25/07/2016

Psycho - Marriage And How Not To Do It: Him And Her In Two Parts

Thoughs On: Psycho (1960)


After stealing $40,000 Marion Crane runs out of town where rain drives her into the Bates Motel.


There's many ways to watch Psycho. Firstly, you can try the perspective of an audience member looking for 1 hour and 45 mins of entertainment - of suspense, horror and mystery. Secondly, you can look at this film from a technical perspective, analysing Hitchcock's developed style and philosophy of cinema in action. Thirdly, you can again look at the technicalities of this film, but from the writer's perspective. This is my favourite way to look at a film as, for me, it's the most rewarding perspective to take. You get the experience of entertainment, a hidden kind, as well as a lesson or interesting debate simply by choosing to see implied greater depth. This is what I want to do with Psycho today - to look at this great lesson in direction, this intriguing thrill ride and pick apart the allegory. Now, the underlying story of Psycho is of marriage - a pretty bad one. This is a film about two dysfunctional interpretations of a to-be married life. In short, Marion looks for security in all the wrong places and Norman... well, he can't find a woman better than his mother. The climax of these two conflicting ideas is rather sudden...


... which leaves us with a film of two parts. The first section that sticks to Marion's perspective is all about putting yourself in danger, leaving the latter half with Norman to be about a contorted view of women and social exchange.

The opening with Sam and Marion in the motel room is what plants the seed for everything to come. After having 'spent lunch together' the two dance around an idea of commitment. This all comes about through the buzz word respectability. Marion, in short, wants a normal relationship, an engagement and then marriage with Sam. He is, however, reluctant because, firstly, he's been married before and secondly, has very little money. This establishes two important facts. The first is that Sam is still paying his father's debt. For anyone who's seen the film recently or knows it very well, you'd be able to make the first link to Norman here. Norman's father died when he was 5 leaving him and his mother alone. The metaphorical debt Norman was laboured with was of affection, the fact that a son is no substitute for a lover. This is what caused Norman to snap and is used to imply that the two (Sam and Norman) share common traits. These traits are to do with the perception of affection and commitment. To go a step further on these themes we simply have to look at the fact that Sam still pays alimony for a wife he clearly doesn't like. His fear of commitment may be grounded in his childhood (like Norman) but accentuated by this recent past. This leaves Marion making the compromise that 'she'll lick the stamps'. She chooses to take on Sam's personal luggage. This luggage is primarily monetary. Sam doesn't have the money to marry, get a better home for themselves and so on. Marion takes that onto her shoulders - something that'll carry through to a fast approaching moment. The lead up to Marion stealing the $40,000 is plagued with talk of being married and getting married, both by her co-worker and the rich customer, Tom Cassidy. The importance of Tom is found in the idea that you can buy unhappiness off. He suggests to her that with money, life is easier. We've touched on this subject before with The Matrix, but what this concept boils down to is context of self and situation. Can we make the things around us better? But, more importantly, the way we interpret them more productively? Apply this question to Marion and we see that the way she wants to buy off unhappiness is to secure a home for herself and Sam so he'll hopefully commit to her. But, it's when she starts to question what exactly she's doing that things start to go awry.


The way in which Marion's anxiety and situation is best revealed and then poked at is with the scene where she exchanges her car. Her own car and the one she trades it in for are both displaced euphemisms. They represent Sam and his choice of women (as well as a more general idea of choice). Sam seems to have jumped from a wife to a girlfriend without recovering, without being able to commit to someone again. This is evident in the way he only wants to be around her for a certain ease of access. The response to Marion's high pressuring, both in the car lot and with Sam, is crucial to her growing anxiety. This is because rash choices are always indicative of a mistake to be made. Just like Marion renting a new car is something you might want to slow down a little for, maybe take a test ride, so should be Sam moving into a relationship with Marion and Marion with him (no intended euphemism, well, maybe - but, the test should also be of each other characters). The overall purpose of this scene is to build suspense, to have Marion question herself and the way in which she makes choices in life.

So, as a result, with Marion back on the road her anxious thoughts concerning being caught with the money swell. But, because the money and subsequent anxieties are all connected to Sam and her future with him, it's fair to infer that she's having doubts concerning their relationship also. These doubts are made clear with the pathetic fallacy - the rain. Marion's view of her future, of the road ahead of her, is obscured. The only light ahead of her now reads: Bates Motel. Vacancy. The neon sign is, for Marion, enlightenment. Whether it's of paranoia, or sudden realisation, the Bates Motel makes clear to her the dangers of the road she wants to travel down.


It's at this point where we see the exchanging of the baton from Marion's perspective to Norman's. This exchange though is very ambiguous and has had me stumped for quite a while. As has been implied already Norman's situation and perspective are similar to Sam's. Both seem to have problems with women, but Sam's is in no way as serious as Norman's. I have tried to find more strong links between their characters to maybe suggest that they are the same person, but can't agree to this with any confidence. What I think may be possible though is that this narrative might just be under the complete control of Marion. By this I mean that we see everything from her perspective. So, whilst Norman and Sam aren't the same person, Marion may be hyperbolising his character to express her anxiety captured in this part of the film. In other words, to her, Norman represents Sam. This all suggests that Marion doesn't die, and her body isn't discovered in the end of the film, but that she decided the relationship between herself and Sam is going anywhere and that it dead in the water - or would it be swamp? Either way, this would transform the whole narrative of Psycho into a pure extended metaphor. But, the fault with seeing the film in this way is the task of having to assign so much meaning to so many extraneous characters. I've tried watching the film a few times over with this in mind, but haven't yet got a clear image of what everyone could be representing, which leaves me questioning the validity of the idea. However, what I think is valid and self-evident is the theme of marriage throughout this film. When you apply this to the two main characters you get our narrative of how not to approach marriage in two parts. And what this is all centred on is an idea of freedom. This is symbolised with Marion's last name, Crane, and Norman's stuffed birds - all symbols of freedom.

This all turns the most poignant and immersive scene in the film, that is simply Norman and Marion talking, into the all important no man's land. This is a no man's land of conflicting metaphors. For Marion the birds and the freedom they represent are a positive idea - it's what ultimately has her decide to return the money. For Norman, freedom is an unattainable goal, moreover, in other people this scares him. We'll start with Marion. It's sitting with Norman, a clear mummy's boy, that she realises that for her to be with Sam will simply mean she becomes his mother figure. She'll pay his alimony, work the harder job, and probably still have to be the classical 50s housewife at the same time. And, whilst that sounds like a pretty shitty deal, there's a small detail she's skipped over. The money she wants to use to give herself and her possibly non-committal boyfriend is stolen. The freedom the money gives her is actually her own personal trap. And that's why she leaves early in the morning - to get out of a personal trap back home. However, before she gets the chance to leave, she is of course murdered.


The irony and implication of this shot is that Marion's means of freedom (the money) remains. It's her initial trap, her relationship with Sam, that metaphorically...


,,, destroys her. It's that which she thought she wanted and could handle that was the true conflict all along. This is why this image:


The zoom out from the eye is incredibly important. It implies that she maybe saw this coming, or that it was the last thing that she'd expect - Norman, a hyperbolised representation of Sam, killing her. To side with the former, that the image of her eye implies she saw this coming, is to suggest that Norman is a strict and purposeful representation of Sam and that we see the rest of the film from a dead woman's perspective. To side with the latter, that Norman killing her was the last thing she'd expect, it's implied that the trap she got herself into with Sam/Norman was too strong. This marks a futile maybe even pessimistic perspective of marriage or future relationships in Marion. Through allegory it's suggested that Marion's anxiety or her own personal flaws (choice in boyfriends) is what consumes her. She destroys herself in a certain sense.

Now, jumping back to conversational scene we can shift into the second part of the film as seen through Norman's eyes. It's Norman's perspective of birds and freedom that set up the negative male perspective of marriage in this film. And it's from this point that it's probably best to see the first section of this film as a negative female perspective - the second, male. This will simply help to widen the allegory and clarify the narrative message. So, if birds are a symbol of freedom, for Norman to stuff them implies he wants to control and ground others. We're not talking exclusively about others here, but Norman himself. Like Marion, he has his own personal traps. And it's the reduction of marriage to a trap that is the main fault of both ends here. Marion can't be tied down to the wrong person, and Norman (like Sam) can't find the right person to be trapped with. For Norman, his mother is the only female he can bind himself to. And it's in the end of the film that we figure out that he does this out of guilt. His mother only comes through his personality as a repression of the memory of him killing her and her lover. Love to Norman is then nothing more than a plug over a deep hole in his persona. It's implied that he, the mother side of him, kills women because of this. He destroys what he can't control in other words - this is why he doesn't like women and strays from relationships. Norman can't replace the hole in his persona taken up by his mother without exposing himself as a monster. It's here that you can see the fundamentals of a recurrent character in modern cinema:



Both Scorsese and Nolan have taken Hitchcock's theme of marriage in hand with the psychological crime thriller and used it to explore this idea of traps, of refusing to see yourself as a monster. In fact, there's a plethora of male characters that the Bates archetype has been built from and revised by:








I could give a million more examples, but all of these characters, like Norman, are driven by a conflicted idea of love (or lack thereof) that they allow to consume themselves. This is an interesting idea to me as the reverse to this kind of characters is:





It's these men that fight, that risk everything they have, for the memory of a loved one, for the safety of someone they hold dear, or to simply stand triumphant and shout: 'Adrian, I did it'. What this all says is that under the theme of marriage there's two key male archetypes. There's the Bates archetype and the Rocky archetype. When you juxtapose these two types of character you can recognise a huge swath of films as romances. When you usually think of romance, you think of Pretty Woman, The Before Trilogy, Titanic, Breakfast At Tiffany's, Casablanca. The likes of Man On Fire, Rocky, Die Hard, Taxi Driver or even Psycho don't come into this picture. Granted, some of these films are tragic, but, what's the most famous romance of all time? Romeo And Juliet anyone? The point I'm trying to make here is that there's two reactions to the idea of romance. There's the male-centred idea of tangible romance, of actions and reactions. On the other hand there's an intangible idea of female-centred romance based on non-verbal cues and emotions. The best way to clearly convey this idea is to look at where the final or solidified 'I love you' comes in the film. With tangible, action/reaction romances the 'I love you' comes early on. These are, almost paradoxically, manly romances. Look at the examples given. It's romance that comes before the fight in Unforgiven and Rocky. With Man Of Fire, the relationship between Creasy and Pita has to be developed before the action can take place. Even in Die Hard John is going to New York to visit an ex-wife and family. The relationship is present beforehand. The stereotypical romances, however, end on the solidified 'I love you'. Just look at examples given: Pretty Woman, Breakfast At Tiffany's, Titanic, Casablanca. The first two end with a kiss. The second two don't end too well for the main male protagonist, but the female lead learns her lesson in romance with the final act. Now, bring into the equation the Bates archetype and we can see them as characters unwillingly forced into the latter stereotypical romances much like Pretty Woman, Breakfast At Tiffany's, Titanic and Casablanca. Bruce Wayne, Travis Bickle, Norman Bates, Guido Anselmi and so on are tasked with finding romance in their narratives. This is only ever used to reveal incapacity though. It's used to reveal a monster within them.

What this all suggests is that in popular cinema the man in the woman's position of a romance turns the film into a horror or a take on a psychological crime or mystery. Added to this, the woman put in the position of a male romance (Die Hard, Rocky, Man On Fire) also turns the film into a horror or a take on a psychological crime or mystery. Norman is tasked with getting along with a woman, and as representative of Sam, he's tasked with living under her wing almost. Rose in Titanic could handle this, so could Vivian in Pretty Woman. Not Norman though. Moreover, Marion steals money and keeps from danger to ensure a chance of romance. Rocky could do this, so could John McClane. What's going on here? Well, the wider answer could be that role reversals aren't that acceptable by the standards of society. This is probably true to a certain extent. Is that good or bad? A talk for another time. In terms of cinematics, however, what this seems to be about is fear and traps - that which Psycho is inherently about. Personal traps are the product of fear that is allowed to consume. For Norman it's fear of memory, Marion, fear of being wrong, Travis Bickle, fear that the world will never be a better place, Bruce Wayne, fear that evil will consume all, Henry Spencer, fear of fatherhood, Patrick Bateman, fear of being ignored. And it's this element of fear that these characters are either subjected to or try to fight against. It's for those reasons that their films are often crimes, horrors of have elements of action. When we come back to the key archetype of this class of film, Norman, we can understand the overarching philosophy of these broken romances - and it's all connected to Hitchcock's idea of marriage. Marriage seems to be about knowing yourself well enough so you don't screw up someone else's life. It's not letting bias and memory dictate how your present perception functions. Unfortunately, with films like Shutter Island, Memento and Psycho where the Bates archetype is strongest, the best characters can manage is to convince themselves that they are not the monster...




And it's in this that an anti-romance almost becomes a romance. In the end, Psycho, like many other films is simply about self-awareness for the purpose of social-awareness - those around you. For both Marion and Norman it'd be knowing the traps they put themselves in and have to get out of that'd allow them to better cope in life and with relationships.

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