There are those for whom Alfred Hitchcock is a "master of suspense" the premier technician of the classical narrative cinema; there are those for whom Hitchcock's mastery of film technique, of "pure cinema" as he liked to call it, amount to a species of pandering, or even of an audience-directed cruelty; there are others for whom Hitchcock's fables of emotions trapped and betrayed are seen as self-reflexive, enticing the viewer to participate in the drama of suspense only to call that participation into moral question; and, finally, there are those who find in Hitchcock's films submerged allegories of grace, of mistakes acknowledged, redeemed, and transcended. Despite such general differences of opinion, however, it is commonly agreed among Hitchcock scholars that Psycho raised the issue of Hitchcock's artistic status and intentions (or lack thereof) in its purest form, as if it were his most essential, most essentially Hitchcockian, film.
Indeed, the shower murder sequence in Psycho – wherein Janet Leigh's almost confessional cleansing is cut short by the knife wielding "Mrs. Bates" – is frequently cited as a textbook instance of cinematic suspense and formal (montage) perfection. Moreover, it is this murder of the film's ostensible heroine, roughly a third of the way through the narrative, that most critics focus on when discussing the significance of the entire film, as if it were the film writ small, as if the film were itself an act of murder that we are commanded, via Hitchcock's expert use of subjective camera, to take part and pleasure in.
Two kinds of evidence are typically invoked to support such a reading of Psycho and of Hitchcock generally. One of these is Hitchcock's lifelong commitment to popular cinematic genres, mainly the thriller. The underlying premise here is that Hitchcock had ample opportunity to break out of the thriller format, to become an "artist" in the way that Fellini and Antonioni are (it is often pointed out that Psycho and L'avventura were released within a year of each other), so that his apparent decision not to do so can be read as a matter either of obsession (as if he feared to) or satisfaction (as if he aspired no higher). And underlying this premise is the conviction that popular genres, of their very nature, are inimical to serious art, are too much the product of popular tastes and box-office calculation to allow for humane insights or serious artistic self-expression – hence O. B. Hardison's argument that Hitchcock is less an artist than a "rhetorician."
A second sort of evidence is also cited to support the claim that neither Hitchcock nor Psycho need be taken seriously – his comments to interviewers, especially regarding his working methods and intentions. Hitchcock's description of Psycho as "a fun picture," one that takes its audience through an emotional process "like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground" (in Movie 6), is a notorious instance of this apparent dissociation between the seriousness of his ostensible subjects (crime, murder, sexuality) and the triviality of Hitchcock's approach. As David Thomson puts it, "Psycho is just the cocky leer of evil genius flaunting tragic material but never brave enough to explore it."
The case against Psycho is grounded in a reading of intention and effect, the charge being that Hitchcock's intentions are mercenary and that the effect of the film is a kind of brutality, directed equally at the film's characters and its audience. The accepted case for the film follows a similar line of reasoning, though to different conclusions. Thus critics like Robin Wood and Leo Braudy would agree that in Psycho Hitchcock "forces the audience … to face the most sinister connotations of our audience role" by playing with, yet disturbing, our normal expectation "that our moral sympathies and our aesthetic sympathies [will] remain fixed throughout the movie." Our desire to "identify" with sympathetic characters is thus called increasingly into question as our "identification" shifts from the reasonably normal Marion Crane to the seemingly normal Norman Bates – who finally becomes "Mrs. Bates" in an epiphany of confused identity. Indeed, it is this voyeuristic tendency to identify with others, or to identify them as the views we take of them, often without their knowledge, that the film calls into ethical doubt, forcing viewers "to see the dark potentialities within all of us."
Such arguments for and against Psycho are problematic, however, on several counts – not the least of which is the common assumption that the film, of its very essence, is "naturally voyeuristic." Is it more or less voyeuristic than still photography, or painting, or sight generally? Also a problem is the clear implication in both arguments that audience response is so thoroughly under Hitchcock's control that "the spectator becomes the chief protagonist." Upon what grounds can we claim to know how all members of a given audience, much less all members of all possible audiences, will respond to a particular film? Furthermore, what warrants our generalizing from predicted audience response to authorial intention? And of what relevance is intention to our evaluation of Psycho in any event? Much discussion of Psycho assumes that our decision to take Psycho seriously as a work of art depends upon our reading of Hitchcock's intentions regarding it; but one can more reasonably argue that the very decision to treat the film as an aesthetic object renders intention irrelevant. As Stanley Cavell puts it, all that matters for our experience of any film is "in front of your eyes."
A final reason for doubting the wisdom of the accepted approaches to Psycho is the focus they place on individual psychology, of the characters, of the viewer, at the expense of other facts of the text. One such fact, often read as an Hitchcockian irrelevancy (a "MacGuffin"), is money – as personified by the oil-rich Mr. Cassidy and as an implicit factor in the attitudes and actions of nearly every major character. It is Sam's lack of money that prompts Marion in the first place to steal Cassidy's $40,000. Sam and Lila assume that money is behind Norman's silence regarding Marion (Norman himself hints that money played a part in the relationship of his widowed mother to her lover); the Sheriff assumes that money is behind Arbogast's disappearance. Indeed, Psycho can be read as a meditation on money and its effects – negative effects as far as the film's characters are concerned, but also positive effects in regard to the audience, or at least in regard to those members of the audience who take Psycho seriously as a warning of the deadly effects that money can have. It is in such terms that the audience can become an implicit "character" in the film – the character who does benefit from the past mistakes and who is therefore capable of transcending them.
Release Date: 1960
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntyre, Lurene Tuttle, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson, Pat Hitchcock, Vaughn Taylor, John Anderson, Mort Mills, Sam Flint, Francis De Sales, George Eldredge, and Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Joseph Stefano
Source Citation: Poague, Leland. "Psycho." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 974-977.