“Psycho” single-handedly destroyed Hollywood’s innocence. The film, helmed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock and penned by Joseph Stefano, terrified audience members when it was released in 1960. However, unlike many films, it has stood the test of time, and now in these undeniably different times, can be infused with another connotation – how does “Alfred Hitchcock: Feminist” sound?
Yes, this big-screen adaptation of Robert Bloch’s eponymous novel — which tested its author’s ability to channel a Wisconsin murderer by the name of Ed Gein — does in fact tackle the issue of gender roles, although in the 1960s, which obviously were still under the spell of the “stay-at-home housewife,” average Joes and critics alike would have been crucified for such an assertion.
“Psycho” introduces us into Hitchcock’s macabre world with a frantic orchestral score and the simple, yet epic, caption “Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.’” From this moment, the perfection of Bernard Herrmann’s score is explicitly clear, and when the film transitions to an aerial view of Phoenix, Ariz., on a tired December afternoon, John L. Russell’s cinematography is shown to be pristine. We are introduced to office worker Marion Crane, who remains symbolic of the Women’s Right Movement, which was igniting during the time. Fed up with the way her life has panned out, Marion decides to steal $40,000 from her employer. Marion then leaves town and heads for her boyfriend’s California store. However, after a minor mishap, she is forced to get off the main highway and pull over at a small motel by the name of The Bates Motel, which is completely vacant due to a re-routing of the main highway. From there, we meet Norman Bates, the owner of the motel, a young man who is dominated by his ill-mother who lives with him.
This motel is where all of the magic happens – all of the primitive slasher-film techniques that have been reused and recycled stem from here . . . and that includes the infamous “shower scene,” which was monumental during the time because nobody had ever seen a woman being killed in such raw terms. Things were no longer allowed to be sugar-coated from here on out. But, unfortunately, this scene has been played out and referenced so many times that it loses its shock value, and in a way, a lot of the most-hyped portions of “Psycho” have withered.
It’s also in the Bates Motel that the idea of sexual oppression is brought up. Think about it, the entire motel is decorated in bird taxidermy, there are paintings of finches scattered around, and even Norman claims that Marion “eats like a bird.” And let’s not forget her last name, Crane, which in and of itself is blatant symbolism. Of course, I’m referring to the times when women were called “birds,” which was considered an offensive slur. Bates also says that “birds are passive” and he does end up killing the Marion (in the aforementioned “shower scene”). In this way, Ms. Crane, who steals the money in order to leave her “personal trap” behind, is a martyr.
On top of that, Norman’s own mother is a symbol in her own right. “You look ludicrous when you try to give me orders. I will not hide in the fruit cellar,” she exclaims when Norman barks orders for her to hide after his sins have become increasingly-public. “Men with their erotic minds,” she also purports. So it’s ironic that Bates, who is a man, is controlled by his stay-at-home mother and thus I believe that Mrs. Bates is in fact, as much as a proponent for the Women’s Right Movement as Marion is, and the ending, which I won’t spoil, once again supports my theory.
But if all of this is true, what do the male characters represent? Obviously, Norman, under this theory, would fall into the anti-feminist category, simply for the fact that he kills Marion, however, the ending does add another layer to his character (in fact, it meshes it with his mother’s, but I refuse to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it). Although, I found the most interesting male character not to be Norman, or even Sam, who is Marion’s boyfriend, but instead, the snobby tycoon who tries to buy a house for his daughter in the first scenes of the film; in fact, the stolen money is actually his. He’s a drunkard and following a couple of drinks tells Marion, “You know what I do about unhappiness? I buy it off. Are you unhappy?” It’s in this scene that Marion has a psychological realization: it’s right here that she decides that she’s sick of being mistreated and disadvantaged because of her gender. But the reason I find him so interesting is because of the method he uses to draw in Marion. In fact, he skips over another woman, who is Crane’s co-worker, because she had a wedding-ring. He promises money and that was where the term “bird” actually came from. Just think of it, as olden language for “gold digger.”
However, back to the overall craftsmanship of the film; without a doubt, it sports near-perfect performances from its entire cast, and though there are portions of the film that seem amateurish in this day and age, as well as a bit predictable, they’re still enjoyable. In a way, “Psycho” isn’t quite as scary as it’s hyped up to be, but its sociological commentary and pure dramatic tension make it a joy for anyone looking for a classic slasher film. And maybe now that you’ve read this review, you can think of Hitchcock as not only the “Master of Suspense,” but also the . . . “Master of Women’s Rights.”
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