*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*
2012 poll rank: #35 (tied with Metropolis, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, and Satantango)
"A boy's best friend is his mother."
Psycho is, without a doubt, director Alfred Hitchcock's most well-known film. The mere mention of the word "psycho" will bring to mind screeching strings and the infamous shower scene, even among those who have never seen the film before. That particular scene has permeated pop culture so thoroughly that it's easy to forget how revolutionary it was at the time of the film's release. This was a murder committed onscreen, something that had long been considered unacceptable under the Hollywood Production Code. Moreover, it was the murder of a naked woman in a shower, with blood flowing into the drain. These aspects seem quaint today, but in 1960 this was nothing short of scandalous (also scandalous: this was the first film to ever feature a toilet flushing).
The film, too, is rightfully remembered for being a very different film, both in general and in terms of Hitchcock's career. Unlike his previous film, North By Northwest, Psycho was filmed in black-and-white and shot with a television crew borrowed from his anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Similarly, Hitchcock almost completely financed the film himself, with Paramount only agreeing to distribute the film. The most audacious move, though, came in the casting and writing: Janet Leigh, playing Marion Crane, was a major Hollywood star at the time. She dies at the end of the film's first act, and then-realtively-unknown Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates apparently takes over.
It's this last point that truly sets Psycho apart: Hitchcock's crafted a film that doesn't have a single protagonist. In fact, it doesn't really have a center at all, leaving the audience unmoored in a tale of deception, death, and demented Oedipal desire.
More after the jump.
In any storytelling medium, one of the fundamental rules of a narrative is that there must be at least one character who acts as a center for the audience to follow. In other words, there must always be a protagonist. This can be a single character (as is often the case), or multiple characters whose lives are interwoven. Either way, there's a center to the story for the audience to orient themselves around. The audience doesn't necessarily need to root for this character, per se, but it's important that they recognize this character as their entryway into the world of the story. This is a concept that most audiences and storytellers take for granted, because it's so essential to the way stories are told.
At first, Psycho provides us with a center: Marion Crane. The film opens with the camera looming over the Phoenix, Arizona skyline, before it slowly moves in on a hotel room window. Inside, Marion is with Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a married man with whom she is having an affair. When she returns to her job as a secretary at a realtor office, she is entrusted to deposit a client's $40,000 in the bank. Instead, she skips town with the money, heading straight for Sam so that they can get married (or is she?). She makes it through Los Angeles, evading a highway patrol officer (Mort Mills) along the way, before she finally makes a fateful stop at the Bates Motel.
This first act feels like a classic Hitchcock setup. It appears to draw heavily from the tradition of film noir, from Marion serving as femme fatale to the black-and-white photography. However, a closer look shows a departure from this style. Marion isn't really out for blood; she's a woman prone to making bad decisions, but she's not particularly vicious. She's more selfish than malicious. The photography is sun-dappled by the Southwest sky, eliminating most of the shadows that are the hallmark of film noir. In fact, those shadows don't really show up until Marion reaches the Bates Motel, where taxidermic birds of prey are ominously mounted to the wall.
But most importantly, Marion is unquestionably the center of the narrative in this act. The camera is following her story, and the audience is becoming invested in her plot. The questions the film is asking are about her: will she get away with her crime? Will Sam accept her or reject her? Is she the titular "psycho," having a break from her normal frame of mind to indulge in a life of crime and deviancy? As she drives away from her life in Phoenix, voiceovers - either real or imagined by Marion - clue the audience in to how the people around Marion are reacting to her disappearance. Whether or not these are just in her head, they are crucial to putting the audience in Marion's head. When she meets Norman, it's clear that something's off about him, but the audience is seeing him from Marion's point-of-view. All the way through the shower scene, the audience is seeing the film through Marion's perspective.
Marion's death changes everything, though. Hitchcock has killed off the film's narrative center, and immediately after a closeup of Marion's lifeless eye, his camera seems to be searching the room for a new anchor for the narrative. Where will this story go from here? In classic Hitchcock style, the camera suggests that the rest of the film will be a search for the money Marion stole, but that only ends up being a red herring. Instead, the camera moves to the window, looking out at the Bates' house where Norman reacts in horror to the fact that his mother killed Marion.
From there, though, the film never really finds another anchor for the audience. At first it seems to be Norman, but Hitchcock's camera keeps its distance from him, preventing the audience from empathizing with him. To the audience, then, there's still something off about Norman, especially as he deals with Marion's corpse. The film then introduces Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles), who visits Sam in search of Marion, and who also enlists the help of a detective, Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Yet Hitchcock doesn't let the audience form strong emotional connections with any of these characters either. They're theoretically our new protagonists, particularly Lila and Sam, but more than anything else they're only present to bring out the psychoanalytic twists of the film's final act.
Even if Norman is the theoretical center of the film's last two acts - as he is the focus of both Arbogast's investigation and Lila and Sam's snooping - it would be difficult to justify him as a true "protagonist" (or "anti-hero," in modern terms). Perkin's performance keeps Norman's interior life at a distance from the audience, preventing empathy and understanding. But the reveal of Norman's fractured mental state - that he is both himself and his mother in his mind - further drives him away from the center of the narrative, as he is actually they.
This decision to keep the audience unmoored in the film's back half has a powerful effect. By killing Marion - the narrative center - Hitchcock has left the audience lost in the subsequent events. In other words, Hitchcock destroyed any expectations for the narrative and characters. Once Marion dies, there's no explanation for why Norman is reacting the way he does; why that little smile creeps across his face after the immediate shock of discovering her body, why he's so intent on no one speaking with his mother. Every subsequent scene could go in any given direction. This makes the psychoanalytic twists of the finale even more shocking, as the audience could sense that something wasn't quite normal but couldn't have expected the reveal. By refusing to give the audience a new anchor within the narrative, Hitchcock makes his film significantly more disturbing.
Today, Hitchcock's narrative boldness in Psycho remains unparalleled. Though offing the supposed main character has become a regular trope in horror and fantasy narratives (Game of Thrones has practically turned it into a sport), most films will still re-center the audience around a different character or set of characters, providing a new protagonist to empathize with. But very few show the daring that made Psycho a classic: leaving the audience alone to figure out the mystery, with the reveal more shocking than anyone could have guessed.
On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Singin' in the Rain (1952)