Marion, Norman, and the Collision of Narratives in Psycho

By Jason Haggstrom, June 16, 2010

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Psycho, one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films in a career that fostered the creation of many. As with all of Hitchcock's great films, Psycho can be seen as simple, face value entertainment or as a film worthy of great study and analysis. I've seen Psycho many times over the course of my 34 years of existence, but what keeps me coming back is the way that Hitchcock uses multiple narratives to toy with audience perspective. The film begins with an objective narrative before switching to a subjective one only to see that narrative destroyed when it collides with another. This is an analysis of those narratives and how they shape (and re-shape) the way that we view the lead characters and their actions.

Spoilers Ahead:

  • Initial plot
  • Plot twist
  • Character death

Psycho opens with a series of pans that overlook the city of Phoenix, Arizona. The shots cut progressively closer until the camera finally settles on one specific building, then one specific window. The camera drifts inside, an explicit act of voyeurism that exposes what would otherwise be a private moment: two lovers discuss the lunchtime affair they have been conducting during the free hours of the workday. Marion Crane is introduced as a semi-naked body laying on a bed, a delectable object for the camera's eye. What would seem to be a romantic dalliance is revealed to be a workday interruption. This titillating view of a secret affair quickly turns to melodrama: the couple can't be together because they live in different cities; they must steal away work hours to be with each other. Marion desires a "respectable" relationship, and her lover, Sam, is paying down his father's debts and alimony to his ex-wife; he can't afford to provide for Marion if she were to leave her job to be with him. These melodramatic exchanges allow the audience to disregard any issues of morality and instead come to identify with the floundering couple's suffering.1 Any remaining apprehensions about Marion's morality are quickly washed away in the next scene when Tom Cassidy, a rich Texan and client of the firm where she works, attempts to buy his way into her bed. He flirts with her, and then waves $40,000 cash in her face in what amounts to the film's funniest phallic symbol. Marion may be having sex out of wedlock, but she's no tramp. Tom's inappropriate advances—and downright sleazy demeanor—only further establish our identification with Marion.

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The film cuts to Marion at home, objectified for the audience once again when she is seen half-naked while changing her clothes. The camera tilts down from the half-dressed Marion to an envelope of money—Tom's $40,000—lying on Marion's bed. The camera then pans over to a suitcase filled with Marion's clothing, revealing Marion's intention: she's stealing the money as a means to solve the problems that threaten her relationship with Sam. In just over ten minutes, Marion has appeared half-naked twice and been associated with a phallic symbol once. But then a remarkable thing happens: Marion takes over the narrative and changes the way we see the film, beginning with the way we look at her. Refusing to be defined by her sexuality, Marion conceals her body in a gray blouse that buttons up to a tight-fitting collar that eliminates her neckline. The rest of Marion's new outfit is just as bland, helping to further cloak the sexuality that had been so readily on display. Marion nervously packs then looks around the room. She pauses briefly on a photograph of her parents hanging on the wall then sits, giving her crime one last thought before finally committing to it.

As Marion drives out of Phoenix, the film's diegetic mode makes a dramatic shift from the objective to the subjective. Hitchcock's camera cuts back and forth between shots of Marion driving and her point-of-view through the car's windshield, creating a diegesis that is formed by Marion's senses. Hitchcock furthers this transformation by adding dialog to the scene that represent the thoughts running through Marion's head. She squirms in her seat and bites her finger out of nervousness even as she imagines Sam's surprise and joy in response to her unannounced arrival. When Marion spots, and is spotted by, her boss while waiting at a traffic light, we are so entrenched with her subjectivity that we feel the same shock, panic, and anxiety that she feels. Hitchcock then employs Bernard Hermann's jarring score as a means to communicate the tension that Marion feels as she drives further away from the scene of her crime. We are made to hear what Marion hears, see what she sees, and feel what she feels. Hermann's score, and Marion's guilt-laden tension, finally subside when Marion pulls off the road and falls asleep.

When Marion is awoken by a police officer the following day, Hitchcock films the officer looking directly into the camera as he questions Marion. By this point, we are so aligned with Marion's perspective that we feel the same apprehension that she feels during the interrogation. The officer stares at Marion, his face showing no emotion. His eyes, made into large pools of blackness by sunglasses, penetrate Marion and seem to assess her guilt. But the police officer, as it was with Marion's boss, isn't just looking at Marion; he is looking at the audience.

When Hitchcock changes the diegetic mode of Psycho from the objective to the subjective, he allows the audience to experience Marion's crime vicariously along with the anxiety and tension that she feels while committing it. More subtle, however, is the fact that Hitchcock has turned the tables on the audience. After enabling the us to watch Marion in a voyeuristic fashion, Hitchcock forces us into the uneasy position of being looked at—as the object of the extra-diegetic gaze of both Mr. Lowery and the police officer—as we experience the story from her point of view.

As Marion drives away, we are shown the rear-view mirror just as she sees it. The officer follows close behind, a terrifying object fixed in the mirror. As Marion drives on, night begins to take hold of the mise-en-scène, rendering Marion in darker, and darker shadows that reflect her darkening thoughts. The tension is further heightened as Hitchcock tightens the frame around Marion with each successive cut. Hermann's score is unrelenting as Marion's vision is impaired by an onslaught of rain and the blinding lights of passing cars. Then, blackness. Out of the dark arises a beacon, a sanctuary: The Bates Motel.

There's something odd about Norman Bates from the first time Marion sees him. Firstly, he never bothers to open his umbrella as he runs from his house in the drowning rain to greet Marion. Then, he refers to the rainy night as "dirty" when "wet" would seem to be more the more operative description. Norman tells Marion that she has "gotten off the main road," in what amounts to the film's first indication that Marion has deviated from her narrative path. This is quickly followed by the introduction of a second narrative: Norman's. Hitchcock cuts, abandoning Marion completely in order to show a shot of Norman looking at the wall of motel cabin keys. After a long period where the camera's subjectivity was possessed by Marion, this shot is owned by Norman. His hand passes over every key on the rack then pauses over and selects the key to cabin one. Norman tilts his head to the left, an odd pose that seems out of place somehow, a feeling that is accentuated when Hitchcock cuts from the subjective shot back to a more natural-feeling, objective shot containing both characters.

When the scene shifts to cabin one, Hitchcock uses his camera to bisect Norman and Marion with a series of one-shots. This fragmenting of the two characters creates a diegesis that isolates each narrative into its own frame and emphasizes the impossibility of physical contact or even close proximity between the two. When Norman leaves the room, the camera and score become Marion's once again. She hides the stolen money inside a newspaper then hears an argument coming from the Bates' house. The camera cuts to Marion's view out the window where she hears Mother's raspy voice and acrid words echoing down from the house. The house itself becomes a personified Mother, an entity that is threatening but distanced.

Hitchcock's isolation of Marion and Norman (the two narratives) into their own frames continues as the two converse in Norman's parlor. Norman is never given a comfortable space within the frame, always shoved off to the side and forced to share the frame with one of the dead subjects of his hobby as a taxidermist. This off-center framing of makes Norman feel unsettling at the same time that it presents him as weak. As the scene cuts back and forth between the characters, the framing around them gets tighter to illustrate the tension between them as their conversation turns darker and more confrontational. Norman finally takes control of his position in the frame when he lunges forward (an aggressive pose, not unlike the owl that lurks above, poised to strike) to respond to Marion's suggestion that Mother be institutionalized. It's the first overt clue that Norman might himself be "a little mad." Marion senses it too, apologizing for her blunder in a way that feels like she's backing away from a wild animal—slow, steady, and deliberate. When she leaves Norman's parlor, we are treated to the first extended sequence where Norman is the camera's subject.

Norman retreats back to the parlor, standing in a mix of shadows and lamplight. Stuffed birds crowd him, occupying the space in front and behind him in the frame. Hermann's score appears again, much like it had each time Marion was left alone, but this time it signifies the loneliness and angst Norman feels while watching Marion through a hole in the wall. Norman peers through the aperture, catching Marion as she disrobes down to her bra and slip. He watches her with scopophilic pleasure as she disrobes before him, his existence and his looking unknown to her. But, unlike the film's opening scene, these shots are subjective. We are seeing what Norman sees and to recognize that is to feel his perversion even if we don't recognize it as an uglier version of our own. For both Norman and the audience, Marion is once again reduced to nothing more than a sexualized image projected onto a screen.

Hitchcock's camera stays with Norman as he walks back to his house. The final shot in the sequence is of Norman deep in the frame, confined between the two suffocating hallway walls—a man who doesn't fit comfortably anywhere in this world. The film cuts to a shot of Marion writing at a desk and the film's score overlaps between the two shots, implying an unsustainable tension between the two narratives. Marion's placement within the frame couldn't be in any more opposition to Norman's in the previous shot; she's up front in the frame, filling it comfortably as she determines how she can repay Tom Cassidy. Having decided to return to Phoenix with the money, Marion steps into the shower to cleanse herself of the crime.

Psycho's infamous shower sequence represents the ultimate collision between the film's two narratives. Bernard Hermann's score penetrates the scene with a barrage of shrieking violins that embody both the sound of Mother's slashing knife and of Marion's screams. The sequence is cut together as a flurry of images that show the attack from Marion's perspective, Mother's perspective, and an objective perspective in order to connote the relationship between Mother's knife attacks and Marion's confused panic. This overlapping of perspectives demonstrates the violent collision of the film's narratives, a collision that leaves one of those narratives—the story of Marion Crane's theft—dead. The camera, whose lens was once so strongly held by Marion, slips away from her as she lies dead. It retracts from her open eye then floats to the object that was so crucial to Marion's story: the stolen $40,000, wrapped up in a newspaper that literally transforms it into "old news." The camera moves to the window to observe the Bates' house, the personification of Mother that once seemed too far removed to pose any real threat. We hear Norman yell and the film cuts to outside the motel in order to track him as he runs from the house down to the motel. Hermann's score springs to life again, this time conveying Norman's own terror as he runs to cabin one, already certain of the horror he'll find there. The film switches immediately to Norman's perspective as he enters the cabin, completing the transfer of narrative from Marion to Norman.

Norman runs to the bathroom to find the gruesome scene. He turns away from and covers his mouth in horror, an act that aligns his current state of being with that of the audience. He paces the room then finally decides what he must do. We watch as Norman wraps Marion's dead body in the shower curtain and places it in her car's trunk. He then cleans the bloody scene and gathers all of Marion's belongings. Before he can place Marion's suitcase in the car's trunk, a vehicle drives by the motel, briefly rendering Norman in spotlight. He drops everything in panic—a sensation that the audience experiences along with him. Lastly, Norman tosses the newspaper, and with it the $40,000 that was so relevant to the film just five minutes earlier, into the car's trunk. As Norman pushes the car into a bog, Hitchcock cuts back and forth between Norman's view of the sinking car and a shot of Norman's nervous face. These subjective shots entrench the audience further into Norman's perspective as he attempts to conceal the crime. When the car stops sinking, its top half exposed, the audience's heart stops, just as Norman's does (not unlike the panic and surprise felt by Marion when spotted leaving the city by her boss). We want the car to sink, just as Norman does. Relief is finally had when the car begins to slowly sink again and is finally consumed completely by the bog. The scene fades to black, completing the film's first half and signaling the end of the subjective narratives of both Marion and Norman.

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a unique film in that he structures its diegesis around the perspective of Marion Crane only to have her violently murdered halfway through. In her role of subjectivity, Marion was able to overcome her construct as a scopophilic object before being reduced to a debased state by the voyeurism of Norman Bates, an act that criticizes the audience's own voyeurism early in the film. By creating a film that balances two narratives, that of the murderer and of the victim, Alfred Hitchcock has created a masterpiece of the cinema that allows us to vicariously experience both Marion's terror during her murder and Norman's fear of being caught covering it up.

Notes:

  1. Some context: women did not appear half-dressed in mainstream, American movies in 1960. Nor did overt references to premarital sex. Psycho was risque for its time and the audience would have perceived Marion much differently in this opening scene than an audience today.
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