M O D E R N I T Y   A N D   T H E   M A N I A C
P a g e   T h r e e :   J a n e t   L e i g h   i n   P s y c h o
" S h e   l o o k   l i k e   a   w r o n g   o n e   t o   y o u ? "   a s k s   a   p o l i c e m a n.
A R T I C L E   B Y   R I C H A R D   A R M S T R O N G

In so many ways, Touch of Evil and Psycho are companion pieces. Both were cheaply made features sold on their modern exploitation of sex and violence. Both were directed by impresarios with a gift for manipulation. Both feature women who step beyond the codified respectability of their worlds, unconsciously playing to male fantasies about what they are like in the flesh. For female, and male, moviegoers, the first hour of Psycho is the most interesting half of the film because it investigates what makes an apparently normal young woman with everything to play for get mixed up with a married man and steal from her boss. It takes the modern working girl, creature comfort of a million matinees, and turns her into an enigma. And we see her through her own eyes. And we are as interested to see how far she can go as she is. We feel the thoughts, and some will feel the pain, of what Thomson has described as "a frustrated, hard-up secretary, stroked, hounded and finally cut to pieces by Hitchcock's attention in a shower cubicle, cabin 1, at a bypassed motel." In conversation with Nogueira, Leigh described her conception of Marion: "I saw that she was really a shabby, mousy little woman. She wasn't in any way glamorous or anything. So we chose clothes that she could have afforded. We didn't have a dressmaker do them; we just went out and bought clothes that she could have bought on her salary. And I didn't have the hairdresser do my hair, I did it myself as she would: she couldn't afford a beauty parlour…I knew the background of this girl: it was lonely, poor…she was the older sister who took care of the younger one. And her drab life, in that office with that terrible man trying to take her out…"
A drunken businessman propositions Marion as she sits at her desk at a realty office.
[click photo for larger version]

Indeed, the first half of Psycho feels like a wayward take on the woman's picture. But in the second half, from the moment when Marion is stabbed repeatedly as she takes a shower, Hitchcock concedes the film to the voyeur in the crowd. Writing of Norman Bates' shifting attitude to this beautiful refugee from mainstream America, Harvey finds that "hers is a spirit and a temperament that Hitchcock is debarred from. Quite unlike Welles, Hitchcock feels the removal painfully. Psycho is partly and importantly a meditation on that removal--on the human insufficiency behind it." The "human insufficiency" to which Harvey refers applies to Norman/Hitchcock, stranded by mother love, appearance, on a slip road beyond the beautiful American mainstream--"they moved away the highway"--the world of the movies, of Leigh and Curtis. But it also refers to the inadequacies of Leigh's world with all its clichés, fatuities, and superficial bonhomie--"A man should have a hobby."
"They moved away the highway," says Norman to Marion.
[click photo for multiple photos from this scene]

Psycho is modern because it brings two modern urban clichés together, the shopgirl and that strange young misfit in the adjacent office, the one she only notices because he stares. Psycho charts a specifically modern adoration and desecration. It brings the broad daylight of the Affluent Society into concision with the shadowy beyond in which its flaws are revealed as long punishing shadows. Appearing in 1960, the film consciously sets up a dialogue between past and present. Out of the past comes that which is spooky, musty, fatal. Like that dark gingerbread house on the hill. The present is all that is bright, sexy, new. As if to satirize gadget-strewn, throwaway America, Hitchcock even has his wayward heroine trade her car on a whim, without even taking the customary day-and-a-half to think about it. In his 2002 book A Long Hard Look at Psycho--that title seems a gift to the fetishist in the crowd--Raymond Durgnat searched for the film's resonance: "In the annals of 'mainstream movies' and of socio-cultural history, it marks a turning point (the 'turn' from conservative-liberal consensus to 1960's 'liberal/alienation/uneasiness', and from humanism to post-humanism."

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