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Social Commentary in Hitchcock's Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most recognizable and famous film and television directors and producers of the twentieth century. His unique approach to film and television helped to define and establish the parameters of the thriller genre while simultaneously developing techniques that have become trademarks of his films. One of Hitchcock's most famous thrillers is his 1960 film Psycho. Psycho is based on an eponymous novel by Robert Bloch that was published in 1959 (Ager). The novel is intended to be a fictionalized account of Ed Gein's life and crimes (Bell & Bardsley). Like Gein, Norman is shown to be obsessed with his mother and involved in the disappearances of various women. Since the publication of the novel and the release of Hitchcock's film, the Bates Motel has become synonymous with a house of horrors with Norman Bates, the motel's proprietor, assuming the role of a deranged and unassuming serial murderer.
There has been renewed interest in Psycho due to the release of Hitchcock, a film that chronicles Hitchcock's life and the preparations that took place to make Psycho. Furthermore, a television series titled Bates Motel, a prequel to the events of the film, is scheduled to premiere in March 2013 ("Psycho' TV series to air on A&E"). In a recently discovered interview given to the BBC radio show Monitor in July 1964, approximately four years after Psycho's release, Hitchcock comments, "The content as such was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously" ("Psycho 'Was My Comedy'"). Despite Hitchcock's assertion that Psycho was supposed to be a big joke, because of its commentary on and insight into issues of gender sexuality, violence, criminal behavior, and psychology it is difficult to consider the film to be anything but a horrifying thriller.
In Psycho, Hitchcock provides serious social commentary on gender and gender roles by having his characters embrace and reject social conventions of masculinity and femininity. Hitchcock's commentary on masculinity can be seen through a comparison of Sam Loomis, played by John Gavin, and Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. In the film, Sam Loomis is representative of what masculinity is thought to be. He is independent, sexually liberated, confident, physically fit, and owns a hardware store; hardware and construction in the film are intended to be representative masculine careers and industries. Norman Bates, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of Sam. Unlike Sam, Norman is not independent and is co-dependent on his mother, he is depicted as being sexually repressed, he is shy, thin, and owns and runs a motel; in juxtaposition with Sam's business, running a motel forces Norman to embrace activities often associated with domesticity such as housekeeping and caring for others. Hitchcock provides similar commentary on femininity through a comparison of Norman and Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. In the film, Norman embodies attributes that are associated with femininity and the "cult of domesticity" ("The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood"). Although an antiquated concept, women were expected to be pure, submissive, and domestic. Norman personifies these qualities, whereas Marion does not. Norman appears to reject impurity through the persona of Mrs. Bates, which can be seen in the argument the two have after Norman invites Marion up to the house for dinner. Mrs. Bates tells Norman, "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!," which hints at her desire for him to remain pure and insinuates Marion is an impure woman (Psycho). Moreover, Norman is submissive to his mother, which is one of the reasons she can control him. On the contrary, Marion is not pure and has been engaging in a sexual relationship with Sam out of wedlock. Furthermore, Marion is independent, both financially and romantically, and is not domestic, but rather is employed outside the home at a real estate office (Psycho).
Additionally, Hitchcock plays with how sex and violence are depicted in the film. Prior to the production and release of Psycho, American films had to adhere to certain productions codes, which were instituted from the 1930s through the 1960s. While Hitchcock adheres to the production code and does not depict explicit sex and violence, he does insinuate a passionate affair between Marion and Sam, and hints at the extreme violence of Marion's death ("The Production Code of 1930"). The film relies on the sexual relationship between Marion and Sam at the beginning of the film to establish Marion's future actions and behaviors that lead her to steal $40,000 from her employer. This extra-marital affair between the two also helps to establish Marion's sexual character, which Mrs. Bates attempts to warn Norman about later on in the film. Hitchcock is able to circumvent Hollywood censors in the film's most iconic scene, the infamous shower scene in which Marion is killed, by only hinting at the extreme violence that is taking place. Hitchcock does not show Marion's naked body -- which would be a violation of the production codes -- nor does he show her being stabbed, but rather he implies stabbing through Mrs. Bates's actions and the blood that is spilling into the tub (Psycho). Likewise, when Detective Arbogast, who is searching for Marion because she stole money from her employer, is killed, Hitchcock implies he has been stabbed but does not show the knife penetrating his body.
One of the most serious aspects of Psycho is the manner in which Hitchcock approaches and depicts crime and Norman's psychological constructs. Throughout the film, Norman displays erratic, schizoid behavior that allows him to be characterized as mentally unstable. Not only does Norman appear to be afflicted with schizophrenia or dissociative personality disorder, but he also physically embodies his mother's persona by dressing, acting, and speaking like her. Norman's physical adoption of his mother's persona can be characterized as autogynephilia, which is when a man imagines himself as a woman. Norman is also voyeuristic and spies on Marion as she is undressing and preparing to take a shower. In Psycho, Norman has made a hole in the motel office's wall to be able to look into the first cabin, which he has assigned to Marion. By observing Marion, he is able to calculate the best moment to attack her.
Moreover, Norman also exhibits sadistic behavior and appears to enjoy inflicting pain on others (Arrigo 106). Norman's sadistic behavior can best be analyzed through an examination of his hobby of taxidermy. In the film, Norman expresses an interest in stuffing birds above all other animals and states, "well, I hate the look of beasts when they're stuffed, foxes and chimps and all...some people even stuff dogs and cats... But I can't... I think only birds look well stuffed because they're rather... passive, to begin with... most of them..." (Psycho). By commenting on birds' passiveness, Norman asserts that the process of trapping and stuffing birds -- also British slang for women -- gives him a sense of power and control.
It is this type of witty word-play that Hitchcock may have been referring to when he asserted the film was supposed to be a big joke. Word play is most evident in the sequence where Norman invites Marion into the motel's parlor to eat the sandwiches and milk he has prepared for her. In this scene, Marion is initially struck by the taxidermied owl and raven that Norman has used to decorate the parlor. As Marion eats, Norman comments, "You eat like a bird," which proceeds to follow up with "that one eats 'like a bird,' is really a falsie, I mean a falsity, because birds eat a tremendous lot" (Psycho). By equating Marion's characteristics with that of a bird, Norman perception of her changes as he now views her as one of the many birds/"birds" he has stalked and killed. Paradoxically, Norman has equated Marion with a bird despite not knowing her real name -- she provided an alias when registering -- nor does he know that she is escaping from Phoenix -- another type of bird -- because she has intentionally hid this information from Norman. The parallels between Marion and Norman's stuffed birds enable the viewer to anticipate her death and provide the audience an explanation as to why Marion was targeted.
Hitchcock also attempts to be tongue-in-cheek when Norman and Marion discuss traps. When Marion reveals she is attempting to escape her former life, Norman comments, "I think we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever climb out" (Psycho). Marion response, "Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps," seals her fate and the audience knows that she will not be able to escape Norman or leave the Bates Motel alive. Given the intense commentary Hitchcock provides on social issues and conventions, it is difficult to focus on Psycho's subtextual tongue-in-cheek dialogue as a…[continue]
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45). There are also important racial issues that are examined throughout "A Touch of Evil"; these are accomplished through what Nerrico (1992) terms "visual representations of 'indeterminate' spaces, both physical and corporeal"; the "bordertown and the half-breed, la frontera y el mestizo: a space and a subject whose identities are not fractured but fracture itself, where hyphens, bridges, border stations, and schizophrenia are the rule rather than the exception" (Nericcio,