Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
Analyzing a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock might look complicated if you don’t have an experience as professional writers from one of the best custom essay writing services. Although a broad range of critically acclaimed films such as Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest appear on the distinguished cinematic resume of director Alfred Hitchcock, none have become so popular and well-recognized as Psycho. A taut and highly suspenseful thriller that would forever mark Hitchcock as a director of horror and suspense, Psycho focuses on the tense psychology of its two principal characters: Marion Crane, a woman on the run with stolen money played by name star Janet Leigh and Norman Bates, the timid motel owner with a secret, played by theatrical sensation Anthony Perkins. While much has been made of the psychoanalytic content of the film, what is generally overlooked by casual analyses of the film is the extent to which it explores the pursuit of desire, and how that pursuit creates a great rupture between ideal self-image and real self-image.
Common wisdom places Psycho into classic Hitchcock tradition, that was subtly noticed by professional writers from cheap essay writing service, working within a long relationship with nerve-wracking suspense material. Hitchcock scholar Stephen Rebello (15-24) notes that the decision to make it his next production was motivated mostly by Hitchcock’s desire to avoid being branded as a formula director, despite the fact that his reliable success rate meant that he had Hollywood producers and movie going audiences eating out of the palm of his hand. Further adding to Hitchcock’s career anxiety was the recent spate of aborted projects such as Flamingo Feather and No Bail for the Judge, the number of directors who would attempt to hijack his style – Hitchcock is widely quoted to have ruefully said that “Self-plagiarism is style” – and the extent to which stars negatively impact his cinematic vision, never mind the rising salaries of the actors he had become accustomed to working with. This essay was performed under the framework of essay order.
Hitchcock’s decision to make Psycho, with a screenplay based on a relatively obscure novel by Robert Bloch, emerged from these circumstances. The plot, allegedly fashioned from the inspiration provided by real-life murderer Ed Gein, focuses on a young lady in a passionate sexual relationship who craves for the respectability of marriage and the socially awkward motel manager she meets in the middle of nowhere in Arizona. While defined by the relatively conventional trappings of whodunits, Psycho’s novelty stems largely from its working class setting – as opposed to the cosmopolitan worldliness of European mysteries or hard-boiled urban qualities of American noirs – and its compelling exploration of the psychology of its characters. It is therefore unique in that it presents the dark themes and contents of mysteries and suspense-thrillers in territory that is closer to home to the many Americans who do not live in metropolitan areas, let alone those who are unfamiliar with transcontinental settings. Rebello notes:
[Psycho] exposed the grinning skull beneath the rhythms and routine of the ordinary — workaday jobs, make-do relationships, dreams deferred, backwater locales [and] took place in a world much closer to the one in which most moviegoers lived. Having been born the son of an East End greengrocer in a second-floor apartment above the shop, Hitchcock was as much fascinated as horrified by that world. (Rebello 17)
Additionally, Hitchcock felt that it was important for his next film to evade what he perceived to be the fundamental shortcoming of mystery and suspense films, which is that they relied on an intellectual response. Hitchcock opined that “…emotion is the only thing that keeps my audience interested. I prefer suspense rather than surprise — something the average man can identify with. The audience can’t identify with detectives; they’re not part of his everyday life.” (Rebello 23)
Psycho opens with two lovers: Marion Crane, a realtor’s secretary is sleeping with Sam Loomis, a hardware store owner who struggles with his finances – he is burdened with alimony payments and family debts – but while Sam enjoys the illicit nature of their meetings, Marion wants to take their relationship to a level of public respectability, which would ostensibly culminate in marriage. Sam makes his financial position his excuse for not throwing himself into marriage with Marion. When a big oil man flaunts his wealth at the realtor’s office where she works, Marion steals his house purchase funds instead of depositing it at the bank, and it is from there that her troubles begin. Marion takes off from town, intent on using the money to alleviate Sam’s financial woes and erasing what she perceives to be the only obstacle to her desires. However, her entire journey is fraught with paranoia, doubt and self-loathing, as she struggles to reconcile her criminal deed with the respectable image she aspires to.
Allen (50-57) remarks that Psycho, like most of the films that Hitchcock has authored, present his ironic relationship with the romantic ideal. Hitchcock enjoys elevating and denigrating the experience of love, and Allen argues that by presenting this assessment within the same work and often at the same moment, Hitchcock successfully evades simple interpretations and it is the principal reason why critical perspectives – the number of which is nigh-infinite – of his oeuvre differ wildly. The primary means by which Hitchcock accomplishes this is through his use of suspense, which allows the audience to fear for the character, even as we question his or her motivations. In the case of Marion Crane, we are asked to empathize with her desires, but question her criminal act and it is by crafting such a massive rift between empathy and judgment, Hitchcock “[severs] the emotional responses to character from their customary moral anchor.” (Allen 55) As a result, the question audiences are forced to ask themselves is whether or not our emotional response to Marion is in line with a morally desirable outcome.
Rebello (19) notes that Hitchcock “fancied himself a connoisseur of abnormal psychology” and to that extent, Psycho fulfills Hitchcock’s self-image, most obviously through revealing that Norman Bates, the shifty motel manager expertly played by Anthony Perkins, is a thoroughly insane homicidal maniac. However, what is often overlooked is the degree to which Marion Cranes, the aforementioned woman on the run, is also suffering from psychological troubles of her own. Marion’s shadow is presented in ominous fashion in two consecutive scenes: at the office, her shadow trails behind her while at her place, her shadow enters before her, signifying her struggle with temptation. The shadow tries to follow her departure from the office, and the shadow’s entry into her quarters represents her impulse to give in to temptation, effectively signaling a darkness that has caught up with her.
Furthermore, Marion’s transition from desperate woman to remorseful sinner is symbolically marked by her undergarments: While her ample bosom is contained within white lingerie at the start of the film – symbolizing her desire for chastity, respectability and marriage – the lingerie she wears following her theft is black – symbolizing the taint of her criminal act, her turn to darkness – and it is interesting to note that in the story’s continuity, she has had no opportunity to change her undergarments in between scenes. Marion’s emotional reservations are also reflected by her surroundings: images of her family look down on her around her bedroom, almost as if in disapproval of her deed, the dark-tinted sunglasses of a highway patrolman reflect her guilt back at her and she obsessively looks at mirrors unconsciously scrutinizing her self-image and questioning her sense of self. Even her car is black and she trades it in at a used car lot for a model with a lighter color, as if to rid her self of the uncomfortable reminder of sin it represents.
In effect, Marion’s inner turmoil is directly linked with the disparity between her ideal self-image of innocence and respectability and the actual self-image of guilt and remorse. In the pursuit of her desire for respectability, Marion has committed a criminal act which she cannot put behind her. As a result, she finds it difficult for her to respect herself, and this is the source of her turmoil. She cannot reconcile her inner knowledge of the theft with her desire to perceive herself as an innocent and respectable woman. The paradox is that in order to realize her dreams, she has chosen to put herself at odds with them. Furthermore, by placing the audience on an intimate level of involvement with her plight, we are to empathize with her, but because Hitchcock enjoys using the camera to judge his characters with a distant cinematic gaze, audiences also judge Marion disapprovingly.
The unsettling mix of judgment and empathy reaches the most volatile point when Marion is killed. Her killer is later revealed to be motel owner Norman Bates schizophrenically acting out the desires of his imaginary mother. Norman represents Marion’s opposite: his desires are largely unfulfilled. Norman loathes his attachment to his mother – imaginary or real – but cannot bring himself to assert himself as something other than her son, as he feels that he is all she has left. However, by repressing his desire, he also fuses two distinct self-images together: a sexually unfulfilled adult man and an innocent mama’s boy have become one. It is a fusion that exists in addition to the didactic revelation that Norman’s personality battles with an imaginary mother.
It is unclear what Hitchcock would have to say about desire, as he spoke of his films and their themes only infrequently. However, Psycho is consonant with many of his previous works in that they critique the idealization of human relationships, not exclusively, but particularly romantic ones even as he celebrates them. What Psycho ultimately presents is that while human relationships form the ideals which we aspire to, humans will go to great lengths and sometimes be at odds with their own ideals in order to hold onto them.
Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam. 1960. DVD. Universal Home Video, 2008.
Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998. Print.
Allen, Richard. Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
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