click to buy 'A Long Hard Look at Psycho' at Amazon.comTHE CREDIT SEQUENCE

The Paramount logo fades to a black screen, which turns light grey as music starts: chunky staccato chords under keening violins. From the right-hand edge, black stripes stretch across the screen; more appear, at unpredictable heights, till they block the screen like a window-blind. Against the last bands, streaking across at middle height, white angular flecks appear, like enigmatic signs, and turn out to be the tips and tails of letters, slashed laterally and vertically disaligned. The ‘windowblind’ breaks up as more black bands thrust in, pushing the last grey strips off left. The bits of letters click together, to read, bold white on the all-black field: ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s’. Uncompleted syntax holds the screen for a full two seconds, until the letters’ middle stratum skids left, pursued by more grey bands, which amass in a tight, though still staggered, formation. They rebuild the ‘window-blind’ striation, but this time from grey on black (reversing the earlier construction process). New shards of letters slide in, but before any words can crystallise, the blank grey bands scud back the way they came (surprise reversal of directional thrust). On the now black background, the scattering of broken letters slide and snap together, spelling Psycho, for about two seconds, until that word, too, cracks into three strata. They slip a little notch sideways, but in opposite directions, so that each letter, vertically misaligned, seems to jerk and tug against itself. The word disintegrates – not, as the generally lateral kinetic has led us to expect, laterally – but, instead, the letters’ top halves fly up and away and off the screen, while their lower halves plunge off the bottom of the frame. Since each half of a letter implies the other half, and it all happens so fast, it’s as if our word-world suddenly doubles and splits and speeds in opposite directions, like a ‘troubled reflection’.

This vertical split begins a second, mainly vertical, phase. From mid-screen level, like a virtual horizon, columns stretch upwards and downwards unevenly, and simultaneously, like a restless graph.Various lines split into groups and rove in block formations.

The last phase, or ‘movement’ (to borrow a musical term), is more leisurely; it leaves time and space for areas bearing credits. Whether single names, or blocks of names, they zip in, abruptly stop, abruptly scud off. The conjunction of names, which we try to read along the line, with shiftings in non-linear space, which patterns and pictures use, disconcerts our perceptual scanning processes. On the final credit, to Hitchcock as director, the music quietens, while the grey upright columns retract, upwards and downwards, into a suggested ‘horizon’, and continue moving slowly, quietly, as if stealthily. They gradually disappear, through a cross-fade, into a photographic landscape: a city skyline, sun-bleached and torpid, with desert mountains beyond.


The credit sequence was designed, and hand-made, by Saul Bass, using animation, pixilation, and live-action photography. The stripes were rods painted the ‘colour’ required, and pushed across by hand; however, they’re so featureless, so flat-on, that they register as pure ‘pattern’, as non-representational forms, as abstractions. The music, too, is abstract. This little film-within-a-film deploys the idioms of avant-garde abstraction, and extends the tradition of Eggeling, Ruttmann, Lye, MacLaren. It also qualifies as ‘concrete’ art, since its moving kinetics, violently disturbing the mechanisms of human perception, emphasise the actual physical presence of the graphic patterns.

The bands and columns imply some cold, geometrical order; its thrusts, shifts and vectors are unpredictable. Brutally rapid changes disorganise us. The images, without the music, would be softly unstable, slithery; but the pistoning music gives them its impact. The ‘lettrist’ scraps and flecks add another, wayward chaos, like the fitfully flut-tering ‘angel’ in Borowczyk’s Les Jeux des Anges (1964). Both films are exercises in ‘structuralist’ grid-forms as madness. Here, everything resembles hypnagogia (the ‘break-up’ of gestalts and forms, well-known in the states between sleeping and waking). Its driving energy, its streams of cognitive dissonance, don’t just metaphor, they inflict perceptual disintegration. Some unseen activity keeps imposing rigid pattern and then disintegrating them, like obsession and hysteria. By 1960 the structures and modes of schizophrenia were being re-explored by, among many others, ‘existential’ psychiatrist R. D. Laing, whose The Divided Self (1960) was poised to become a radical cult. Herrmann’s music uses stringed instruments only, but its counterpoint of chugging chords and skeetering violins evokes Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring (1913), whose modernist neo-primitivism asserts the stunted compulsions of the mad animal, man. Narrative-wise, the credits of Psycho are entirely meaningless; yet, like an ‘abstract overture’, in visual kinetic, they presage its theme – disintegrating thought. (Do the striations suggest a window-blind, therefore voyeurism? Do the flecks evoke bird claws? Or a flock of birds? Whose screaming is the violins?) As the columns subside, and fade into the city, the suggestion is not that they’ve stopped operating, but that their sinister energy continues, quietly, invisibly, ‘behind appearances’.

* * *


The camera moves slowly around a white-ish cityscape. Mid-screen subtitles scud abruptly in, from alternate screen edges, then whizz off, brief reminders of the credits’ spirit of panic: ‘Phoenix, Arizona / Friday December 12 / 2:43 p.m.’ The camera drifts forward, slides around an imposing building, and finds a shabby part of town. It dives towards a high rear window, sneaks in under the blind, and discovers Marion (Janet Leigh), in her underwear, flat on a bed, a man in dark trousers standing beside her.


White was an occasional convention for oppressive heat. The overall ‘scene’, though continuous, comprises four different ‘zones’: a high-angle cityscape, a zoom-in to and through a window, the abruptly dark room (relative to the sunlight), and the room lit normally, as befitting gradually adjusted vision. The camera starts high in the sky, and ends down by a man’s groin. The script treats all this as one continuous scene, and Hitchcock originally intended one long shot from a helicopter, from where a zoom would look in through a window, and then, being seemingly inside the room, become an interior, shot from the exterior! Since 1949, the ‘ten-minute takes’ of Rope held the record for the movie shot with the longest running time.Now Psycho would bid for the longest continuous distance travelled by the camera. Its along-the-way ingenuities would renew the admiration of Hitchcock’s Hollywood peers and help offset his stooping to a low-budget production, whose sex and violence many ‘Old Hollywood’ people would abhor. That apart, Hitchcock, like many Hollywood craftsmen, loved solving technical difficulties, as a personal private challenge, as craft for craft’s sake, art for art’s sake.

In 1960, the new zoom lenses were just about up to all this, but other problems were probably insurmountable. Would any American city allow a helicopter so close beside a building? And wouldn’t its hovering flight adjustments make the extended zoom jerk unwatchably? As things are, the succession of separate shots is of interest: they make up one, virtually continuous trajectory in space, and, in that sense, they’re ‘all one scene’; yet they’re also several separate scenes: an exterior, and an interior; a landscape very long shot and, miles from there, a close shot low in a narrow room.


Movie technicians, watching with gimlet eyes for craft practicalities, would much admire Hitchcock’s cunning paraphrase of his Plan A. What looks, to the layman, like a ‘flight across the city’ is three separate shots, from three different fixed points, each combining a pan and zoom, and so suggesting ‘onward travel’. The separate shots are fused by cross-fades (from which we’re slightly distracted by both the sudden titles and briefly conspicuous buildings). The last zoom over the city ends in a downwards and sideways shift (a sort of side-slip) towards a wall of rear windows; in mid-dive a cross-fade introduces a steeper shot, and then a last cross-fade introduces a nearhorizontal track-in, from closer in, and from the other side of the window. This last cross-fade is so quick it’s virtually a cut, and the changed angle makes a little visual ‘jolt’ – what some editors call a ‘hard cut’ and what Eisenstein called a ‘montage collision’. This particular cut enlivens, but doesn’t disrupt, the sense of a long, long camera movement. It’s just – an early tremor. . ..

The film forms revealed by a ‘close reading’ don’t invalidate the ‘layman’s impression’; they’re intended to suggest it. Non-technical spectators normally ‘overlook’ the exact forms of films, and with good reason. They’re looking for other things: the story, its ‘human interest’, its moods, its ‘atmosphere’ (a hot, white, dry city), its ‘poetic’. The text itself is one thing; its intended reading isn’t ‘literal’ in the least. Form is the spectator’s springboard to an idea: but the idea is only part of the meaning; the full meaning is the overall movement of his mind: it’s A to B, not just B. Meaning exists, not in the text, but in the mind of the spectator. In that sense, it’s ‘only subjective’, but insofar as it’s shared between spectators, and therefore consensual, it’s an objective social fact. By and large, a film is like an iceberg:What You See Is a Lot Less Than You Get. (‘Get’ in the American sense – ‘to intuitively understand’ – ‘D’you get it?’, in English, ‘D’you see?’)


Probing camera + hard-to-reach window + blind may well imply voyeurism – but this flying, diving camera is no ordinary peeping Tom: it’s hardly human – more like a bird’s eye-view, or a God’s eye-view. After those ‘shifting abstract forms’, the camera’s destination suggests a secret event astir, that we earthbound creatures can’t see, but that somebody up there can.


Surveillance/omniscience, of a shabby, chaotic city, was a ‘social realist’ focus. It loomed large in the post-war cycle of ‘documentary thrillers’, like The Naked City and Call Northside 777 (both 1948) and it persisted through TV ‘police procedurals’ like Dragnet (filmed 1954). Often, it balanced ‘liberal social authority/responsibility’ against the unruliness of real life and criminal subversion of society. These time-place subtitles suggest a great precision – yet, their skidding on and off unsettles us.


Another attitude entirely inspires the interest in city windows in another ‘social realist’ genre: movies about the ‘little lives’ of ‘ordinary people’ (as against glamour and escapism, Hollywood’s stock-in-trade). Cameras rove around windows in a ‘populist’ cycle c. 1930 (The Crowd, Street Scene, Sous Les Toits de Paris, 42nd Street). In 1954, Rear Window harks back to it, as a crippled photographer inspects another ‘crosssection’; about this time, the ‘populist’ genre makes a little comeback, with, notably, Marty (1955) and The Wrong Man (Hitchcock, 1957).

For Psycho, Hitchcock sought a ‘documentary’ quality (in a very loose sense of the word: critics then spoke of ‘semi-documentary’, meaning, ‘social realistic fiction with much location work and documentary trimmings’).This film’s first third is steeped in ‘everyday realism’, in the grey details of ordinary life – unsatisfying love-making, mean-minded point-scoring in a dreary office . . .. Its protagonists are all ‘ordinary people’, ‘little people’ – a secretary, a hick-town storekeeper, a passive youth in a moribund motel. They’re all losers, locked in sad lives. To be sure, the stars imbue them with beauty, charisma, energy and style, which from one angle is escapism. But if other things are right, these qualities may claim ‘poetic licence’, as metaphors for qualities, or potentialities, or ‘soul’, which ‘ordinary people’ often feel they have but can’t live out except in their imaginations (or at the pictures). Much of Psycho pursues Hitchcock’s on-and-off interest in ‘ordinary people’, in ‘little people’ – in people like the cinema audience of those days as in Blackmail/A Woman Alone (1930), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Wrong Man and the first third of Rear Window.

Without claiming Psycho for neo-realism, is Marion’s plight-and-flight so very different from some Rossellini movies with Ingrid Bergman on a spiritual journey? Or Chabrol’s ‘poetico-realistic’ Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)?

* * *


Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), in her white underwear, lies on a hotel bed, smiling up at Sam Loomis (John Gavin), who mops his bare chest with a handy towel. Pleased with himself, he remarks that she forgot her lunch (quick cut to a sandwich). They fall to kissing (again?), her body sloped forward as urgently as his.Yet, even as they caress, she talks about leaving: it’s time overdue she returned to her office and dyspeptic boss. Sam complains he’ll be at a loose end until it’s time to catch his plane. He runs a hardware store in Fairvale, a rural town in northern California; he’s burdened by his dead father’s debts, and alimony to his ex-wife. He can only afford a cheap hotel, and trips that are tax-deductible. He fears that a decently comfortable marriage is out of the question for at least two years. Marion offers to share his poverty, in marriage; but he seems to prevaricate, and she all but breaks off the affair.


What are they up to, half-undressed on that bed?

In 1959 Hays Office morality still dominated movies, despite social trends epitomised by, notably, the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour (in the human male, 1948, in the human female, 1953), Broadway hits like The Moon Is Blue (1951, filmed in 1954), and bestsellers like Peyton Place (1956, filmed in 1959). By and large, Hollywood preferred a certain reticence, partly to dodge the ‘X’ certificate, but also because it allowed considerable ambiguity: Old Morality and New Morality spectators could read the love-scenes as they liked. A kiss, especially if followed by a fadeout (like three dots in a novelette?), might or might not be more than just a kiss. The Hays rule was that, given two lovers embracing on or about a bed, each must keep one foot on the floor. Hitchcock breaks it right away, with Marion’s upper body flat out on the bed as if she’d just been pressed right down into it. But then again, in this particular shot, Sam isn’t actually touching her. And with the camera winding round rolling faces in close-up, who can say which of all four feet is where? A few years earlier, the censor would have cut all this, as overly suggestive; but little by little, he’d been making concessions, and was now unsure where to draw the line.


Back in the 1950s, many spectators, habituated to Hollywood’s overt morality, at least on the screen, could suppose that Marion and Sam have booked a lunch-hour bedroom just to be alone together, since being seen together might start unseemly gossip. (Dialogue confirms they’re reluctant to be seen together, without saying exactly why. However appropriate in small towns, as per Bus Stop [1956] and Picnic [1955], it’s less appropriate in even a relatively small city, as Phoenix had been until fairly recently. But the general idea was familiar; it inspires the very title of Strangers When We Meet [1960], a ‘modern American’ variant of the Brief Encounter ‘genre’). For spectators for whom Sam and Marion not sleeping together is a natural, and moral, assumption, perhaps they just want some privacy while passionately kissing, and if they’re half stripped-off, it’s only to keep cool, in this hot, close, un-airconditioned room. Other spectators again, young teenagers perhaps, could reasonably assume, from the evident ‘flesh contact’, that they’re indulging in ‘heavy petting’, a common compromise between vice and virtue, especially among the young.Very worldly, very adult minds might presume that Marion and Sam have just ‘made love’, and are in a mood to start all over again. Sam towels his manly chest, which might suggest he’s been exerting himself.

From one angle these readings are separate and distinct – and importantly so, morality-wise. Nonetheless, they all point to the same idea: ‘morally controversial sensual pleasure’ (and the setting suggests heavy self-indulgence). As important as the distinctions were between ‘heavy petting’ and ‘going all the way’, the line between was famously thin, and by 1959 more teenagers than ever were crossing it (and trusting to birth control, or luck, or whatever – the pill was not available until 1963). As morally fraught as all this is, Marion ‘going all the way’ would not have transformed her from ‘good girl’ into ‘bad girl’, or from ‘virgin’ into ‘vamp’, or from ‘Madonna’ into ‘whore’ (the last quite foreign to the Bible Belt). The enormous success, in 1956–8, of Bardot in And God Created Woman, arose from its paraphrasing ‘advanced’ teenage behaviour (which Hollywood left at ‘beach party’ banalities). Consider that supposedly ‘rebellious’ movie, Rebel without a Cause (1955). When James Dean and Natalie Wood spend a night together, in a romantically empty house, they’re not even tempted to misbehave; instead, they practice ‘mutual respect’ (and what’s wrong with that?), and they behave like parents to Plato. Instead of the sex act, adult and neighbourly responsibility.When 1950s sex-dramas indicate a copulation, it remains rather abstract, more like a plot-point (focused on consequence) than an act of pleasure sensually described. But here, Hitchcock’s camera, hugging the lovers close, brings the touch of flesh alive. (Realism-wise, one might criticise the lack of sweat-drops, but that might well have upset 1950s hygienism and, anyway, Sam’s towel makes the point.)

In the TV documentary Psycho – The First Time, a woman recalls that Marion’s bra and half-slip was as big a shock to her as the shower scene. Until then, all female stars wore full slips over their bra (as specified in the script). Hitchcock, talking with Truffaut, wished he could have showed Janet Leigh’s bare breasts rubbing against John Gavin’s bare chest (tactility again). His wish chimes in with Jean Douchet’s waggish remark that, by showing Gavin but not Leigh stripped to the waist, Psycho left half its audience unsatisfied. What’s disquieting is that, as Marion’s lips nibble Sam’s, she murmurs words of dissatisfaction, of edgy negotiation, of despair. (This links with Notorious, where the lovers never stop necking, while also scheming).

Marion and Sam being both half-undressed rather favours the idea that they’re only heavy petting, and that Marion is still a demi-vierge (everything but penetration). Heavy petting worried some socio-sexologists, who feared that protracted selfcontrol might eventually induce a sort of orgiastic impotence and that ‘halfway house’ orgasms could weaken the impact of the first full sex act, which was very important for bonding. Often, too, heavy petting (widely supposed to be an American speciality) stopped short of climax or release.Thus each lover teased the other and himself or herself. The irony would have appealed to Baudelaire, and probably to Hitchcock, perhaps as a Catholic moralist (‘sin and human nature punishes itself; sexual desire is sexual misery’). In pop Freudianism, all this sexual teasing and frustration would help explain Marion’s compulsive drive to get to Sam. Has she yet to consummate her sexuality – to know a man, in the Biblical sense?

The film is a bit of a tease about her past. Sam, admiring her dry savoir-faire, says, ‘You sure talk like a girl who’s been married’ – so perhaps she has been. Four pages later, she counters his alimony complaints by remarking she’s not been married once. Though cut from the film, a script innuendo hints at other, disabusing, sexual experiences: ‘I’ve lost my girlish laughter.’ Sam, gallantly: ‘The only girlish thing you have lost.’ (‘She lost her girlish laughter’ was an ironic idiom, from the 1920s I believe, though I haven’t found its origin.)

All this talk about morality and sensuality risks making the scene just salacious (and this aspect did have to be judged). In fact, the loving has an urgent tenderness. Visually, it’s dominated not by anatomies, but by hands, his as much as hers, feeling with tender, restless speed the other’s shoulders, neck, face and mouth, while eyes lock on eyes. Hands, eyes, embracings are all questing for the mind within the other, not focusing on their own sensations. An unsympathetic spectator might suppose that s/he’s being made a voyeur, but if you’re half-identifying with either of the lovers, and half-sympathetic towards the other, the scene is about tactility, about palpability not just as ‘sexual stimulus’ (though a streak of that is there), but as communication. It’s the other, fonder half of their negotiating talk. It’s the half that expresses ‘togetherness’ and ‘the Oceanic feeling’, as Freud called it.

After the lovers pull apart, vigorous movements sustain the scene’s nervous energy – Sam fondling the bed-linen Marion has vacated, spreading both arms wide in his gesture of full surrender, snapping open the window-blind; Marion shooting her arms around his neck (like a lariat?).


Lana Turner was considered for the role of Marion, but Leigh thought Hitch preferred a softer personality. Doris Day, a theoretical possibility, was too big a star for this half-part and, in her case, early death in the shower might well have been too much; it might have not just shocked people, but turned them against the film.

Janet Leigh’s usual screen persona was lively, clean-living, with a decisive streak and a lively watchfulness in reserve. Even in her medieval romps, she struck me as a fine identification figure for young women, especially of the ‘office secretary class’ – a conspicuous subculture, before its decimation by social change. Marion, in the script, is to some extent a ‘blank’ for spectator identification to fill in (in art, usually a defect; in entertainment, often a desideratum). Leigh finesses her into life, with pencil-sharp emphases. Here, at calendar age 32, she embodies that especially American combination of an ever-youthful prime but with stonier, more scared thoughts creeping in, fixing the eyes, and at serious moments lengthening the heart-shaped face around thinned-out mouth. She’s briskly efficient, fully trusted. Her ‘commercial’ culture, clearheaded, practical and often supposed, by highbrows, to be ‘blandly superficial’ was as prone to complicated passions as more educated subcultures.

John Gavin, star of many a plush romance, was a male star for women – a handsome hunk (hence the bare chest here), smoothly well-mannered (‘beautiful manners’, even in a heel, were a major pleasure for female spectators) and redolent of wealth and ‘class’ (he later became US ambassador to Mexico). In Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) he partnered Lana Turner and Susan Kohner, as women who love ‘not wisely but too well’, and in Midnight Lace (1960) he unnerves the unsinkable Doris Day. Hitchcock found him disappointingly wooden. Perhaps his natural style suited those glossier, slower ‘women’s films’, which dwelled in leisurely fashion on reaction shots, thus reversing the 1930s cult of fast pace, to which lovers of film art were still very attached.

Sam in the film and Sam in the script are quite different characters (though, narrative-wise, they’re functional equivalents: they’d work equally well). The script describes a stolid, cheery, smiling chap, trying to half-dream, half-laugh his problems away, without quite facing them. Nonetheless Lila finds him reassuringly relaxed and solid. John Gavin as Sam is more brooding, passive, enigmatic. Hitch, it’s said, thought his love-making too listless and asked Miss Leigh to ‘take him in hand’.


Their conversation, which is admirably written, has six main ‘move-and-countermoves’.

1. Even while sensually enlaced and kissing, Marion expresses her discontent.
2. Getting dressed, she states her terms: from now on they meet in her home (since he can’t afford good restaurants? to re-domesticate him?), with her sister there (as chaperone?); together they’ll broil a steak (good, simple meals for busy people). He promptly surprises her, and us, by agreeing to everything, almost with relief, and confessing he needs her on any terms at all.
3. She’s warm and tender, virtually proposing to him, and yet, he turns away.
4. She promises to share his life, and if most of his money must go to his exwife, so be it: ‘I’ll lick the stamps.’ Perversely ignoring what she’s just said, he asks, with almost contented jealousy, if she’s looking for someone else.
5. Dryly she warns:’I’m thinking of it.’When he makes no response, she prepares to walk out.
6. He asks to accompany her; she points out he’s still barefoot. (He’s like a child, shirking responsibility, yet clinging to her; she’s like the disapproving mother, but, since she noticed his shoes, she’s his mother still.)

Interest in child, parent, or adult personality types, was in the air. It’s all but spelled out in Blind Date/Chance Meeting (Joseph Losey, 1959), and was already inspiring Transactional Analysis, whose long-running bestseller would be Games People Play (Eric Berne, 1964).


Though seeming to wallow in sensuality, Marion’s restless desire is for respectability. Is she using sex as ‘the tender trap’ (cf The Tender Trap [1955])? The script says she is: ‘girls are so often surprised when they discover men will continue to want them even after the sexual bait has been pulled in.’Were it only a bait, perhaps she’d be a ‘semi-vamp’, but she seems to genuinely like him, although he’s strapped for cash and prospects and she’s very likely caught in the sensuality trap with him. ‘I’ll lick the stamps’ – a brilliant line – speaks volumes: she accepts their humiliation, by The Other Woman, the woman who got Sam first and financially crippled him. In Freudian terms, she’s The Mother as triumphant rival, like the eponymous femme fatale of Rebecca. (Many films about imposing, sinister ladies in portraits, who once ‘owned’ the hero, are ‘women’s films’, and metaphor tensions between women and their mother figures rather than between vamps and men). Marion’s ‘baiting the hook’ is normal premarital play. Her fast switches between manipulation and devotion, sensual sex and renunciation, and her restless movements, like her sudden jack-knife rise from the bed, generate a heavy instability.

Sam’s ideas about marriage are one big mess. They’re like odds and ends from psychology articles in popular magazines (like the masseuse’s ‘peeping Tom’ theory in Rear Window). When Marion regrets these shabby brief encounters, his cheap-shot reply is that bored married couples get kicks from things like this. He switches between rat-pack terms like ‘swinger’ and ingratiating spiel about working really hard at a mature relationship. Is hunky Sam an overgrown teenager? A small-town low flyer? A local Casanova, ducking and diving if marriage rears its head? Or a bit of a bird-brain, pecking at scraps pulled from shallow reading? Or an obstinately passive stick-in-the-mud? Or depressed by his father’s death, and scared off marriage by divorce, badly in need of firm and friendly female guidance? We can’t be sure, and that’s the interest. But the scene’s last shot drops a pretty broad hint: abandoned by Marion, Sam just stands there, head drooped in utter dejection, in a near- Expressionist posture. Confused love hurts all concerned.

No wonder that his sudden surrender provokes in her, not only a ‘romantic’ response, but also something between dubiety, suspicion and ironic dryness.


What matters, in any scene, but especially in a mystery thriller, is not just what it establishes in the end. Just as important, in the spectator’s experience, is the flow of uncertainties, the questions, the possibilities, in scenes as they go. A film is a timebased experience, not a concise summary in retrospect. It includes our wondering: Who is Sam, at heart, really? Is he worth the hopes she’s lavishing upon him? What’s behind his slippery turnabouts? Such questions wouldn’t trouble a voyeur. They loom large in our dramatic involvement with people whom we can like and admire and identify with and criticise – and in whose hopes, experiences and errors we recognise our own and those of our friends and acquaintances, and through which we can easily start reviewing our moral codes, our culture and our ‘ideology’. This scene, like the opening moves of a chess match, is an ‘envelope’ of possibilities, teasing, promising, unnerving.


The written word makes nothing clearer. There’s an extra page (about a minute) of conversation, which lumbers Sam with yet another dead-end notion – he dreams of a far-off island where love comes free of complications. (As even Hollywood knew it never did: cf Bird of Paradise [1932, 1951], Pearl of the South Pacific [1955], and Enchanted Island [1958], based on Herman Melville’s Typee; the worm in the island paradise is cannibalism).


Many Brand X feminists write as if Hollywood, traditional morality and ‘patriarchy’ all agreed that only wicked women entertained sexual desires for men. Women were either ‘good girls’ or ‘bad girls’, Madonnas or whores, docile helpmeets or femmes fatales; and Marion’s murder was in some poetic way ‘punishment’ for her sexual goings-on with Sam. But the American media were one thing, American life another. In real-life negotiations, Marion’s ‘tender trap’ was a ploy as old as the hills, and well known to occur between basically decent persons. Silent movies could wonderfully convey the heroine’s sexual desires, in myriad verb. sap. ways, for instance, a certain ‘female gaze’ – shining, eager, unguarded – of which most Hollywood ladies had versions of. That few heroines mentioned sexuality as such by no means implies ‘repression’ or ‘suppression’. It was certainly tactful avoidance, but sexual selfexpression hardly needed to spell everything out: a gentle hint, a tacit prompt, or not saying ‘no’, might suffice. In some celebrated cases, prostitutes die (e.g. Destry Rides Again [1939] and Butterfield 8 [1960]); but in other cases, they enjoy a happy end (e.g. Her Man [1930], Stagecoach and My Little Chickadee [both 1939] and The Brothers Karamazov [1958]); and sometimes they shame the virtuous (Rain [1928, 1932, 1953]). When they die, it’s not because death is a ‘traditional’ punishment for promiscuity (it never was); it’s more often a fantasy punishment, involving Superego (Unconscious) fantasy, with weepie accompaniment (Waterloo Bridge [1931, 1940], Camille [1936]). In Hollywood movies, the principal function of such a death was to avoid challenging a highly specialised censorship code, designed by rearguard Victorians for ‘the family audience’ (i.e. children). By the early 1950s other, semipopular media, e.g. the bestselling novel, freely ignored any censorship code. And, anyway, Victorian morality never thought death the appropriate fate for sexual misbehaviour. In Psycho, Marion’s death makes no moral sense at all: her fate is in every way ‘absurd’; that’s part of the film’s heavy punch.

By 1960, Christians who thought sexual desire as such was wicked were well outnumbered by others who thought it forgivable without extravagant repentance, and by those who (like some old-fashioned puritans) thought sexuality was God’s gift to both the sexes, to be used with discrimination and responsible concern for ‘the other’ as a subject like oneself not a pleasure-object. When Hitchcock was asked if the priest in I Confess (1953) had slept with the heroine, he replied – ‘I hope so. Far be it from me, as a Jesuit, to condone such behaviour’ – which is close enough to a ‘worldly common sense’ about ‘moral dissonance’, as a condition of life.

Sexually, Marion may be calculating (affectionately). But she doesn’t seem repressed; her flat-out smile seems as conscious of joy as Sam’s grin down at her is of prowess. No doubt her sexuality is often frustrated, as she seems to live alone, but frustration and repression are entirely different things. Equally frustrated are her other female desires: to enjoy her sexuality respectably, and with assured companionship.

Insofar as Marion’s sin has unintended, unpredictable and disproportionate consequences, her fate is tragic. The idea, that the person merits better than the sin, so that even due ‘punishment’ for sin is not deserved, is familiar enough; in ‘tragic flaw’ theory in drama, in the story of Faust, in An American Tragedy [1931], in such films as They Live by Night [1948] and Du Rififi chez les hommes [1954] – another European hit in the US – and in The Exorcist [1973], where the little girl, left lonely, finds an imaginary playmate, ‘Captain Howdy’ – who could blame a little child for not recognising the devil?)


Spectators of all sexes and genders would, I think, take Marion as their principal identification figure. Compared to the only alternative, Sam, she’s more straightforward, positive and desperate; she makes the stronger moves dramatically, and the stronger moves visually; and as the scene proceeds, she’s steadily more favoured by the camera. She’s the protagonist and our primary (though not our only) dramatic concern. Sexually, she and Sam seem nicely matched: they roll around pretty freely, through him on top and her on top, to side by side. Some teenagers then would note such things: improvements on the missionary position were on popular agendas. In England, the leading marriage counsellor, Dr Eustace Chesser, advised that though the woman on top was more delicious, it might, if it became a habit, induce passivity in the male and so should be reserved for special treats.

Most of Hitchcock’s leading men were ‘male stars for women’. Gavin and Perkins (and, of course,Cary Grant) were ‘romantic’ stars, i.e. stars largely for women, though perfectly acceptable as identifications for men (unlike some male stars for women, such as Zachary Scott or Liberace). Psycho is very much a ‘woman’s film’, like many a thriller about ladies in distress, e.g. The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Naked Edge (1961) and Midnight Lace (1960). The formula, if such it is, allows all kinds of variations. (In Phantom Lady, the hero loiters passively in prison while his lady secretary does all the hard-boiled sleuthing in sleazy clubs and mean streets: she’s both the ‘damsel in distress’ and the active hero. A similar duality applies in Psycho, where each sister is both endangered and active – Marion tragically, Lila successfully).


From a certain angle, Sam is a ‘male vamp’ (sometimes romantic–erotic for women, like James Mason in The Wicked Lady [1945]). He’s a ‘dark handsome man’, who plays with Marion sexually, while moodily refusing to be possessed. He keeps her on tenterhooks and his thing about money drives her to crime. But really he’s neither ‘wicked’ nor intentionally selfish; he’s a ‘weak lover’, a common type of man in ‘women’s films’, especially insofar as they tended to drama rather than melodrama. In a traditional sense of these words, a drama emphasises the relatively finessed emotions and attitudes at play within a usual social framework, whereas melodrama emphasises the grosser and instinctual drives, with a relatively ‘soot and whitewash’ morality (pure heroes, vile villains). Applying this terminology, Psycho is something of a hybrid. It’s a melodrama, insofar as it’s a suspense thriller, with ‘orrible murders, shrieking surprises, and nail-biting panics; but often, as in this bedroom scene, it’s built on dramatic finessing. Often its very suspense turns on nuances, uncertainties, undertones, in fairly ordinary negotiations between morally nuanced people. In a sense, it magnifies the tensions subtending quite ordinary transactions, for instance the uneasy little quiver that ‘everybody‘ feels when questioned by a policeman. One might even say, that Psycho‘s ‘home key’ is the intertwining of melodrama, drama, and everyday experience as read by our ‘irrational’ (but sometimes justified) fears. It ‘works through’ the background anxiety in apparently ordinary transactions.


Hitchcock treats Marion’s story in an opposite style to many 50s women’s films. Their slow, ‘plush’ style generally preferred luxurious-looking settings, glossy faces, ponderous dialogue and long ‘chains’ of close shots which glorified the feminine face, especially in full-face or three-quarters-front views, which best display those reservoirs of emotion, the mouth and eyes. Within this general ‘glamour’ style, one might schematise four main ‘idioms’:

1. The super-sumptuous – Imitation of Life (1958), Pal Joey (1957).
2. The sumptuous and gloomy – Possessed (1947).
3. The bleak, almost noir – Tarnished Angels (1957), The Loves of Jeanne Eagels (1957) and
4. High-life crimes – Mildred Pierce (1945), Casablanca (1943). Hitchcock was master of them all, as with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1), Suspicion (2), Rebecca (3) and Marnie (4) in 1964. But Psycho is the least luxurious and glossy, of them all, the most brisk, oblique and unsentimental. Marion with Sam is often in near-profile, or shares a two-shot with him. Even the ‘turningpoint’, when she first gives up on him, denies her a full-face close-up, and substitutes a sudden body-swerve, her face away from camera.


This ‘de-emphasis’ reflects the ‘marginal’ status of the Marion–Sam affair. It’s no sooner established, as a motive for theft, than it’s dropped. As Hitchcock said, it’s a false trail, narrative-wise a red herring: it serves to establish Marion as our heroine, to give her and us something to think about, and to foreshadow the flight without foreshadowing the eventual shock of her sudden death.All the same, Hitchcock and Stefano do it proud. Moreover, Marion’s and Sam’s abrupt U-turns and the hidden thinking thus implied establish an ‘unexpectedness’ principle, which will make the big surprise seem, not an arbitrary contrivance but ‘part of this dramatic universe’, and link it with a theme of ‘gaps-and-splits in consciousness’.


Until the window-blind goes up, the half-dark room accentuates the whiteness (and heat) of flesh, bed-linen, and underwear; afterwards, it’s a drab whitish-grey. Entering the room, the camera passes dark indistinct areas of, presumably, furniture, before settling into the crotch-height shot. (It’s all quite unlike the usual establishing shot – more of a disorienting shot!) The camera perches in odd positions (now groin level, now just beneath the ceiling). The angles are steep, the compositions unstable. The shots include distractions (the window is now blocked by a blind, now shows a vast ornate building with rows of windows like blank eyes – staring at the sleazy lovers?

Or not looking at them – just windows looking at this window – blind reflections?) Between restlessly displaced shots, cuts generate unsettling ‘intervals’. ‘Intervals’ was Dziga Vertov’s term for the graphic differences between adjacent shots. They’re a principal source of visual ‘contrasts’ and ‘collisions’ and a mainspring of Soviet montage theory. Directors should so plan their shots, even before shooting, that strong hard cuts generate subliminal shocks on the spectator’s visual perceptions and, by knock-on effect, on his thoughts and emotions. ‘Dynamic’ cuts are the sine qua non of film art, propaganda and agitprop. ‘Intervals’ include, not only ‘differences of graphic forms’, but also ‘jumps between camera positions’. Normally, Hollywood preferred to minimise collisions, shocks and jumps, and keep cuts as soft and smooth as reasonably possible. Hence the traditional distinction, summarised by Thorold Dickinson, between ‘montage editing’ (aka ‘Russian editing’, ‘dynamic editing’, ‘visible editing’), and ‘continuity editing’ (aka ‘Hollywood editing’, ‘narrative editing’, and ‘invisible editing’). Hitchcock understood both schools, and Psycho achieves some remarkable trade-offs (and syntheses!) between montage kinetics and continuity flowings. (Saul Bass may have something to do with it, for modern graphic design often made a point of juxtaposing strong hard forms – in collage, photomontage, comic strips, etc – and a thoughtful craftsman could switch from juxtaposing static forms side by side in space to juxtaposing moving forms successively in time. But many Hollywood traditionalists were so used to setting up smooth cuts they couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt their ideas of ‘good style’ to achieve a degree of expressive dynamic). A virtuoso segue starts with a close shot of the lovers’ profiles on the bed. A cut to a second close shot, at 90° to the first, favouring the back of Marion’s head, makes an eye-boggling ‘collision’, quite as disruptive as any jump-cut. Its dynamic seems to launch Marion upwards, her back to the camera, which pulls back fast to show her long back as she jack-knifes up to her feet, at the end of the bed, and then turns about to march back beside the bed, on which Sam sits up and swivels around to keep looking at her. The camera, having pulled back and up, is as if perched high up on the wall, looking down at her, as she looks straight ahead, as if into a mirror, and dresses again. While gazing off-screen left, she talks to Sam behind her screen right. Her uncompromising words and posture unnerve him; he crosses behind her and sits beside the window, which is on her left in real space, but on her right in screen space. Both complicated and smooth, it’s highly unsettling – very elegant, very disturbed. Later, when Sam almost agrees to Marion’s terms, comes a very simple effect: their profiles in close two-shot, close behind them, the lowered window-blind. It’s tight, close, stable, but – too brief, close, shallow, perhaps, after the ‘tearing apart’.


Windows. The camera dives in through a window; as Sam and Marion kiss, the window-blind is closed behind them; until Sam, recalling his divorce, raises it angrily and reveals the building ‘with a thousand eyes’. A voyeurism theme? Conceivably, but more relevant to this particular dramatic situation is its secrecy, the need for which unsettles the lovers’ intimacy and privacy (unfashionable notion?). As, briefly, marriage looms, the lowered blind implies it. The building opposite appears as Sam wonders bitterly where his ex-wife is now and, in relation to that, the ‘many enigmatic windows out there’ echo her disappearance (with his money), his ‘lost intimacy’, his betrayal.

Food. Pointless, narrative-wise, is a quick shot of the sandwich Marion forgot, amidst a mucky litter of a meal. It’s an ‘atmosphere’ shot; almost, indeed, a metaphor, an emblem, for lunch-hour love as . . . fast food. (It’s punched in, its visual mess half-snags our eye, and it’s whisked off. The ‘double jolt’ and drastic speed contrast with the traditional idea, that symbolic details should hang about on-screen, to ‘sink in’.)

Appetite and Forgetfulness. Marion only nibbled at this food, but looks forward to a respectable family meal. Sam gleefully spots she forgot to eat; she reminds him he’s still barefoot. He’s scoring a sexual point: ‘I make you forget yourself.’ He’s scoring a childishness point.

Foreshadowings. Sam fondling bed-linen anticipates Norman’s daily linen-changing. As one or two critics remarked, Sam, advancing to stand over Marion, briefly looks like Norman, with the same black glinting eyes (and from certain angles Gavin and Perkins are the tall dark type). Come to think of it, both men are low-income stick-in-the-muds, hamstrung by past women, unable to escape dark, stifling homes, and psychologically unstable. And both men, talking to Marion, make a long, strong movement with their hands – Sam spreads both arms wide to agree with her, Norman’s right arm will reach to a small, stuffed, nocturnal bird.

Eye-lines. As Richard Roud noted, Antonioni’s movies abound in shots where A (usually a man) looks at B (usually a woman) who gazes out of frame, elusively, and as in passive search for she knows not what. Hitchcock’s ‘off-screen mirror’ shot has something of that quality, though Marion’s ‘horizon’ is near, firm, forceful and decisive.


It’s hard to know when such ‘incidental details’ – whether recurrent, like motifs, or local within a scene – are meant to carry some meaning, or are merely circumstantial details. But even when irrelevant, they may nonetheless contribute a visual restlessness, a sense of the ‘roughage’ of lived life, of its non-signifying ‘texture’, the ‘openness’ through which we move. They indicate the ‘randomness’ (or pseudo-randomness) of our existence, between meanings. Many dramas, especially realistic ones, need such details in order to ‘breathe’.

However, Hitchcock being a master-craftsman, with a degree of Soul, might he not endow his film with subtle details – for his own satisfaction? For kindred spirits and ‘unknown friends’ out there in the dark? For the ‘happy few’? For ‘the ideal reader’, should one exist? For connoisseurs who love maximising meaning in artistic texts? And if a text is rich enough,we tend to accept effects which any of the artists (including Leigh,Gavin and the rest) contributed, even unconsciously; nor do we fussily reject serendipity. Furthermore, Hollywood theory, and High Culture theory both agree that spectators and readers respond to far more than they realise, and that little details can escape conscious notice but still have some unconscious, preconscious or subliminal pay-off.

If sensed, the similarity of Sam and Norman might suggest the currently fashionable idea that as Laing used to say, sanity in our society is just another form of madness, and that Sam, Norman and the normative spectator are three of a kind – all ‘Guilty! Guilty! Guilty’ (to cite The PhantomTollbooth). Hitchcock would, I am sure, agree – but he might also insist that the similarities between sanity and madness don’t abolish the differences. In which Hitchcock would include the ‘conservative, reactionary’ defences – sexual taboos and repressions, prudent fears of punishment and of ruining one’s life, including even the need to be hypocritical (because we live in society). Sam’s ambivalence and unconscious cruelty to Marion are radically, systemically and forever alien to Norman’s.

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About The Author

Raymond Durgnat is Visiting Professor at the University of East London. His books include Films and Feelings (Faber and Faber, 1967), Jean Renoir (Studio Vista, 1975), King Vidor, American (co-author Scott Simmon, University of California Press, 1988) and WR - Mysteries of the Organism (BFI, 1999). His voluminous articles and reviews since the early '50s are discussed by the contributors to this Senses of Cinema Festschrift in his honour. His current projects include a book on Michael Powell, a collection of his essays on theory, and a website.

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