Monday, 7 May 2012

Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’: An American Nightmare

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
When Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by Francois Truffaut in the fall of 1962, he had this to say on Psycho: ‘It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance... they were aroused by pure film.’ Adding that it ‘belongs to filmmakers, to you and me.’

Made in the spirit of a low-budget movie (Psycho cost $800,000), Hitchcock utilised his television crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, shot in what was then an unfashionable black and white, deployed long sequences without dialogue and eschewed the traditional narrative path by having the female lead killed early on. Moreover, Hitchcock forced the audience to be attentive while breaking convention, guiding the audience to switch allegiance from Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh’s) theft and escape, to an audacious sympathy with Anthony Perkins’ mother-fixated serial-killer, Norman Bates. The death of Marion Crane in the infamous shower sequence is followed by Norman’s painstaking clean-up of the crime scene and disposal of her body, car and stolen cash, into a nearby lake. A complex chain that plays with the audience’s identification with Norman’s feelings of fear and guilt.

The film’s melodramatic second half provides two potent set-piece shocks. The private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is killed in a scene that uses back-projection to follow his death-tumble down the stairs. And the secret of Norman’s relationship with his mother is disclosed.

Hitchcock’s relish in how film affects his audience is most apparent in Psycho. ‘I was directing the viewers,’ the director told Truffaut in their book-length interview. ‘You might say I was playing them, like an organ.’


What makes Psycho timeless, however, is that it connects directly with its audience’s primal fears and concerns. Marion Crane takes a detour into a world of randomness, guilt and death. And yet on several occasions Hitchcock remarked that Psycho is a film made with a sense of amusement. ‘It's a fun picture,’ he once quipped. In his book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, Donald Spoto writes that the sharp wit of the film is a refusal to submit to the horror and oppression of those fears and impulses which the film so relentlessly explores:
For most, a first viewing of Psycho is marked by suspense, even mounting
terror, and by a sense of decay and death permeating the whole. Yet for all its
overt Gothicism – forbidding gingerbread houses, the abundance of mirrors,
terrible dark nights of madness and death – repeated viewings leave a sense,
above all, of profound sadness. For Psycho describes, as perhaps no other
American film, the inordinate expense of wasted lives in a world so comfortably
familiar as to appear, initially, unthreatening: the world of office girls and
lunchtime liaisons, of half-eaten cheese sandwiches, of motels just off the main
road, of shy young men and maternal devotion. But these may just be flimsy
veils for spiritual, moral and psychic disarray of terrifying ramifications.
Psycho postulates that the American dream has become a nightmare, and that
all its components play us false. Hitchcock reveals the emptiness of the dream
that a woman can flee to her lover and begin an Edenic new life, forgetting the
past. He shows that love stolen at mid-day, like cash stolen in later afternoon,
amounts to nothing. He shatters the notion that intense filial devotion can
conquer death and cancel the past. Finally, the film treats with satiric, Swiftian
vengeance the two great American psychological obsessions: the role of Mother,
and the embarrassed secretiveness which surrounds both love-making and the
bathroom…. 
These concerns, these vulnerabilities, raise Marion Crane and Normal Bates
almost to the level of prototypes; thus Hitchcock’s insistence on audience
manipulation and the resulting identification of viewer with character….
Broader in scope than the bizarre elements of its plot indicate, Psycho has
the dimensions of great tragedy, very like Oresteia, Macbeth and Crime and
Punishment.
 In method and content, in the sheer economy of its style and in its
oddly appealing wit, it is one of the great works of modern art.
– Donald Spoto. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. New 
York: Hopkins and Blake, 1976.

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