If Looks Could Kill

One thing just seems to lead to another.

The post on movie titles from earlier this month got me thinking about Saul Bass, the man responsible for some of the most beautiful examples of movie title design in American cinema. He also happened to work on the titles for a handful of Alfred Hitchcock movies. So, that post naturally led me to think more about the Hitchcock movie to which Bass made his largest contribution, Psycho (1960).

Not only did Saul Bass design the opening title sequence for the movie, he’s also credited as its “pictorial consultant.” Bass created the storyboards for the intricate shower scene, an amazingly elaborate assemblage of shots which conveys its violence, not through depictions of physical violation and gore, but through careful juxtapositions of graphically opposed compositions. Different camera angles, different distances between the lens and its object, different subjects (a torso, a hand, a face): the jarring transition from each shot to the next is the graphic equivalent of the physical violence the scene means to convey. We never see the knife strike the character’s body because we don’t have to: the violence happens inside our heads and that’s so much more effective.

Since I’m giving all this space and thought to the movie, you’d think Psycho was a favorite of mine. In fact, I get a little bored with it after Janet Leigh drops out of the story. But up until her disappearance, I’m glued to the screen. And that, my friends, is an amazing feat of virtuoso story-telling.

Like so many of his later movies, Psycho seems crafted to show us just how superbly Hitchcock can tell a story. He pushes at the very limit of what our interest and attention should tolerate, and does so without our even noticing, wrapping us up so completely in the story as he does.

Audiences today know what to expect from Psycho, even if they’ve never seen it before: some lady gets killed in the shower.

That scene has entered the realm of pop-cultural folklore and it shouldn’t be a big surprise for any viewer who’s even reasonably immersed in western culture. What I find so surprising is that the situation wasn’t so different for audiences seeing it for the first time in 1960.

Long before the movie opened, the press was reporting that Janet Leigh — a movie star of some stature — was going to appear in a new Alfred Hitchcock thriller and — most remarkably — would be killed off only a short while into the movie. It worked against all common sense to kill off the (arguably) biggest name in the picture; she’s the one we’re supposed to be going to see. Yet every person who went into the theater knew that this was exactly what was going to happen.

That’s where this death-defying feat of narrative comes in.

How could you make a movie about a character whom everyone knew was going to get killed early in the picture? How could you draw people into her story only to abandon it a third of the way in to the movie? How could you seduce an audience into lowering its defenses, to keep it from creating that buffer zone of emotional distance which would prevent it from identifying with Leigh’s character and her story?

With a story-teller the likes of which Hollywood rarely saw.

Even though she appears in only the first third of the movie, Psycho is still Marion Crane’s story. And the arc of that story is a movie all in itself. Marion finds herself with $40,000 in cash and realizes it offers a way to buy a decent start for herself and Sam, the man she loves. On her journey to Sam, she realizes she’s made a mistake in stealing the money and decides to return home, to face the consequences of her theft, and to repair the damage she’s done.

Our ability to understand Marion’s motivations and reactions has less to do with the actual details of the plot than with the way the movie conveys them to us.

The movie opens with that magnificent title sequence over the shrill notes and driving tempo of its wonderful musical score (thanks to Bass and Bernard Herrmann, the composer). As we move from the titles into the proper world of the story, super-titles situate us and the story at a very particular place (Phoenix, Arizona), date (Friday, December the Eleventh) and time (two forty-three P.M.). Our point of view (the camera’s) eases its way through the blinds on the window of a sleazy motel and into a very private scene between Marion and Sam. Both are only partially dressed; you can almost smell the odor of sex on their sweaty skin.

The intimacy of this moment — the privacy we’ve invaded, the way we’ve crept in unseen — makes us feel entirely voyeuristic: sitting in the dark, watching this private moment through a gap in the window blinds. It’s the only time Marion spells out in so many words what’s on her mind (an expedient way to spell out her situation).

After this scene, the movie abandons that sort of outright exposition. And after Marion decides to leave town with the money, there’s not a lot to convey in the way of facts or events. The rest of Marion’s journey is along that interior road toward her decision to turn back to Phoenix and to set things right.

Even though we don’t see another scene as steamy as the one with Sam, the succeeding scenes feel even more intimate, more private as they pull us still deeper into Marion’s inner life. Through her reactions, she’s able to share her thoughts without her having to speak them out loud. In fact, most of the time she’s on the screen, Marion has no one to tell her thoughts to. She’s all alone … well, alone but for all the people who are watching her. And even if you don’t count us Peeping Toms in the audience, there seems to be a lot of them.

This motif of being watched runs strong under the primary thread of Marion’s story. And that’s important because being the nervous object of everyone’s gaze pushes her to feel and act increasingly guilty. The more people watch her — spying on her, staring, peeping or glaring at her — the more anxious she becomes. And the more anxious we become for her: after all, we like Marion Crane.

More importantly, we sympathize with her. Not just in a cerebral way, but in the way we experience her story. From the moment she starts driving to California, every shot shows us either the faces of people gazing at Marion or her reactions to those stares. We see what she sees; then we see her, seeing what she sees.

Guilt is a funny emotion. It presumes that someone or something is passing judgment on us. Whether it’s our internalized sense of the rules we ought to play by, the watchful eyes of those peers who might one day judge us in a court of law, or the all-seeing and all-knowing eye of some judgmental Old Testament god, we all feel that gimlet eye boring through us at various points in our lives. Without that sensation, there’d be little to keep the lid on a society full of people whose baser instincts tell them to do whatever they want.

As the audience in the movie theater, we sit on this weird middle ground: we’re seeing and judging Marion (albeit favorably), objectifying her as someone apart from ourselves. But seeing so much from her point of view allows us to empathize with her at the same time, so much so that we experience her discomfort as if it were our own. And the more guilt-inducing gazes she encounters, the more anxious both she and we become.

After Marion packs her bags and begins her drive out of town, her boss crosses in front of her car at a stop light. We see what she sees (his confusion and suspicious gaze). And we see her as she sees it (surprised and alarmed).

She pulls over to the side of the road that night and falls asleep. A highway cop awakens her in the morning, staring into her window through dark, aviator sunglasses. Besides the scary authority the uniform conveys, besides everyone’s general discomfort with highway patrolmen, his blank, impenetrable stare is really unnerving. We see him staring, but we can’t really see him: those judging eyes are just two black (and blank) holes. Marion’s reaction is agitated enough to arouse his suspicions. And when he asks to see her license, she has to dig past the envelope of stolen cash to find it.

She decides to trade in her car for something less easily traced to her. Unfortunately, the cop follows her to the used car lot and watches from across the street.

After a rushed purchase of a new car, she’s so unnerved that she almost leaves without retrieving her coat and suitcase from the old one. By that point, she’s aroused the suspicions of not just the cop, but also the car salesman and his mechanic.

Besides raising the tension in the story, all of this cat-and-mouse stuff has other effects. For one, it increases our emotional investment in Marion’s story. As she becomes more agitated and appears to feel more guilty, we share in her anxiety and become more nervous for her. We cringe with every clumsy move she makes. We want her to get away or turn back, not because we’re consciously fearing for a nasty and violent end, but because we fear simply that she’s going to get caught.

By this point, most everyone has forgotten what he knew about this character when he entered the theater. We’re all caught up in our dread that her life will be ruined or that she’ll have to go to prison. Compared with what’s really in store, those sound like far better outcomes. But involving us so deeply with Marion’s point of view, Hitchcock has successfully distracted us from that line of reasoning.

There’s another effect from watching Marion being watched, too. We know she’s guilty. She knows she’s guilty. But through her behavior, she’s also communicated to a number of other people that she’s guilty, even though they have absolutely no other reason to suspect her of anything. Through her behavior, she’s telling a very different story about herself than the one we, the audience, believe to be true. The facts of what she did don’t matter because none of the people whose judging gaze she encounters know anything about the theft. What matters is this general brand of guilt she carries with her. What matters is the larger story of who this woman is. To her boss, to that cop and the car salesman, she’s a nervous fugitive from justice, laboring under the knowledge of her own crime. To us, she’s a good woman who’s simply made a mistake.

And much to our relief, she decides to take control of her story and set it right. As she explains to Norman Bates, the proprietor of the cozy little motel where she stops for the night, she decides to return to Phoenix and see if she can’t get herself out of the trap she allowed herself to step in. We watch her resolve shift to making things right. We watch her calculate the money she’s spent and will have to return. We watch her plan a new end for her story.

The idea of guilt presumes a story explaining not only a person’s actions, but her motives, as well. It presumes that there be someone to tell that story. And that’s the most unsettling element to Marion’s change of heart. She’s made the right choice. But she’s not going to be able to answer the accusatory gazes of everyone who’s followed her on this journey.

One last exchange of Marion being watched. Only in this one, we no longer see Marion’s point of view: the gaze of the man judging her and her reaction to it. Instead, we see Norman’s point of view. We watch him take a picture off the wall to reveal his peep hole. We see him look at Marion. We see what he sees. But Marion is unaware that she’s even being watched. It’s as if we’d been sharing the point of view of the movie’s subject with Marion, but no longer. Suddenly, she’s only the object. We’ve made her well-being our concern. We’ve taken into ourselves a desire that she clear her name and set things right. But we’re not inside her head anymore. It feels like we’re now watching her from outside her point of view, like she’s become an object of our observation and no longer someone with whom we’re connected.

It’s both unnerving and heartbreaking as we realize that Marion has lost control of her story. Not only are we now painfully conscious of what’s going to happen, but we see that there’s no chance anyone will uncover the truth, that anyone can finish her story and explain that she came to her senses and was going to make amends for her mistake. No one — not even Sam — knows she’s coming. She’s signed the motel guest book with a fake name and address. And even her calculation of the money she’ll have to repay is gone, carefully flushed down the toilet so as not to leave a trail.

The violence of the scene continues to shock me each time I watch it. Having resolved to turn things around, she undresses and steps into the shower. As she washes her body, letting the water splash against her face and rinse her hair, her smile suggests that feeling of a burden lifted from the mind. She’s relieved herself of her guilt and anxiety and is ready to start again fresh. Her lighter mood and her (apparently) absolute nakedness present the outward signs of openness and vulnerability.

The amazingly elaborate assemblage of shots which follows never even shows that big blade touching her body. The extreme violence of the scene comes from the careful juxtaposition of graphically opposing compositions, cut against the driving and piercing strings of the musical score. It comes from the open and vulnerable manner we saw in Marion’s face for the first time only a moment earlier. And it comes from our knowledge that she was about to set things right, to redeem her reputation and to answer the accusing gazes of all those who had been watching her.

But all the pieces of her story — the pieces that would tell the world that she was innocent at heart, that she’d meant to set things right, that she wasn’t a bad person but just one who had a momentary lapse in judgment — all those pieces are lost. They’re gone. And as her life slips away, we see her eye — empty and lifeless — superimposed on the image of the bloody water spiraling down the drain.

Just to remind us of what was going to be, the camera pans up from that vacant, lifeless stare to the newspaper, tightly folded around the stolen money. Marion’s dead; her story erased. Where there might have been some solace in telling the truth about her to those accusing eyes, now there’s no way to set her story straight. And that’s the deepest cut of all.

By 1960, Janet Leigh’s career had begun to slow down. A star through much of the 1950s, she had become popular playing roles appropriate to her young age. As she became a full-grown woman, those roles no longer fit as well. And since much of the magic of movie stars is that they carry from role to role a good deal of their public star persona, such a shift in that persona — from ingenue to woman — could easily spell the death of her career.

Taking the role of Marion Crane may have seemed a step down for a major star since the character would disappear only a third of the way through the movie. But Leigh recognized the value of any part in a movie with so talented a director. And just as importantly she also recognized that after Marion was gone from the screen, all the other characters would spend the rest of the movie talking about her. Not only did Psycho re-start her career, it made her the focus of one of the most remembered scenes in all of movie history.

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