Posted by Susan Doll on September 14, 2015
TCM in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment brings Psycho to the big screen on September 20 and September 23 at participating theaters. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, which shows at 2:00pm and 7:00pm on both days, will be presented by Ben Mankiewicz in a brief filmed introduction. While many movie lovers have undoubtedly seen Psycho, rewatch it anew on a big screen with an audience, the way it was intended to be seen.
Every Hitchcock fan—and who isn’t?—has their favorite sequence or scene. Psycho is filled with iconic moments—from Marion’s first appearance in black underwear to her encounter with the cop in shades to the shower scene to the reveal at the end accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking score. My favorite sequence is the parlor scene in which a shy Norman Bates asks Marion to come into the parlor behind the office. As soon as he says “parlor,” think: “Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly.”
I often show this sequence in my classes because it is an excellent example of one of Hitchcock’s many talents, which is using the visual design of a scene to advance the story or reveal character. Hitchcock often talked about the beauty of silent films, which he declared the best of cinematic art because they relied so heavily on visual design in lieu of spoken dialogue. Mediocre directors use dialogue to explain the story or characters, a tactic that always bores me to distraction, but Hitchcock often used dialogue to conceal or misdirect while the visual design revealed the truth of the situation. The parlor scene is a good example of that.
During the scene, Norman and Marion engage in polite conversation as Marion nibbles on the sandwich he has made for her. When I show this sequence in class, I ask half the students to close their eyes and listen to the dialogue, while the other half scrutinizes the set design, camera angles, character blocking, and lighting. I ask the first group their impressions of Norman solely based on the dialogue. On the surface, the conversation posits Norman as a nice young man whose mother is an aging, overbearing crone. The students who have only heard the scene have much more sympathy for Norman, who seems to have taken responsibility for his mother, sacrificing his personal happiness in the process. “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” he asserts. Norman does get a bit testy when Marion suggests he put Mother in a facility, but he quickly recovers his sweet, polite demeanor. He rationalizes that his mother doesn’t belong in an institution and is no worse than anyone else. He maintains, “We all go a little mad some time, haven’t you?,” which is not only the key to this film but the key theme in all of Hitchcock’s work.
The visual design of the scene (called mise-en-scene in film studies) tells us something entirely different about what is going on in the parlor scene. Remember the spider and the fly? Much of the scene unfolds in shot/reverse shot, and the visual design behind Norman differs from that behind Marion. Norman is often shot in a low angle, which is the empowerment angle, making him appear important or strong. The lighting is in a lower key, revealing shadows on half of Norman’s face. This is a common tactic in lighting to indicate a doppelganger; that is, to suggest that a character has another side to their persona that they are hiding, particularly a dark side. Another indication of Norman’s doppelganger is his full-body shadow that looms behind him in some shots. Finally, the set design is filled with stuffed birds of prey or birds with sinister connotations, such as owls and ravens. At one point, Norman leans back in his chair and strokes one of the stuffed birds. In some shots, the angle is so low that Norman’s face chin, neck, and nose are exaggerated, making him look like a bird. Obviously, Hitchcock is telling us through the angle, set design, and lighting that Norman is not the meek young man he appears to be. He’s also a powerful bird of prey hovering over his next victim—Marion. In contrast, the lighting on Marion is high key, with her face brightly and evenly lit. At times, she is shot in a slightly higher angle so that the viewer seems to be looking down on her, suggesting weakness or vulnerability. In the conversation, she seems to be the mature adult who assesses Norman’s situation and offers advice; and, based on their conversation, she realizes she has made a mistake in her personal life and decides to un-do it. But, the visual design tells us that she is not in control of her fate.
It is easy to demonize poor crazy Norman Bates, the “psycho” of the title, as the villain. But, Hitchcock uses the idea of the doppelganger—a person’s other side, or their dark side—much like the German Expressionist filmmakers did during the 1920s. It was a device or theme used to suggest that darkness exists in all of us, and we are all capable of immoral, indecent, criminal, or antisocial behavior. In Psycho, Norman commits heinous acts because he has a good reason—he’s insane. But, most of the other characters are also guilty of crossing a moral or legal line, and they all claim they have a good reason. Marion has an affair with a married man and then commits robbery, because she wants enough money to help her lover, Sam, out of his financial woes. Sam commits adultery, but, hey, his wife doesn’t love or understand him. Marion’s sister and Arbogast, the private detective, break the law by committing breaking and entering, but they are looking for information, so, of course, it’s understandable. Norman’s mother also had an affair with a married man and neglected her son, but, gee, she was all alone and needed someone. Even minor characters commit infractions: Marion’s boss at the real estate company nips from a secret bottle of booze hidden in his drawer and is too cheap to pop for air conditioning in the office; and, the one client we see in the office reveals that he cheats on his taxes so he can keep “his money.”
Every character crosses a legal or moral line, or even just the soft lines of social propriety. And, they rationalize their behavior based on their needs and desires—just like Norman Bates. But, Hitchcock—one of the cinema’s great moralists—shows us the consequences of crossing those lines, which are in place for a reason. Hitchcock’s use of the doppelganger—like the German Expressionists—was to point the finger at all of us and accuse us of our moral shortcomings. Like the characters in the film, we all think our reasons for breaking the rules, crossing the lines, blurring right and wrong are valid ones.
“We all go a little mad some times, haven’t you?”
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