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The Split Personality of a Classic: Close-Up on Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"

The Master of Suspense creates a formal challenge with murderous results.
Blake Lucas
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is showing October 4 – November 2, 2019 on MUBI in several countries as part of the double feature Original Vs. Remake.
Perhaps appropriately, Psycho is a schizophrenic film.
That statement refers to its form, not only the narrative form that divides it in two and changes the focus of interest from an emotionally beleaguered secretary fleeing with stolen money to the aftermath of her murder and the troubled motel keeper who is seen to be covering up his mother’s crimes, but more profoundly to the specific way this narrative is constructed and the reasons behind it.   
For though it is a movie intended for commercial success (like any Alfred Hitchcock work), Psycho is also, daringly, an experimental film and is best appreciated that way.  The question is whether this experiment works—and the answer to that is complex.  For this, we need to look to both the formal intentions that make it an experimental work, and then to how this plays as the film is realized.
It is a given of Hitchcock that an important part of his style is the use of subjective shots from the point of view of a character—the one that we are meant to identity with, and that usually means a hero or heroine, though Hitchcock is glad to trouble that identification and adept at doing so; we may identify with someone in a way that is disturbing and for Hitchcock this will often make a film more interesting.  In the mature phase of his career in which Psycho was made, he had perfected this technique, as most will agree shows so well in, for example, Rear Window (1954), with its voyeuristic hero (James Stewart); Vertigo (1958), with its romantically obsessed hero (James Stewart again); or North by Northwest (1959), with its initially complacent hero (Cary Grant), mistakenly identified as a spy, who deepens with his experience in the course of the film.
In Psycho, Hitchcock chooses to go a step further with this perfected technique, and to execute formally a transfer of identification.  The first identification figure is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the Phoenix secretary frustrated by the financial challenges that prevent her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) from divorcing his wife so they can be together; that prompts the spontaneous theft of the money, given the opportunity of some compelling specific circumstances, and her anxious drive to the city of Fairvale in California.  She is on the road over the course of two nights and one full day before she is motivated by rain and fatigue to turn in at the Bates motel (not far from Fairvale, as it turns out).  The second identification figure is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the likeable though unhappily mother-dominated young man who runs the motel and offers her a meal in the parlor of the motel office.
A number of things are important in considering the transfer of identification that occurs in the film.  It is plainly very deliberate not only in the way it is done but in how it is placed in the narrative.  First, there are two distinct parts in the film, as well as a transitional middle that is key to how the film finally works, for good or ill.  The longer parts are about equal in length (approximately 48 minutes).  The first part follows Marion, easily sustaining identification with her, and begins the transfer of identification to Norman in the long intimate scene in the office—the part of the film that deserves the most positive attention—but without abandoning her as an identification figure, and ends when she is murdered in the shower.  The transitional part (about 12 minutes) involves Norman stepping into the space in which identification with Marion has now been taken away, and covering up this murder that he is certain his jealous mother has committed; he is the only one in this part and after preparing us to identify with him, Hitchcock is willing to take some time with this sequence.  The last part of the film follows a fade that definitively closes this first part, with the change that has occurred now absorbed.  In this last part, new characters come in, along with the return of Sam, and the film appears to have other interests then the earlier transfer of identification that had been achieved, as this is now obscured in a number of ways. 
Returning to the motel office scene, most of the last 15 minutes of the first part, we find a stunningly sustained sequence that is taking this film somewhere we had not been expecting it to go (and in mood, tone, and emotional dynamics, this remains the case even when one knows the film and knows where it will go as a whole work).  One might expect that in the crisis she has created for herself Marion might share some confidence, or at least some personal feeling, with another sympathetic human being, and to an extent that happens and we remain empathetic with her state of mind. But one does not expect to so quickly and readily be drawn to a new character as we are to Norman, whose mingling of sweetness and sensitivity with barely concealed anguish and darkness are very compelling. 
There is not just one element that makes this work so well.  It’s well written for one thing (by Joseph Stefano), with piercing dialogue, and the two characters are both brilliantly played, with Leigh, who has been so much the driving force of the action, modulating beautifully to being relatively more reactive, while newcomer to the action Perkins carefully layers in the complex persona of Norman.  But beyond that there is what might be thought of as the purely cinematic part of it, especially the editing, because the transfer of identification is accomplished through a constant, very deliberated exchange of shots between Norman and Marion, who are not shown together through the body of the scene.   The “Norman” shots and the “Marion” shots in those reverses seem so extremely precise that I am certain they were carefully timed and I’m not certain they are not exactly even and that the director wanted them to be; in any event, they are close enough to feel that way and to have a very definite editing rhythm.  But there is a subtle intensity in Norman’s part of it, in the dramatic camera angles and visual detail of them as well as in his words and emotional projection, that begins to take the film his way, even though Marion remains a great creation and the scene/exchange is just as important for her.
Primarily because of this sequence, Hitchcock does actually achieve the transfer of identification that seems to be the motivating force of the film—an amazing and magnificent accomplishment that would seem to assure its greatness.  The shower murder that follows has drawn a lot more attention for being more elaborate, but it is not greater cinema.  What is more true is that its power draws from what the film has managed to do with the two characters in the previous scene and with Marion by herself before that, the mood that scene has created around them both, and the effect of having identification with one of them destroyed, but then somehow, however uneasily—in the cleaning up scene—replaced.
The challenge of the film then becomes what to do now that this transfer of identification has been accomplished.  It is here that the film now fails.  As Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) attempt to find out what happened to her, helped by private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who soon becomes another murder victim, Norman is there in most of the scenes, but he arguably becomes something other than an identification figure, less because he is covering up for his mother (that may not be the right thing to do, but on a human level, it’s understandable) than because Hitchcock does not do the same things to connect the viewer to him as he had when Norman was introduced.  In the end, though Perkins’ performance remains strong, it feels as though it was the exchange with Marion—the communion of two vulnerable souls—that did so much to create sympathy for him.  He never really inherits to any great extent the point of view shots that defined Marion as the protagonist in the first part of the film.  Hitchcock is now happy to share these subjective shots with others—as with Lila in the climax of the film.
And it must be said that Hitchcock does not instill much to make us care about other characters in the second half of the film, or even to be interested in them.  Arbogast, as played by Balsam, comes off best, with a flavorful personality, but he is not there long.  Sam had a touch of soulfulness in the first scene with Marion, enough to make us understand her feeling for him, but in the second half one learns nothing more about him.  As for Vera Miles, we know what she could do with a real character—as she did so memorably in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), while John McIntire only seems to be in it for his voice and ability to stand there and give exposition in a way that will make us listen to it, the waste of a great actor.  Then finally there is Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist.  Is he bad?  Well…not exactly. 
The problem is that by this point Hitchcock has thoroughly trivialized the film.  Rather than an experiment in identification, it has now become, probably more than he intended, an experiment in disidentification.   The director often spoke of “pure cinema” (whatever that really is) and felt this is what moved the audience in Psycho, but I would argue that when the film is at its most moving earlier, it is at least as cinematic but doesn’t care so much about purity and is genuinely engaged by the human conflicts, drives, and emotions that animate the prosaic existence of most people.  Hitchcock is good with any actor or actress when he takes an interest, and those cast in the second half are not necessarily less than those in the first half, but here they all pale in comparison with real estate man Vaughn Taylor, his other secretary Patricia Hitchcock, the pushy/lustful client Frank Albertson, the sharp but laidback car salesman John Anderson, and the scary cop Mort Mills.  That’s because these characters are all interesting in the way they relate to Marion and she relates to them, part of a story in which a reality comes to life.
There’s one interesting and impressive thing to be noted in that second part, and it isn’t about the dual identity of Norman and Mrs. Bates that is finally revealed (which is kind of a reminder that Psycho was originally conceived as a show for Hitchcock’s television series—those shows always had a twist ending).  It’s the pulling of the car from the swamp, a reminder of the sinking car that closed the first hour in the last moments of the transition and so evocative of when the film was still great, and this final image is powerful for that reason.
If I am hard on Psycho, it’s not without admiration for what is brilliant in it and I’ve tried to express that.  But it coasts too much on a reputation for being great that it did not earn simply because Hitchcock was so cavalier and even undiscerning about all the things he had done so masterfully in the first part of it.  The transfer of identification remains an interesting idea and a remarkable thing to attempt—it’s sad to see it fall away as it does here.  One feels it could work for an artist who would put his gifts into sustaining the two parts of the whole equally.   
I hasten to stress that this film was made in what is surely the peak period of this great director’s career—the ten films he made beginning with Rear Window and ending with Marnie (1964).  Most of those films are great and they all do different things, and if Psycho, with all it does have, is in the end the least of those ten, that in itself is remarkable.  One would never want to argue that Hitchcock should not be experimental—his next film, The Birds (1963), surely also is in a different way, not a film just like any other in its bold vision as well as ending in magisterial ambiguity.  Beautifully sustained throughout, it is one of his greatest films, and its successor Marnie, if relatively more traditional in some ways, is just as daring in others.  What both those films do share most with Psycho is the sense that Hitchcock is wanting to get closer to what is deepest in his heart, but where those two films remain true to that sense of him to the end, the earlier film reveals it, then backs away from it, more comfortable in the end with more facile tricks.

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