Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)
This essay will examine a complex series of interlocking metaphors, both verbal and visual, which recur throughout Hitchcock’s Psycho and which articulate a concept that Jean Baudrillard has labelled “symbolic exchange.” This notion – arising from a collision of Saussure and Marx – concerns four registers of value in relation to a system of objects: “1. The functional logic of use value. 2. The economic logic of exchange value. 3. The differential logic of sign value. 4. The logic of symbolic exchange. They have for their respective principles: utility, equivalence, difference and ambivalence” (Baudrillard, 60). For Baudrillard, symbolic exchange works, through ambivalence and reversibility, to undermine the fixity of this system: “It puts an end to…economic exchange and accumulation…For us, it takes on the form of extermination and death. It is the form of the symbolic, neither mystical nor structural, but ineluctable” (Baudrillard, 123). “Exchange and sacrifice” – these are the binary oppositions primary to the work of Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Baudrillard derives his ideas about exchange and sacrifice partly from the work of sociologist Marcel Mauss on gift exchange and the institution of the potlatch among Northwest Coast Indians, and partly from the elaboration of this work in Georges Bataille’s pioneering essay, “The Notion of Expenditure.” In brief, Bataille describes what he terms unproductive forms of loss, or expenditure. One of these is sacrifice: “In the etymological sense of the word, sacrifice is nothing other than the production of sacred things” (Bataille, 119). We make a thing sacred by destroying its utilitarian value; ultimately we destroy it as a thing, and sometimes we destroy it entirely. Concerning the gift, Bataille writes: “[It] must be considered as a loss and thus as a partial destruction, since the desire to destroy is in part transferred onto the recipient. In unconscious forms, such as those described by psychoanalysis, it symbolizes excretion, which itself is linked to death, in conformity with the fundamental connection between anal eroticism and sadism” (Bataille, 122). Potlatch – simultaneously gift exchange and the redistribution of wealth – works to undo acquisition and acquisitiveness but only partially. “’The ideal,’ indicates Mauss, ‘would be to give a potlatch and not have it returned.’ This ideal is realized in certain forms of destruction to which custom allows no possible response” (ibid). Foremost among these “certain forms” would be sacrifice, making (the) sacred through destruction.
The language and mise-en-scene continually invite reappraisal, and by going through the first half of the film scene by scene we will see what comes of a more detailed reading of the traditional “guilt exchange” theme, first put forward by Chabrol and Rohmer in their 1957 book on Hitchcock.
The opening scene of the film establishes an equivalence between food (appetite) and money (debt), which is further analogized with sin and atonement (payment). The first line of dialogue, spoken by Marion’s boyfriend, Sam Loomis, concerns the remains of an uneaten lunch. To which Marion replies, “I’d better get back to the office. These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid.” Marion transfers her anxiety and dissatisfaction onto her employer, only the first in an extended series of such transferences. The reason for this anxiety is revealed soon enough. “We steal lunch hours,” Marion says. She is stealing time from her boss and the two of them are stealing time together for a relationship she views as demeaning: “Oh, we can see each other. We can even have dinner, but respectably. In my house, with my mother’s picture on the mantel, and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three.” Thereby the food (and the time) they share must be made “respectable” – that is, “proper.” And it is the force of the “mother’s picture on the mantel” which necessitates this (en)forced respectability. To this Sam replies, “And after the steak, do we send sister to the movies, turn Momma’s picture to the wall?” The Mother’s gaze – the force of civilization and the “body proper” – must be avoided in order for Sam’s intentions to be fulfilled:
Sam: All right. Marion, whenever it’s possible I want to see you and under any circumstances, even respectability.
Marion: You make respectability sound disrespectful.
Sam: I’m tired of sweating for people who aren’t there. I sweat to pay off my father’s debts and he’s in his grave. I sweat to pay my ex-wife’s alimony and she’s living on the other side of the world somewhere.
Marion: I pay too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.
The debts of Sam’s father stand in for his sins. “Forgive us our debts” appears in some translations of Matthew’s Gospel, rather than the more typical “sins” or even “trespasses” (a later usage reflecting concerns over property rights, rather than debt and its remission). It is also interesting to note that Sam’s burdensome alimony is etymologically related to alimentary, both stemming from a Latin root meaning nourishment or sustenance. Sam’s debts are allowing his wife to literally feed off of him. They also allow the father’s debt, the patrimony of sin, to be visited onto the son.
Marion’s retort that she pays too has multiple meanings: 1) she may well literally pay for the hotel room, 2) she will pay for her own sins (an instance of overt foreshadowing, as is her line: “Hotels of this sort aren’t interested in you when you come in, but when your time is up,” 3) she will pay for the stolen hours of her dalliance with Sam. In this context the biblical injunction, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), takes on a new and sinister meaning.
Real Estate Office
Issues of debt and payment now become literal with the appearance of “filthy lucre” – Cassidy’s “undeclared” money. The revelation of its illicit nature comes in the form of a pun. Caroline, another secretary, astonished at seeing such a sum ($40,000) in cash, exclaims, “I declare!” Cassidy replies, “I don’t. That’s how I get to keep it.” Marion’s boss, Lowery, is also disturbed and says, “A cash transaction of this size is most irregular.” Cassidy replies, “Aw, so what? It’s my private money. Now it’s yours.” The private money – his property, properly his – is now transferred in an admittedly irregular fashion to Lowery’s possession, which will in its turn be “expropriated” by Marion in her compulsive act of kleptomania or “madness.”
The phrase filthy lucre originates in William Tindale’s translation of the New Testament (1525/6), which eventually made its way into the King James or Authorized Version (1611). The quote is from 1 Timothy 3:3: “Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre.” Lucre comes from L. lucrum, meaning gain or profit. The original phrase in Greek means filthy (or shameful) profit.
Why should it be, however, that the money seems filthy or shameful? Freud links attitudes concerning money to what he termed the “anal stage” of human development. Parsimonious (retentive) and spendthrift (expulsive) behavior can be linked, so he argues, to attitudes toward the anal erogenous zone. The dialectics of “giving and withholding related to defecation at this stage are condensed in the Freudian equation feces=gift=money” (Freud Page). Additionally, “various aspects of obsessive-compulsive neurosis suggest anal fixation” (ibid). So Cassidy’s acquisitiveness is linked (by transference) to Marion’s compulsion to acquire his unseemly profit. As in Hitchcock’s Marnie, the urge to steal is linked to deep-seated sexual dysfunction related (in both cases) to the figure of the mother. (Note the similarity even in the names – Marnie and Marion.)
What does it profit a woman to gain happiness? “You can’t buy off unhappiness with pills,” Marion says, referring to twice-offered tranquilizers, pills linked explicitly to sexual relations and the mother figure (Caroline: “My mother’s doctor gave them to me the day of my wedding.”) Repression (forgetting, blanking out) won’t work; only the act of theft – acting out her compulsion – will suffice to ward off unhappiness. Ultimately, the cost of this illicit profit will prove to be exorbitant.
Marion’s initial, compulsive act might still be undone. The brief scene in her bedroom “seals the deal”. While she packs, the envelope filled with money figures prominently in the mise-en-scene. Marion’s gaze continually comes back to rest on the money, a gaze both hesitant and covetous. To covet is to experience cupidity – desire that easily shades over into greed. It is no coincidence that the money will not fit into her suitcase – signifying travel plans, moving from one location to a predetermined other – since Marion suffers a fatal detour. Instead, she stuffs the envelope into her purse, which represents her own private property, as well as the extended, Freudian-derived meaning of a feminine vessel, a womb or pudendum. Etymologically, this word derives from the Latin for “something to be ashamed of” –reinforcing associations of guilt and shame, even if only on a collectively unconscious level.
Driving (Friday night/Saturday morning)
In the next relatively brief sequence, Marion’s guilt over her theft is reinforced by having her fall under the gaze of two authority figures. First, not yet out of town and thus safe from incrimination, she runs into her boss, Lowery, and the businessman Cassidy while parked at a stop light. Being thus detected, she should by all accounts put a stop to her plans. Nevertheless she proceeds.
After fitful sleep (a blackout both at the level of narrative and mise-en-scene (the first of several)) she is awakened by a motorcycle patrolman. His gaze is obscured by reflective sunglasses. Marion cannot meet it; her own (guilty) gaze is reflected back to her. There is no reciprocity in the encounter and so there is no possibility of exchange or transference. There is only the promise of further surveillance, since it is apparent to both of them that she is “acting as if there’s something wrong”. Signs of guilt are visible, a theme consistently reinforced in subsequent scenes.
This sequence also gives the viewer a fleeting glimpse at Marion’s license number: ANL 708. ANL for anal? Could this be mere coincidence, or is it a subtle in-joke on the part of Hitchcock?
Used Car Lot
A large banner reads CARS FOR CASH: a clear sign of exchange, along lines of equivalence, as long as what is up for sale is the legal property of its owner and can be proven to be so.
Marion asks the salesman, “Can I trade my car in and take another?” She wants to exchange her dark-colored car for a lighter-colored one. This is an initial, symbolic attempt at expiation, trading the darkness of sin and guilt for the light of purity. It is a ploy that does not fool the ever-watching gaze of the highway patrolman.
Fittingly, Marion must go into the restroom to handle her “filthy lucre.” We see her image doubled in the mirror over the sink – emphasizing the split in her nature, the “madness” of theft that has overcome her.
Driving (Saturday evening)
As she drives, Marion imagines various conversations in which her guilt is uncovered and her subsequent activities are “tracked” (as the imagined Cassidy claims he will do). The crux of these imagined (fantasized) revelations comes when Cassidy declares, “Well, I ain’t about to kiss off forty thousand dollars. I’ll get it back and if any of it’s missing, I’ll replace it with her fine soft flesh.” The transaction between them will become reciprocal, the imagined Cassidy implies, by his taking his “pound of [fine, soft] flesh” in exchange. Marion imagines her own punishment and – judging by her enigmatic smile (eerily paralleled in the film’s final shot) – actively desires it. She could well say, along with Hamlet, “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
As darkness descends and the rain sets in – elements conspiring to obscure her vision – Marion is forced to make her fatal detour.
One of Norman Bates’ first statements after meeting Marion is “Dirty night.” – referring, at the manifest level, to the weather; but also to their soon-to-be-elaborated shared sense of guilt and defilement. That their sense of pollution is shared is (literally) reflected a moment later when, entering the office, they are briefly seen together in the mirror. As Norman gives her a tour of the motel room, he pauses awkwardly on the word “mattress” and cannot even speak the word “bathroom.” He merely says “over there.” The mattress, we will discover, signifies maternal sin – maternal sexuality – and its punishment; furthermore, we will also see that the mother’s bed still contains the deep impression of her body, what Julia Kristeva would call a “semiotic trace” of maternal authority. The bathroom – the realm of maternal authority in shaping “the body proper” – contains “dirty” things, things which must be flushed away when they threaten. It is also the site of Norman’s planned voyeurism, a decision he already seems to have made in his selection of the room key for Marion. Thus the bathroom represents for Norman a site of profound ambivalence – the desire to look and, by extension, possess, as well as the “urge to purge,” to flush away that which arouses.
Making explicit a series of equivalences between desire and appetite, the scene ends with Norman inviting Marion to share a meal with him.
Alone again in her room, Marion decides what to do with the money. She wraps it in a newspaper, on which the partial headline OKAY is visible, an ironic juxtaposition of moral approbation, followed immediately by the voice of maternal authority resounding through the open window with a commanding “No!” The subsequent dialogue between Norman and Mother echoes the initial conversation between Marion and Sam Loomis. Mother says, “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…And then what – after supper – music, whispers?” Immediately, Mother disavows her insinuation, “I refuse to speak of disgusting things because they disgust me…Go on, go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food or my son.” Marion’s appetite is ugly because it is cheap and vulgar. Of course, Mother projects onto Marion Norman’s own feelings of desire – that mingled desire to possess and to destroy (disavow) which, as mentioned earlier, denotes a certain fixation at the anal stage.
Norman returns with a tray of food. Marion meets him outside her door. They stand on the threshold, occupying a liminal space, suspended as well between two doors (office and motel room). For a moment there is hesitation, indecision. Marion says, “You shouldn’t have bothered. I really don’t have that much of an appetite.” Nevertheless, she follows Norman’s lead into the office and then into the parlor. The mise-en-scene here – justifiably famous – presents a tableau of stuffed birds (all predators) and classical paintings depicting scenes of abduction and rape. These birds form a decided alternative to the pictures of birds in Marion’s room. There the birds are small, placid and safely contained within frames. In the parlor, the birds escape the frame but are caught in poses of attack, whereas scenes of attack are contained within frames. This subtle dialectic of framing extends to the actual framing of the mise-en-scene. In one shot, Norman is shown caressing a stuffed bird. In several others, shot from below, Norman’s presence is “doubled” by the birds hovering above him.
Now it is Norman’s turn to deny his appetite: “It’s all for you. I’m not hungry. Go ahead.” Then he informs Marion that she eats like a bird. However, this commonplace phrase takes on a particular meaning for Norman: “Anyway, I hear the expression, ‘eats like a bird,’ it, it’s really a falsity because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But I don’t really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know, taxidermy.” He prefers birds because “they’re kind of passive to begin with.” Birds (=women, an equation especially obvious in British slang) don’t eat like birds; they devour. They devour like women, like maternal authority, like Mother.
Furthermore, Norman says, taxidermy is “not as expensive as you’d think…It’s cheap, really.” Norman’s parsimony is equivalent to his obsessive compulsion to possess, to retain, even after death.
Then follows a crucial exchange. It is the most explicit expression of the identity of their respective situations thus far:
Norman: You know what I think. I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and, and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.
Marion: Sometimes, we deliberately step into those traps.
Norman: I was born in mine. I don’t mind it any more.
This exchange expresses a bleak, animalistic view of human nature, a view apparently shared by Marion – Coleridge’s “nature, red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam). Marion realizes her compulsion has lead her into a trap of her own device. Her exposure to the contagion of Norman’s madness progressively allows her to realize her own folly, to attempt to rectify the situation – to atone for or expiate her guilt – before the trap definitively claims her “fine, soft flesh.” A vain endeavor, as it turns out.
Norman, on the other hand, was born into his trap – his mother’s body literally and figuratively represents what he cannot extricate himself from. Thinking of this trap, Norman narrates his “back-story” – “[Father] left her a little money. Anyway, a few years ago, Mother met this man, and he talked her into building this motel. He could have talked her into anything. And when he died too, it was just too great a shock for her. And, and the way he died. I guess it’s nothing to talk about while you’re eating. Anyway, it was just too great a loss for her. She had nothing left.” “Except you,” Marion says. “A son is a poor substitute for a lover,” Norman replies.
His patrimony spent by a substitute father he hated on a building used for “cheap and vulgar” purposes by couples looking to steal a few hours together, Norman eventually comes to stand in for a father/lover. The relationship returns to its dyadic roots. Of course, what we do not know at this point is that Norman has “incorporated” his Mother, that she died in bed along with his substitute father, and that her introjected persona will ultimately engulf his personality in her own. Return to the womb/tomb can be accomplished only by death.
Marion asks why he doesn’t just leave. He says, “The fire would go out. It’d be cold and damp like a grave.” In Norman’s view, life is heat and fire, death is cold and damp. If he “left,” could somehow effect separation, Mother would return to “merely” being dead. But what about Norman? His assertion is reminiscent of Andrew Marvell’s lines, “The grave’s a fine and private place. But none, I fear, do there embrace” (To His Coy Mistress).
Marion suggests Norman put his Mother “someplace.” Angered, he counters, “You mean an institution? A madhouse? People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they? Put her in ‘some place.’… Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing and the tears! And the cruel eyes studying you. My mother there?” Norman has seen “the inside of one of those places” – he currently dwells there, amid contradictory impulses (laughter/tears, retention/expulsion, possession/destruction) and the gaze of the Mother (maternal authority). It is the trap he was born into.
He rests his defense with the claim, “But she’s harmless! She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds!” Literally true, his claim also emphasizes the play of language in this scene – words lie, prevaricate, confuse levels of meaning, are literal when they seem merely figurative, and vice versa. “It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” Marion responds, “Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough. I stepped into a private trap back there and I’d like to go back and try to pull myself out of it before it’s too late for me to.” The process of recognition is complete – so far as Marion is concerned – and nothing remains but to make amends, atone. Unlike the majority of Hitchcock’s film, wherein the guilt of the protagonist is merely potential, transferred and transformed into actuality by contact with the antagonist (or the search for the “right man”), in Psycho Marion bears a true and active burden of guilt, which she fully acknowledges only through contact with the contagion of Norman’s madness. Their guilt and pollution run parallel. What will be exchanged, as we will see in the next scenes, are alternative rituals of pollution and purification.
After Marion leaves, Norman goes back into the parlor and takes down one of his paintings, revealing a peephole behind it. The painting is a reproduction of Susanna and the Elders. The incident depicted comes from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Two voyeuristic elders of the tribe spy on young and lovely Susanna as she bathes naked in a private garden. As she returns home, they waylay her and threaten to tell people she had an assignation with a young man, unless she gives in to them. She refuses to submit, is put on trial, convicted and sentenced to death for promiscuity. At this point Daniel intervenes. He cross-examines the elders separately and, when their stories don’t match, orders them to be executed instead. Significantly, they are to be cut in half.
Outside the frame of the painting, Norman plays the elder and Marion stands in for Susanna. We see him looking and then we see what he sees. The gaze has shifted from one of authority to one of acquisition and the viewer is encouraged/forced to share that gaze, to participate in the fundamentally voyeuristic nature of Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene.
Back in her room, Marion ponders her next step. She reckons up her repayment for the purchase of the car, noting how little of her life-savings will remain. However, this is not the “proper” method of repayment; it must be extracted from her “fine, soft flesh;” so she tears up the sheet of paper and disposes of it by flushing it down the toilet, further reinforcing the “filthy lucre” theme. At the time of the film’s release, this caused a minor controversy: showing a toilet flushing was considered “improper.” The swirling water in the toilet bowl foreshadows Marion’s life-blood circling the drain in the aftermath of the subsequent scene. This scene establishes a tension between Marion’s conscious urge to repent and repay and her unconscious (or semi-conscious) desire to be punished. At one level, she feels cleansed and freed from the burden of guilt, and it is precisely this feeling which is emphasized in the following scene.
The Shower Scene
This conscious feeling of expiation is emphasized in Janet Leigh’s statement about the (in)famous shower scene, which she had discussed at length with Hitchcock prior to filming: “Marion had decided to go back to Phoenix, come clean, and take the consequence, so when she stepped into the bathtub it was as if she were stepping into the baptismal waters. The spray beating down on her was purifying the corruption from her mind, purging the evil from her soul. She was like a virgin again, tranquil, at peace” (Leigh).
The rite of baptism is primarily one of rebirth; only secondarily does it evoke cleansing or purification. Etymologically, it derives from Greek roots meaning “to dip,” “steep” or “immerse.” Subsequent to its completion one is said to “have died to the previous life;” some traditions refer to its recipient as “born again” or “twice-born.” Unfortunately for Marion, her symbolic death is preempted by Norman/Mother and rendered quite literal.
The scene culminates in the celebrated match-cut between a shot of Marion’s blood swirling down the shower drain and the camera circling her open, dead eye. These shots echo the earlier one of the flushing toilet. This matched pair sets up a complex equivalence between evidence and waste and blood; the eye, traditionally the “window to the soul,” is here paired with a black, empty drain. Marion’s soul is waste(d) and the remainder, the evidence of a second crime, is her corpse.
There is another dialectic at work here: the (attempted) rite of baptism (cleansing as well as rebirth) is thwarted, converted into a blood sacrifice and then sublimated (in the Hegelian sense) into a completed ritual of purification. To further emphasize this sequential equivalence, the next shot pans from her face, past the toilet and into the other room, finally settling on the newspaper-wrapped money.
Out the open window we hear Norman scream, “Mother! Oh, God! Mother! Blood! Blood!” Upon seeing the scene of the crime, he recoils in revulsion, clasping his hand to his mouth; he returns with a mop and bucket to clean up Mother’s wrongdoing. Blood is the essence and representation of pollution, defilement. According to ancient Hebrew tradition, blood sacrifice was the less preferred method (burnt offerings, where the animal is offered up whole, are less polluting). In Bataille’s view, Marion is “made sacred” by this destructive sacrifice but the remainder (the accursed share), the blood and body, rather than become source of a ritual Communion, must be properly disposed of – they must be expunged.
After handling Marion’s corpse, a close-up emphasizes Norman’s bloody hands: the pollution of guilt, which he proceeds to cleanse in the sink. Doing so, the shot lingers on the mingled blood and water running into the sink drain; returning to the earlier equivalence, now brought to completion by proper removal of the blood and the body.
Norman wraps up Marion’s corpse in the shower curtain: an exact parallel to and substitute for her newspaper-wrapped money. Cassidy’s proposed exchange (or, at least, Marion’s fantasized version) has become embodied: her corpse stands in for her crime. Norman hauls the bundle out of the room and deposits it in her car trunk. The trunk, like the purse, is an enclosing symbol of the female body and/or its synecdoche-symbol, the genitalia. Norman’s action is a parody and inversion of the wedding day tradition of carrying the bride across the threshold. Instead of matrimony’s symbolism of “two become one,” there is one having become two: Norman’s self-schism. Further, the threshold is another emblem of the liminal, the “betwixt and between” state often encountered in rites of passage. According to anthropological usage, these rites consist of three stages: separation (Marion from her self, rendered into corpse), the liminal or transitional (Marion’s corpse transferred into her car trunk) and reappropriation (her car/self encompassed in the morass of the swamp). This process parallels Norman’s trajectory: separation from self-identity (partial identification with Mother), actions that partake of both natures, leading to his eventual engulfment in the personality of his Mother.
The sequence ends with the car sinking into the swamp and then the screen fades to black. Engulfment, being devoured – a thread running through the entirety of the first half of the film – winds up literalized into the mise-en-scene. Recurrent images – bathroom sink, toilet bowl, shower drain – that had previously existed at the periphery of our attention now take center stage.
This essay has attempted to follow the thread of language and mise-en-scene through the first half of Hitchcock’s Psycho by emphasizing recurrent images and metaphors. There exists a deep connection between the language of the film and common beliefs and practices of a Judeo-Christian nature. Rather than forming an excess, a supernumerary strata of signification, it would seem that these notions, these almost obsessive concerns, reside at the heart of Hitchcock’s filmmaking.
Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Baudrillard, Jean (Poster ed.). Selected Writings. Stanford University Press, 2001.
Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995.
Filmsite: Psycho (Dirks, Tom). http://www.filmsite.org/psyc.html
Freud Page (Rowell, Maria Helena). http://www.geocities.com/~mhrowell/anal_stage.html