Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: A Review of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

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What better way to brighten up our days with a little catharsis?

I hope you all are doing well during these difficult times and I wish you a much better year. I hope the Jet Fuel Review blog will keep you company as we move quickly into February and to new horizons. For Spring 2021, my “Cinematic Syntax” will take a similar approach to what I have done in previous semesters. I will use a mixture of my in-class material and my own choices to construct pieces that reflect my judgement and taste in the form of reviews and analysis papers on film. For this semester, I am currently enrolled in two film courses: The Horror Film taught by Dr. Simone Muench and Classical Hollywood Cinema taught by Dr. Christopher Wielgos. My writing will most likely be from either of these classes, or I may change it up on occasion with films outside of these boundaries. If you are new to my blog, take a look around! I hope you enjoy of foreign cinema because that is my favorite. I make it my mission to give you well-reasoned and enjoyable material that gets you to think critically about the film we all watch. In addition to that, I curate other blogs for Jet Fuel Review and will continue getting content from a few bloggers to you all on a weekly basis. To that end, here is my review of Hitchcock’s horror-thriller classic, Psycho

*Spoilers Ahead*

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is as intriguing as it is dark. Often a sign of great art is its ability to transcend age and time— to be applicable and universal to humanity through time. I saw with Psycho exactly this. It was not perfect, some parts felt dated (not necessarily bad) but there were also parts that were artful and innovative, which has been, and is often part of my criteria for appreciating art. For Hitchcock, it seems as though his wit and artist status led him to claim Psycho as a “fun” picture, decrying those who watched Psycho without a sense of humor. I, for one, admire this way of looking at one’s own art, like a “captain-must-stay-on-a-sinking-ship mentality,” especially since Hitchcock’s film was so controversial at the time. For this controversy, It only seems right for him to ride on with the hysteria. It has been documented that Hitchcock feared his audience’s reception of Psycho because of Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom. The film ruined the British filmmaker’s career the same year, which evidently worried Hitchcock.

Even 61 years after its release, it feels as though the horror genre owes a great deal of debt to Hitchcock. Just watching any current horror movie is enough to evoke the “Master of Suspense” and his bag of tricks. Hitchcock and the dubbed “Hitchcockian” elements have been borrowed, reimagined, and often parodied in American pop culture, and are very interesting to examine. The appropriation of these devices and images—  the blonde heroine, the “macGuffin,” or the elevated suspense through filmic devices such as voiceover, close-up, and nondiegetic music—  are components of Hitchcock. For example, Psycho’s “macGuffin” could be seen as the $40,000 Marian stole. Initially, the audience begins with a Hitchcock crime-thriller. We follow Marian Crane, who steals $40,000 that she is meant to deposit. Her main motivation is her lover, Sam Loomis, who is in need of money for his debts. In this sense, the money serves as a plot device. It is an item that Marian seems reluctant to take, but does anyway, which leads her to the Bates Motel and to her untimely death. Although $40,000 is quite the sum, Hitchcock brilliantly reduces it to nothing when he kills off Marion. Credit: Universal

Going in blindly, we are led to believe that this film will strictly be about Marian Crane, as we are matched with her POV and hear voiceover, indicating that see is the main character. Hitchcock inverts the typical “crime genre” film by having us follow Crane (Janet Leigh), a recognizable star, who steals $40,000 just to end up at the Bates Motel and die an hour in. I believe this was unprecedented in film at the time. The recognition of the star, particularly in Hollywood cinema, but also beyond, was often a way to get mass-appeal and make sure the film would be financially successful. Hitchcock, with his own recognition as an auteur, may have felt safe in breaking the tradition because of his own status. The publicity of what a Hitchcock film is, may have compelled him to push the boundaries of his art. Although I may be imagining this as fact, I very much enjoyed this shock about the film. It took risks, which I feel produced results beyond Hitchcock’s anticipation. Similar to Hitchcock, in the same year, Michelangelo Antonioni would have Lea Massari disappear in the beginning of L’Avventura, who is another relevant star like Leigh. The willingness to experiment by these two auteurs seems to be indicative of a move into a more modern cinema. An aspect of Psycho I very much appreciate is its willingness to show aspects of humanity that one may feel is too taboo or controversial. The audience is forced to be in Norman Bates’ POV as he cleans up after the murder Marion Crane by “his mother.” Essentially, we are made complicit, even accomplices. This challenges some audience members’ morality, and asks: why would a person want to stay and enter the mind of Bates? This question, and many other questions take me to my conclusion that I may have unfairly labelled  Psycho as one of Hitchcock’s middle works when I first watched it. 

An aspect of the horror genre that is so pertinent when examining Psycho is the liberties a director and crew can take when they make a horror film. The taboos in society are free for the plucking, as the genre is meant to elicit fear and what is more horrifying than what society deems as unacceptable? Robert Bloch’s novel was what Hitchcock transposed into his film. Interestingly, the story of Ed Gein, “the butcher of Plainfield,” was Bloch’s and Hitchcock’s inspiration. A common fear illustrated by the use of Gein for the horror genre is the idea of being “hidden in plain sight.” In Psycho, the Sheriff is reluctant to further examine Bates as a suspect, which seems as a small-town mentality, where tight-knit communities protect their own. For Psycho, a particularly important motif I caught was the feeling of entrapment. Norman Bates, seemingly a normal motel owner and servant to his mother, is trapped in his position. He is indebted to his mother, although his true psychological issues are reveled to us during the psychiatrist monologue. A monologue which felt dated in some of its information, but I agree with film critic Robin Wood that it was ultimately necessary in fully fleshing out the psychology of Bates for the audience. Robin Wood in his essay “Psycho Analysis,”  describes Norman as, “an intensely sympathetic character, sensitive, vulnerable, trapped by his devotion to his mother-a devotion, a self-sacrifice, which our society tends to regard as highly laudable.” The idea of the “highly-laudable” comes back to what one might consider ordinary or “hidden-in-plain-sight.” The arrival of Marian is disruptive to the order, as she is a “Crane” mid-flight. In Robin Wood’s essay on Psycho, Wood states, “and secondarily as the trapped being’s desire to destroy a woman who has achieved the freedom he will never achieve.” Wood’s analysis of Bates’ motive ties to the idea that Bates is trapped within the boundaries of his home and the Motel. In the “Undying Monsters,” chapter of The Horror Film: An Introduction, Rick Worland speaks on images that connote entrapment such as cellars and tight spaces. For Bates, the cellar is where he hides his mother’s corpse (which Wood calls another clear symbol for sex). The decaying Victorian manor looming over the Bates Motel is an example of this use. An enormous house that Hitchcock repeatedly lingers on, indicating there are clearly secrets inside, such as Bates’ hidden secrets under his sensitive demeanor. 

What really struck me was Hitchcock’s reliance on the looming Victorian style house and interior furniture, which can be seen as Bates’ repression. This image calls back to the Victorian era— but also comments on the gradual decay of the mind in aged repression. The manor connotes Bates’ mind and his current situation. For me, the home is ominous as well as notably large and present. The looming home is there but not examined until the end— which connects to Ed Gein, a killer who dismembered victims and was a graverobber. Police found body parts all over his farm in rural Wisconsin, which came after Bernese Warden, a hardware store owner, went missing and an investigation began to search for her. In addition to that, the police, while searching his Wisconsin home, found a skin suit and pieces of furniture made of human remains. Gein, like Norman Bates at the end of the film, was put in Psychiatric institutions. In the essay, Wood reminds us of the dialogue between Marian and Bates. Bates states, “We’re all in our private trap. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch.” This tells of his psychology as well as his outlook on life. The fact that the “parlor scene” often has Bate’s taxidermied birds invading the frame is a telling indicator of both Marian’s fate but also Bates’ entrapment. For me, the use of this motif is done in multiple avenues and the full-scope and capabilities of the frame (mise-en-scene), as well as other cinematic devices. It is not simply dialogue that gets this point across. to further develop and make the dynamic and differences of Marian and Bates richer and more potent. I found this scene to be a perfect entrance into the shower scene, which, as Robin Woods calls, “her purification,” as Marian decides to return the money— only to be killed in the notorious shower scene. When unpacking “entrapment,” the film becomes a testament to humanity and the different realities one faces— psychologically or physically. 

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

Psycho is a film that I often label as a mid-of-the-pack Hitchcock film. However, after re-watching it and going into more depth, I feel there are layers that one may miss on the first or even second watch— as with many of the films I review. So, after this film experience, I would definitely recommend watching this horror classic. The subtle details make one re-examine some parts of the human experience. Hitchcock’s fluctuating POV, once to Marian then to Bates, is one of the ways it explores human psyche. The nature of humanity is on display, as Hitchcock implicates the viewer as a bystander. We are the reluctant Sheriff and the passive viewer. Even if we imagine ourselves taking risks to stop this killer, we would either not assume it or we would not act— the herd mentality, and our morals, are on display. The film allows us to examine ourselves while also acting as peeping toms or voyeurs. We become Bates as he looks into his peep-hole at Marian— unable to do anything about it. The ending scene, with Bates’ internal monologue, as his mother, seeps into the viewer’s soul. A striking eyeline match and superimposition of his dead mother taunts the viewer, as though we were able to save Marian Crane, but didn’t.

Psycho Official Trailer 1960 HD – YouTube

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.

Christian’s Bio:

Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.

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