social institutions of marriage and the family are placed under intense scrutiny. In the opening scene, despite the context of the illicit hotel rendezvous, Marion actually demonstrates her allegiance to an idealised notion of marriage that she aspires to attain seemingly at any cost. Ironically, the moment at which she realises that the false allure of this socially constructed norm can lead you into a trap is the point at which, because of her innocent openness towards another being, her fate is sealed. The central theme of life as a process that constantly ensnares people into traps from which (it seems) they find it impossible to extricate themselves is made clear in this scene in the parlour between Norman and Marion. Norman’s entrapment and its origin within a ‘family’ comprising an absent father and domineering mother is given powerful visual representation in the final haunting superimposition of the mother’s face over his.
Depending on your perspective Psycho (as with Hitchcock’s wider body of work) can be seen to be underpinned by either a murky, unforgiving view of life or an entirely realistic view of humanity. It seems as if everybody has guilty secrets; even Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) in the early office scene, hemmed in by a husband and a mother who continually check-up on her (effectively at the mercy of family and marriage) has a secret supply of tranquilisers that help to make her life bearable. Each character is motivated by self-interest or uncontrollable desires, or a combination of the two. Civilised behaviour is no more than skin deep. The killer is in our midst but cannot be easily detected. In a parody of the supposed best aspects of a civilised society Norman offers hospitality and friendship but this it seems is a cover for the savagery that is just below the surface, a savagery nurtured within the most cherished institution of Western civilisation. The psychiatrist may offer the conventional comforts of the Hollywood resolution that has an authoritative male figure demonstrating a reassuringly controlled understanding of events, but we do not end on this note, we end with not only the image but the haunting words of the absent presence of Hitchcock’s caricature of cherry-pie ‘mom’.
From the beginning the examination of contemporary US society has been clear. We open with Marion and Sam taking part in an extramarital relationship in a cheap downtown hotel that rents rooms by the hour during the middle of the day. This might focus on individuals but it is about the condition of a whole society. Sam feels trapped by his life as Marion does by hers. The temptation to transgress social boundaries of acceptable behaviour is present for each character. And we are not left out of the equation; we have our position as voyeurs very clearly marked out us from the outset by the elaborate opening camera movement that slips us in through the partially open hotel window to view a couple’s intimate behaviour and listen in on the personal details of their lives. From scanning the city skyline we are taken in beneath the surface of society to view just one example of the lives being played out everywhere.
When Norman leads Marion into his parlour behind the reception area of the Bates Motel editing emphasises the stuffed birds. There is the predatory owl in mid-swoop followed by the ominously sharp-beaked shadow of a crow, a harbinger of death (or perhaps a raven even more strongly associated with the gallows in English. Owls are clearly associated with hunting and the eating of flesh: crows (and even more so ravens) with being meat-eating scavengers but also as capable of dispatching defenceless, unsuspecting prey. The pheasant positioned behind Norman symbolises a species bred purely for the purpose of being ritually slaughtered. Meanwhile Marion nibbles thoughtfully on bread and milk, a nurturing food associated with mothering and helping the young and otherwise weak. Nor should we miss the paintings of classical nudes on the walls: the female body displayed in all its naked vulnerability before the essentially male gaze. Norman wrings his hands, lurches between one position and another (‘I say I don’t mind, but I do’), leans forward to seemingly take Marion into his confidence, leans back as she retreats from his position of confidentiality, and finally moves from nervous smile to aggressive confrontation. Marion perches on the edge of her chair, her body posture and arms in a tight defensive position as she weighs her words thoughtfully. What is said makes it clear that Norman’s and Marion’s positions are effectively metaphors for the general state of being experienced by us all.
1. Writing about Notorious Chopra-Gant suggests that when considering Hitchcock’s work it is important to consider the ways in which ‘the films register contemporaneous discourses that articulate key social anxieties of their historical moment’ (Chopra-Gant 2005: 361). His point in relation to Notorious is that moral decline is being linked to the absence of parental authority during the early post-war period and maternal domination, or ‘momism’, to the infantilisation of men.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Shamley Productions. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Screenwriter: Joseph Stefano (from a novel by Robert Bloch). Music: Bernard Hermann. Cinematographer: John L. Russell. Editor: George Tomasini. Cast: Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Martin Balsam (Arbogast).]
Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a personal biography, London, Simon and Schuster, 2005. Mike Chopra-Gant, ‘Absent fathers and ‘moms’, delinquent daughters and mummy’s boys: envisioning the postwar American family in Hitchcock’s Notorious’, Comparative American Studies Vol. 3, No. 3, 2005, pp. 361–75. Raymond Durgnat, A Long Hard Look at Psycho, London, BFI, 2002. Janet Leigh and Christopher Nickens, Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, New York, Wings, 2005. Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Chichester, Wiley, 2003. Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, London and New York, Marion Boyars, 1998. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, London, Plexus, 1983.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.