When Alfred Hitchcock released 'Psycho' in 1960 I'm sure even he wasn't quite aware just how much impact the film would eventually have. It shocked audiences to their core. To say that it changed the landscape of cinema would not be hyperbole. The very idea that a "boy next door" type like Norman Bates would not only be capable of committing these horrendous murders but that he would perform them under the alluding guise of his own mother’s personality was truly insane. It was territory that audiences were not prepared to tread to. But they did and 'Psycho' has become one of Hitchcock’s most successful and enduring pictures.
'Psycho' tells the story of Mommy’s boy Norman Bates (played impeccably by Anthony Perkins) who owns and runs a small-time motel off the beaten track. When a pretty secretary named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) arrives seeking a room for the night, Norman’s deep seeded, dark temptations take over him and he kills her in one of cinema’s finest ever murder scenes. The remainder of the film is Norman attempting to cover his tracks from a prying Detective Arbogast and Marion’s worried sister Lila while maintaining some semblance of sanity.
There's no denying that Norman Bates was a psycho...but was he the only one?
Of course Marion Crane didn’t kill anyone in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic but her behaviour tells a deeper, more profound story. One that is often overshadowed by Norman’s eccentricity.
It’s very easy to throw the Marion Crane “subplot” under the rug as a precursor to the “main” story or as simply a red herring to fluster the audience into a false sense of security. It’s not a subplot at all. It’s so much more than that.
For most of the film we follow Marion as she flees to a safe place to await her boyfriend Sam Loomis in the wake of an impulsive robbery that she has committed. During these scenes we get to know her a little bit. Her relationship with Sam. Her relationship with her boss. This essentially works as a sort of backstory to her sudden and shocking murder, or so we’re led to believe. In fact we’re with her for over half the entire film. From her intimate introduction through the crack in the hotel window, to her actually committing the crime and plotting her escape and then eventually putting some distance between her and the crime scene. Nobody spends half the entire runtime of a film exploring a character and her recent backstory just as a means to sway the audience in the wrong direction, especially a filmmaker with as much reverence as Alfred Hitchcock. Everything we’re seeing Marion say or do onscreen only helps us to further understand what the film is about and certainly what the title may suggest.
'Psycho' may actually be one of the most over analysed films of all time (with Stanley Kubrick’s 'The Shining') and Hitchcock himself was heavily interested in the psychoanalyzation of cinema. This suggests that nothing is wasted and that everything that he presents to us in the film has meaning.
Norman and Marion are more deeply connected than we’re led to believe. In fact their characters, though opposite, are complementary to each other. In many ways they are two sides of the same coin. Like night and day. The ying and yang. They are alike but very much “other”. We’ve spoken about Freud’s Uncanny in previous articles (see Scary Kids: Where To Find Them & Why? and Carnival of Souls: A Jungian Reading) so we won’t go into intricate details here but his theory mostly represents what Hitchcock was attempting to achieve, and in many ways succeeded. The idea that Norman and Marion are familiar yet different is highlighted in various scenes throughout the film but perhaps the most obvious way that Hitchcock portrays their connection is during the famous car scene as she drives through the day and night just before she stops at her final destination at the Bates Motel.
Unlike much of what we’ve already seen of Marion up to this point so far, here she is alone in her car with her own subjective thoughts. Hitchcock reveals character here through her internal reality, exposed as the voices of people that she’s already come in contact with, like her boss’ accusatory voice clearly stating that he thought she was trustworthy. This might be the most important scene in the entire film in helping us to understand what Hitchcock was really trying to infer. As we drift from day to night the scene transitions change from traditional fades to cuts. Slow fades usually represent the passing of time but here the cuts indicate that Marion isn’t aware of the time changing and that she may be drifting in and out of reality. As the weather worsens the camera moves closer to Marion’s face while losing focus of the background, signalling that her surroundings are becoming suffocating or that she is mentally shifting from one reality to another. Her character has changed. She has become closer to Norman before she ever even meets him. But for a few seconds she reveals her true character. At the end of this scene she looks directly into the camera lens and smiles softly.
Who else does the exact same thing later on in the film?
Yes. As Norman Bates sits solemnly in the jailhouse, covered in that infamous dark blanket, he hears the voice of his Mother subjugating her dominance over him. It’s his internal reality, the same thing that Marion experiences during the car scene, and he looks directly into the camera lens and smiles softly. Familiar but different. Lots of their scenes together have mirrors positioned in glaringly obvious areas in front of the camera. So that when the two are conversing with each other we can actually see a reflection of them talking. Their “other”. It’s usually only one reflection that we see. In the motel office we see Marion’s reflection in the huge mirror by the desk as Norman nervously checks her in. Later on outside the office it’s Norman’s turn to have his reflection seen in the window as he offers her milk and a meal.
Freud also wrote that the uncanny doesn’t only refer to the familiarity of something different but also that it can sometimes represent some deeply unsatisfying and hidden aspects of ourselves that we see in others. This is also evident in Norman and Marion’s relationship. They’re both normal people living a fantasy life of sorts and their fantasies are eerily similar.
When we first meet Marion in the anonymous hotel room during her forbidden encounter with Sam Loomis, she admits that all she wants is a respectable meal with her lover “in my house with my mother’s picture on the mantle.” She is also wearing white lingerie in this scene. Later on after she has checked into the Bates Motel she shares a respectable meal with Norman in the motel parlour only this time it’s under the shadow of the house where we think Norman’s mother is watching. This isn’t just Marion’s fantasy but it’s actually Norman’s fantasy too. When Norman peeps through the hole in the wall we see that Marion is wearing black lingerie. This feels like a concise attempt to reveal more character about Marion and how she has changed in the wake of her crime. Obviously stealing an enormous amount of money from her boss isn’t in the same league as killing innocent women however it does at least have her playing the same sport as Norman.
Even their names sound a little similar. Norman and Marion. Maybe a conscious effort was made to change the original character name from Robert Bloch’s novel from Mary to Marion to help emphasize this.
Look, there’s no doubt that the psycho in question here really is Norman but through Marion and how Hitchcock knowingly reveals her character, the lines do become slightly blurred the more you watch this masterpiece. It was the want to please and desire of another human being that made Marion commit her crime and it was the want to please and desire of his Mother that made Norman commit his.
- Gavin Logan