Psycho (1960): Pleasure of Guilt or Guilt of Pleasure

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First article in a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of "Psycho."

A key work of world cinema, Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho” was released in New York in two theaters, on June 17, 1960.
 
For many different reasons, "Psycho" is my most favorite film, the one I return to time and again, perhaps in order to relive its anxieties and to rejoice in its many narrative and stylistic pleasures. Most of Hitchcock's films deserve to be watched repeatedly, as each viewing offers new insights about the particular movie itself and the filmmaking process in general.
 
But even within the Hitchcock canon, "Psycho" occupies a special place by being a movie that continues to be both profoundly upsetting, through its dark and grim world view, and irresistible amusing, through its witty humor. The austere, insulating wit, operating below the surface of the action, is almost unavailable at first viewing. And its striking style is so dense, illuminating, and allusive that it certainly merits several viewings.
 
The original ads for the film showed Janet Leigh in a bra screaming, while the text stated flatly: “No one will be admitted after the picture has started.” This, as I will show in another article, was an innovation, too. Among other things, "Psycho" changed the dominant American patterns of going to the movies and viewing them.
 
It may be the most commercially successful art film ever made. Yes, you read right, "Psycho" is an art film with experimental dimensions. Shot in black-and-white, the film resembles the exploitation quickies shown in drive-ins in the late 1950s and 1960s. Made on a low budget of about $800,00, the film grossed over $20 million, thus qualifying as Hitchcock's most commercially profitable film. "Psycho" was Paramount’s top-grossing film after Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic- spectacle, “The Ten Commandments,” in 1956.
 
"Psycho" merits the label of experimental film in many ways, primary among which was the manipulation of audience reaction—the film offered a major cinematic analysis of the viewers themselves, while they were engaged in the act of spectatorship. The French scholar-critic Jean Douchet wrote perceptively: "Hitchcock first excites the worst feelings of his audience, and then through his spectacle, authorizes them to be satisfied."
 
Indeed, In the course of the tale, the viewers are led from sheer observance to approval (or disapproval) of what they see, to complicity and fear of discovery. But the question remains: Does "Psycho" offer any sense of catharsis, any elements of healing, any pure and noble feelings? Having watched the picture at least 15 times, I doubt it.
 
"Psycho" analyzes the dark recesses of the human mind, and it also investigates the capacity for evil by and among ordinary individuals. Conducti8ng research for this series of pieces, I found a revelatory piece that Hitchcock wrote in 1960 titled, "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark." "I don't want to seem immodest," the maestro notes, "but I can't help comparing what I've tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels, a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow."
 
We want Marion to succeed in escaping with her boss’s money. Later on, we want the car, in which Marion’s corpse and the money are contained, to sink completely. There is a second after Norman has run the car into the swamp, when the car stops sinking. You could almost hear the audience holding their breath—until the car resumes its descent below. At this point in the story, the audience becomes implicated in the execution of the seemingly “perfect crime.”
 
The camera encourages, even forces identification, first with Marion, then with Norman. The extensive use of mirrors reflects the characters out toward us. The film is replete with scenes of mirrors, though the characters may or may not look at themselves. As viewers, it’s impossible to remain detached, emotionally and psychologically, from the characters’ journey toward descent—and extinction.
 
It was all intentional on Hitchcock’s part, as he told Francois Truffaut in the book-long interview: “The processes through which we take the audience, it’s rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground of the roller coaster.”
 
Thus, "Psycho" is as much about the viewers as it is about the characters and the actors who play them. Some critics have claimed that Hitchcock, using the camera as the viewers' eyes in subtle but calculated ways, was more concerned about directing his audience than directing his performers. On another level, you could say, that the persons in the story represent different aspects of the viewers’ minds and psyches. 
 
The movie derives its power from pool and push forces. On the one hand, we can’t stop watching. On the other, there is a growing sense of uneasiness with what we watch, a level of discomfort caused by the dark, stifled and stifling nature of the tale and the milieu in which it is set.
 
Jean Douchet has observed that throughout the film there is no point of release for us, just gestures of release; it’s also unclear what we want or expect to be released from. And George Toles has noted that the discomfort is an endlessly renewable response to the film, which many of us have been drawn to see many times.
 
Hitchcock increasingly deprives us of our sense of safety, of what we consider a secure place, like the comfort of a home, not to mention the privacy and regeneration of taking a shower.
 
The viewers' identification is made with increasing subjectivity. After one third of the film, our sympathies are transferred from Marion Crane, the victim, to Norman Bates, the murderer. Throughout, there is ingenious use of forward tracking shots, which pull us closer and deeper into the film’s world.
 
The movie doesn’t provide any light or enlightening information about the characters; in fact, it provides confusing, contradictory information. It lures the audience into becoming the characters, sharing their anxieties and fantasies and living out their experiences.
 
Take the first scene, set in a shabby hotel, where Marion and her divorced lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) have just made love. How do we feel toward Marion Crane? Do we desire her (Janet Leigh looks quite sexy in her white lingerie), feel sorry for her that she has to have quickie sex in her lunch break, or just feel contempt for her (mis) conduct (after all, she is an unmarried woman).
 
We also have conflicting reactions toward Sam, sympathy for his plight, since he has to pay alimony to his wife and pay the debts of his dead father (a lousy businessman). We may also feel sorry for him.
 
For Hitchcock, artistic creation is based on knowledge of social psychology, a quasi-rational approach of how to influence and modulate viewers’ emotional reaction. Hitchcock encourages, even demands active participation of his audience, not to mention his expectations for respect and attentiveness, which explain his insistence that no spectators be admitted once the movie begins.