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On being Norman (Bates): performance and inner life in (Alfred) Hitchcock's Psycho.

I would like to offer a tentative exploration of performance in Alfred Hitchocock's Psycho (1960), concentrating on Anthony Perkins in the role of Norman Bates. This is far from straightforward. For one thing, Hitchcock is famous for his dismissive attitude to the importance of acting in creating our sense of characters in his films, adhering to the conclusions reached by Kuleshov to the effect that audiences use clues around an actor's appearance (such as the imagery of adjoining shots) to project onto the character their own expectations and responses, the actor's expressions having little to do with their readings. Although Hitchcock would be reluctant to admit it, such clues may not even be primarily his, as a television programme on the music of Bernard Herrmann attempted to demonstrate by showing part of the sequence where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) drives towards the Bates Motel both with and without the accompanying music, our sense of Marion's state of mind very different in each case. Nevertheless, it has also been generally acknowledged, despite Hitchcock's apparent belittlement of actors, that there are fine and complex performances in his work, and that Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is one of them.

If disentangling Hitchcock's and Perkins's contributions from each other presents one sort of challenge, there are further difficulties in distinguishing amongst the various performances at stake, given that Norman himself `performs' a number of roles, both as himself and as his mother, and to a number of different audiences (us, Marion, Arbogast/Martin Balsam, Sam/John Gavin and Lila/Vera Miles, the Sheriff/John Mclntire, and - in their conversations together, where he plays both roles - his `mother' and himself). There are complications too, perhaps, in the fact that the roles played by Norman exceed those played by Perkins: As Stephen Rebello points out (in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Mandarin Paperback edition, London, 1992), the voice we hear as `Mother' does not belong to Perkins, but is "spliced and blended" from "a mixture of different voices" (p.133), nor is Perkins the figure who murders Marion in the shower:

Stuntwoman Margo Epper portrayed Mother in the sequence. An amused Tony Perkins recalled: "The crew always referred to Mother and Norman as totally seperate people" (p.113).

However, such details need not detain us, since it is a commonplace that stand-ins are used from time to time, and this seems a similar sort of case (if more heavily foregrounded in the case of the voice). Still, we shall need to be careful not to attribute the construction of `Mrs Bates' to Perkins himself, even though we may reasonably attribute it to Norman.

My interest is in the link between an actor's performance and the `inner life' of the enacted character. In other words, in the present case, what conclusions can we draw about Norman's awareness, motivations, and feelings from the performance details available to us? What does Norman know? What does he want? What does it feel like to be Norman? Yet another complication in this very complicated film is that what we know, as opposed to what Norman knows, is radically different on a first and second viewing, given the suppression of our knowledge that Norman's mother is dead until very late in the film. Does this change the way we think about Norman on subsequent viewings? Clearly, in some sense, it does, yet oddly enough not in terms of the questions just posed (his knowledge, motives and feelings). If Norman is deceiving us, it is only because he is deceiving himself, or, rather, his deceptions are to prevent his `mother' from being found out for Marion's murder, so what he tries to hide from Arbogast, Sam and Lila, but not from us (that Marion was at the motel, that she--and, later, Arbogast--are dead), is a product of the larger illusion, which we share with him, that his mother is still alive. In contrast to his deceptiveness towards those investigating Marion's disapearance later, with Marion herself he is largely truthful, at least in terms of what he himself believes to be true. This sincerity is conveyed by his ready and disarming smiles and the raised eyebrows above wide-open eyes--in Norman's own words to Arbogast, "...I must have one of those faces you just can't help believeing"--as well as by the intensity of his more serious moments when he is critical of the facile nostrums Marion offers for his ills.

Our first view of Norman is not as himself, but as `Mother', visible through the window of the house behind the Bates motel. His mother appears in two forms in the film: as Norman's enacted version of her and as a corpse. The fact that what we have here is Norman-as-mother, rather than his mother's corpse is made clear by the fact that the figure is walking past the window, rather than sitting still. However, once Marion attracts Norman's attention by honking the horn of her car, he appears as himself, hurrying down the stairs from the house, having cast off his wig and dress very quickly indeed. In a gesture that will be repeated later in the film, Norman holds the upturned collar of his jacket tightly closed against the rain, as he lopes down the stairs towards Marion. Hitchcock's withholding of the fact that Mrs Bates is dead depends on our never seeing Norman in a transitional state between being himself and being his mother (that is, we never see him becoming `Mother'). In fact, even with the final revelation near the end of the film, when Norman's `costume' falls off, revealing him beneath the wig and dress, we don't see his psychological change from one identity to the other, but rather see him in a state of crisis which, as we later learn, leads to his remaining immobilised in his identity as `Mother', finally unable to return to being Norman, as he does so quickly and seamlessly offscreen when Marion first arrives at the motel and makes her presence known.

I think we must take it as given that Norman is never consciously aware that his mother is dead. This carries with it as a consequence, however, that he must also have no conscious awareness of his transformations into his mother and back again to himself, but must be in some sort of trance, his behaviour that of an unthinking automaton throughout these offscreen moments, with no memory of them but just a vaguely troubling sense of a series of gaps. That these gaps add up to a substantial part of his life is already suggested in our first view of him. Clearly, when no customers are around, he spends much of his time in this state. His `hobby' is not so much taxidermy (as he tells Marion) as `being Mother'. In this context, both his wistful comment that "a hobby's supposed to pass the time, not fill it" and Marion's question in response--"Is your time so empty?"--pinpoint his situation with some accuracy. His time is empty not in the sense of its lacking purpose, but in its being short of memorable events, or at least of those that he can consciously acknowledge. Norman's backtracking in answer to Marion's question "No...uh...Well, I...I run the office and...uh...tend the cabins and grounds and...and do little...uh...errands for my mother, the ones she allows that I might be capable of doing"--is also significant. Of all his onscreen moments, it is precisely as he is cleaning up after Marion's murder shortly afterward--when he is `tending' the cabin and doing an `errand' for his mother by hiding the evidence of `her' guilt--that he comes closest to seeming `entranced' in the sense I suggested earlier, at least after the initial shock of Marion's murder has worn off. His face has none of the mobility and apparent readability he seemed to offer Marion earlier, but appears emotionless and completely caught up in the performance of the task in hand.

The film makes clear that `Mrs Bates' has killed before. Therefore, Norman's claim, in his conversation with Marion, that his mother is "harmless" and not "a raving thing," seems to be an outright lie, unless this too can be taken as an example of the extent to which his knowledge of the truth is suppressed and denied. Surely it is no more outlandish to suppose that he can clean up after a murder, while suppressing any knowledge of his mother's guilt (not to mention his own), than it is to suppose that he can look upon and address her corpse while denying her death. Norman's mental obliteration of painful realities, while he nonetheless behaves as required to uphold his illusions, fits in with his expressionless demeanour as he tidies up. And yet, a number of aspects of Perkins's performance reveal that, at some level which is not quite fully conscious, Norman does know more than we may think. [Indeed, the claim that his mother is "harmless" is, in one sense, absolutely true, if we allow Norman to be referring to his mother's corpse, and not to himself-as-mother.] The self-satisfied smiles which cross his face when what he knows gives him pleasure (smiles which are very different from the friendly and ingratiating ones he gives Marion at other points), and the way he trips over his words when the knowledge is painful, are partial evidence of his struggles with the truth, as are his hesitations at several key moments.

In many ways, Norman is quite astute, with an ironic appreciation of Marion's pretenses. For example, he picks up very quickly on her reluctance to write her address in the motel register and tells her that the town will do, and, when she tells him her real name later, he remembers that she'd signed in under another one. Equally, he is able to be ironic about himself, as when he points out the motel stationery and tells Marion she can use it if she wants to fill her friends back home with envy. So Norman's naivete as a wide-eyed and friendly young man is undercut by the sharpness and accuracy of his critical assessment of Marion, particularly when he takes offense at her suggestion that he put his mother away in an institution and condemns her hypocritical complacency. His shrewd tight-lipped hint of a smile when he checks her false name in the register matches his smile when the car with her body in it sinks into the swamp, implying a moment of much fuller awareness and satisfaction than his behaviour as a dutiful son cleaning up after his mother would suggest. That many of his stammerings are on words with heavily weighted significance is also relevant here. Thus, he tells Marion he will be back "with m...with my trusty umbrella," and that "the expression `eats like a bird' is really a fal...fal...fals...falsity," and his later stammering description to Arbogast of his mother as an "invalid" opens up questions (both for Arbogast and for Norman) as to her actual state while simultaneously raising issues of validity and invalidity in their epistemological sense, akin to the respective issues of trustiness and falsehood in the other examples.

Norman's lack of conscious knowledge of his mother's death, and thus of his own guilt, is very precariously suppressed, and this is only made possible, as we've seen, by transforming much of his life into a series of inexplicable gaps. His description of being in a private trap--"We scratch...and claw, but only at the air..." presents us with an image of him surrounded by nothing more substantial than empty space, mirroring his experience of much of his life as unfathomably empty time. His posture continually evokes withdrawal from the surrounding world, whether through the way his coat collar is held tightly closed against the rain when Marion first arrives, or the way he keeps his hands in his pockets as he enters the kitchen after spying on Marion and, later, as he greets Lila and Sam on their arrival at the motel, or the manner in which he sits in the parlour with his hands clasped as Marion eats. This is a body making as little space for itself in the world as possible, pulling back from contact with its troubling realities which present themselves to him as thin air. Such postures get part of their meaning in contrast with those of Norman-as-mother, when both her strong voice and the stabbing motions of her powerful arm carve out a place for herself in the world with bold and assertive strokes. However, Norman's shrinking postures also get much of their meaning in contrast with those of Sam in the opening scene and Marion in the shower.

Sam and Marion are presented from the start of the film as creatures of the flesh, their half-naked states emphasising the softness and vulnerability of their bodies. (Indeed, as Marion drives away from Phoenix with the money she's stolen from Cassidy/Frank Albertson, an unpleasant wealthy client of her boss, the point is made explicit as she imagines Cassidy threatening to replace the money with "her fine soft flesh.") As Sam sprawls in a chair, his legs apart, and talks to Marion about seeing her again, agreeing to her conditions that they meet in more respectable circumstances than in a cheap hotel, he spreads his arms, the palms facing outward, both displaying his half-naked body and seeming to offer it to Marion, just as she will appear to surrender her body to the stream of water from the showerhead just before her murder. The cheap hotel where Sam and Marion have stolen a lunch hour together, and Marion's unfinished sandwich lunch, will find their equivalents in the Bates Motel and the sandwich supper which Norman provides. But if Norman is thus, in some sense, another version of Sam, his hunched up posture and the gesture of holding up his hand as though to ward off the world, rather than to offer himself to Marion, are very different. In place of Sam's `fleshiness' is Norman's angularity, his thin, bony shoulders and the workings of his jaw as he munches candy throughout the film reminding us of the skeleton beneath the skin. If Norman has no conscious knowledge of his mother's corpse, his own body reminds us of the corpse within us all, his repressed memories surfacing in his own body which bears the marks of his mother's fate.

Similarly, the physical coldness of Norman's world contrasts with the heat of Sam's and Marion's. Clearly, their hotel room is warm enough for them to sit and talk in comfort without being fully dressed, whereas Norman seems always to be cold, both on his first appearance in the rain when he holds his jacket closed at the neck and when, as `Mother' at the end of the film, he asks a policeman for a blanket which he clutches around him in a similar way. If the atmosphere in Marion's office is described by Cassidy as being "hot as fresh milk" (an image of suffocating maternal warmth), Norman talks, in contrast, about how his mother's room would become "cold and damp, like a grave" if he weren't there to light the fire, later telling Arbogast that he always changes the motel sheets each week, whether they've been used or not, since he hates the smell of dampness ("such a creepy smell"). Despite all Norman's efforts at wiping out his knowledge of the past, he carries it with him as the cold, "creepy" touch of the grave. On the one hand, the film offers us a vision of warm flesh and a heavy oppressive atmosphere as hot as fresh milk. On the other hand, Norman's world is cold and damp, like the grave, its atmosphere thin and anaemic, his angular body a reminder of the skeletons within us all.

What we have seen so far is that the question, `What does Norman know?', has no easy answer. Although, in one sense, he knows very little, this is continually belied by the deeper knowledge carried by his body and by Perkins's performance. The contrast between his ready and disarmingly friendly smiles to Marion and his more private knowing smirks, as well as his stammerings when issues of truth and falsehood arise, suggest a constant battle between acknowledging and suppressing darker areas of awareness and a darker aspect to his psyche. But beyond the specific question of whether Norman knows that his mother is dead and that he's complicit in the murders she commits, Norman's body carries within it a more general knowledge which Sam and Marion lack: the apprehension that the ways of the flesh are futile, since death inhabits us all. This pessimism inheres in Norman's experiencing the world as cold and sparse, rather than as warm and full-bodied, and in the consequent way his body seems to contract and pull back from the world around it. Closely connected to the discussion so far, is the second question about Norman's inner life: What does Norman want?

The question of Norman's motivation is even more difficult to work out than that of the extent of his knowledge, given both the extreme attenuation of his inner life and his lack of insight into the conflicts in his desires which are represented by his identity as Norman and his acquired identity as his mother. Even as Norman, he both owns up to and disavows his desires: for example, he tells Marion he no longer minds having been born into his private trap, but when she challenges him by saying he should mind, he quickly adds, "Oh, I do, but I say I don't." So we will need to pay attention to something other than his words. I would like to concentrate on the moments which lead up to Marion's murder and to raise the question of what Norman wants as he returns to the house after watching Marion undress.

Norman's voyeurism confirms that, as we've already seen, his identity as Norman is divided between the friendly openfaced sincerity he offers Marion and the slyer, more secretive pleasures he takes in various private moments when he's somehow getting the better of others (seeing that Marion has used an alias, watching her undress, hiding her body in the swamp). In addition, his identity as Norman in both its aspects appears to contrast with his identification with his mother in both of her manifestations: as the argumentative knife-wielding figure he enacts through his own voice and body who inhabits the world with such bold and sweeping strokes, and as the passive corpse that can do no harm. So his desires are much more complex than the psychiatrist at the end of the film would have us believe when he contrasts Norman's sexual desires for women with the jealous rages of the `mother' side of himself who kills such women in retaliation, since both Norman-as-himself and Norman-as-mother have two sides. Further, the psychiatric explanation makes no sense of the killing of Arbogast and the attempted killing of Lila (neither of whom arouses Norman's desires), since the covering up of the crimes and the deflection of curious intruders have so far seemed to be Norman's responsibility in his own guise and not in that of his mother, who has little apparent concern with being found out.

Rather than reducing Norman's desires to the sexual and the aggressively punitive, we need to look more carefully at the meaning of the hesitations which punctuate Perkins's performance at several points. For example, what are we to make of the way Norman hesitates as he chooses a cabin for Marion, his hand hovering and finally selecting the key to the cabin adjacent to the office? Is he wavering between his desire for a chance to spy on Marion and the jealous disapproval he knows his `mother' would feel, as the psychiatrist would have us believe? Or between his desire to spy on Marion and his own sense--as the friendly, smiling version of Norman, rather than the furtive, smirking one--that this would be wrong? Or is he struggling between the belief that he means what he says about the convenience of Marion's being so near the office if she should need anything, and the realisation that his motives are less pure? Or, finally, is his desire to see Marion undress in conflict with a memory of a previous murder by his mother of another woman in the same cabin and a wish to protect Marion from a similar fate? [His inability to pronounce the word `bathroom' when showing Marion her room may also be the result of a half-remembered murder there, rather than excessive prudery, especially as he talks about his mother's lover readily enough.] Of course, there is no way of answering such questions with any certainty. That his mother is, somehow, a factor in his hesitation may be implied by the slight movement of his head as he gazes over his left shoulder (a look to the left of the screen which he repeats more firmly after the spying scene itself, when it is more clearly directed toward the house and his mother inside it). However, unless Norman `knows' that he and his mother are one and the same, it is difficult to see why he would imagine that Marion's being in one cabin rather than another should make much difference to her. Again, we are back to the fact that Norman's knowledge is very precariously suppressed, and his identification with his mother and her desires invades even those moments when he is being Norman.

The murder of Marion has been spoken of as a sort of displaced rape (see, for instance, Robin Wood's account in Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p. 149). This too makes it hard to see the murder merely as an act of jealous retribution on the part of `Mother', or to see the conflict between seeing and desiring Marion, on the one hand, and punishing her, on the other, as a satisfactory description of Norman's contradictory desires. Given Norman's clear desire to spy on Marion and thus to assert himself by intruding upon her privacy and space, though still from a distance, the stabbing is more akin to an intensified version of the same thing than to a simple act of jealous rage. The invasive act of spying is a tentative reversal of the contraction of his body which characterises Norman at other moments, and the stabbing extends this invasion of Marion's world to its full extent. Thus, Norman-as-mother is a Norman able to make his mark upon the world, rather than remaining a nervous young man unable to do more than keep his distance. The voyeurism is an intermediate stage in this journey from Norman to `Mother'.

In this light, Norman's return to the house behind the motel after he spies on Marion becomes all the more moving when he hesitates about going upstairs (to check on his mother? to become his mother?), before going into the downstairs kitchen instead. The vision of him seated at the kitchen table, hunched over, as usual, and lost in his thoughts, is an affecting sign of his resistance to what is to follow. However, it is impossible to imagine what he can be thinking at this point, assailed as he must be by so many conscious and semiconscious feelings at odds with each other and no sooner acknowledge, perhaps, than suppressed (the desire for Marion, the sense that it's wrong, the fear that `Mother' will strike again, the submerged sense that she is already beginning to take him over, and so on). Here, as elsewhere, he is presented as a figure besieged by and withdrawing from the world around him, a world which manifests itself to him in the form of unspoken terrors lurking in the empty air. Thus, when he's tidying up the murder scene soon afterwards and comes out to Marion's car holding the bucket and mop in one hand and Marion's suitcase in the other, a passing car causes him to freeze in his tracks, like a scared animal in the headlights of a car, the case and bucket hastily placed on the ground as he looks anxiously about him. Similarly, a bit later, when the car momentarily stops sinking into the swamp, he again looks around him, giving the same impression of being completely at a loss. He is not so much helpless at such moments as bewildered, as if the world's workings are arbitrary and beyond his comprehension.

So Norman's desires can be said to assail him in a random and chaotic way, belonging to various separate and conflicting sides of himself rather than to a coherent personality with an organised sense of purpose, or even to two such personalities with clear battlelines between them. At those moments when we would most expect such confusions to prevail, he seems to hesitate, freeze in his tracks or go blank (or, as I described it earlier, become `entranced'), as the only way of avoiding his identity shattering into pieces in the face of his contradictory desires. These little `deaths' as he appears to go blank, suggest that his ultimate desire may be a wish for nothingness or annihilation as an alternative to unbearable knowledge and conflicting desires, a wish to be `Mother' not in her aggressively punitive version but as a corpse, which is finally fulfilled at the end of the film in Norman's stillness and passivity as the skeletal grin of his mother as corpse is superimposed on his smile.

By looking closely at the details of Anthony Perkins's performance as Norman--as well as at Norman's performances of various roles within the narrative, both as himself and as his mother--we have pinpointed some of the difficulties and some of the possible conclusions we may reach in trying to determine what Norman knows and desires. What it feels like to be Norman follows on from the results of this exploration. The chaos of Norman's conflicting desires and of the conflicting aspects of his personality is countered by his partial refusal of such knowledge, leaving him with an attenuated version of himself on the road to nothingness: in this state, he feels cold, he feels empty, he feels something like death. In one way, the psychiatrist is correct in saying that, after Marion's murder, "Norman returned as if from a deep sleep," though I would want to emphasise the continuing sense of absence and bemusement--the lack of fullness in his life, the sense that he lives a waking dream--which remains through much of his time as Norman, and not merely during those moments when the vengeful mother takes him over. For all these reasons, Norman remains a sympathetic figure even on repeated viewings of the film.

I have not offered a reading of Psycho as a whole. There are many excellent accounts to which I have added very little. Instead, I have attempted to look at a single character and the way our sense of him is not only a matter of such things as dialogue, visual treatment, narrative strategies, and so on, but of such details as bodily posture and movement, facial expressions, gestures, hesitations, and vocal delivery as well. However, if the performance details of a given character can never be understood fully in isolation from those meanings which are provided by the techniques and strategies of the film as a whole, neither should they be seen apart from the performances of other characters in the film, since part of their significance may be a structural matter, dependent on how one character's performance mirrors or contrasts with those of other characters in various ways. Therefore, I would like to conclude with a brief look at Marion asleep in her car in the course of her flight from Phoenix, as Marion too, like Norman, appears to waken "from a deep sleep."

The landscape around Marion's car is barren and deserted and is reminiscent of the desert landscape which hangs on the wall above her desk at work, while simultaneously providing a link with our later sense of Norman as surrounded by empty space. Many of her facial expressions throughout her drive towards Norman are similar to his: the wide-open eyes and furrowed brow, the sly smile as she too takes pleasure in her having got the better of someone else (Cassidy, in this case, whose money she has stolen). Like Norman later in the film, Marion hears voices in her head in the course of her drive. She imagines the reactions of her boss, of Cassidy and of various others to the discovery of her disappearance and theft, as well as Sam's reaction to her turning up with the stolen money. William Rothman suggests that Marion's imaginings comprise a sort of "private film" which is "projected onto the inner screen of her imagination" (Hitchcock: the Murderous Gaze, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 261).

I would like to explore a slightly different way of construing her subjective experiences in the course of her journey, centred upon the abrupt fade to black which accompanies and, presumably, represents the sudden break in Marion's consciousness as she falls asleep. It may seem odd that Hitchcock has chosen to present this moment as such a rupture, through his use of the fade, rather than the much more severe break in her consciousness when she's murdered in the shower. Perhaps one explanation, which links her to Norman, is that the fade marks a break in the narrative where all that follows can be seen as Marion's dream. We have seen how Norman's desire to carve out a space in the world by becoming the vengeful version of `Mother' may be seen to screen a deeper desire for death and nothingness, a desire to become his mother-as-corpse. Perhaps we can understand Marion's desires in a similar way. In other words, her vengeful pleasure in stealing the money and running away to Sam (a kind of revenge on Sam, as well as on Cassidy, both in implicating him in her crime and in giving him no further grounds to put off their marriage) may be seen to screen a desire for her own annihilation.
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Author:Thomas, Deborah
Publication:CineAction
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Words:5049
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