The fragile nature of the civilized mind and of civilization—particularly, the fragile nature of the American mind; the fragile nature of American civilization: Alfred Hitchcock explored these interlocking themes in one of his most famous films, Psycho, cinema’s preeminent black comedy. Thus Hitchcock exploits two interlocking ideas for the pertinent resonances that they impart to these themes: the southwestern desert—the sands upon which are built the seemingly firm though unsteady trappings and indications of civilization; the very idea of the American West, where the American quest—a people’s aspiration for freedom—yields to the compromise of a frontier’s exhausted territory, which insists that a civilization be built, making of this advancement the repository of enormous dismay and ambivalence. (The issue of private gun ownership is largely a political application of this ambivalence.) In American cinema, Psycho is the great work to deal with this rich and essential material.
As is sometimes the case with Hitchcock’s films, thematic inquiry comes cloaked in a technical challenge. In Lifeboat (1944), Hitchcock restricted the action to a single set—a heavily populated lifeboat after an American ship is torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War II; but with great visual irony this one setting is in constant motion on water, creating a metaphor for war’s certain struggle and uncertain outcome, its rigid definitions and yet rulelessness. Thus the technical challenge yields an artistic and meaningful result. Again, Hitchcock set a limit for himself with Rope (1948), creating a suspense film, again limited to a single set, that appears to consist of a single shot, in order to stress the psychological, hence, social connection of a college professor, the guest of two students based on Leopold and Loeb, whose Nietzschean ideas have inspired the boys to commit murder. All the while that the filmmaker may plead, “I will do this to see if I can,” then, he is finding the means to focus on the relationship between ideas and actions and between an accepted society and unacceptable individuals in that society.
Psycho is another such film for Hitchcock—one in which he set for himself a technical challenge, in this case, to see—after the big-budget North by Northwest (1959)—if he could execute a big-screen project utilizing the small, inexpensive means he was currently employing for his weekly black-and-white TV anthology series. But this “challenge” is in itself a metaphor for the theme of the film, for it translates into the experience of filmmaking the very limits that occur to the aspiration for freedom—in this case, artistic aspiration—when a frontier promising new territory becomes a back-end, a hard limit. Here, therefore, is one of those remarkable instances in art where the technical execution itself comes to embody the thematic result.
Who doesn’t know the story of Psycho? Marion Crane, a young woman who works for a Phoenix, Arizona, real estate firm, is in love with Sam Loomis, to marry whom she steals from her employer a large sum of his client’s cash that she is supposed to deposit in the bank. On her way to Loomis’s small town in California, in the dark and rain she inadvertently slips off the main highway and onto a back road that in fact used to be the main highway, finding there a forlorn, barely functioning motel run by Norman Bates, who lives in a Gothic house on top a hill with his elderly, invalid mother. She and Bates chat over sandwiches in his motel office, leading to Crane’s decision to go home, return the money and face the legal consequences. Jealous, the boy’s mother stabs the guest to death in the shower, and her son dutifully takes up the task of cleaning up. Ignorant of its existence, this includes tanking the stolen money in a swamp, along with the corpse and its car. Lila, Crane’s sister, joins forces with Loomis and a private detective to locate Marion, resulting in the murder of the detective, again by Bates’s mother, and unraveling the mystery: Bates’s mother died years ago, probably at his hand in bed with her lover, and Bates, schizophrenic as a result, has periodically “become” Mother in denial of her death.
Joseph Stefano’s clever, though by no means polished script is based on a novel by Robert Bloch, which in turn is based on an actual criminal case. Serial killer Eddie Gein was arrested in 1957 in his Plainfield, Wisconsin, farmhouse, which turned out to be a “death farm,” a run-down scene of decomposed and decomposing corpses, nearly all female, including that of Gein’s mother, who had died twelve years earlier—his brother had died the year before that—and whose head he had cut off. Some of the bodies belonged to people Gein had murdered, while others had been dug up from graves; all, however, were mutilated. According to Courtroom Television Network’s web site, “The lampshades and wastebasket were made from human skin,” and a “ghoulish inventory began to take shape: an armchair made of human skin, female genitalia kept preserved in a shoebox, a belt made of nipples, a human head, four noses and a heart.” Postwar, when a cardinal purpose of the United States was to expand the middle-class by adding returning G.I.s and their families to its ranks, Gein, whose existence the federal government was subsidizing, represented those in the process of being left behind. His is a pathological case, to be sure—but one that comes equipped with a still resonating social context.
It is a context as much American as it is American at a particular time. The theme of loneliness as somehow peculiar to American lives is central to the American experience. In the nineteenth century, visitor Tocqueville, noting the absence in America of the family as a powerful institution, of the kind it is in Europe, nevertheless felt that the community of sociable associations created a viable replacement. But does it? Certain forces compel American loneliness: the idea of rugged individualism as a character goal worthy of especially male pursuit, the suspiciousness, hostility and competitiveness this pursuit fosters, and the wide spaces separating groups and individuals, isolating many, in the rural American landscape. Ironically, it is little different in towns and even cities, where the self-alienation fostered by a socioeconomically competitive environment urges individuals in closer, even cramped quarters each to withdraw into himself or herself. In the first quarter of the twentieth century thus emerged an American literature of loneliness: Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic Spoon River Anthology, Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—works that often found a small American town little defense against the solitudinous land seemingly stretching to infinity just beyond its borders. The characters in these and related works—Carson McCullers would inherit their psychological territory—often lead, in some sense, hidden lives; some are idosyncratic, while others are aberrant. But this almost misses the point towards which such works inevitably tend: namely, that idiosyncrasy, even aberrance, identifies the mainstream in America, a nation largely consisting of lost and lonely souls. Hitchcock’s Psycho is indebted to such American works.
I refer to “the point of pounce”—the particular element of a script that a filmmaker seizes upon in order to pursue thematic or (though not in Hitchcock’s case) ideological goals. With Psycho it is the money: the corruption of love implicit in the idea that money is necessary to negotiate romance. The central image of Hitchcock’s own favorite among his films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is the tilted upward, low-hung camera-view of a BankAmerica tower stabbing the heavens—an assault on the sacramental view of human relations and community as ideally imagined by a Roman Catholic artist such as Hitchcock. The tower is the physical vortex of Santa Rosa, California. It is the attempt to deny the Holy Spirit that infuses everything human with everything Godly and transcendental. For Hitchcock, this is the ultimate crime. Money: in Shadow of a Doubt, the head of the “typical American family” works in a bank, the money-store, where he is daily subjected to humiliations petty and large, all underscoring his essential powerlessness in a complex socioeconomic structure. At home, his compensatory hobby after a hard day’s work dealing with other people’s money is to join his best friend in fantasizing about murder. His family, according to his eldest child, is “in a rut,” to her eyes the result of a want of familial excitement, to our eyes the result of a want of self-determination that her father’s work situation (knowledge of the humiliating nuts-and-bolts to which she is not privy) encapsulates. This innocent girl invites her uncle to stay—the uncle on whom she and his sister, the girl’s mother, dote, thus on the level of family supplanting the father’s position of power and self-determination: a parodic echo of his work situation. And this revered uncle, unbeknownst to his family (except, eventually, his niece), is a serial killer avenging the inheritance of wealth by widows—a fiend (for that is what the man is) whose antimaterialism really masks materialism, objecting only, really, to the ultimate female ownership of the loot. When this man kills, he steals the loot, reappropriating it, symbolically, for the deceased male. Thus this serial killer of women becomes the town’s benefactor, depositing his wealth in the bank and, by his death at his niece’s hand, inaugurating a charitable fund. Undisclosed blood at the bottom of such benefit: this sums up the role of money, and the competitiveness and corruption it fosters, in the sleepy-eyed, innocent (and quite real) town of Santa Rosa, California. Hitchcock takes us where he wants, gradually, stealthily revealing money’s role in the workings of ordinary American life. All the more irresistible for being nonpolitical (politically, nonideological), his view prevails. It is devastating commentary, for once this film is taken in it transforms every instance of money one thereafter sees in the American landscape.
In Psycho, the woman steals because in a moment of weakness she sees no other way of translating her tawdry love affair into the respectability of marriage. She is between a rock and a hard place, and her brutal murder is all that resolves her crisis. Yes, she is planning to return home to give up the money, but even if she avoids prison she will remain imprisoned in her financial crisis, unable to achieve her matrimonial goal. The agent of this resolution of hers, Norman Bates, is a lonely man except for his one constant companion, the dead mother whose governing voice he has interiorized. In compelling visual fashion, the film enjoins his mental state to the financial precariousness of the family enterprise, the Bates motel, whose fortunes shifted with the sands underneath when the main highway, whose traffic the motel once accessed, was itself moved, banishing the motel quite literally to the margin of existence and removing it even from the ranks of salability. Like Marion Crane, Norman Bates is between a rock and a hard place, with sand undermining his stability. Selling hardware (goods whose sale should translate into sufficient income), Sam Loomis is lost in the same desert. Survival in America is by no means assured. To be sure, this is also true elsewhere, but peculiarly in America the unpredictability of survival is enjoined to society’s erroneous insistence that hard work necessarily yields a happy, solvent result.
Hitchcock, ever the visual ironist, enlists the aid of a seemingly weightless, free-traveling camera to record the imprisonment of his characters. (Nowadays such a camera is literally possible; Hitchcock had to create the impression of such a camera.) Psycho opens with a pan of downtown Phoenix’s skyline, the bleak, blank sky above suggesting the buried sand below, upon which these edifices, and the civilization (or pretense at civilization) they represent, have been built. It is then that the camera seems to take deliberate flight, through a window, into squalid lunchtime quarters, the hotel room where Crane and Loomis have just had sex. (In a sense, it is stolen lovemaking, just as the money will be stolen: a completed act ironically disclosing something incompletely realized, because in both instances, more than money or sex, Crane covets what she hopes they will lead to: marriage.) Hitchcock’s camera isn’t a matter of instant disclosure; the camera explores the darkness of forbidden territory—a stretch of space—before lighting on the lovers, a seemingly free and expansive journey punctuated by irony once the lovers give voice to their imprisonment, in their case, their need for money.
Sam, we learn, is in the process of digging himself out from under inherited debt. This connects him to a motif that runs throughout Hitchcock’s film: death-in-life; the living dead. Indeed, in the opening shot the interior darkness teases with the idea that the camera is moving into a tomb rather than a hotel room where two individuals have just made love. We eventually learn that Norman Bates has dug up the corpse of his mother, whom he murdered, and his hobby of taxidermy also contributes to this motif. The film’s penultimate image superimposes a skeletal head on Bates’s grinning face. After that, Marion’s car is dragged up from the swamp: in context, an amazing image of grave-digging that also is superimposed, briefly, on the preceding image. Ironically, the authorities are less interested in retrieving Marion’s body than in retrieving the money she stole.
The greatest moment in Psycho—it’s among the greatest moments in American cinema—focuses on this money. It occurs in Marion Crane’s room at the Bates motel. To grasp the reach of Hitchcock’s concerns in Psycho, one must follow the black comedy; for this film sharpens its doleful vision with wit—as when, from a tightly wound rotation on the murdered woman’s face, the camera, released abruptly, appears to float to the stolen money by her motel room bed: a parody of “spirit leaving body” pointing up materialism’s place above spirituality in America’s hierarchy of values. Irony compounding irony: Bates buries the money with the corpse. Irony compounding irony compounding irony: it’s “too late”—pertaining to the possibility of romantic love, an utterance that circulates in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958)—for the money to make any difference, anyhow, in the course of Bates’s life. The desert and its added-on claims to civilization have left Bates utterly beyond repair. In both senses (geography and causality), he is an American casualty.
Hitchcock said that he abhorred violence, was terrified by it. Such is the sort of person who should make a film like Psycho, which doesn’t titillate us on the score of violence, as do, say, The Godfather (1972) and countless other films in the wake of Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt at “entertainment.” (Even in Hitchcock’s marvelous 1972 Frenzy, with its plethora of victimizations by a serial killer, each death carries the emotional weight of a human life lost.) Hitchcock is after other things; he pursues themes, not just thrills. Thus a coda to his film can come from the unlikeliest of places. Nearly closing the sixties as Psycho nearly opened them, the Maysles brothers’ and cutter Charlotte Zwerin’s cinéma-vérité Salesman (1969) follows door-to-door actual bible salesmen—capitalism’s dogged foot soldiers—in their lonely quest for a holy buck. They also are Norman Bates, and behind every door they knock on is another Norman Bates. Salesman is the companion-piece to Psycho. It’s certainly possible to understand one of these films apart from the other, but, given that we have both, there isn’t the need to do so.
I haven’t addressed the tour-de-force for which Psycho is most famous: the dazzlingly edited stabbing of Marion Crane in her motel room shower stall. Technical virtuosity is not why Hitchcock is a great artist, although I’m certainly grateful that Hitchcock conveys in this sequence such a powerful sense of disgusting violence while in fact showing so little violence. Even those current filmmakers who lack the depth to match his level of intellectual inquiry and artistic achievement can, and should, emulate him on this score. It will only rarely happen, though, because explicit violence sells. Coppola, not Hitchcock, has predicted and outlined the route that current popular American entertainment has taken. With such a model as Hitchcock for inspiration, Coppola and his cohorts and descendants should be perpetually ashamed of themselves. They are all familiar with Hitchcock’s alternative, which they nevertheless choose to ignore.
Psycho is beautifully acted by Anthony Perkins as Bates, Vera Miles as Lila, and especially Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. We all also know that John Gavin isn’t terrific as Sam but that Hitchcock gets out of him what he wants: shot after shot of physical resemblance between Bates and Loomis. This isn’t idle visual chatter; it’s instrumental in identifying American ordinariness (Loomis)—the mainstream—with the odd and the pathological (Bates).
It’s no secret that the lambasting that Vertigo (1958) endured from reviewers and the public upon its initial release demoralized Hitchcock, saddened and, in a way, broke him. The ferocious black comedy of Psycho provides an index of inconsolable bitterness and regret. It is a film made in a desert—Hollywood—that comments on this metaphoric locale’s relation to American aspiration. With British, then once-British eyes, Hitchcock often analyzed what he saw in the American social and moral landscape as inhuman and depraved. We should rest our praise of Hitchcock’s “technique” long enough to engage one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, here delivering his masterpiece.
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