How Psycho Makes Voyeurs of Us All
I have a confession to make: before viewing it in preparation for this article, I had never seen Psycho. I know, I know! But don't we all have certain blind spots in our experience of popular culture? I'm sure there's something you've never seen before that would shock me. Like, I bet you've never seen the 1983 Stratford Festival video production of 'The Mikado!’ Okay, yeah... my cultural reference points are sometimes kind of niche. Maybe that's how I managed to get this far in life without ever seeing Psycho.
The thing with a film this iconic, though, is that even if you haven't seen it, you still know certain things about it. (Sixty year-old spoilers ahead!) I knew going into it that Marion would die in the shower. I knew that Norman was the cross-dressing killer. I knew his mother was already dead. I knew Bernard Hermann's piercing, shrieking score. I even knew taxidermied birds would loom over the proceedings. I don't know when or how I first encountered this knowledge. It's just one of those things that you absorb through social osmosis. Like Beowulf. Or The Bible. Or W.A.P. (It stands for "Why 'Aven't-you-seen Psycho," right?)
What's more, this is a film that casts a very long shadow. So a lot of it felt familiar in an eerie, deja vu kind of way. Why? Because I've seen Psycho's influence on other pieces of media all of my life. A hundred "creepy motel proprietor" scenes gurgled in my subconscious as Norman first appeared. A hundred slasher movie killers crept into the bathroom behind him. Even Hitchcock's groundbreaking use of false protagonists made me think of Game of Thrones.
And yet, in a testament to Hitchcock's genius, none of this made the film less suspenseful, engaging, or frightening for me. Granted, I can only imagine what audiences must have experienced watching Psycho for the first time in 1960. The plot twists and subversion of expectation and form must have been thrilling -- yes. But imagine watching it in the cultural context of 1960. Hitchcock was showing audiences things they'd never seen on screen before: sexuality, cross-dressing... toilets!
There is so much that's so good about this movie, and it's hard to find anything new to say about it. The shower scene. The black and white. The low budget. The television production crew. The Freudian subtext. Those screeching string instruments. Psycho has been so picked over that a lesser film would be nothing but bleached bones by now. So instead of reiterating the same analyses you can find in dozens of other articles, I want to look at one minute of footage from this film. And no, it's not the one that you're thinking of. The one minute immediately following Marion's death demonstrates a key dynamic of this film: voyeurism, and viewer complicity.
(I'm placing my thesis statement at the midpoint of this article because, much like Hitchcock, I'm subverting your expectations. You may now praise me for the next sixty years.)
Until her murder, forty-nine minutes into the film, Marion is more than a main character, she's a viewpoint character. Every scene plays out from her point of view, and we witness her every decision. Compare this to Game of Thrones, which pulled off a similar false protagonist subversion. Ned Stark was a main character, for sure, and we see his investigation into the Lannisters from his point of view. But Game of Thrones, of course, juggled many viewpoint characters. Psycho locks us into Marion's head. We even hear her thoughts as she imagines the reactions to her crime.
When she's killed, it doesn't only overthrow the story. It rips away our point of view. Not for nothing does Hitchcock begin a fascinating, mostly unbroken shot with an extreme closeup of Marion's dead eye. The subjective narrative has died with her.
And yet, the camera is still there. Still filming. With Marion's death, it seems to have become omniscient. It drifts away from her body, aimless, as if unsure what to focus on. As it leaves the bathroom, the camera is drawn immediately to a rolled up newspaper on a nightstand. As audience members, we know that the newspaper conceals the $40,000 that Marion stole. In fact, we've been tracking the whereabouts of that bundle of cash throughout the entire film. Hitchcock has returned our gaze to it over and over, which served to underline Marion's obsessive thoughts and feelings of guilt. But he was also up to something else. He was making sure we were obsessing about where that money was, too.
When the camera immediately seeks it out, it seems to read our minds. The movement also delivers a thrilling revelation: we are now the only people who know where the money is. There's a pleasure in knowing more, as an audience member, than the characters do. Hitchcock knows this. He's primed us with our knowledge of the hidden cash.
This transition from subjective to omniscient narration is a big part of the shock value of Marion's death, but it also reveals something critical to the foundation of this film. The viewpoint has actually never been inside of Marion's head. It has also never been omniscient. The camera is us: the audience. We've been peeping at Marion this whole time. We are voyeurs. And what's more, by tracking the money, by taking pleasure, and by knowing more than the characters do, we are complicit in their crimes.
Our point of view finally lands on Norman, just one short minute of screen time later. And Hitchcock does his due diligence: he leads us to sympathize and identify with Norman as a new protagonist. We watch his emotional reaction. We see him problem-solve. And it works. As Marion's car, corpse, and (unbeknownst to anyone in the film) the money, sink into the swamp, we watch through Norman's eyes. With him, we're nervous that it won't sink all of the way. We are again lulled by the appearance of a subjective viewpoint. But things are not the same. On a fundamental level, our relationship to this narrative has changed.
The second half of the film is a protagonist free-for-all. Lila, Sam, and Arbogast all carry the torch at different moments. But if Hitchcock gave us a false sense of subjective narrative, it was a trick from the very beginning. Don’t believe me? Watch the one minute following Marion's death, as the camera roves, seeking a viewpoint. Then, watch the very first shot of the film. The camera roves, the same way, over the streets of Phoenix, seeking something to observe. When it finally settles on Marion, it does so by drifting through a window, into an intimate post-coital moment. We enter the story like Norman at his peephole: sneaking a glimpse of Marion in her underwear, and liking it.
From the very beginning of Psycho, Hitchcock has made us voyeurs.
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite, often found in semi-aimless wander. Edward is pleased and honored to contribute to the most excellent Story Screen.