Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"Turn momma's picture to the wall": notes on the beginning of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)

1. I love the masterfully cold, manipulative beginning of Psycho, written by Joseph Stephano, in part because it has little to do with the main story at the Bates Motel. The entire beginning is one long red herring designed to make the audience uneasy because they are invited to share in the paranoia of a singularly inept thief.

2. "Phoenix, Arizona, Friday December 11, 2:43 pm." Psycho opens with these words appearing on a straightforward shot of the Phoenix skyline before sneaking the viewer peeping tom-style inside the window of a cruddy hotel, where you can barely see a bathroom as the camera pans to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lying in her underwear on the bed as her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) towers over her. Their respective positions foreshadow a design tendency in the film to have one thing tower over another thing that lies supine, such as the way the Addams family Gothic home of Norman Bates looms over the flat motel.

3. Sam says the first line--"Never did eat your lunch, did you?" as we see a rapid insert shot of a sandwich on a table. In this fashion, Hitchcock immediately associates eating with sex and excretion (the bathroom). Marion has no need for lunch because she's satisfied her "ugly appetite" (to quote Norman's mother) another way. All of this and an upcoming shower scene make the normally innocent bathroom a chamber of existential dread. Much of the rest of the dialogue is exposition, but I like the way Sam says "Turn momma's picture to the wall?" as a way to characterize what fun they would have after an evening of respectable dining. Hitchcock loves to rely on photographs, paintings, stuffed birds, mirrors, and anything else on the walls to convey significant mise-en-scene. He even did that in his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

4. It appears that the cheerful eroticism of this scene is the last one in the movie. From hereon, things get weird.

5. Hitchcock used his television crew to help film Psycho, and the anonymous 1950s bland set design of the film as well as its black and white cinematography give it a blunt grungy appeal. The interiors look so pitiful, middle-American, and desperate, why wouldn't one resort to murder?

6. Marion then shows up at what seems to be a real estate firm. We first see Hitchcock himself standing outside in the heat for his trademark cameo. By this point in his career, he had to appear early in the film or audiences would be too distracted looking for him to pay attention to the movie.

7. As Marion walks in, she passes two paintings, one showing a water scene like a lake, the other a desert landscape behind her desk. I've never entirely understood why they are there--perhaps to show her need to escape for the "desert" of her current life by stealing money? Of course, later on she will end up in the trunk of her car in a swamp, so perhaps that's the implication of the water scene.

8. I like the way Hitchcock has his daughter Pat play Caroline, Marion's fellow secretary. She also brings up a mother figure. When headachey Marion asks about aspirin, Caroline says she has something else: "My mother's doctor gave them to me on the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I'd taken tranquilizers." Aside from the omnipresent influence of two mothers now, why on earth would Caroline talk about being drugged on her honeymoon? Already, the sweet romantic tone of the opening scene has started to change into something more ominous.

9. To go along with this shift, Frank Albertson appears as oil man Tom Cassidy, who lamely tries to use his money ($40,000) as an excuse to flirt with Marion. Of all of the manifestations of the male gaze, Tom is the most overtly lecherous. For the next several scenes, Marion will be looked at as a possible "wrong one" or criminal instead.

10. Then, once Marion goes home with the money instead of properly placing it in a safety deposit box in the bank, the scene cuts to a skillful nonverbal expository shot where Hitchcock frames Marion (now wearing black underwear, as befits her new status as thief), and then the money in a white envelope (handy for making a dominant contrast in a shot). Then the camera frames her open suitcase, and then back to her getting dressed, wherein we can see a showerhead and part of a bathroom behind her head. As he does with the opening scene of Rear Window, Hitchcock uses a camera moving carefully around a room to let the audience figure out what is going on.

11. Implicated in her guilt, the audience now feels concern over Marion as she drives out of town. She looks slightly freaked, but Hitchcock distracts the viewer with a voiceover in which she imagines Sam talking about meeting her in Fairvale. Sam says, "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?" With Sam's voice getting lower and more intimate, the viewer gets caught up in this fictional half of a discussion when Hitchcock performs a maneuvre like a magician drawing your attention to one hand while the second hides a coin. He cuts to a point of view shot of her looking out of the car. And then, there's her boss walking by and nodding at her absentmindedly. He then stops and stares at her, realizing that she hasn't gone home as she said she would, before walking on. With the viewer fully locked in to her perspective, Marion's guilt and paranoia are just beginning.


Anonymous said...

Very comprehensive, thoughtful and unique approach here Film Dr., and of a film that certainly lends itself marvelously to this kind of meticulous scrutiny. The early shot of the Phoenix skyline, which as you relate yields to "the inside of a cruddy hotel, is a cinematic technique that dates back to the silent era, with the famous crane sequence near the beginning of King Vidor's THE CROWD that first sets teh establishing shot, then delineates it's "contents."
I love this point:

"Their respective positions foreshadow a design tendency in the film to have one thing tower over another thing that lies supine, such as the way the Addams family Gothic home of Norman Bates looms over the flat motel."

I have read about the eating with sex in Ribin Wood's celebrated volume on Hitchcock, but your use of it here is pared down and integrated into the actual camera movement.

Likewise, the money lying on the table lets the audience in on facts that the players themselves don't know. It has of course, a mesmerizing effect.

The point of view assertion as well as the suggestion of guilt and paranoia in point 11 are magisterial.

And No. 10 is fascinating stuff! (as is this entire entriguing numbered essay)

Joel Bocko said...

Great post - I enjoy reading good formal analyses and with I myself wrote more (perhaps the ability to rip DVDs and create screen-caps on my computer now will lead to a deeper investigation of form on The Dancing Image.). Good stuff.

The Film Doctor said...

Thanks for your kind words, Sam. I especially appreciate your mentioning Wood's book, because I read it long ago, incorporated his ideas into my class discussion of Psycho, and then eventually forgot where they came from. I like to give credit where it is due.

I also appreciate your point about the history of the exterior establishing shot. I sort of knew that, but not as well as you do.

The Film Doctor said...


Thanks for comments. Speaking of analyzing films for a blog, recently I've begun freeze-framing my way through films on this computer as I write. It helps to keep the details accurate.


Great post. I can read about Psycho every day of the week it seems.

Although I must say after reading your thorough piece here that the idea that the beginning is a red herring strikes me as a red herring, too. In a way. Look at how much he's already indicated about the bulk of the picture to come (just as you point out) and with so much foreshadowed he's not misleading us at all.

God i love Hitchcock. His movies are so rewatchable.

The Film Doctor said...

Thanks, Nathaniel. You make a good point about all of the foreshadowing. The beginning is a red herring in the way it relentlessly focuses the audience's attention on the money, over and over, in the best noir tradition, and ultimately it doesn't matter at all.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...


I love the entire first act--the longest, most wonderful red herring in all of cinema, it would seem. Hitchcock begins things like a grimy, paranoid film noir only to knock us out a little later. Great piece, Film Dr.

The Film Doctor said...

Thanks, Alexander. Yes, there's a sense that Hitchcock has no mercy for either Marion or the viewer at the beginning of Psycho. She's caught in a web of malicious circumstance, and the wonder of the film lies in how Hitchcock gets us to feel as she does.

MT said...

Just watched this for the first time today. Very impressive stuff.