It was Raymond Durgnat, with Films and Feelings (1967), who taught me to conceive of a film’s “wavelength” (1). Putting the matter as succinctly as I can, Durgnat on Psycho reminds me of an FM radio that very often brings in one’s favourite station perfectly, but at other times loses the signal or is swamped by “noise” and static. Here’s an example of the “tuned-in” Durgnat:
The first half of Psycho is really a ‘lyrical drama of uncertainty’, a description of a mood, of deteriorating morale. It’s a mood painting in cinematic form, with a few symbolic figures, who do little more than touch off mood-change in Marion herself. […] Her drive is built, less from plot, than from Stimmung, and less from narrative than from narration (the control of information, e.g. retrospective detail after ellipsis). […] That is to say, it’s an exceptionally well-constructed film: it disregards the formulae, every last detail is custom-made. (pp. 68-69)
This is splendid stuff, equalling, let’s say, the best of Lotte Eisner. And Durgnat is just as astute about what is happening immediately following Marion’s murder: “Hitchcock’s primary interest [as Norman cleans up after ‘Mother’] is, not Norman’s ‘inner’ psychology, but Norman’s practical thinking and actions and their relation to the ‘heart of darkness’ that runs through all things.” (p.130)
No-one will object, I take it, to Durgnat’s saying that “every last detail is custom-made”, though of course the film’s storyline is basically that of Robert Bloch’s novel (1959) – which has a mood and lyricism of its own – including such significant matters as Marion’s headache, the stolen $40,000, the rain, the elaborate mirror imagery, and such characters as Sam, Lowery, Cassidy, and even “California Charlie” (as the film names him). We must allow Durgnat his approximations for the sake of their greater truth. Such a truth also underlies the reference to Stimmung (moody lighting) – confirmed when Durgnat describes Marion’s drive through the rain as expressionism disguised as lyrical realism (p.82). In support, I’d note elements in Psycho that may recall the quintessential German Expressionist play, Georg Kaiser’s From Morn till Midnight (1912, filmed in 1920) (2). Here I must quote at some length the scholar R.S. Furness:
[In Kaiser’s play, a] nameless bank cashier (3) passes through several stations in a process of self-exploration; he revolts against his meaningless life, steals 60,000 marks and sets off (‘bricht auf’) in search of frenzied excitement. […] The action becomes barely causal; the cashier indulges in the pleasures of the flesh […], and with an undeniable sadism exults in the frenzy of a six-day cycle race (4). Finally, in a Salvation Army Hall, he realizes the worthlessness of money and hurls it amongst the audience, who fight like wild beasts for it; betrayed by the Girl he shoots himself before a crucifix: his dying words sounding like ‘Ecce Homo’. […] (5)
Kaiser does not attempt to create rounded characters of flesh and blood: psychological naturalism was of no interest to him. The characters are stripped to bare essentials; they are frequently abstractions, types who point out the main tenets of the argument. The Salvation Army penitents could well be emanations from the protagonist’s mind, as in Strindberg; the symbol of death – the skeleton in the wintry trees, and finally in the wires holding the chandelier – is a warning and a projection of the cashier’s dread (6).
Further, Durgnat’s description of the first half (more accurately, the first third) of Psycho as being about “deteriorating morale” (though Marion, at least, seems to pull herself together shortly before her death) evokes a still more fundamental expressionism (7). At the end of his book, Durgnat “free-associates” from Psycho to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Books 1 and 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), explaining that these are all “spiritual journeys”. (p.229) It’s on thinking back to the reference to “deteriorating morale” that you surmise Durgnat’s free-association may not be as glib as it sounds (8). After all, both poems are indeed about “morale”, and Coleridge’s has an especially intriguing ending. On the one hand, the Wedding Guest has become “sadder and wiser”; on the other hand, the Ancient Mariner goes on his way reinvigorated in his endless quest to share his story of painfully won knowledge (9). You might almost equate the Wedding Guest with Sam and Lila at the end of Psycho, while the Ancient Mariner might be the film’s audience who have had their own story – or psychological profile – retold by Hitchcock, albeit without their ever becoming quite conscious of the fact. In which case, Hitchcock’s “expressionism” certainly isn’t remote from that of Strindberg or Kaiser. And the film’s recurring image of a grinning skull does function as a warning and projection of dread – that of Marion, in the first instance, but basically ours, the audience’s.
The only trouble is, I seem to be doing a lot of Durgnat’s work for him! He speculates and the reader interprets! I even have a similar quibble – if that’s what it is – about his reference to “the ‘heart of darkness’ that runs through all things”. Durgnat has taken the idea, unacknowledged, from the end of Robin Wood’s celebrated essay on Psycho where Wood notes that the film’s “themes are of course not new – obvious forerunners include Macbeth and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (10). In turn, Conrad very probably took the idea from Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) – one of his major inspirators (11) – whose concept of the world’s immanent Will is without parallel in Western thought in its description of that Will as “blind” and destructive as well as life-renewing and procreative. A death-force that is also a life-force – the very thing that I have been saying for years is fundamental in Hitchcock’s work (e.g., its ambiguous images of the sea) (12) and which Hitchcock himself all but equated with the very nature of film! (13) But Durgnat’s reading seems not to have extended to Schopenhauer (14), so, regrettably, he misses the opportunity to note the massive overlap of Schopenhauer’s thought with Coleridge’s! And here I must make a generalisation. It’s more than a quibble this time, and will sound arrogant. But I’ll try and demonstrate its truth. The fact is, ultimately Durgnat strikes me as writing in the dark, with an at-times hit-or-miss macho desperation – though that may be the secret of his appeal to his fans!
You see, there’s another scholar and critic whom I would rate above Durgnat on almost every count, and that’s Camille Paglia. Besides her excellent monograph on The Birds (15) – in which she indeed likens Hitchcock to Coleridge, on the grounds that The Birds (1963) belongs to “the main line of British Romanticism, descending from the raw nature-tableaux and sinister femmes fatales of Coleridge” (16) – I’m thinking of her masterly Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) (17). Practically every sentence in that 700-page book is brilliantly crafted, erudite, and to the point. Nor, I think, does the reader ever have occasion to question what Paglia’s point is. She has a marvellous thread concerning “the chthonian” and its relation to sex, nature, and the feminine realm, a topic you would think inherently (as well as literally) murky yet which she brings off with apparent ease – and which illuminates several Hitchcock films, including Psycho. (At one point she quotes Erich Neumann on “the linguistic connection in German between Mutter, mother; Moder, bog; Moor, fen; Marsch, marsh; and Meer, ocean”. (18) Think about it!) Her estimation of the power of imagery far exceeds Durgnat’s, I would say. Compared to her, he looks shallow and erratic.
Reader, you now know where I’m coming from! In what follows, please be aware that I’m not ungrateful to Durgnat for the stimulation he gives – namely, in those passages, often striking, where he hits on something essential about Hitchcock’s film, and the broadcast “signal” is loud and clear. As a reviewer, though, I’m duty-bound to report on Durgnat’s less impressive efforts, and several errors, and to draw conclusions. The most egregious instance first. This is sheer misinformation: “As usual with wide-screen,” Durgnat claims, “Psycho uses mostly a 28mm lens, or thereabouts.” (p.14) In fact, according to script supervisor Marshall Schlom (quoted in Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho) (19), throughout the film’s shooting Hitchcock insisted that a 50mm lens be used so as to approximate the normal field of human vision. (“He wanted the camera, being the eyes of the audience all the time, to let them [see as if] with their own eyes.”) (20) And another, almost as specious, claim, this time about the scene in the sheriff’s hallway when Sam and Lila come calling: “lovers of film-craft can find subtle delight in the plethora of discontinuities and cheats (e.g. how those columns shift around)”. (p.186) While it’s true that the technician Hitchcock often cheats (21), the scene in the sheriff’s house is hardly a rich instance of it (if at all). What is interesting about those columns is, first, that the sheriff, a pillar of the law, is consistently photographed either through them (as, grim-faced and tying his dressing-gown, he descends the stairs) or with them behind him. As far as I can reasonably judge, there is no discontinuity. (The columns are echoed in the design of the mantelpiece in the background. Perhaps that is what confused Durgnat.) Second, the columns anticipate those of the County Court House, to the façade of which Hitchcock cuts near the end of the film … (22)
Several of the film’s principal motifs, visual or otherwise, simply seem to elude Durgnat. I had forgotten how, in the script, the opening scene has Sam dreaming “of a far-off island where love comes free of complications”. (pp.31-32) This of course would have been the first of the film’s “private island” references, consistent with the greater “lost paradise” (or “corrupted garden”) theme that informs virtually all of Hitchcock (and Orson Welles). In this respect, the pivotal Cuban scenes in Topaz (1969) are exemplary. Durgnat makes neither the internal connection (to Marion and Norman’s conversation in Norman’s parlour, about “running away”) nor the external one (to Hitchcock’s other films), let alone attempting to relate such imagery to – notably – Psycho‘s swamp. Instead, we are offered another Durgnat “free-association” that I find maddening because, as so often, the stab in the gloom almost touches the truth yet ends up both skewed and pretentious. Love doesn’t in fact come free of complications, Durgnat notes. He continues: “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.” (p.32) Unfortunately for Durgnat’s theorising, something more fundamental than cannibalism animates the Hitchcock worm (23). (Paglia would have got it right!)
I admire Durgnat for taking some sort of stand over the controversial matter of Marion’s “ANL” number-plate – yet even here he fudges things! This is the gist of what he writes: “A close-up shows Marion’s number-plate; it reads ‘Arizona 59, ANL 705 (24), Grand Canyon State’. A-N-L, some critics believe, spells ‘anal’. It’s possible. By 1959, Freudian ideas of oral, anal and genital stages in child (and adult) sexuality were just entering ‘general educated knowledge’ (in England, this happened about ten years later). But, A-N-L is just as likely a random series, like 7-0-5, which no one ever offers to decode. But, Hitchcock was famous for practical jokes, and why not play a joke on Freudian decoders (and all those educated idiots who feel compelled to interpret every scrap of print they see)?” (pp. 61-62) So far, excellent! Go, Ray, go! Those “educated idiots” he mentions do seem to congregate in Hitchcock studies, more’s the pity! And Hitchcock was very capable of the sort of joking Durgnat refers to (cf. Annie Hayworth’s reference in The Birds to shallow Oedipal analysis). But he continues: “Marion [, though,] shows none of the anal characteristics listed in Freudian catalogues, so the ‘anal’ tag on her car tells us nothing at all.” (p.62) Oh, Ray! I mean no disrespect, but, in the context you’re invoking, that’s nonsense! Don’t you remember your great line in Films and Feelings – “Norman has pulled the chain” – comparing the Psycho swamp to a cesspool? (25) Haven’t you read David Sterritt’s discussion of cloacal imagery in Psycho in The Films of Alfred Hitchcock (1993) (26)? Don’t you see that the stolen money, if not the car itself, is likened by the film’s expressionism to a turd (27)?
Durgnat adds: “As for ‘Grand Canyon State’, a colleague insists that a canyon is a split, and that Freudian dream interpretation might well treat ‘Grand Canyon State’ as unconscious awareness of a ‘Seriously Split Mind’ (Marion’s ‘impulsion’, and, of course, Norman’s). So – OK Hitch, you win, I’m teased …” (p.62) But that’s too easy, Ray! Consider. I live in a State (Victoria, Australia) called the “Garden State”. If Marion’s number-plate had come from here, would I have had to consider it as confirmation of Hitchcock’s “lost paradise” theme? Besides, just about every other time in the book that you cite an opinion of your “colleagues”, it sounds (equally) unconvincing! (28) (Sorry, gentlemen!) And there are a couple of things that you should know. Joseph Stefano, who wrote the Psycho screenplay, has denied that there’s anything more tendentious about Marion’s number-plates than a way of telling the audience that she has left Arizona and is now in California (29). Of course, given that the script doesn’t specify what’s on the number-plates, it’s possible that Hitch, without telling Stefano, ordered them specially made for the film – except that there seems no record that he did. Indeed, director Richard Franklin (Psycho II) tells me that at least one of those number-plates (the California one, bearing the initials “NFB”) was that of a vehicle belonging to a member of Hitchcock’s crew, namely, assistant director Hilton Green! (30)
In sum, all that one can really conclude about this number-plates business – and probably much else in Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” – is that he applied his intelligence to it so as to discourage foreclosure, single interpretation. Multi-valence was all! (31)
Durgnat’s “forgetfulness” about his earlier analysis of Psycho in the excellent essay “Inside Norman Bates” (in Films and Feelings, et al.) seems to me to point up something else about latter-day Durgnat: his “political correctness” and/or his loss of nerve. Several would-be cogent observations in A Long Hard Look at ‘Psycho’ come to little: now you see them, now you don’t. Several of them concern sex or bodily functions. When, late in the book, Durgnat finally allows the “anal” into his Psycho-analysis (forgive punning), in a short section called “Secret Structures of the Anal Eye” (32), he is apologetic. (I suspected a leg-pull, but the apology seems seriously meant.) Here he contradicts what he had said about Marion not showing anal characteristics. Referring to the scene where she subtracts figures on a notepad and then flushes the figuring down the toilet, Durgnat writes: “the calculation expresses punctiliousness (another ‘anal’ characteristic)”. He briefly mentions the film’s suggestive “black hole” imagery: “the eye-plughole cross-fade ‘collapses’ the ‘looking’ theme into a black hole through which dirty things escape.” (p.225) Then he concludes the section revealingly: “As we go to press, I came across this note from the director of WR – Mysteries of the Organism (1971), a deeply thoughtful movie about psychoanalysis and America: ‘the sphincter is the most authoritative of muscles, that which concentrates the greatest number of social pressures. Western society, which is extremely anal, through its obsession with profit, work, leads to paranoia.’ However, psychoanalysis [is] certainly not a ‘master-key’ to Psycho‘s structure, or Hitchcock’s films, it’s just one aspect among many others.” (p.226)
Quite true, though you would think that the film’s title – and the psychoanalytic subject-matter of the earlier Spellbound (1945), not to mention Hitchcock’s stated predilection for stories with “lots of psychology” (33) – would warrant psychoanalysis being given more than just one or two apologetic pages (out of the book’s 200+). For that matter, some direct comparison with Spellbound‘s surreal b/w images (e.g., peering eyes, gleaming bathroom fittings) and paranoia-inducing authority-figures (doctors, policemen, desk clerks) would have been in order.
To round out my point about Durgnat’s “forgetfulness” and/or loss of nerve, I note that another of his keen observations from “Inside Norman Bates” – that the Eroica record on the gramophone in Norman’s house suggests “erotica” – goes unmentioned this time. Now we’re simply asked, “adulthood briefly attained, or pathetic aspiration or megalomania?” (p.205) For what it’s worth, Durgnat might have invoked here the scene in The Wrong Man (1957) where Manny’s two boys quarrel over a piece of Mozart and one of them claims that he is old enough to have written it himself! I call such moments in Hitchcock instances of the director’s “outflanking technique” – which is another idea (like a film’s “wavelength”) that I probably got from Durgnat in the first place! (34)
“Inside Norman Bates” was a succinct, enjoyable essay in which everything mentioned could be seen by the reader to fit – or, at any rate, to have a stylistic warrant on Durgnat’s part for being there. The essay’s very provocativeness, and pungency, helped concentrate the reader’s mind wonderfully! (35) A Long Hard Look is more likely to leave the reader feeling, if not exhausted, then inclined to ask, “What was all that about?” It lacks sustained focus. It doesn’t end – it runs out. When the patrolman’s dark glasses are mentioned (p.59), it’s by way of an anecdote about how they weren’t “foreseen by Hitchcock, they were suggested, on set, by the actor”. What Durgnat doesn’t note is the happy continuity, in that case, with the “blinding” theme that opposes (and complements) the “looking” theme, and which culminates in the dark, staring eye-sockets of “Mrs Bates” in the fruit cellar. (The “blindness” in Psycho is that of authority and the law, of human beings generally, and ultimately of the world’s Will.) In turn, the theme relates to the “black hole” motif and the film’s several tracking-shots into darkness – first pointed out by Robin Wood. Note the connection to the “heart of darkness” (and madness) idea. The whole of Psycho is a long day’s journey into night. A pity that Durgnat doesn’t mention it.
In this context, the film’s several allusions to (mother’s) milk (e.g., Cassidy’s remark, “It’s as hot as fresh milk in here!”) find their place. The journey into night is, after all, from womb to tomb; and the connection of our “chthonian” nature with mothers and motherhood has been well demonstrated by Paglia. Marion steals Cassidy’s $40,000 (intended by him to buy a house as wedding-gift for his “baby” daughter) so that she can marry Sam (paying off alimony to his ex-wife “on the other side of the world somewhere”) (36) and have a baby by him. The money is, in effect, a “stand-in” baby, as well as a turd. She had intended to present it to Sam, much as a child, until properly toilet-trained (37), might present its faeces to its parent as a “gift”. For most of these connotations there are precedents in Hitchcock, though Durgnat is probably unaware of them (38). That doesn’t stop him from writing this neat observation in a paragraph headed “The Hidden Persuaders” (invoking Vance Packard’s best-selling non-fiction book from 1957): “By 1959, many analysts of ‘sales appeal’ would have linked ‘Momism’ […], and its special fondness for breasts and for drinking milk, with Marion’s white bra, her two firm packs of dollar bills and the curvy milk jug on Norman’s tray (it’s his civilised self playing Mother).” (p.100) Prompted by the reference to the jug, I checked the scene in the film and was struck by its resemblance to the famous moment in Suspicion (1941) when Johnnie brings Lina a glass of milk that may be poisoned. On that occasion, Hitchcock put a light in the milk. (Incidentally, the multi-valence of the milk in Suspicion involves two ironic symbolisms: respectively, a mother’s milk, a husband’s semen. Which of course anticipates Psycho‘s ironies.) (39) For the Psycho scene, I shouldn’t be surprised if Hitchcock spotlighted the jug. Certainly, as Norman carries the tray past the open door of his office, light streams out and the jug positively glows!
Finally, and crucially, there’s the film’s shower-murder scene. What does Durgnat make of it? I have to say: little that is new. Again his nerve failed him. A nice observation gets spoilt: “At the start,” writes Durgnat, “[the shower-head] blesses Marion with its ‘healing rain’, and she turns her face gratefully up to it, like a sunflower to the sun; as she soaps her face and neck, her hands come together, almost like a prayer (serendipitously I’m sure).” (p.120) Right on – except that I’m far from certain that Marion’s prayer-like gesture (which I had never properly noticed) is serendipitous. On the contrary, it now looks to me like a deliberate piece of choreography by Hitchcock, absolutely consistent with both an expressionist notion of Marion-as-sacrificial-victim (40), and, specifically, with Kaiser’s betrayed bank cashier uttering the words “Ecce Homo” as he dies. Even more specifically, my own interpretation of Marion as an aspiring “angel” brutally cut down at Heaven’s gate (as I’ll explain) readily accommodates such a “penitential” gesture. Durgnat himself quotes a rhyme by William Camden (1551-1623): “Between the stirrup and the ground/ He mercy sought, and mercy found”. (p.117) As Durgnat might have put it (and probably did, in “Inside Norman Bates”!), Marion decides, after her conversation with Norman, to “come clean”. Presumably, on her trip back to Phoenix to return the money, she’d have worn her white bra again. The clearest-possible prolepsis of her death is the moment in Norman’s parlour when the camera lingers in close-up on a framed oval painting of ascending angels – over which is cast the ominous shadow of a crow with a knife-like beak. And the shower-head is nothing if not suggestive of a halo or nimbus, much like when Marion’s sister, Lila, in Sam’s hardware store, is repeatedly photographed with an “effulgence” of garden rakes behind her (41).
The bathroom, with its “blinding white tiles” (something that Hitchcock insisted on) (42), has a double aptness not noted by Durgnat. It brings the “blinding” theme home with a vengeance, in keeping with the use of the 50mm lens to approximate the audience’s act of looking (43) and the effect on the viewer of the knife-murder itself (44). Also, the American bathroom is a symbol, invoking the mother’s voice. (In Hitchcock’s film, of course, “Mother” is heard loud and clear – and preternaturally – just before Marion and Norman take supper.) In this respect, Durgnat makes passing reference to anthropologist Margaret Mead (45), but fails to zero in on details. Here’s a passage he might well have used, from Male and Female (1949), in which Mead links the mother’s voice to toilet-training, a universal growing-up experience: “The clean white-tiled restaurant and the clean white-tiled bathroom are both parts of the [social] ritual, with the mother’s voice standing by, saying: ‘If every rule of health is complied with, then you can enjoy life.’” (46) Because it was new and different, Psycho on its first release was one of the scariest movies ever made (47). But its continued, and justified, reputation surely concerns something else – let’s call it the art (as opposed to artiness) that proceeds from an engaged imagination and which, in Goethe’s phrase, has “the dignity of significance”.
To sum up. Too much of what Durgnat writes is off-beam, occasionally nonsense. He thinks that, for the sake of plausibility, Marion should have phoned ahead to Sam to tell him she was bringing him a nice surprise (p.55) – but surely Sam would have tried to dissuade her and she’d have done it all for nothing? Which is why, I imagine, in the film she doesn’t ring ahead. It’s the equivalent of the typical situation in Hitchcock’s thrillers that he knew must always be worked out, involving the question, “Why don’t the hero and heroine go to the police?” Another problem that many readers of Durgnat’s book will encounter is that there is so much dross. When an observation is skewed or unconvincing, it is also irrelevant – even if you can find core arguments for it to be relevant to. On the other hand, Durgnat in small doses can be a stimulant and a tonic. I’m grateful for the information that “English culture is less ardently optimistic [than American culture] and English audiences [as opposed to American audiences] didn’t become hysterical” when Psycho was released (p.75). I’ve no ready means of testing what Durgnat says here, like a lot of other assertions he makes, but it’s thought-provoking. And, Heaven knows, a director as devious, cosmopolitan and multi-valent as Hitchcock needs someone like Durgnat – a “lesser” Paglia, it’s true, yet still impressive! – to help explicate his work to all concerned.
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- I have followed Durgnat’s career with interest. When Films and Feelings (London: Faber and Faber, 1967) came out, I reviewed it for The Australian. I remember writing that, whatever the qualities of the book as a whole, the section called “A Little Dictionary of Poetic Motifs” was “undeniably splendid”. It occurs to me that Durgnat’s book on Psycho, likewise, is most impressive when dealing with the “poetry” of Hitchcock’s film.
- Von morgens bis mitternachts “seemed to be the quintessence of German Expressionist theatre, and made Kaiser’s name and method famous outside Germany; after the war it was staged in London and New York, and also made into a film by Karlheinz Martin.” This passage, and the one in the text, are from R.S. Furness, Expressionism (London: Methuen, 1973), p. 56.
- Cf. the character named Mr Zero in the American expressionist play The Adding Machine (1923) by Elmer Rice. According to R.S. Furness, Rice’s play “owes an obvious debt to Kaiser” (p. 88). In turn, there are elements of The Adding Machine in Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1932) and North by Northwest (1959). Up to a point, Psycho‘s Marion Crane (whom Hitchcock called “a perfectly ordinary bourgeoise”) also fits the mould.
- For what it’s worth, I note that Durgnat thinks Marion, during her drive, some kind of thug: “She’s running on empty – of feeling for others.” (p.84)
- “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) cried Pontius Pilate when he presented Christ to the people before the Crucifixion (John 19: 2-5) – words later adopted by Friedrich Nietzsche (or his executors?) for the title of the review of his life and works written in 1898 and posthumously published in 1908. R.S. Furness comments: “Nietzsche’s imperious apostasy thrilled a whole generation of poets and thinkers; his emphasis upon idealism, upon the will and upon passionate ecstasy found its counterpart in the intense subjectivity of many of the expressionists, and their demand for a New Man […] Above all, it was Nietzsche’s worship of creativity and the life-force which struck the deepest roots in the new mentality.” (Furness, p. 8) Hitchcock’s attitude to Nietzsche was always ambivalent, much like that of John Buchan in The Power House (1913). But that ambivalence made for several “Hitchcockian” qualities, and Psycho, I think, exhibits most of them.
- Furness, p. 56 (as already noted). I’ll take up this passage at various points in the present review of Durgnat’s book.
- John Willett, Expressionism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), allows three different meanings, or degrees, of the term “expressionism”, the broadest of which is “a quality of expressive emphasis and distortion which may be found in works of art of any people or period“. (p. 8)
- If “spiritual journey” were the sole criterion, we’d have a practically endless number of works to compare – Huckleberry Finn and Voss, for two! Not a lot of help, Ray! So here I am, tidying up for you!
- And wisdom. “He prayeth best, who loveth best/ All things both great and small;/ For the dear God who loveth us,/ He made and loveth all.” (ll. 614-17) The need to attain reverence and compassion for all things is an almost Schopenhauerian idea (except for the reference to a Deity), and anticipates, too, late Strindberg (notably A Dream Play). In a way, the de-emphasis on ego at the end of several Hitchcock films also fits here.
- Robin Wood, Hitchock’s Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p.150
- For a good short report on how Conrad’s “pessimism” may have been principally indebted to Schopenhauer, see Bryan Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 385-86. The main character in Conrad’s Victory (1915), Axel Heyst, is the son of a philosopher who is modelled on Schopenhauer. Magee notes how Schopenhauerian references are recurrent in the dialogue. At one point Heyst says: “I don’t think. Something in me thinks – something foreign to my nature.” (Note the conflation of Heyst’s problem with Oedipal issues – as in Hitchcock.) At another point, the murderer who crashes in on Heyst’s detached existence says to him: “I am the world itself, come to pay you a visit.” (It almost sounds like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train or Rear Window!)
- For a study of sea-symbolism in poetry and literature, the reader is referred to the classic work by W.H. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood (1951). For an instance of the ambiguity I refer to in the text, cf. the narration at the start of Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), where the sea is called a place of “life and death and eternity too”.
- Hitchcock equated the progression of film images containing movement, or incipient movement, in the camera or in the projector, with the nature of both cinema in general and something else again. In an interview with Hitchcock by Jean Domarchi and Jean Douchet, the concept is called the “moving-around principle”. By implication, it refers to the life-force (which is also a death-force). See the relevant passage in James Naremore (ed.), North by Northwest (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), p. 179. The full “Interview with Alfred Hitchcock” is on pp. 177-85. It originally appeared as “Entretien avec Alfred Hitchcock” in Cahiers du Cinéma 102 (December 1959), pp. 17-28.
- Let alone my The Alfred Hitchcock Story (London: Titan Books, 1999), with its insistent Schopenhauer references!
- Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: BFI Film Classics, 1998).
- Paglia, 1998, p. 7.
- Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. My copy was published by Penguin Books, 1991.
- Paglia, 1991, p. 93.
- Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: Harper, 1991).
- Rebello, p. 93.
- For example, Hitchcock used often to intercut on-location long-shots with matched studio medium-shots and close-ups.
- Another Durgnat error follows hard on the misleading remarks just cited. In a sentence headed, all to itself, “An Obscene Idea”, he claims: “Mrs Chambers brightly suggests that the figure Sam saw was not Mrs Bates but Marion.” (p.86) But no, Mrs Chambers does no such thing! (All his life, Durgnat seems to have been given to mis-remembering scenes and re-imagining scenarios of the movies he wrote about. I rather suspect that there was something pathological about it.)
- Of course, if you look hard enough through Durgnat’s book, you’ll probably find passing reference to an idea that would have served him in the present context. The “heart of darkness” idea (p.130) is one such. Or Durgnat’s remark (p.86) that “humans, left to themselves, are naturally wicked (like Dr Jekyll)” is another. (In that vein, Thomas Hobbes and Schopenhauer were fond of quoting, after Plautus, “Homo Homini Lupus” [“Man is a wolf to man”]. I think that Hitchcock would have agreed.)
- 709, actually!
- Durgnat, 1967, p. 213. The essay called “Inside Norman Bates” was reprinted in Durgnat’s The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), where the line I’ve quoted appears on p. 326.
- David Sterritt, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993). The chapter on Psycho can be found on pp. 100-18.
- Famously, the psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, elaborating Freud’s concept of “Character and Anal Eroticism”, equated money and faeces. Hitchcock, who loved to toy with ideas like that, went on to realise his ambition to show a city turning produce into waste (cf. Ruttmann’s Berlin ) by making Frenzy (1972) – though surely not because of the homonym with “Ferenczi”? (On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past him.) We’re back to the idea of a life-force that is also a death-force. Hitchcock in Frenzy had particular fun with the suggestiveness of potatoes and potato sacks in the rear of a lorry, from which, eventually, a woman’s nude body is ejected, along with several potatoes, onto a roadway. In Psycho, the money (and Marion’s corpse) in the boot of her car in the sticky black swamp is a forerunner of the Frenzy scene (though note that the car bears the number-plate prefix “NFB”, not “ANL” – you can’t have everything!).
- The strange thing in this particular case, though, is how the idea of “a split” could suggest, er, buttocks! And surely (!) the reference to the Grand Canyon also anticipates the film’s swamp? I mean, isn’t it obvious?!!!
- Stefano was a guest speaker, on a screenwriters’ panel, at the Hitchcock Centennial Conference held in New York City, in August 1999.
- So much for Donald Spoto’s suggestion, in the first edition of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1976), p. 375, that “NFB” stands for “Norman Francis Bates” (St Francis being the patron saint of birds and animals) – not to mention similar speculations by others, such as one suggestion that the “F” might stand for “Ford” because Hitchcock apparently had a payola deal with General Motors, one of his major TV sponsors at the time. Likewise, I’ve heard that there was speculation by reviewers about the “meaning” of Madame Blanche’s number-plate in Family Plot (1976), speculation which screenwriter Ernest Lehman knew to be wrong – the number-plate had been his!
- On Notorious (1946), Hitchcock applied himself to removing from the film all overt explanations of Devlin’s behaviour towards Alicia. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work (London: Phaidon Press, 2000): “In the film as we have it, any information about [Devlin’s] past which might help us puzzle out his present behaviour has […] been eliminated.” (p. 92)
- There had been some foreshadowing, naturally. For example, on p. 117 Durgnat writes of “that [Freudian] fantasy figure, the anal mouth and eye”.
- Quoted in Sidney Gottlieb (ed.), Hitchcock on Hitchcock (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 131. The piece in question, “Core of the Movie – The Chase”, originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950.
- In “Inside Norman Bates”, Durgnat writes of the scene where Norman cleans up after “Mother” – “the action of an exceptionally dutiful son. The presence of Marion’s naked corpse is both erotic and extremely uncomfortable.” He adds: “The spectator’s moral purity is being outflanked at both ends – by morbid, pornographic interest, and by a sympathetic pity for charming Norman.” See Durgnat, 1967, p.213; Durgnat, 1974, pp. 325-26.
- Reader, you know of course how Samuel Johnson once said: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Good psychological insight, that! By contrast, A Long Hard Look at ‘Psycho’ seems to assume that the reader has all the time in the world. The book’s would-be exhaustiveness may test – and, yes, exhaust – some readers and their patience.
- Sam’s line is full of self-pity, anticipating Richard Blaney in Frenzy. Interestingly, there’s an implied appeal to the mother-instinct of Marion, and of Brenda and Babs (and the viewer, especially the female viewer), respectively.
- Something to be discussed in the text, in a moment.
- In Hitchcock’s very first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), Patsy on her honeymoon visits Lake Como where she ogles local babies, clearly desirous of having her own. Rich and Strange also emphasises the maternal urge – on the part of the aptly called Em, wife of accountant Fred, though it only surfaces after both of them have had their initially separate flings on a calamitous sea-voyage (the “running away” to seek a “private island” motif, nearly 30 years before Psycho). Then there’s the “lost paradise” motifs of Spellbound, The Paradine Case (1947), and Under Capricorn (1949) – the latter noteworthy here for a scene involving a shrunken head in a street outside the Bank of New South Wales, which always reminds me of the Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) where Jerry Cruncher is a bank-messenger by day and a grave-robber by night. The very absence of babies in these films represents an implied aridity of a different order.
- Cf. also the moment from an early draft of The Trouble With Harry (1955) in which young Arnie squirts his new father-in-law with milk from a toy gun. On the Oedipal connotations of this, Ed Sikov comments: “Through this comic business, Arnie’s first appearance in the film is clarified: it is he who, on the level of interpreted dreams, has shot [his real father] Harry with his ray gun […] Arnie shoots his new father, too – this time (figuratively) with his own mother’s milk, the progenitor of his own sexual fluid.” See Ed Sikov, Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 173.
- Another intriguing parallel – strong enough to suggest influence – is with a passage in the novel by “Francis Beeding” (the nom de plume of a popular writing team), The House of Dr Edwardes (1927), the basis of Spellbound. The asylum inmate named Miss Archer is “sacrificed” by some of the other inmates. As they lead her to the place, she sees a white radiance and feels herself surrounded by angels telling her to “steep herself in the water of life which she knew to be flowing there”. “… And at that moment the knife fell, and the blood spurted, and her spirit passed to prove the truth of her vision.” (Chapter Ten, section II)
- Durgnat describes the scene with the rakes as follows, connecting it with the gnarled, cruciform tree by the swamp (though not with the film’s “angels” imagery, which he never identifies): “As Sam leaves Lila, the camera dwells on her silhouetted face, haloed by the black hooks of tall, stacked rakes. Norman, likewise shadow-shrouded, stands brooding beside the swamp, a white tree behind him like a jerkily poised skeleton.” (pp.178-79) There is a precedent in Robert Bloch’s novel for imagery linking the two sisters (as the “angels” imagery, and related dialogue and literary allusions, do in the film). Late one afternoon, as Lila and Sam walk through the streets of Fairvale, the shadow of a bayonet on a statue of a Civil War veteran “grazed Lila’s throat. […] She raised her face defiantly, and the sharp shadow line slashed across her neck. For a moment, it looked as though somebody had just cut off Lila’s head. …” (Chapter 12) For an extended discussion of the imagery and literary allusions I refer to here, including an elaborate conceit of the film connecting it to John Milton’s sonnet known as “On His Blindness” – where two orders of angels are invoked – the reader should consult my essay on Psycho in the forthcoming anthology Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press), edited by Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw. (I have also discussed that imagery at some length on the MacGuffin website, though the material has been taken down for now.)
- See Rebello, p. 102 (cf. p. 70).
- And that of several of the characters. If I’m not mistaken, in the scene where Norman uses a hole in the wall to spy on Marion undressing, the 50mm lens is retained for the subjective shot of what he sees.
- “Assailing” the audience is carried even further in The Birds (e.g., when an hysterical mother appears to accuse us of being the cause of the bird attacks, and when, moments later, an angry seagull flies straight at the camera in a telephone booth). Repeatedly, the bird attacks are directed at people’s eyes. In an interview, Hitchcock invoked the H. G. Wells story “The Kingdom of the Blind”.
- In a paragraph on pp. 98-99 headed “Mother Knows Best”, Durgnat defines “Momism” as “the matriarchal/schoolmarmish tendencies in American culture”, and throws off, like sparks, a list of texts (including one by Mead), Broadway hits, jazz allusions, and movie titles. He concludes: “’Momism’ has much to do, of course, with ‘the feminine mystique’, though their interaction cannot concern us here.” One wants to ask: what’s stopping you, Ray? (Paglia wouldn’t have, that’s for sure!)
- In my essay on Psycho included in Schneider and Shaw’s anthology, I invoke an even more “classical” text that shifts matters well beyond present-day America: the poem “The Retreate” by Milton’s contemporary Henry Vaughan. It begins: “Happy those early dayes! when I/ Shin’d in my Angell-infancy./ Before I understood this place/ Appointed for my second race,/ Or taught my soul to fancy ought/ But a white, Celestiall thought’. This is “lost paradise” imagery at its most basic. For a brief discussion, invoking Freud, of its “pre-Oedipal” connotations, see the entry on Spellbound in Mogg (1999), pp. 96-97.
- Several writers have evoked their first-time experience of seeing Psycho, and for several of them that coincided with its initial cinema release. Australian readers, in particular, may enjoy Professor Peter Conrad’s account of sneaking into a Hobart cinema at age 13, where, as he puts it figuratively, “I lost my virginity”. See Peter Conrad, The Hitchcock Murders (London and New York: Faber and Faber, 2000), p. 3ff.