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Tiik Pollet
Style and Ideology in Cinema
April 26, 2004

PsychoLogic: The Twin Stories

Norman and Marion. You have to wonder if the choice of first names for these two main characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho was intentional. Shuffle around the letters in Marion’s name and you get Normai. Scramble the letters in Norman’s name and you get Maronn. Norman/Maronn and Marion/Normai. An inside joke? Or, an indication of the similar and dual natures of their personalities and inner struggles? The differences in the two names are the "i" in Marion and the extra "n" in Norman. Does the "i" have a secret meaning? Does the "n" have a mysterious message? And Marion’s scrambled name as Normai is just too suspiciously similar to mother Bates’ first name. Oh, you didn’t know? Mother Bates’ first name was Norma. Is the Marion character a reverse image, like a sort of kinder, gentler Mother Bates? Hitchcock is certainly not above dribbling around secrets and fun little things to look at and listen for in his films. Whether or not I have hit on something here, Norman Bates and Marion Crane are definitely two stories in the same film that fit together to present one significant idea.

Psycho, through the genre of thriller, expresses an ideology. Using the two story style to do so, it puts forth morals and values that are held by mainstream Christian America, starting with "thou shalt not have sexual relations out of wedlock", that is, if "thou art" women. Add to that "thou shalt not steal" and we have the two sins of Marion Crane who can be said to represent the idea of the ?good girl gone bad? story. By exploring her heterosexuality outside of wedlock, she is a sinner on the road to becoming a whore, and stealing money from her employer makes her a criminal on the road to becoming a felon. As a good girl gone bad she has a conscience that loudly nags her for her transgressions. The secrecy of her lover relationship causes her to feel disrespected, and she does not enjoy the guilt of her conscience after she steals the money. Being bad is not much fun for Marion. Norman Bates is a good boy gone bad, though by the time we meet him he is a bad boy gone worse. He has murdered and, just like one of his birds, stuffed his mother, which makes him a sinner and a criminal on the road to becoming a "psycho". Of course, by the time we meet him he already is. He then murders both Marion Crane and P.I. Arbogas, and it is likely that he has killed his father. Norman Bates may represent the devil himself, or, all that has or can go wrong in a society without Christian morals and values.

The two stories when separated would be interesting individual films in themselves, so why put them together? The genius of this combination is that Norman Bates is there to serve as Marion Cranes punishment for her sins, and Marion is there to save Norman from his sins. Marion’s punishment is losing her life at the hands of the "devil". Norman is played up as the devil in a variety of ways. During the parlor scene when he chats with Marion about his mother, he is shot from an angle below his head while one or two of the large wall mounted stuffed hawks, with its wings spread, looms ominously above his head in the background. The lighting is setup to cast threatening shadows off the birds wings. It is an effective technique because the birds are in no way docile and are clearly there to provoke. Juxtaposing these two stories helps to exaggerate their differences more than their similarities, though Norman and Marion actually have a lot in common, including secret lives, criminal behaviors, being alone, dealing with guilty consciences, complications with sex, voices, and they stuff things. Yes, stuff things. While Norman Bates stuffs birds and his mother, Marion Crane stuffs suitcases and money into hiding places.

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Water is a significant part of Marion’s story because each time water comes into her scene, the music stops and we hear only natural sounds, predominantly the water striking whatever surfaces. Initially it is the water of rain as she drives away from her ?good girl? life and further into her ?bad girl? life, struggling with her guilty conscience. The rain has a threatening quality to it because it is a storm rain rather than a gentle summer shower, which clues us in to the suspenseful possibility that Marion is surely heading for danger. The close shot of her face as she drives gives the viewer a look into her current madness as her faces expresses her anguish and paranoia. Let’s face it. She looks whacked! When Marion is in the cabin room, after she decides to return the money, the water of the shower serves as a symbolic washing away her sins. Unfortunately for her it is a gesture too late to save her from the "devil". Naked and alone in the shower, she is at her most vulnerable moment when the Norman devil strikes, driving home the severe religious message that changing your mind after the fact may be too late for a "bad girl".

When Norman murders Marion he also kills her changes for a new life of marriage and motherhood, two things she hopes for. Motherhood is a theme in this thriller and is treated as a condition that is to be considered dangerous. The message is, if you have a son you may be killed by him. (and stuffed?) Mothers are bad! If you hope to be one, you may be killed before you succeed. Mothers are bad, damn it! Why would the viewer be implored to consider this tragic idea? Consider this. "Psycho" was shot during theViet Nam war and Feminist era’s when Americans faced enormous psychological anguish. Men who were committed to the horrors of a long, seemingly senseless war returned to a country who hated them and women who demanded they change their attitudes about women and themselves. Using the devices of shock and horror, "Psycho" calls on mothers and wanna-bees, to consider their choice carefully. After all, you could lose your son to war and/or he may come back from war in anguish and need your deepest affection, love and support. Do not tell him he has to change everything about his manhood. It is just too much for him and he may just "psyche out". <insert bird screeches> Norman’s remark, "We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?" can be seen as a view of the Viet Nam war and the psychological effect it had on Americans, and Norman can be seen as the horror of the Viet Nam war and the effects of the war. In a larger sense, Marion's "bad girl" side can be seen as the heterosexual feminist when she takes off on her own, unfortunately on the wrong side of the law. But then, what would the right side of the law be for a feminist in the 1960’s?

Marion is killed off so early in the film that it may be difficult to imagine how she is Norman’s saviour. Marion and her story can be considered one and the same thing. Her story includes her sister, friends, employer andacquaintances who search for her and does not stop with her death because they keep it alive. In their search they come into Norman’s story, find him out and capture him. This is how Marion is Norman’s saviour. In his capture he is saved from himself and further harm to others. In his defeat he is saved. In this way no position is taken on motherhood or feminism because they are neither one fully triumphant or fully a failure. Norman's’ story, when told to the viewer through Norman, is riddled with what is not said and what is lurking in the riddle of what is said. This is a good technique to keep the viewer guessing and is used effectively in this thriller. Norman suggests that he is trapped and that Marion is likely trapped as well when he says, "We are all in our traps." Marion is quite literally trapped by Norman minutes later in the shower. Though it is not blatantly stated, his homosexuality is implied a number of times. His body language can be seen as effeminate rather than as a man’s man, and is more like a little boy as he nibbles his nails, or says, "A mother is a boys best friend." In the parlor scene when he gets a bit angry and expresses his desire to tell his mother off, he uses a "girly" wave of the hand that no self-respecting Red Skins linebacker would come near, at least not in the 60’s when none of the sports icons had come out publically yet. In the capture scene he is revealed as having sexual/gender identity issues when he enters the scene as a knife wielding, bad-wig-wearing, "cross dresser", who by the way, still has his slacks on underneath. Norman's semi-profile face is shot close up in the parlor, head between two birds in the background, one of which is a crow with it’s long black pointing at Norman’s forehead, as if to say, "He’s a bird brain", while he chats against institutionalizing his mother. "Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing and the tears. And the cruel eyes studying you?" By using the facial close up, the viewer is brought into a more intimate relationship with Norman and Hitchcock may be showing his own sympathy and partiality for the plight Norman represents, or, he may be giving us a very close look at insanity so we will not be tempted to go there first or second hand.

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In the ending scenes most, if not all, of the film-noir camera angles and lighting are gone The final scene is an interesting wrap up of Norman’s history and psychological make up explained by Dr. Richmond. It is a curious gesture and may be an attempt to appease an audience that Hitchcock knows he has just freaked out. It also does explain how Norman became a cross-dressing serial killer. When viewed from the idea that it suggests a larger picture, one that includes the socio-political climate of the day, Viet Nam and feminism, Dr. Richmond's monologue becomes a bit complex.

Norman did not exactly kill anyone because Norman as his mother did the killing. This suggests that motherhood killed it’s own potential. Or does it? Anyway you shake it, Norman is still a part of the equation. If Norman represents the Viet Nam war and its psychological effects, then when he takes on the motherhood identity he may represent the dual nature of self and the battle of morals and ideas within self. The yin/yang of existence. In the identity of his own mother he is the old motherhood. Marion Crane is the feminist motherhood, the new order. So in this sense motherhood did kill it’s own potential, the old killing the new. How does ?Psycho-Norman the Viet Nam effect? fit into this equation? He was raised by the old motherhood that essentially did not do right by her Viet Nam sons, therefore causing them to kill her, and in this way managed to kill her own potential to change. Like I said, it gets complex. None the less, the stories of Norman and Marion fit together as a powerful team from any analytical point of view, and Hitchcock’s portrayal of good vs evil is exciting and suspenseful, using film noir lighting, camera angles, music and well thought out mise en scene.

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