“To me, Psycho was a big comedy. Had to be.”
Hitchcock’s remark may be another part of the Hitchcock publicity engine that wanted to provide one extra shock to a film that did not really need another one.
There are humorous passages, many early ones provided by Hitchcock's daughter in the realtor's office. Marion (Janet Leigh) returns from her tryst with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and asks whether she's missed any phone calls.
Caroline (Patricia Hitchcock) responds, “Teddy called me—my mother called to see if Teddy called.” Then Marion complains about a headache and Caroline says, “I've got something—not aspirin. My mother's doctor gave them to me the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I had taken tranquilizers!”
Hitchcock establishes a light mood at the office at the expense of male-female relationships. In retrospect, the references to Caroline’s overbearing mother seem ominous. And a few minutes later we hear from an overbearing father, Tom Cassidy, who is buying a house for his soon-to-be-married 18-year-old daughter.
Even before the action opens in Marion and Sam's hotel room at exactly 2:39 (putting in the precise time is a joke itself), the credit sequence exhibits two associative variations. The title, Psycho, is split and moves from side to side; indicating a true psychotic break.
It occurs to me that, alone, this “break” would not deserve much comment, and could even be considered a cliché; however, later, when the credits roll, Hitchcock's name is animated with the same breaking motion. But after four years of the Hitchcock monologues during his television series, a 1960 audience would probably chalk up this “break” to his morbid sense of humor.
The graver implication of the “Psycho” and “Hitchcock” credit break has us associating the director with Norman Bates, the voyeur-serial killer of women. Such unpleasant thoughts seem beyond comical or joking, even for Hitchcock, although his cameos may often establish a connection between himself and either the main character (as in Vertigo) or theme of his film (as in Marnie).
We can further associate the filmmaker, the man with whom we've placed our narrative trust, with the “psycho” of both the title and our typical image of one, the latter being someone who would do something unexpected and outside the normal—like killing his protagonist not quite midway through the film!
A “psycho” narrative would find such a development comical, watching the audience subsequently trying to find another character to cling to, narratively speaking. And if we cling to Norman, then the joke becomes uproarious.
After Marion’s murder, the comedy almost abates, but not quite. Norman is amused over the Sheriff’s (John McIntyre) attempts to find the old lady seen in the window by Sam Loomis. Likewise, the audience is amused when Norman sits in the room at the courthouse and his mother's voice thoroughly condemns him while exonerating herself:
It's sad, when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. But I couldn't allow them to believe that I would commit murder.
Superficially, this scene might seem to mitigate the horrors perpetrated by Norman. More than anything, Hitchcock has thrown the idea and word, “psycho,” into a greater relief.
Our easy or complacent use of the word represents a shortcut that denies the object of this term any humanity.* This theme arises often in his films, most poignantly at a dinner scene in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) when the father and his friend are discussing ways to murder people and young Charlie takes them to task for ignoring the victims of murder.
In the case of Norman Bates, should we walk away thinking that he's a “psycho” who occasionally went mad, would that still be missing Hitchcock’s point? Norman's state of mind is complex if not impenetrable—I, for one, am reluctant to think that his mother was to blame (in a strange way, comically, I might be agreeing with her final judgment of Norman).
Not that Hitchcock necessarily wants us to sympathize with him, if only because our sympathy assumes a set of variables that are as tenuous as those that say Mrs. Bates is a monster.
Ultimately, Hitchcock’s playing with the titles means that he has taken away the easy answers, and prepares us to be skeptical when the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) explains everything in the courthouse. When the psychiatrist says that “Norman Bates no longer exists,” what are we going to believe?
Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.
* The quick assessment that a historical figure like Hitler and Stalin or mass murderers like those in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut is "a psycho" or "crazy" doesn't seem satisfactory anymore. An interesting foray into what is a psycho or psychopath was done recently in Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test: a Journey through the Madness Industry (Riverhead Books). Ronson goes well beyond Hitchcock in making the "psycho" label very problematic.