Exploring Hitchcock Part 3: Don’t read this! – Vertigo and Psycho

This is the third and last in a series of posts on the filmmaking of Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): one of the greatest directors of all time. These posts are authored by Robin Stevens, JJ McDermott and Alan Matthews, and the idea is for each part to take a selection of Hitchcock’s films and analyze them in detail. Hopefully they will present somewhat of a new insight into his films as well as a look at the man himself and the times in which he lived and worked in. Here, Alan follows up Robin’s earlier post on the films of Rebecca, Rear Window and The Birds, and JJ’s previous post on the films of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Frenzy and Family Plot with a treatise on the films of Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) and the challenges that they posed for audiences upon their release and continue to today.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is poorly named…wait, let’s start over…Scottie Ferguson (played by James Stewart) does not suffer from vertigo. Nope, the viewer suffers from vertigo – the sensation that the world around you is moving even though you are in fact not moving. You believe the plot is moving in one direction. You might even want it to move in one direction, but it moves off in completely another direction. Hitchcock is messing with the viewer/the audience. He is messing with their sense of reality by taking advantage of their cinematic experience. Using their expectations against them. He forces the audience down one path only to reveal that path to be a fiction within a fiction which is hiding a more disturbing truth. He did the same thing a little bit later in Psycho (1960) when he managed the expectations and even the desires of the audience for the first half of the movie. He forced us to invest in ultimately meaningless details simply to hide a dark secret. So then perhaps Vertigo isn’t poorly named. Perhaps you just have to experience the film before you realise why it is named like it is. Like Psycho it is a great movie, but not always the movie we think it is.


Spoilers! For god’s sake don’t read this post. Just don’t. Go and watch Vertigo and then watch it again (and if you can find the time watch it again). You won’t be disappointed. You will be all the better for watching it, knowing as little as possible about the plot. The same is true of Psycho. If you’ve been living on the moon or if you’ve just emerged from the Amazon rainforest, knowing nothing about civilisation, watch Psycho before someone gives away the story. It is not like the reveal of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects (1995) or Bruce Willis’s restless spirit in The Sixth Sense (1999). The experience is always in the reveal and the adventure of learning too much. Hitchcock went to great lengths to preserve the mystery of Psycho. After acquiring the rights to the novel, legend has it that he sent his assistant, Anthony Boucher, out to buy up all the copies of the book to prevent spoilers. He withheld the ending from the cast until he was ready to shoot and made the crew swear not to tell anyone about the secrets of the plot. The genius of these movies is not in some abrupt, surprise twist but in the slow majesty of the reveal. Okay, so have you watched them both? WATCH THEM! Fine. Let’s continue.


In Vertigo Scottie Ferguson doesn’t have vertigo. He has acrophobia. This is mentioned several times in the movie and this is important because acrophobia is the irrational fear of heights, and this foreshadows or explains his later irrational behaviour. Basophobia – the natural fear of falling – is present in everyone to a greater or lesser degree and can be considered a reasonable reaction to the sudden stop at the bottom. Acrophobia, on the other hand, is often the result of personal trauma. Something like, oh you know, like dangling from a roof edge several stories above while your colleague is thrown over the edge by a criminal. A characteristic of acrophobia is something akin to a panic attack leaving the person unable to move or even get themselves to safety. This explains why Scottie was unable to save Madeleine and why his subsequent breakdown is similar to PTSD or severe depression. Hitchcock will strongly imply that the fear of falling is the same side of the coin as the desire to jump. The fear of death is the attraction to the abyss. We’ll come back to this further down. Of course, if you take the time to think about it Acrophobia would have been a shit title for a movie. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue!


Psycho is a great title for a movie. Although if you take the time to think about it, it does kind of give away the plot. Perhaps Woman Who Stole Some Cash was just too long for the poster. Strictly speaking the term psychopath has its roots in the legal rather than psychological world. Although it is often used as an informal shorthand to refer to certain personality disorders (now, more broadly, mental disorders). The psychopathic personality is one characterised by aggression, lack of remorse, lack of emotional control and lack of emotional empathy. As anyone who has watched a TED lecture or completed a click-bait questionnaire on Facebook knows we all have a little bit of psychopath in us. Often these characteristics are strongly exhibited by company directors and politicians who benefit from these personality traits to get ahead. Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) could more technically be described as ‘bat-shit crazy’ – a weird mix of illnesses and mental disorders neatly summarised by the ‘psychiatrist’ at the end of the movie. By calling him a psychopath we are invited to consider how responsible he is for his actions.


For comparison, take the character of Gavin Elster (played by Tom Helmore) from Vertigo. At first glance he appears to be a friend of the protagonist but he is actually a villain. His villain status is foreshadowed in the scene where he persuades Scottie to take the job. Watched again after knowing the outcome, this scene is a beautiful piece of theatre, played out by a master manipulator on an unsuspecting audience. This last sentence could refer to either Gavin Elster or Hitchcock, the sense is the same. Hitchcock allows Elster to progressively dominate the scene by blocking Scottie into a more and more subservient position. When Elster spins the tale about his wife’s delusions Hitchcock places him on a stage over the audience. This man is plotting the death or emotional destruction of three human beings to further his own business interests. A lack of emotional empathy, lack of remorse, aggression = psychopath. But we are in no doubt that Elster is coldly responsible for his actions. There is no history of trauma with which we can explain away his malicious nature. In a sense he is a two dimensional villain who facilitates the plot, a secondary villain like Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. What’s more he gets away with it, but by the time he does, we’ve moved on to other, darker themes.


The best movies are not only entertaining or thrilling, they also ask questions about ourselves. If the movies are really good they can be entertaining while asking questions which are quite uncomfortable. Psycho leaves us with unanswerable questions. Is it even possible to punish Norman Bates for his crimes? It is implied that even treatment is useless. So what next? Incarceration, execution or an oubliette? In England and Wales, for example, it has been legally possible to recognise diminished responsibility for murder as a result of mental illness since The Homicide Act in 1957. The result of this is an awkward balance between punishment and therapy, between rehabilitation and the safety of society. This has resulted in a general fear of the danger to society posed by the mentally ill. It has been argued that with Psycho, Hitchcock created a whole new sub-genre of crime movie which portrays madness as a dangerous and terrifying illness. Hitchcock certainly emphasised the contagion/disease of madness effecting all who come into contact with it, ultimately consuming the host. He was a big devotee of the Freudian approach to psychoanalysis. At the heart of both Psycho and Vertigo is the connection between criminality and madness – the compulsion to commit crimes. The compulsion to leap.


The character of Norman Bates, taken from the novel Psycho (1959) by Robert Bloch, is loosely based on the real life killer, body snatcher and last-person-in-the-world-you’d-ever-want-to-have-a-drink-with, Ed Gein. For someone whose crimes were so unnerving and repellent, Gein has inspired or at least influenced a wealth of cinematic bad guys. Leatherface and his whole extended family from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) are perhaps the most direct comparison. Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) has elements of Ed Gein as does his predecessor, The Tooth Fairy, in Manhunter (1986), both films based on Tomas Harris novels. Aside from some horrible murders, what do these characters have in common with Gein? They were all devoted to abusive mother figures and they all had a corrosive effect on the psyche of people who came into contact with them. Some of the sheriffs who investigated Ed Gein never fully recovered from the trauma of what they’d seen. Gein was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found to be mentally incompetent, thus unfit for trial. Norman Bates of Psycho, to paraphrase a line from Manhunter, is not simply a monster but ‘a man with a monster on his back’. A child who was made into a monster by years of abuse. It is this acknowledgement, that Bates was a victim before he was a monster, that helped to make Psycho such a ground-breaking and controversial film.


Psycho was not the first film to uncomfortably examine the compulsion to kill. Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre created a fantastic and chilling portrait of a child murderer in M (1931). The idea of a nice guy with a killer inside him goes at least as far back as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and at least as far forward as Jason Bourne (2016). Forcing the audience to confront these questions of duality threatens to make a sympathetic character out of a terrifying killer. Unfortunately both Vertigo and Psycho have suffered over time. Vertigo has been through two restorations that have changed the vivid and more dreamlike colour palette of the original. One of these also made changes to the original score so that Vertigo is now, from a certain point of view, a ‘lost movie’. The impact of Psycho has been diminished by four sequels, a movie spinoff, a pointless colour remake and a TV series, as well as the avalanche of slasher flicks that it is supposed to have inspired. None of these have captured the subtle, crawling fear of the original. Perhaps the greatest modern influence of Vertigo and Psycho is in the work of David Fincher. He explored the corrosive nature of obsession in Zodiac (2007), the duality of the hero/villain in Fight Club (1999), the serial killer in Se7en (1995) and the fragile psychology of the people who catch them in the recent (and brilliant) TV series Mindhunter (2017).


Scottie begins the story of Vertigo with a fragile psyche. Not only has he suffered a traumatic experience he has been forced to quit his job, removing himself from a familiar life structure. He is vulnerable and the scheme to which his friend Gavin Elster subjects him to is nothing short of psychological abuse. Scottie’s vulnerability draws the audience to him and Hitchcock emphasises this by the use of shot, reverse-shot over and over again in order to place the viewer in Scottie’s perspective. A common theme of Hitchcock movies is voyeurism – you can stop reading this post for a moment and go watch Rear Window (1954). Okay, not exactly voyeurism. More a case of ‘be careful what you look at’. But still worth a watch, right? So, the audience is taking part in Scottie’s surveillance of Madeleine. She is beautiful, elegant and vulnerable. We want Scottie to save her. Hitchcock uses the same shot, reverse-shot to place us in the position of various characters in Psycho. It is in fact used quite subtly in the famous shower scene. The camera quickly cuts back from Marion to the killer to Marion and back, and so the audience is as involved with the killers point of view as they are with the victim.


After witnessing Madeleine’s death in Vertigo and subsequently having a breakdown, madness in the form of obsession grows in Scottie’s character until he becomes almost repellent to the audience. Not only because of his actions but because he has, thus far, been our window into the story. Slowly Scottie changes from the hero of the story to the villain as he forces Judy Barton (played by Kim Novak) to conform to his image of an ideal woman. An ideal which is as much a fiction of his own mind as it was of the story which Gavin Elster had told. Judy’s relationship with Scottie is as destructive to her as it is to him and the audience are compliant in Scottie’s downfall because they have followed him and even wanted him to rediscover Madeleine somehow. Now they recoil from him as from someone with a disease, which is appropriate because by this time in the movie Scottie’s madness is effecting everyone around him.


Scottie’s madness even effects the audience. In the early part of Vertigo Hitchcock invites the audience to share Scottie’s growing fascination with Madeleine. When he rescues her, the audience, driven by story conventions, hopes for a romantic future. We are drawn in so that even when Scottie and Judy’s relationship becomes destructive the audience participate in that destruction. There are frightening parallels to make in Scottie’s obsession with an idealised woman. Ted Bundy was a murderer, kidnapper, rapist, burglar, necrophile and last-person-in-the-world-you’d-introduce-to-your-sister. He was executed for his crimes in 1989. His gruesome influence can be seen in several onscreen killers, notably the couch and plaster-cast kidnapping carried out by Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Bundy’s victims all closely conformed to the appearance of a girl who had rejected him earlier in his life. Repeatedly in his movies Hitchcock casts an idealised blonde only to place her in jeopardy, cast her as a femme fatale, drive her to destruction or sometimes all three. This could be an outline of the first act of Psycho or the whole plot of Vertigo.


The story from Psycho and the story in Vertigo have some interesting things in common. There is the leading of the audience down one story path only for that path to take a quick, sharp turn to the left. There is deliberate and malicious imposition of one identity upon another. There are themes in common such as obsession, mental illness, voyeurism and murder. The greatest discomfort for the audience comes from the explicit connection which the movies make between sex/love and death. The hallucinogenic dream sequence from Vertigo which demonstrates Scottie’s mental breakdown shows him literally falling into his own grave as his obsession with Madeleine consumes his mind. Both Ted Bundy and Ed Gein were known to have engaged in necrophilia. In Psycho the death obsession is everywhere – in the form of stuffed birds. It is Norman Bate’s sexual desire for Marion which leads to her death.


Perhaps the strangest fact is that in both films the hero and the villain are contained within a single character. Scottie begins the story as a well-meaning but damaged individual caught in a web of deceit and lies. In the beginning he is fighting to save the life of a frightened, lonely woman. He ends the story obsessive and dysfunctional. He forces Judy Barton to conform to his imagined ideal woman, which is to her social and psychological detriment. He may even be a murderer. The same is true for Psycho. Oh, you thought the hero was Lila Crane? Or perhaps Sam Loomis? Nope. The hero of the story is Norman Bates. The villain is his abusive and homicidal mother Norma Bates. In Psycho the fight between the hero and the villain takes place entirely inside the head of a single character and all that the audience witnesses is the collateral damage. What makes the last scene of Psycho and the outcome of Vertigo so chilling is that, ultimately and in both cases, the villain wins.

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