- The screenplay
- The direction
- The staging of the action
- Plot summary for "Psycho" (first part)
- 1. The opening camera movement
- 2. A hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona
- 3. The real-estate office
- 4. Packing a suitcase
- 5. Marion driving in the car
- 6. Marion and the highway patrolman
- 7. Marion and the car salesman
In an article entitled "Film production", based on forty years of experience as a director, Alfred Hitchcock proposed a set of cinematic guidelines, describing the art of filmmaking in general as well as his own method in particular. The article is a successful attempt to pin down the key narrative elements of film art, ranging from the development of the screenplay to the use of music and colour. At the same time, it is Hitchcock's artistic credo. In the following pages, I will summarize some of the main points in Hitchcock's article, as a prelude to an analysis of Psycho.
The writer must be able to "anticipate, visually and in detail, the finished film". He must secure "a steady development of a plot and the creation of gripping situations arising out of the plot". Everything should be presented by visual means, avoiding the use of "interminable dialogue, which must inevitably send a cinema audience to sleep". Here Hitchcock proposes one of his many definitions of the mechanics of suspense, one of his most celebrated trademarks as a narrator:
"The most powerful means of gripping attention is suspense. It can be either the suspense inherent in a situation or the suspense that has the audience asking, "What wil happen next?". It is indeed vital that they should ask themselves this question" (Gottlieb, p. 212).The emotions of the audience are the crucial point in Hitchcock's narrative universe; these emotions are evoked by "gripping situations", which in turn stem from the basic structure of the motion picture, wherein dialogue plays a minor part. In general, Hitchcock does not rely on dialogue, but takes it on a short lead, writing the screenplay in collaboration with his screenwriters. In building up a character, a number of visual resources are available to the screenwriter:
[...] in particular the use of things. This is one of the ingredients of true cinema. To put things together visually; to tell the story visually; to embody the action in the juxtaposition of images that have their own specific language and emotional impact - that is cinema. [...] Things, then, are as important as actors to the writer. They can richly illustrate character (Gottlieb, p. 214).
This narrative style was well-known at the time of the silent film, most particularly in the films of D.W. Griffith, but was unfortunately neglected in favour of dialogue with the advent of the sound film. From then on, relying on dialogue became the common practice. But according to Hitchcock, the skilled screenwriter knows how to make effective use of things and objects in the film, instead of falling "into the uncinematic habit of relying too much on dialogue".
Of course, the modern film cannot do entirely without dialogue. You cannot shoot a motion picture exclusively in pictures. For that reason Hitchcock agrees to a compromise: "Therefore the skilled writer will separate the two elements. If it is to be a dialogue scene, then he will make it one. If it is not, then he will make it visual, and he will always rely more on the visual than on dialogue" (Gottlieb, pp. 214-215).
Besides the all-important screenplay, Hitchcock also believes in direction as a central part of filmmaking. But again, the screenplay takes precedence over the direction, telling the director what to do as a director: "Half the work of direction should be accomplished in the script [...]" (Gottlieb, p. 215). The main task of the director is to "show what people are doing and thinking and, secondarily, what they are saying". The director, at the same time, must be searching for "the greatest economy" in his film style.
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The cinema audience is the object of the director's efforts. Each shot is a statement made with the camera, for the purpose of creating a "state of mind, of emotion, in the audience. That is to say, the impact of the image is directly on emotions". Sometimes the director just wants to please the eye through the pictorial presentation, sometimes he wants to make a strong impact on the audience. In doing so, through his handling of all these narrative possibilities, the director reveals his style. And style is the crux of the matter. That is what it is all about:
"[...] perhaps the most significant and individually important thing about a director is his style. This style is evidenced by both his choice of subject and his manner of directing it. Important directors are known for their style" (Gottlieb, p. 216).And Hitchcock is certainly known for his highly personal style, as described by François Truffaut in the introduction to his famous conversation with Hitchcock: "Because he exercises such complete control over all the elements of his films and imprints his personal concepts at each step of the way, Hitchcock has a distinctive style of his own. He is undoubtedly one of the few filmmakers on the horizon today whose screen signature can be identified as soon as the picture begins" (Truffaut, p. 18).
According to Hitchcock, some directors are more interested in refining their style and the treatment of the content than with seeking out new themes. They are mainly interested in the manner in which they tell their tales - a statement which applies perfectly to Hitchcock's own cinematic method. He is a storytelling director, interested in telling the story in his own manner.
He knows how to create an emotion in the audience, starting with the actor's face, to which he will guide the eye of the spectator by his direction. Everything begins with the actor's face, he says, referring to a maxim of Ingmar Bergman's - the face on the screen in a certain pictorial frame. A close-up or a long or medium shot, depending on the dramatic purpose. Whatever the director's choice, Hitchcock emphasizes, "the content of the pictorial frame must have an impact. [...] the rectangle of the screen must be charged with emotion" (Gottlieb, p. 218).
Then comes the director's staging of the action, his work with the actors, "the mechanical process of setting up the action so that the actors can move in and bring their emotions to bear, not spontaneously, however, but under his strict supervision". It is the director who is in charge, controlling every movement of the actor.
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Talking about the face, a good screen actor, in Hitchcock's opinion, is an actor who does nothing with his face, but in a convincing way. Then it is up to the director, through the cutting, to show the exact meaning of the actor's face. This is pure cinema. And in pure cinema, dialogue is a secondary thing. In this way, the films of Alfred Hitchcock differ from the majority of films, in which the story consists of illustrated dialogue, or photographs of people talking.
In his further description of the director's use of cinematic means as part of the staging of the action, Hitchcock enumerates the following items: 1) sets and art direction; 2) lighting; 3) camera; 4) sound; 5) music; 6) colour; 7) wide screen; 8) editing; 9) the machinery of filmmaking. A detailed discussion of all of these items would carry us too far afield, and for that reason, I will confine myself to a few essential statements.
The art director must not forget the camera when building a film set. This should be the aim of all construction, Hitchcock points out. An art director must be able to characterize a character in a movie "by what is on his walls", and Hitchcock concludes: "The main factor to be borne in mind in art direction, as in other areas of filmmaking, is the complete control that can be exercised not only over what the audience sees or does not see on the screen but even over the actual movements of the eye" (Gottlieb, p. 220).
Camera movements are divided into two categories: 1) movements in relation to the movements of the characters, in which case the camera follows a character, and "the audience should never be aware of the camera"; and 2) dramatic movement of the camera, when the character is in repose: "[...] the camera may dolly up to the face of the character for emphasis, or dolly away at the end of a scene to reveal a lonely figure standing by himself in the center of a room. So used, the camera may be said to make a statement" (Gottlieb, p. 221). A metaphorical statement for a dramatic purpose, so to speak.
Sound has many functions according to Hitchcock, such as dialogue in combination with images. Sound can also be used to illustrate a character's stream of consciousness together with the image of a thoughtful and unspeaking face - as an interior monologue. For Hitchcock, sound is generally very useful "in expressing the mental processes of the characters. [...]" (Gottlieb, p. 221).
Music gives a certain atmosphere to a film, adds a dimension of mood: "The presence of music, then, is perfectly in accordance with the aim of the motion picture, namely to unfold an action or to tell a story, and thereby stir the emotions" (Gottlieb, p. 222). Once you have seen a Hitchcock film with the score written by Bernard Herrmann, you do not doubt the truth of this statement.
Last but not least in this brief list of subjects covered by Hitchcock, is the use of editing, often described as the essence of making films. Hitchcock refers to both George Méliès, whose "strips of film were joined in a simple sequence", and Eisenstein and Pudovkin, who in the 1920s developed creative editing, so-called montage, a juxtaposition "of individual shots or frames, to illustrate character, to convey ideas". The passage about editing concludes with the following statement:
Whatever method is used, it is used with the realization that everything in cinema is a visual statement and the images are its language. Film, therefore, like any language, has its own syntax, which, as the word implies, is a lining up or ordering of images to create the maximum effect" (Gottlieb, p. 223).In this way, the essay "Film production" - published in 1965, five years after Psycho (1960), which was one of Hitchcock's most celebrated films - sums up Hitchcock's life-long experience as a filmmaker, illustrating the principles he applied when directing film and the cinematic style he practiced.
My reasons for choosing Psycho are: 1) because it is one of Hitchcock's best films; 2) because it is one of the best examples of "pure cinema"; and 3) because the story falls into two separate parts, which makes it possible for me to concentrate on the first part in an analysis - the story of Marion Crane. The aim of this analysis is to demonstrate where and how - in the first sequences of Psycho - Hitchcock succeeds in giving each shot, each frame, each bit of dialogue, another layer of meaning, in addition to the one that is most apparent.
Phoenix office worker Marion Crane meets her lover Sam Loomis - who is divorced - in a hotel room during her lunch break. We understand that they cannot get married, because Sam has financial problems (alimony for his ex-wife, payment of his dead father's debts). One day Marion is asked by her employer to put $40,000 dollars in the safe deposit box in the bank. But instead of going to the bank, Marion steals the money, driving out of Phoenix toward Fairvale, California, in search of a new life with Sam. At night fall, Marion decides to sleep in the car. The next morning, she is awakened by a highway patrolman, who is very suspicious because of Marion's unusual behaviour. He advises her to find a motel - just to be safe. Having checked her licence, the patrolman lets her drive away, following her in his police car. A little later, Marion turns into a used car lot to trade her car in for another. She gets her new car and drives on, until fatigue and the rainy weather result in her stopping at The Bates Motel. And this is where the first part of the story ends.
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Psycho is a crime story, a horror suspense film, a psychological thriller. But it is also a film about family life - or the lack of one. But above all it is a very cinematic film, demonstrating Hitchcock's ability to film things and relations between people directly by using a metaphorical style. Or as Truffaut says: "[...] a film-maker isn't supposed to say things; his job is to show them" (Truffaut, p. 113).
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho opens with a view of city rooftops. The camera pans slowly from left to right across an area with high buildings, when the name of the city, date and time appear on the screen: "Phoenix, Arizona. Friday, December the eleventh. Two forty-three p.m.". The camera continues panning to the right, until it starts zooming toward one of the buildings in a hesitating way, with a few inserted shots, seeking out an open window through which it enters a darkened room.
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If we look closely at the sequence just described, we can see a significant pattern in Hitchcock's narrative style. The insistent panning and zooming shots and Bernard Herrmann's impressive music underline the movement from daylight to darkness, the transition from a normal city atmosphere to an abnormal world of claustrophobia, anxiety and shady love between two unfree people, the two lovers Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) behind the Venetian blinds in their hotel room. A scene under Hitchcock's full control, carefully thought out and systematically carried through.
The opening camera movement is not filmed in a standard or neutral manner. On the contrary it draws attention to itself, demanding not a literal but a figurative or metaphorical reading. The sequence is exclusively visual except for Herrmann's music, signifying the transition from normal to abnormal, referring to the story to be told. The camera works metaphorically as it progresses toward the window of the hotel room in which we will find Marion and Sam. And the music too works metaphorically, emphasizing the importance of the camera movement. Altogether the camera and the music enrich the depicted situation with numerous overtones.
Thus the sequence opens as a kind of documentary film, but ends in a closed world of darkness: a mental prison. It opens by indicating time and place, but the rest of the film is an attack on place and time. Or as Robin Wood points out: "'Psycho' begins with the normal and draws us steadily deeper and deeper into the abnormal" (Wood, p. 112).
"An opening or credit sequence can function metonymically for the whole of a film (the shots refer to the unravelling narrative to come)", Susan Hayward writes in her book "Key concepts in cinema studies", p. 217, thereby providing a precise definition of the opening sequence in Psycho. A similar view is stated by James Naremore:
"... in "Psycho", the first few images have more than expository value. They take us from surfaces to depths; from daylight to a sinister, murky darkness; from the most public view to the most intimate - thus announcing the movement of the film as a whole" (Naremore, p. 27).It is the manner in which the city, buildings and hotel window are filmed that transforms the situation from the commonplace to a world of sinister darkness behind the Venetian blinds. It is the whole visual and aural composition (the camera movement, the rhythm of the editing, the framing, the music), which guides the audience's eye and mind from an open and illuminated world to a dark and stuffy one, in which time and place slowly disintegrate.
As a director. Hitchcock is only interested in his own vision of the world, which is why he always adds meaning or significance to the depicted events by using a metaphorical style. Hitchcock uses film language figuratively from the beginning of a film to its ending; he looks for the ultimate artistic alteration of a scene from its ordinary and general meaning to its abstract and metaphorical significance.
Hitchcock wants to make a metaphorical statement in the opening shot, telling the audience what will happen in the next two hours. Making metaphorical statements is simply a logical consequence of the nature of the medium, according to Trevor Whittock's general conception of filmmaking: "[...] In the making of films, there are no "neutral" shots - they always carry a significance over and above that of being mere reproductions of that which was filmed" (Whittock, p. 28).
The next sequence between Marion and Sam in the hotel room is a dialogue-scene. We know that Hitchcock does not rely on dialogue, because he prefers to tell a story visually. But that does not prevent him from writing an extremely well-turned and idiomatic dialogue, when a scene calls for one. And this scene does, giving us some very important information about the two characters and their problems:
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Sam: You never did eat your lunch, did you?What are they talking about? About lunch, work, sex, marriage, respectability and family (mothers, fathers). About the trivialities of everyday life and about the secrets of their lives without knowing it. The dialogue is at first sight very ordinary, but beneath the surface also very ambiguous, filled with overtones, and slightly ironic. Ordinary and everyday matters on the one hand, and existential issues on the other, depending on whether you read the "love scene" as a comedy or as a tragedy - or as a comedy which turns into a tragedy, corresponding with the transition from daylight to darkness in the opening shot.
Marion: I better get back to the office. These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid.
Sam: Why don't you call your boss and tell him you're taking the rest of the afternoon off? It's Friday, anyway - and hot.
Marion: What do I do with my free afternoon? Walk you to the airport?
Sam: We could laze around here a while longer.
Marion: Checking out time is three P.M. Hotels of this sort - are not interested in you when you come in, but when your time is up - Oh, Sam, I hate having to be with you in a place like this.
Sam: I've heard of married couples who deliberately spend an occasional night in a cheap hotel.
Marion: Oh, when you're married you can do a lot of things deliberately.
Sam: You sure talk like a girl who's been married.
Marion: Sam - this is the last time.
Sam: Yeah? For what?
Marion: For this. For meeting you in secret - so we can be secretive. You come down here on those business trips and we steal lunch hours and - I wish you wouldn't even come.
Sam: All right. What do we do instead? Write each other lurid love letters?
Marion: I have to go, Sam.
Sam: I can come down next week.
Sam: Not even just to see you? To have lunch - in public.
Marion: Oh, we can see each other. We can even have dinner - but respectably - in my house with my mother's picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three.
Sam: And after the steak, do we send Sister to the movies? Turn Mama's picture to the wall?
Both Marion and Sam are indebted to somebody and deprived of their liberty. For Sam it's a question of money. He must pay his ex-wife's alimony, and sweats to pay off his father's debts, which is why they cannot marry. For Marion it's a question of parent-child relations, expressed through her mother's picture on the mantel: a metaphor for her mother and father fixation, just as the family portrait in Suspicion (1941) is a metaphor for Joan Fontaine's parents' fixation. But while Suspicion is a comedy with a happy ending, Psycho is a tragedy ending the first part of the film with the famous shower murder of Marion, an event which is anticipated in Marion's lines: "[...] but when your time is up", "Sam - this is the last time" and "I pay, too".
Because the dialogue wavers between comedy and tragedy, the audience can very easily overlook the metaphorical allusions in those lines. Especially the first time you see the film, because of the audience's concentration on Sam's and Marion's sexual activities in bed. According to James Naremore, the full meaning of such remarks "is not obvious when we first see the film, but on subsequent viewings, when we know what will happen at the Bates' Motel, it strikes us as grisly foreshadowing" (Naremore, p. 29).
So the entire scene is fundamentally a portrayal of psychological problems, as already indicated in the title of the film. Psycho is a movie on the inner life of people who are dominated by the past. A movie about divided minds and split personalities, metaphorically expressed in the streaking gray horizontal and vertical lines, splitting apart the screen during the opening titles designed by Saul Bass.
The next sequence takes place at the real-estate office, where we see Marion at work as a secretary, and meet Caroline (Patricia Hitchcock), the second secretary, their boss Mr. George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor) and the unbearable and rude cowboy-hatted customer, Mr. Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). And not to forget Mr. Alfred Hitchcock himself, who makes one of his famous cameo appearances, standing outside the real-estate office wearing a ten-gallon hat. The sequence is divided into two parts, the first of which is a dialogue between Marion and Caroline, with Marion suffering from a headache:
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Caroline: Have you got some aspirin?At this moment the millionaire Mr. Cassidy and the owner Mr. Lowery enter the office:
Caroline: I've got something - not aspirin. My mother's doctor gave them to me the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I'd taken tranquilizers!
Marion: There any calls?
Caroline: Teddy called me - my mother called to see if Teddy called. Oh, your sister called to say she's going to Tucson to do some buying and she'll be gone the whole weekend, and -
Cassidy: Yeah, tomorrow's the day! My sweet little girl. Oh - oh, not - not you. My daughter. A baby! (sitting on Marion's desk) And tomorrow she stands her sweet self up there and gets married away from me. Ah - I want you to take a look at my baby. Eighteen years old - and she never had an unhappy day in any one of those years!
Lowery: Come on, Tom. My office is air-conditioned.
Cassidy: Do you know what I do about unhappiness? I buy it off. Are you unhappy?
Marion: Not inordinately.
Cassidy: I'm buying this house for my baby's wedding present. Forty thousand dollars, cash! Now that's - that's not buying happiness. That's just - buying off unhappiness. I never carry more than I can afford to lose! Count 'em!
Here again we have a dialogue-scene which goes into details about the parent-child relations from the preceding scene, developing the theme further: mother/daughter (Caroline and her mother), father/daughter (Mr. Cassidy and his daughter), "father/daughter" (Mr. Cassidy and Marion) and another "father/daughter" relation (Hitchcock and his daughter Patricia Hitchcock). Notice Hitchcock's partiality for the formal symmetry in the story, where the cameo appearance is both a joke and the director's comment on his own paternal role.
Literally, of course, the scene depicts a mere customer-salesman situation at a real-estate office, but that is not Hitchcock's business, or the reason why he has chosen to appear on the screen at this moment. The real reason is that he wants to make a visual statement, thereby becoming a metaphor in his own picture.
Throughout the scene there is a very strong audience-identification with Marion, everything is seen from her point of view. But at the same time, Hitchcock's presence adds an extra point of view, giving us the key to the decoding of the scene. In the perspective of Mr. Hitchcock, standing outside the real-estate office with his cowboy hat, the scene is about something quite different than ordinary gossip and small talk between the characters in question. It is about the problematic relationship between parents and children.
From that point of view the whole scene is a metaphor for Marion's mother or father fixation, including Caroline's talk of her domineering mother, Mr. Cassidy's possessive relation to his daughter, Mr. Hitchcock's "hidden" performance in the same scene as his own daughter Patricia Hitchcock (Caroline) and Mr. Lowery's paternal attitude. All these parent-child relations reflect Marion's identity problem as a woman under the influence. Robin Wood describes it in this way: "The whole fabric of the film is interwoven with these parent-child references [...]" (Wood, p. 113).
But there is another interesting narrative element in the scene, Hitchcock's introduction of the "MacGuffin", a well-known dramatic device in many of his films. Mr. Cassidy's $40,000 are the "MacGuffin" which attracts the audience's attention, being the central plot element in the following scenes.
According to Hitchcock's own definition of the "MacGuffin", it is "the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn't matter what it is. [...] The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatever" (Truffaut, pp. 111-112). And here is another definition: "The 'MacGuffin' - my own term for the key element of any suspense story - has obviously got to change. It can no longer be the idea of preventing the foreign agent from stealing the papers. It can no longer be the business of breaking a code. And yet these very same elements, disguised to fit the times, must still be there" (Gottlieb, p. 124).
And in Psycho the "MacGuffin" certainly has changed, compared to Hitchcock's former films, so that we should actually refer to the money as a semi-"MacGuffin". As such the $40,000 are of vital importance to Marion, but also of a certain importance to Hitchcock as the narrator, because he can use the money as a metaphorical element of narration.
From now on, the money will circulate from scene to scene as a dramatic suspense element and at the same time establish the inner metaphorical connection between the scenes as a pars pro toto (part for the whole), reminding the audience of what transpired at the real-estate office. The $40,000 stand as part of the whole setting at the real-estate office, a scene to which they refer. In this way meaning is transported or transferred from scene to scene as part of Hitchcock's narrative economy. The money will be the central point of attraction in every scene, until Marion meets her fate at the Bates Motel. This ambiguous function is very obvious in the scene in Marion's bedroom, where the $40,000 in the white envelope, lying on the bed, are a challenge to Marion, to the camera which moves in for a close-up of the mesmerizing envelope on Marion's bed, and to the audience.
Instead of going to the bank, Marion brings the money home to her small apartment, where she changes her clothes and starts packing her suitcase. This very controlled and carefully prepared scene is thoroughly visual, accompanied only by Bernard Herrmann's music. It is pure cinema without explanatory dialogue. Only the forward, backward and sideward camera movements in front of the money and Herrmann's congenial music, together with Janet Leigh's acting (her expressive body language), communicate the content and the dramatic meaning of the scene: Marion's attraction to the money and her vain attempts to avoid stealing it. To steal or not to steal? But there is more to look for.
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The camera is very active and persistent, moving around in the room as a person or character, pointing out things of importance to look at (the money, the suitcase), while Marion walks around packing her suitcase. Here, she is dressed in a black bra and slip, a significant contrast to the love scene with Sam, where the bra and slip she was wearing were white. On the walls, we see pictures of Marion's parents and of Marion as a child, and on the bed the stuffed white envelope with the $40,000 she had promised her boss that she would put in the safe deposit box in the bank. The camera writes the scene - the camera as a pen.
Everything is told by purely visual means, apart from Herrmann's music, which intensifies the dramatic effect of this wordless scene, full of significant objects and clothing placed in significant rooms: the money (to deposit in the bank/to steal), the family portraits (parents' love/parents' fixation), the mirror (mirror image/ mental splitting), the suitcase (to travel/to change identity), Marion's black handbag (white handbag/black handbag) and black underwear (white bra/black bra), the bed (stolen love/ marriage) and the bathroom with the shower (murder).
All of these narrative elements are charged with meaning because of Hitchcock's narrative style, which makes things signify something different from their ordinary meaning. In short, they are metaphors or rather metonyms for Marion's identity crisis. This is pure cinema. According to Hitchcock's artistic credo in his film essay, things are as important as actors, because they can richly illustrate character, as proven by this scene. The first time we see Marion's handbag and underwear, they are white. The next time we see them, they are black, marking a significant change from ordinary meaning to metaphorical meaning within the framework of the film. The first time we see a bed in Psycho, it is a bed for stolen love. The next time, it is a marriage bed because of the money. And the mirror image of Marion is not a "neutral" shot, but a metaphorical statement.
But what is a metaphor, actually? "According to the linguist Roman Jakobson", Susan Hayward argues, "metonymy and metaphor are the two fundamental modes of communicating meaning" (Hayward, p. 216). A definition she develops further:
Metaphors [...] are very visible. They draw attention to themselves. Metonyms are not. And this is why the two terms can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Metaphors render the unknown visible, make the unknown have presence. Metonyms represent what is absent, stand as part of the whole story to which they refer, which is why they work invisibly. [...] Metonyms, then, are encoded, they organize meaning in a precise way. Metaphors have to be decoded. The juxtapositions of shots has to be read, understood by the spectator (Hayward, pp. 218-219).The "packing a suitcase" scene as a whole is a metaphor for departure, change and transition (a similar scene could be seen in Marnie (1964) with Tippi Hedren in the leading role). Marion steals the money because she wants to start a new life. The concept of "packing a suitcase" is in this way a metaphor for searching for a new identity. Using metaphors requires only that the director be very careful with his style:
Each cut of a picture, lasting from three to ten seconds, is information that is given to the viewer. This information is all too often obscure or downright incomprehensible, either because the director's intentions were vague to begin with or he lacked the competence to convey them clearly. To those who question whether clarity is all that important, I can only say that it is the most important quality in the making of a film (Truffaut, p. 15).
The money, as an important object in the plot, serves two functions, a dramatic one describing Marion as a thief, and a metaphorical one, describing Marion as a neurotic. And it is the "neurotic" story, which interests Hitchcock. We follow Marion in her car, when she leaves Phoenix with the money to visit Sam in Fairvale, California. While driving, she imagines a conversation with Sam, who is surprised to see her. We hear his voice on the sound track as an interior monologue: "Marion, what in the world, what are you doing up here? Of course I'm glad to see you. I always am. What is it Marion?" This is more a father speaking than a lover, his voice being a synecdoche (pars pro toto), which indirectly refers to the opening scene between Marion and Sam. Sam is her fatherly lover. We remember Hitchcock writing in his film essay that sound can be used to illustrate a character's stream of consciousness together with the image of a thoughtful and unspeaking face, and this is precisely what happens here.
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For the first time Marion is acting in a neurotic way, now that she is under pressure because of the money she is stealing to finance her marriage with Sam. We see her nervous and uneasy face in a close-up, biting her finger while she is sitting behind the wheel of her car, observing the road with her eyes. We see what she is seeing in a number of subjective shots, the camera cutting back and forth between her face and the road. She obviously has come under stress, which is why she cannot control her thoughts and actions.
Marion suffers from bad conscience, and her sense of guilt is intensified, when her boss and Mr. Cassidy - Marion's two "office-fathers" - pass the cross-walk in front of Marion, as she waits at a stoplight before driving out of Phoenix. The scene is pure cinema in genuine Hitchcock style, with crosscutting between Marion's boss, smiling at her in the car, and Marion uneasily smiling back at him as he passes the cross-walk, followed by a new shot of the boss who is surprised to see Marion in the car, when she was supposed to be home in bed with a headache. Bernard Herrmann's pounding music helps to sustain the neurotic atmosphere of the sequence, when Marion continues driving.
The main task of the director is to show what people are doing and thinking and, secondarily, what they are saying; and he must strive for the greatest economy in his film style, Hitchcock points out in his film essay. All of this applies perfectly to what happens in Marion's car, where Hitchcock combines the use of subjective shots, close-ups of Marion and voice over. With this economy in his narrative style, Hitchcock creates an enormous suspense and audience-participation in the scene - all because of the fatal money, which is not even visible.
Still the money determines the content of the scene, both dramatically and metaphorically. In a way the money is "visible" in the scene, because it is in Marion's mind - and also in the audience's mind as an inner picture. The dramatic function of the money has to do with Marion's stealing the $40,000 without being arrested, while the metaphorical function has to do with parent-child relations - in this case, with Marion's not obeying her boss. As a little girl she is running away from her father, stealing his money (power, control, influence) in search of a new life.
The next morning, Saturday, we see Marion's car parked on the roadside. She has been sleeping in the car, lying down on the front seat, but is now awakened by a California highway patrolman (Mort Mills), wearing very dark glasses and staring at her through the car window. Marion wakes up when the patrolman knocks on the window, and seeing his sinister and frightening face, she starts the car engine and tries to escape:
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Patrolman: Hold it there! In quite a hurry.Marion is a little girl who wants to act like a big girl. But she is surrounded on all sides by more or less domineering father or mother figures: Sam - her fatherly lover, Mr. Lowery - her boss, her mother's picture on the mantel, Caroline's controlling mother, Mr. Cassidy and his daughter, Hitchcock and his daughter Patricia Hitchcock, and now the California highway patrolman. All fathers and mothers in Marion's universe.
Marion: Yes. I didn't intend to sleep so long. I almost had an accident last night, from sleepiness. So I decided to pull over.
Patrolman: You slept here all night?
Marion: Yes. As I said, I couldn't keep my eyes open.
Patrolman: There are plenty of motels in this area. You should've - I mean, just to be safe -
Marion: I didn't intend to sleep all night! I just pulled over. Have I broken any laws?
Patrolman: No, ma'am.
Marion: Then I'm free to go?
Patrolman: Is anything wrong?
Marion: Of course not. Am I acting as if there's something wrong?
Patrolman: Frankly, yes.
Marion: Please - I'd like to go.
Patrolman: Well, is there?
Marion: Is there what? I've told you there's nothing wrong - except that I'm in a hurry and you're taking up my time.
The highway patrolman is a menacing and ominous figure, who suddenly appears in the desertlike landscape. We see him mainly as a face. And what a face! Not the face of an ordinary policeman, but rather the face of an executioner. A face which has to be decoded, "has to be read, understood by the spectator" like a dream.
The scene illustrates a dream, with different levels of meaning. The highway patrolman is of course a man doing his job, but he looks like a severe father or a judge, his face being a metaphor for all those attributes. As a person he is on another level than all the preceding fathers and mothers. Not a real or realistic father, but a metaphor for a judgmental and frightening authority. Love is absent in this scene as it is in most of the preceding and all the following scenes. Only Marion's sense of guilt, attached to her nervous and evasive behaviour, and the patrolman's increasing suspicion, pervade this fabulous scene, which James Naremore describes like this: "In the hands of most filmmakers, such an episode would be as flat as it sounds on paper, but Hitchcock makes it an indelible moment, an achievement of what one is tempted to call "pure cinema", if the term did not seem to indicate a merely formal beauty" (Naremore, p. 39).
The scene demonstrates all of Hitchcock's skills as a film director: 1) his ability to film directly the feelings and thoughts of his characters without resorting to explanatory dialogue; 2) his suspense technique; 3) the editing; 4) the camera movement; 5) his use of point of view; 6) his use of the "MacGuffin"; 7) his use of metaphors. A cinematic style which Truffaut describes as follows:
"His style can be recognized in a scene involving conversation between two people, in his unique way of handling the looks they exchange, and of punctuating their dialogue with silent pauses, by the simplified gestures, and even by the dramatic quality of the frame. Just as unmistakably Hitchcockian is the art of conveying to the viewer that one of the two characters dominates, is in love with, or is jealous of, the other [...]" ("Hitchcock", p. 18).
It is in this scene that we can see most clearly the dramatic function of the money as an element which creates suspense. At the end of their "conversation", the patrolman suddenly asks Marion for her license, a demand which starts the suspense and the nightmare. What we witness is a superb interaction between many narrative elements. First of all the low camera angle from the point of view of the front seat of the car, close to the money which Marion removes from her purse, hiding it behind her handbag before she finds her license, while the patrolman looks over her shoulder as he leans on the window. He checks the licence and lets her drive away, following her from behind in his police car. On the sound track we hear Herrmann's chasing rhythms.
This is indeed pure cinema at its best, based on: 1) subjective camera; 2) audience identification; 3) suspense. To James Naremore
[...] it is a privileged moment in the film, a picture worthy of the surrealists, especially in the way it combines absolute clarity of presentation with the vague aura of a sexual nightmare. There are no gauzy, shadowy, expressionist techniques in what we see, and yet it is deeply evocative, with the power of staying in our minds quite apart from its function in the plot (Naremore, pp. 40-41).Concerning the metaphorical function of the money, there is an obvious chain of associations linking the money to Marion's Arizona car license plate number ANL - 709, to Marion's behaviour in front of her "father", the highway patrolman, his face being a voice of the past. She gives him the license, but hides the "money". To David Sterritt the meaning is clear: "If there is any doubt regarding Hitchcock's scatalogical turn of mind throughout Marion's ordeal, a closeup of her first car's license plate lays it to rest: It is ANL - 709, the letters spelling a revealing word while the numbers cushion an anuslike zero between two more substantial digits" (Sterritt, p. 106). In this way the money is a metaphor for defecation, signifying Marion's behaviour as anal-obsessive. A behaviour which is repeated in the next scene between Marion and the car salesman, yet another father figure in the film.
Marion pulls into a used car lot to exchange her old car for another one in order to cover up her tracks. While waiting for the salesman, she buys a newspaper from a coin-operated machine, and looks for some mention of her crime. Once again, we hear Bernard Herrmann's commenting score on the sound track. From across the street, the highway patrolman, who has followed Marion in his car, watches her talking to the car salesman, California Charlie (John Anderson). The dialogue goes like this:
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Marion notices the patrolman observing her from a distance. The salesman goes on talking about Marion's new car:
Marion: Can I trade my car in and take another?
Car Dealer: Do anything you've a mind to. Bein' a woman, you will. That yours?
Marion: Yes, it's just that - there's nothing wrong with it. I just -
Car Dealer: Sick of the sight of it! Well, why don't you have a look around here and see if there's somethin' that strikes your eyes and meanwhile I'll have my mechanic give yours the once over. You want some coffee? I was just about -
Marion: No, thank you. I'm in a hurry: I just want to make a change, and-
Car Dealer: One thing people never oughtta be when they're buyin' used cars and that's in a hurry. But like I said, it's too nice a day to argue. I'll shoot your car in the garage here.Car Dealer: Go ahead and spin it around the block.Marion goes to the Ladies' Room, where she counts out the seven hundred dollars for her new car before returning to the salesman:
Marion: It looks fine. How much will it be with my car?
Car Dealer: You mean you don't want the usual day and a half to think it over? Hah! You are in a hurry, aren't you? Somebody chasin' you?
Marion: Of course not. Please.
Car Dealer: Well - it's the first time a customer has ever high-pressured the salesman! Uh - I'd figure roughly - your car plus seven hundred dollars.
Marion: Seven hundred.
Car Dealer: Ah - you always got time to argue money, uh?
Marion: All right.
Car Dealer: I take it you can prove that car is yours - I mean, out of state license and all. You got your pink slip and -
Marion: I believe I have the necessary papers. Is there a Ladies' Room?
Car Dealer: In the building.Car Dealer: I think you'd better take it for a trial spin. Don't want any bad word of mouth about California Charlie.From a metaphorical point of view, the scene illustrates Marion's anal-obsessive behaviour. The car salesman behaves as an expert on cars and car selling, acting like a father ("I'm in no mood for trouble"). Marion does not want to discuss her choice of car, acting like a little obsessive girl ("No, thank you. I'm in a hurry: I just want to make a change" - "Can't we just settle this?" - "Is there anything so terribly wrong about - making a decision and wanting to hurry! Do you think I've stolen the car?").
Marion: I'd really rather not. Can't we just settle this?
Car Dealer: I - might as well be perfectly honest with you, ma'am. It's not that I don't trust you, but -
Marion: But what? Is there anything so terribly wrong about - making a decision and wanting to hurry! Do you think I've stolen my car?
The scene in the ladies' room is a very significant one. Here, we see Marion standing in front of a mirror, with her image schizophrenically reflected as she counts out the seven hundred dollars for her new car. She is safe here in the bathroom, and the money does not serve any specific dramatic function in this location, but is purely metaphorical, signifying her anal-obsessive character, but also her doubt. She wants this new car, but hesitates at the same time. Then she returns to California Charlie, who becomes more and more suspicious about her behaviour. And again Hitchcock tells the story visually.
From a dramatic point of view, the scene between Marion and the car salesman is very much like the preceding one between Marion and the highway patrolman because of the patrolman's presence in the background of the picture, where he leans on his patrolcar and keeps a very suspicious eye on Marion's behaviour at the used car lot. Has he found out that she has stolen the money? What will he do? Because of our identification with Marion, we hope that she will get away from the patrolman, who is staring at her from a distance.
The scene is pure suspense consisting of camera movements, editing, music, subjective shots, audience identification and metaphors, a melting together of expressive narrative elements, forming a synthesis. And last but not least Marion's impressive exit, when she drives off in her new car, starting - she believes - a new life. She is called back by a mechanic, because she has forgotten her suitcase and her coat in the old car. Being a metaphor for her wish to start a new life, the car change shows that Marion is still a woman under the influence, expressed through the transferred suitcase from the old car to the new one. Marion cannot change or get rid of her old identity.
This was the story about Marion Crane's journey into darkness. A story with a maximum of audience identification with Marion, mostly seen from her point of view. A story with a maximum of suspense because of the money. And a story with a maximum of metaphorical narration, including both "visible" and "invisible" metaphors. But also a story with a maximum of symmetrical sequence composition. The sequences follow a rhythmical and symmetrical pattern. Wordless sequences alternate with dialogue sequences: Saul Bass's prologue is a visual statement, followed by another visual sequence (1), after which we have two dialogue sequences (2, 3), then two visual ones (4, 5), and finally two dialogue sequences once again (6, 7). This is a story told by a director at the height of his career after films like Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) - a director who, according to Truffaut, "is the most complete film-maker of all":"[Hitchcock] is not merely an expert at some specific aspect of cinema, but an all-round specialist, who excels at every image, each shot, and every scene. He masterminds the construction of the screenplay as well as the photography, the cutting, and the sound-track, has creative ideas on everything and can handle anything, and is even, as we already know, expert at publicity!" (Truffaut, p. 18).
Talking about publicity, it is natural to mention the famous shower scene in Psycho. Perhaps the most celebrated scene in Hitchcock's entire film production. Everybody knows this scene, has heard about it, among other things because of Hitchcock's many newspaper interviews and well-known appearances on television, promoting his own films. I have not given a detailed description of this scene as the climax of Marion Crane's fatal journey into darkness, but will leave it to Hitchcock's use of metaphors in Psycho to evoke this dramatic occurrence in our minds. Thus the image of the shower in Marion's bathroom, as a metaphor for the shower murder, may complete the story of Marion Crane.
to the top of the pageAnobile, Richard J. (ed.). Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. London: Pan Books, 1974.
Gottlieb, Sidney (ed.). Hitchcock on Hitchcock. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.
Hayward, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. London: Routledge, 1996.
Naremore, James. Filmguide to Psycho. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
Sterritt, David. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. London: Secker & Warburg, 1967; orig. pub. 1966.
Whittock, Trevor. Metaphor and Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Fi$lms. London: Zwemmer, 1969; orig. pub. 1965.