Private traps: A critical analysis of “Psycho” (1960)

I might have a disadvantage over you because I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on a big screen. The master of suspense’s 1960 thriller was part of a film appreciation course I took, a course that focused on the works of Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. And seeing as how it was his birthday last week, I thought I’d dust off the flick and give it a view or two. Not that I needed to be reminded of anything; “Psycho” has been, since the first time I saw it, my favorite thriller. Part of what fascinated me from the get go was the compactness of the film. Indeed, “Psycho” is a psychological exercise in confinement.

“Psycho” is, initially at least, the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), an office worker who steals $40,000 from her employer to start a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). She makes a quick stop at the Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother, Norma. When Marion is apparently killed by Norma, Norman covers up the murder. But soon Loomis and Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), start investigating the disappearance.

Hitchcock had always experimented with filming in purposefully confined spaces–confined to the setting in “Lifeboat,” confined to a wheelchair in “Rear Window,”even confined to one long individual shot in “Rope”–but “Psycho” might be his most successful attempt. Everything about the film suggests confinement. The photography of the film is confined to black and white. Bernard Herrmann, when composing the score, confined his orchestra to the string section. The setting, particularly when compared to the nation-hopping sprawl of “North By Northwest,” seems especially enclosed, confined to a lonely stretch of highway from Pheonix, Ariz. to Los Angeles, Calif., which in turn is confined to a small town on the way, which again is confined to a roadside motel. The private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) jokingly notes the Bates Motel looks like it’s “hiding from the world.” He wasn’t wrong.

The film’s most famous sequence is easily the shower scene, whose four tiled walls are one of the most confined spaces in the history of horror. There, Hitchcock violently forces the audience to identify with Marion. He offers no establishing wide shot of the shower; instead, he leads us right inside with Marion and takes us behind the shower curtain with her, even going as far as blasting us with cold water by placing the camera between Marion and the shower head. We are with Marion for every stab, a series of too, too close ups, and the final shot of the sequence is a slow spiral out from Marion’s eye, among the tightest tight shots Hitchcock ever pulled off.

Ah, the shower. Norma’s handiwork. And Norman’s as well. Because Norman Bates is the most confined character of all. He is a trapped in his mother’s shadow, and ultimately, trapped in her identity in a case of empathy gone horribly wrong. It’s as if Hitchcock is suggesting we’re each of us a prisoner of our own psychology, that any effort to escape ourselves is a death sentence. Marion Crane wants to escape herself by escaping her circumstances, and she ends on the bathroom floor. Loomis wants to escape himself in the form of escaping a bad marriage; he joins Lila Crane, not to escape their identities, but to understand what happened to Marion–to empathize–and they both nearly end up dead, and certainly emotionally and psychologically exhausted by the film’s end.

But it is Norman who suffers the most, and the worst part about it is that he’s almost lucid. “You know what I think?” Norman tells Marion before her trip to the bathroom. “I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.” By the end of the film, Norman is so stuck in his trap he isn’t even Norman any more. But if Norman can’t be completely lucid for himself, we can be lucid for him. This is part of what makes “Psycho” such a fantastic thriller; the film is far more than its twist, and it rightly bears repeated viewings as we remain confined to the edge of our (home) theater seats.

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