Back to the Surface–Audience Role in Psycho

Hitchcock subverted, or at least reversed, the Spellbound pattern in the making of Psycho. Where in Spellbound we accept a position as a sophisticated group member wielding an evaluator’s keen eye of observation and sense of the inner mind, Psycho limits our perspective by positing us as laypeople and leaving the mental heavy work mostly for the end. This facilitates our sinking more than our rising, and it is alongside the characters into depths of consciousness almost better left untouched.  Panicked by the entrapment, we can only go where our guides take us, waiting for the sickness, the teetering feeling of fluttering loosely tethered to the edge, to break…if it ever will.

Perhaps we are already looking askance at the character of Marion as we meet her, unnoticed, during another liaison with Sam. Neither of them is expressly cheating on anyone, as Sam is paying alimony for a broken, disconnected marriage, and Marion has never been attached that way before. But under the sunlight coming in from their window, their secrecy and stolen hours are almost too bright. It doesn’t charm, the way Dr. Fluerot’s overt but restrained pursuit of Dr. Constance Peterson does. Still, we must admit to their practicality, in that at least they are mindful of the time and of commitments they’ve been given by other people. And Marion is ready to add on a self-given commitment, marriage, but Sam isn’t. As always unable to reach a plan for what to do about each other, they suppress their ineffectiveness by going separate ways until such time as duty isn’t calling so strongly. Their impotency at the present scares them enough that they want to distract themselves by going about their businesses, but it will drive them nonetheless update their character, if not necessarily for the better.

As Dr. Peterson says, an amnesiac can’t do something his true character wouldn’t let him do. Marion doesn’t look to us like an amnesiac, there’s been nothing physical or outright traumatic yet to make her forget herself. Except for a headache, she’s cool and businesslike and trustworthy (and even possibly flirted with) at her real estate job, so much so that forty thousand dollars are passed to her to deposit in the bank, since today’s client might be out ofhis mind to pay so much for his daughter’s house. That’s why it alerts us, the fact that her next actions are out of order from her promise. Perhaps in the guise of a heat-stricken employee, ostensibly she is supposed to be going to secure the money and then go home, but very soon we dissolve into her room, where she is packing and still has the money. She even puts the money into her suitcase. (Though Dr. Peterson’s packing is a touch more urgent, these women parallel each other in their need to travel a far distance in pursuit or to the rescue of a man. Lisa’s short and unburdened leave to venture into Thorwald’s apartment might have been a replica of the determined female vigilante. Dr. Peterson wins out with levelheadedness, Lisa with bravery, leaving Marion to be the person we must closely keep our eyes on.) This isn’t in keeping with the Marion we think we know so far, because she has never displayed theft before. She is beginning the process of losing herself!

As she is just barely escaping town, but not escaping being spotted by an employer (which is confirmed later), voiced-over lines and dialogue is heard. Their hollow near-echo but familiarity, which is lent by which voices are speaking, serve a double purpose. At first it is all prospective. Since she and the audience haven’t arrived at her boyfriend’s place yet, this is her imagination conjuring his surprise. Considering the circumstances, this seems hopeful enough, until she is spotted and the short, urgent violin chords begin to play and she drives almost in a trance through the night. (She has that same affect the next night, traveling through the blurring rain.) After the encounters with the policeman and the car salesman, we aren’t as sure of what we’re listening to, because we are travelling with Marion and listening to voices whose originators are now far behind. Not only are the men discussing how “wrong” this lady appeared to them, especially since she paid a large amount in cash, but her bosses and sister Lila are mulling over how lost in the dark they are, too. Is this in Marion’s mind or have our omniscient possibilities been started up? The violin chords, which come roughly like pounding heartbeats and quickly like shortness of breath, seems to answer to the former when, intermixed with their appearance, nothing more deadly or painful happens than a policeman’s blank sunglassed stare. Viewers at first want to assume that, if the urgent music is playing, something has to happen. When something doesn’t happen, we are still on edge as we remodel how we perceive what we take in. We are being given material that helps us empathize or sympathize with this character, to feel what she feels, to take on a role or position that is like hers. We, like her, are hard-pressed for breathing room. With her eyes wide open, her eyebrows slanted inwards, her head and body tucked or bent in as if to dissolve or disappear (besides enabling the concealment of money), she looks like someone stretched very thin already and who is dancing on the edge of her mind. She is like a hanging figure in the sense that she could be very close to forgetting who she is (Morris). This is the presentation of a person running from one problem, being without her significant other, while dragging the problem of warped and noticeable behavior with her to a place from which, we discover later, she cannot leave after she clears herself in her mind and comes up for air.

The truncation of her surfacing, her newfound resolve, is at the hands of boyish, awkward, isolated Norman Bates, her most important foil in that he has been deranged for much longer, and it was pushed upon him. Fear and doubt have done Marion and Norman the worst turns, more so than poetry/love (Dr. Peterson’s stance) or intelligence (Stella’s stance). Losing his father soured what could have been a steady family life, and finding his mother had a lover incited him because his understanding of his importance to his mother consequently crumbled. It happened on the spur of the moment, we can guess. To free himself from her he stole, not money, but her life. To reconcile his matricide, he lent most of himself to becoming his mother, rather than running away. To demonstrate the full villainy of his character, Hitchcock waited until the end to let a psychoanalyst break the story back down to its origins. We don’t know we’re waiting for this explanation, but while we do, the jumpiness, too-quiet-ness and intrusiveness of Norman is what unsettles us the most. He is always skittering between the motel and the house, and especially after his and his mother’s loud argument, is skittish about entering the same room as Marion. In his parlor, his voice gets so low and almost loses inflection as he explains the peacfulness of living and stuffed birds and his loyalty to his mother. Later, seeing the same thing as Jefferies,but from much closer and through a peephole, he darts away and a figure takes his place just in time to murder their guest! Now he is not only Marion’s foil but Thorwald’s counterpart or parallel, and Lisa, Jefferies and Stella are replaced, if not point for point then at least in number and drive – need – to know, are invoked through Marion’s boyfriend Sam, sister Lila, and Detective Arbogast (who was very nearly specially introduced in the sluethy, jazy sounds of the opening theme during the credits).

(Tyler Borges)


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