Monday, June 29, 2009

Analyze This

The common wisdom concerning the penultimate scene of Psycho (1960) has always been that the speech delivered by actor Simon Oakland - in which his psychiatrist character explains in exacting detail why Norman Bates has been committing murder while dressed as his dead mother - is a tedious attempt at summation as Oakland is given the thankless task of walking us through Norman's twisted mind, dryly explaining the craziness we've just witnessed. But while this scene is usually singled out as a misstep, a speech that could've used some judicious editing and still conveyed the necessary info, I feel like there was an underlying method to Hitchcock's madness.

Every time I've watched Psycho, I've always felt that Hitchcock wanted this scene with the psychiatrist to work on two levels. One, I think he felt that a large part of the audience would really need an explanation and that he was obliged to include this scene for the sake of clarity. Even though what we see transpire in the fruit cellar is enough to roughly put it all together, a more deliberate connecting of the dots had to be there. But I also feel that while Hitchcock knew he had to include that scene, he purposely portrayed the psychiatrist as a windbag - knowing that he would let the air out of everything that was said with the coda that followed with Norman alone in his cell. Oakland plays the psychiatrist as a self-satisfied blowhard who likes the sound of his own voice. He's smug, he's comfortable playing to an audience. After talking to Norman - or specifically, to Mother - he's got the whole story. His explanation is all about demystifying what we've just seen. He takes all the mystery out of it.

But then Hitchcock pulls the rug from under that speech by bringing us back to Norman and letting us hear his thoughts as Mother. While everything that the psychiatrist says about Norman - about his crimes, about his split personality - may be true, the last scene with Norman shows just how empty those words are. Hitchcock could've let the audience off the hook with Oakland's explanation and left the film at that. That would've been the conventional choice. Vera Miles and John Gavin could've walked out of the police station with matching sad faces as soon as Oakland finished talking with a big 'The End' title imposed over them - Janet Leigh may be gone but hey, at least normality is restored. But for Hitchcock to go back to Norman instead and let Mother's thoughts be the film's final words (courtesy of actress Virgina Gregg) is a brilliant undercutting of Oakland's speech. By doing this, Hitchcock is able to have his cake and eat it too. Yes, he gives the audience the explanation but then he shows how bullshit it is to believe we can understand a person as disturbed as Norman.

What's always made my skin crawl the most about Psycho was imagining what Norman's victims saw in the last moments of their lives. To know that these people suffered a death that was inexplicable to them - to see who was attacking them, to be able to recognize Norman (even though in the shower scene we only see Mother in silhouette, I always felt that Marion could see Norman's face just as well as Arbogast clearly does) but to have no way of comprehending why Norman was dressed the way he was or why he was out to slaughter them - was an idea that burrowed into my brain. And when Hitchcock returns to Norman after the psychiatrist has had his say, he is putting a fine point on the idea we are eternally vulnerable to the madness of others. This is what Hitchcock wants to leave us with, not Oakland's hollow explanation. The psychiatrist can dissemble Norman's mental state with practiced professional acumen now that Norman is in custody but the truth is, if this psychiatrist had gone to the Bates Motel a day earlier, he would've stood face to face with Norman and not perceived his insanity.

By knee-capping the psychiatrist's speech, Hitchcock obliterates any comfort those words might've offered, allowing Psycho to endure as the ultimate public service announcement for watching your ass at all times.


FilmFather said...

I just finished reading William Goldman's classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade, and he too takes time to talk about how the psychiatrist segment was a waste -- how it demystified Norman and eroded the shocking good time Goldman had had watching the movie in his local theater.

Personally, I think Hitchcock put the shrink scene in for filler, because he knew after the reveal of Mother and Norman/Mother, the audience would be shrieking, laughing at themselves, and talking for easily the next 5-10 it wouldn't even matter what was being said onscreen. No one would be paying attention.

And by the time the audience collected themselves, they'd be ready for that final scene of Norman and his mental dialogue, which capped it all off so well.

Jeff Allard said...

Some version of the psychiatrist scene had to be there - to leave the audience to puzzle out what just happened entirely on their own wouldn't have washed. Plus, if nothing else, there had to be a 'breather' after the climax in the fruit cellar. But I think by making the psychiatrist scene the way he did, and by immediately countering it with the scene with Norman in the cell, that Hitchcock cut down any attempt to demystify Norman. When we see Norman again at the end and we listen to Mother, the psychiatrist's words evaporate like inadequate psychoanalytical BS.

Bob Ignizio said...

Good analysis, Jeff, and I think a comparison between the source novel by Robert Bloch and the film version lends some support to your view.

In the book, even from the beginning Bloch seems preoccupied with explaining why Norman is the way he is. It begins with Norman gleefully reading about making drums out of human skin, and goes on to give us Norman's self diagnosis of his relationship with mother as Oedipal, already demystifying the character even before the first murder has taken place. The film omits this, giving an early indication that Hitchcock wasn't interested in this approach.

The book and film largely follow the same series of events from there until we get to the end. In the book, Sam relays what the doctor has said to Lila in even more detailed and dry terms than in the movie, and it's final beat is not of Norman, but of Sam and Lila moving forward to a bright future together. The evil is contained and explained, and all is right with the world now. That the film instead chooses to end with Norman shows that it has a different intent. It's possible that Hitch just wanted one last moment of creepiness, but your explanation makes more sense to me.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Bob - I've never read Bloch's novel (although I did read his Psycho II) but I definitely think that Hitchcock was pointedly saying that psychiatry wasn't the place to look for answers and that craziness will always trump rationality.

Bob Ignizio said...

Well, just got done reading the book again tonight, and it appears I was wrong about the ending. There is a final short chapter that has Norman/Norma in the asylum and the "I wouldn't hurt a fly" bit. But the book definitely spends way more time on looking for an explanation for Norman's behavior.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks for the follow-up, Bob. Even though the book may have ended its story with Norman, I do think that in adapting the novel, most directors would've tried to give the ending a more conventional wrap-up. Then again, most directors wouldn't have made Psycho in the first place!