Drawing back the shower curtain: Voyeurism in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960)

psycho

“I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.” They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, 1985)

At the time of making and releasing Psycho, the restrictive codes of Hollywood cinema were beginning to dissipate, and the move from an age of ‘cinema-goers’ to ‘television-viewers’ was starting to worry the establishment of ‘Old Hollywood’. In Raymond Durgnat’s book ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) Durgnat describes how Psycho and its characters were intended to appeal to the evermore powerful teenage market and the more mature audience who were used to his previous successes:

“Norman…geared to the increasing interest in psychology. Though pushing 30, he’s an arrested teenager; still mother-bound and Anthony Perkins was popular with teenage girls. As for Marion and Sam, they are too socially unsettled, lonely, and to that extent psychologically ‘marginal’, and so have strong appeal for niche-market teenagers, but still interest without alienating mature spectators.”

This increased “interest in psychology” also gives much credence to the film’s critical psychoanalysis which has surrounded the film since its release. It’s almost as if the film intended to strike up debate as much as it intended to shock. Of course, the subject matter of the film itself was not entirely new to the American public. Adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel by Joseph Stefano, Psycho was inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein (1904-84) whose capture and discovery of his horrific crimes began a media frenzy. The story is recognisable and influenced such other films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Bloch explained the creation of the killer Norman Bates in David Thomson’s book ‘The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder’ (2009) saying:

“…the character would be equivalent of a Rod Steiger type at the time, who lived alone- a recluse more or less, who didn’t have a lot of friends. How would he select his victims? I came up with his being a motel-keeper because of easy access to strangers.”

This decision to switch from the forty-something, ogre-like Bates to the obvious good looks of Anthony Perkins’ Bates appears to be a conscious effort to take into the account the viewer’s expectation (or lack of, as the case seems to be) of the characters deeper mental state by being portrayed with someone who can ‘appear’ likeable and trustworthy and unlikely to be a serial killer. By doing this, the film can explore how a killer can exist within the unlikeliest of people and how mental illness is a universal concern.

The film begins with the opening credits created by Saul Bass, a graphic designer who worked with Hitchcock on a number of films, such as Vertigo (1958) (another film which deals heavily with voyeurism). Combined with Bernard Hermann’s staccato violin score, the titles immediately place the viewer on edge and consist of moving lines which move along the screen to reveal names of cast and production members. This linear effect perhaps alludes to window blinds, rather fitting since immediately after, the camera zooms to a seedy hotel room window partially covered by a Venetian blind- a blind which hides from the outside world Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis engaging in a lunchtime affair. Known for being a particularly difficult sequence to shoot, according to Durgnat in ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) it would “bid for the longest continuous distance travelled by a camera” and was another example of Hitchcock striking out to challenge normal shooting practice, just as he did in Rope (1941) eleven years earlier.

Throughout the first half of the narrative, Marion Crane is the subject of a number of gazes, from the leering Mr Cassidy in the office, to the suspicious Police Officer and ultimately by Norman Bates. These gazes are represented both technically (camera angles, point of shot) and by the script and the representation of the characters. In the office scene, Mr Cassidy sits on Marion Crane’s desk placing the camera to view her from a slightly senior position of the client. Furthermore, the lifting of her head at his words “My sweet little girl” and his response: “Not you- my daughter!” also suggests that Marion is aware of male attention or is often flattered by clients with whom she encounters. Her understanding of her position in the male gaze is possibly what made her good at her job in the first place and appears to coolly deal with Mr Cassidy’s attentions. In contrast, upon encountering the Police Officer on the highway and again at the used car garage, Marion is viewed as a potential deviant from the law. Marion’s unease at being questioned shows how easily guilt has manifested itself in the way she relates to others. Perhaps the officer was showing natural concern and vigilance for a woman parked on a quiet freeway? But as a viewer who knows of Marion’s activities, we too feel he is being overly invasive and therefore implicates us in the crime also. The dark, opaque sunglasses the officer wears seem intrusive, aggressive and block the viewer (and Marion) a chance to interpret his character via his eyes.

The most significant character in terms of the male gaze towards Marion is of course Norman Bates. As a repressed, insular man with little interaction with the outside world and other people, the arrival of Marion at the Bates Motel is a significant moment in the film and also in Norman’s life. It is clear he desires her; he is nervous around her and noticeably excitable. The overheard conversation with Norman’s mother (“I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper. By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds,”) is an example of Marion’s own temptation to listen in and look where she shouldn’t and is just one of the first instances where Marion appears to step over the line into Norman’s private affairs. The parlour room in which they have lunch is filled with Norman’s stuffed birds, many frozen in full flight indicating perhaps the action of capture and the bird’s all-seeing point of view on its prey. Norman’s declaration to Marion: “You, you eat like a bird” reinforces the interpretation that Norman has an ‘eagle-eye’ view of Marion. In the next scene, Norman spies on Marion through a peep-hole hidden behind a painting. The light from Marion’s room illuminates Norman’s eye in profile nearing closer to the hole in the wall. The camera shifts to Norman’s point of view and instantly implicates the viewer in the voyeurism. We are both shocked at his invasion of her privacy and yet cannot turn away. Spying on Marion getting undressed invites us to witness the cause of Norman’s arousal and the manifestation of his desire from behind a wall- forever kept apart from any possible sexual gratification. Moments later, the famous shower scene occurs.

In ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’ by Tania Modleski (1988), Modleski outlines how “In Film Studies, Hitchcock is often viewed as the archetypal misogynist, who invites his audience to indulge their most sadistic fantasies against the female.” In this way, the shower scene is perhaps an opportunity for the presumed male audience to see their deep-set sadistic desires played out on screen. This idea is emphasised in Laura Mulvey’s famous article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). If this scene was in reverse (as in, the camera viewpoint was from Marion’s perspective) the effectiveness of the scene would be lost, as Modleski (in ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’) concludes that though, “Psycho [is] a film which punishes audiences for their illicit voyeuristic desires…they ignore the fact that within the film not only are women objects of the male gaze, they are also recipients of most of the punishment.”

Many aspects in the shower scene hint at the theme of voyeurism and looking. When Marion enters the shower, she is visibly delighted in its baptismal qualities, relieved in her decision to return the money. The shower head could resemble an eye, looking down, offering her a chance for redemption. After her shocking murder, her blood is left to run down the plughole, the water still running. This then turns into a shot of Marion’s eye (an eye which saw her killer and faced up to her ‘punishment’) with a look of terror still on her face, and the water still running in the background. Hitchcock always drew storyboards before every scene he ever filmed, and so it is not entirely impertinent to presume that all of these allusions to the voyeuristic eye were purposely included. The book-ending of Marion’s lifeless eye and Norman’s peeping Tom eye, and the counter-clockwise flushing toilet (almost) ridding Marion of her sin with the water running counter-clockwise down the plughole, all highlight Hitchcock’s continued focus on the conduct and aspects of a voyeur.

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Furthermore in Laura Mulvey’s article, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, she argued  how the conditions of the cinema theatre practically invite people to objectify women in the anonymity of darkness. Hitchcock understood the workings of the cinema environment and even manipulated them by adopting a famous campaign to prevent cinema-goers from walking into Psycho mid-way through the film (a practice unheard of at this time). In his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock emphasised how much he worked to manipulate the viewer and see only what he allowed them to: “…the game with the audience is fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was manipulating them like an organ.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Hitchcock, 269) For example, Hitchcock knew that many people would be expecting to see a star like Janet Leigh to be present for much of the film. He played on the enticing images of Leigh in a brassiere on the movie posters and punished the viewer by killing her character in the first 47 minutes of the movie.

As well as Psycho, films such as Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and Notorious (1946) all deal with the notion of looking, both in their plots and in the artistry of the film-making. Since so much of Hitchcock’s films are based in psychoanalysis, one cannot underplay the importance of the human psyche when judging what we can and cannot see in films such as these. So much of what we have since learned from Freud deal with the conscious eye and the subconscious reaction (Norman’s attraction to Marion (conscious) plus ‘mother’s’ violent reaction to his sexual desire (subconscious)).

In The Times article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Psycho, directors were asked to recall their experience and interpretation of the film. Wes Craven the director of Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream movies explained how Psycho was “almost pornographic in the way it impacted on people at the time.” This statement is still true today. More than any one scene in the picture, the film as a whole was an overwhelming visceral experience aimed at alerting the senses, especially sight. Whether you want to or not, you just can’t stop looking:  and as Thelma Ritter concludes in Rear Window (1954), “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms.”

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‘Hitchcock’ starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and concerning the making of Psycho is in UK cinemas on 8th February 2013. Watch the trailer.

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