Psycho’s Moebius Strip (Or: How Marion got her uncanny lunch and ate it, too)

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[By request: here is the original paper I wrote for my BA class “Film Violence and Voyeurism”, which I later presented at the 2013 ACTC English Majors’ Conference, and which I used as the basis for my first YouTube video “Understanding Psycho: The Uncanny”.]

One of the more curious things about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is its lack of a single protagonist to carry the bulk of the narrative. About a third of the way into the film the plot suddenly switches its focus from Marion—who (to the shock of everyone who assumed she was the protagonist) is brutally murdered in Hitchcock’s most famous sequence—to a murder investigation involving Norman, “Mother”, Marion’s lover Sam, and her sister Lila. Marion’s murder may be necessary to generate the investigation, but that doesn’t explain why Hitchcock dedicates more than forty minutes of his 110-minute film to what would, in the context of a straightforward whodunit, be merely a backstory. However, Marion’s story is not a red herring; it is just as important as Norman’s, and only by looking at the two together, as halves of a whole, does one begin to understand the importance of their relationship. In “In His Bold Gaze My Ruin Is Writ Large”, Slavoj Žižek argues for a reading where Norman serves as Marion’s uncanny double:

[He is] nothing but her mirror-negative… Marion’s world is the world of contemporary American everyday life, whereas Norman’s world is its nocturnal reverse… The relationship between these two worlds… is that of the two surfaces of the Moebius band: if we progress far enough on one surface, all of a sudden we find ourselves on its reverse. (227)

To understand Psycho, the film must be seen not as two separate narratives, but as a Moebius strip. By examining parallels between the two, it becomes clear that, like day and night, Marion and Norman’s stories are not separate but complimentary and cyclical.

Like a dream forgotten upon waking, Marion’s story is easy to overlook in a retrospective analysis, especially when Norman’s psychological state is so ripe for interpretation. Who could forget the unnerving penultimate shot of Norman-as-Mother smiling manically at the camera, overlaid for a moment with the briefest glimpse of a grinning skull? What is easier to forget is that something very similar has already occurred earlier, at the turning point of the film. For Žižek, “Psycho carries [the] Hitchcockian subversion of the viewer’s identification to its utmost, forcing him/her to identify with the abyss beyond identification. That is to say, the key that enables us to penetrate the film’s mystery is to be sought in the rupture… that separates the first third from the last two-thirds” (226). This moment of rupture—the turning point, or chiasmus—is not the infamous shower scene but occurs earlier on in the film, during Marion’s drive to the Bates Motel. In “Hitch and his Audience”, Jean Douchet touches upon the importance of this scene, writing, “Janet Leigh’s long and remarkable car journey allows the material and intellectual passage from one world to another: from objectivity to pure subjectivity” (156-7). The sequence achieves more than that, however; it marks the journey that takes Marion to the uncanny mirror side of Psycho’s Moebius strip. This gradual shift reaches its apex during the drive from the car dealership, where Marion buys a new car, to the Bates Motel (23:22-26:26). As she leaves the dealership, we see Marion anxiously fidgeting and biting her lip, face and hands symmetrically framed in a medium close-up. The subsequent sequence follows a simple, repetitive pattern: Marion’s internal thoughts are heard through a voiceover dialogue (or half-dialogue) when we see her, with each imaginary vignette punctuated by a shot of the road from her point of view. She stares straight ahead, almost directly at the camera, lost in her thoughts as each voiceover reveals them. She first imagines the dealer and the police officer discussing her suspicious behavior. Fade to her POV of the road (the fade indicates the passage of time), then cut back to Marion—the set-up of the two perspectives doesn’t change—as she imagines the scene at her office on Monday morning: her boss and coworker reacting to her absence. This time, when the film cuts back to the road, the lighting is dimmer, suggesting that more time has passed, but the transition is a plain cut, not a fade. When we return to Marion again, it’s even darker; the inside of the car is shadowy, the white planes of her face standing out in sharper contrast, and the image of the road through the back window is less focused than it was before—probably Hitchcock changed lenses for a shallower depth of field. In her imagination, Marion’s boss and coworker become increasingly concerned; her boss, talking to Lila on the phone, suddenly realizes that Marion may have left town with the money. Another cut reveals that the road is even darker than before. When we return to Marion, the shot of her is suddenly tighter as we hear her boss talking to Cassidy on the phone. Reverse-shot: the darkened road. Then back to Marion—a real close-up of her face now, her hands no longer visible, the road behind her a blur—and we hear Cassidy’s angry voice: “Well, I ain’t about to kiss off forty thousand dollars! I’ll get it back and if any of it’s missing, I’ll replace it with her fine, soft flesh! … Hot creepers, she sat there while I dumped it out, hardly even looked at it! Planning… and even flirting with me!” It is during this tirade that Marion’s face slowly changes from anxious and absorbed to a wide-eyed, crooked, rather manic smile, staring almost directly at the audience. The rain starts suddenly; out of the windscreen we can now make out only darkness and abstract bursts of light. Close up on Marion’s face as she tries to see through the rain and is blinded by a passing car’s headlights: the brightness engulfs her as the music reaches its peak; she has now passed into the other realm. Out of the blur of dark and light, only one thing becomes visible: the neon sign outside the “Bates Motel”.

Visually, this sequence is almost monotonously repetitive, calling extra attention to the few things that actually change: the width and depth of the shots, the lighting, and Marion’s expression. The fact that the passage of time is no longer marked with fades shows that, as Douchet argues, we have entered Marion’s subjective experience—she is not aware of the time passing—as does the increased closeness of the shots and the decreased depth of field. Furthermore, in the change from clear lighting to deep shadows and sharp contrast we are moving, not just from day to night, but from a realist style to noirish melodrama. In effect, we are gradually crossing from one side of the Moebius strip to the other: from Marion’s daytime reality to its uncanny nighttime flipside. We will return to the question of uncanniness in a moment, but first let us address the problem of Marion’s smile, which is remarkably similar to Norman’s manic grin at the end of the film. Significantly, these smiles occur during voiceovers that are also very similar in nature. “Mother” worries that the police are watching her with suspicion and mentally distances herself from Norman’s (her own) acts of violence through judgment (“He was always bad… As if I could do anything but just sit and stare…!”). Likewise, in the car scene, Marion worries that the police officer is following her and imagines Cassidy threatening her and accusing her, hypocritically, of flirting with him. Cassidy in this scene is a figment of Marion’s imagination, just as “Mother” is a figment of Norman’s; in both cases, Marion and Norman have internalized the perverse voice of authority. Just as “Mother”, whose position as matriarch would imply respectability, hurls vulgar accusations and abuse at her son, so Cassidy’s role as a figure of social authority (both a father and a millionaire) is blemished by his sordid use of language: “replace it with her fine soft flesh”, “hot creepers”, “dumped it out”, and so on.

For Žižek, Marion and Norman’s relationships with parental authority are reverse images of one another: “Marion stands under the sign of the Father—that is, of the symbolic desire constituted by the Name-of-the-Father; Norman is entrapped into the mother’s desire not yet submitted to the paternal Law” (228). Cassidy, in fact, plays a similar role for Marion as “Mother” does for Norman. His interaction with Marion near the beginning of the film (7:20-9:13) is not only all-but-explicitly sexual, but disconcertingly paternal. He refers to his “sweet little girl”, leading to a moment of confusion as to whether he is speaking about his daughter or to Marion, and goes on to tell Marion that he regularly “buys off” his daughter’s unhappiness before offering (with obvious sexual implications) to do the same for her. (The ambiguity here is more comical but no less unnerving than the later scene when Norman hints at Oedipal undertones to his relationship with “Mother”: “A son is a poor substitute for a lover”.) The purpose of Cassidy’s brief appearance is to undermine apart the notion of respectability by revealing the things society condones when they are sanctified by money and marriage. Cassidy’s behavior—flaunting huge billfolds while attempting to seduce Marion—is utterly crass, but is somehow made acceptable by two signifiers of social respectability: an expensive lease and a family photograph. His appearance prompts Marion to steal the money, not just because he presents the opportunity, but because he flaunts the signs of respectability—the marriage, the house—that Marion craves.

In her article “Psycho: The Institutionalization of Female Sexuality”, Barbara Klinger interprets the film in terms of conflict between Marion’s sexuality and the notion of familial propriety: “The adversary relationship between female sexuality (presented as lawless) and the family (presented as lawful) will be resolved in the workings of the narrative system” (335). For Klinger, this conflict is enacted through a transformation of Marion’s body “from an overt erotic spectacle (semiclad, in postcoital embrace) to a figure shrouded entirely from view (a body in the trunk of a car)” (344). Klinger is correct in reading this physical transformation as the result of tension between illicit sexuality and the socially sanctioned family, but she neglects to take into account the question of wish fulfillment. Marion actively tries to achieve a semblance of respectability by transforming herself through external signifiers (she even changes her name, using her boyfriend’s in a parody of marriage). Her literal and figurative transformation, which underpins the film’s narrative, is illustrated by her long journey from Phoenix to the Bates Motel. According to Douchet, even the changing of cars is symbolic:

Generally, in Hitchcock, the human body is the first of the vehicles… And, by extension, a vehicle which encloses a being becomes that being’s new body. This is why Janet Leigh, in changing her car, is expressing a profound desire to change her body, her personality… she believes that her wish will be granted by changing her material shell. (157)

The most profound transformation, however, is the shift in narrative focus from Marion to Norman, who replaces her when she is murdered a third of the way into the film. In a narrative sense, Marion has become Norman, who is first and foremost her uncanny double, an interpretation supported both by the fact that their names contain almost the same letters and the use of mirrors in scenes with them together. I use the term uncanny here in its true Freudian sense. For Freud, fear comes as a natural progression from phantasy, so that the uncanny is not just the familiar turned unfamiliar but also the childhood wish turned monstrous. It is Marion’s quest for and fantasy of respectability that leads her to the Bates Motel, where she encounters Norman, a manifestation of respectability turned pathological. His outward concern for propriety and family is the antithesis to Marion’s unauthorized sexuality. The scene where they talk together in Norman’s parlor is, in fact, a direct response to the opening scene of the film. The very first words spoken, from Sam to Marion, are “You never did eat your lunch, did you?” along with a close-up of Marion’s uneaten sandwich to emphasize the illicitness of their meeting: sex in an anonymous hotel when respectable people should be eating. If we compare the conversation between Marion and Sam at the start of the film with the conversation between Marion and Norman in the motel, we see how Marion’s fantasy of a respectable meal is being fulfilled very specifically, albeit perversely. Marion tells Sam she wants to have dinner with him “respectably” instead of meeting secretly in hotel rooms, which is what she and Norman are doing (Norman, uncomfortable with any hint of sex, moves the dinner from Marion’s bedroom to his quaint “parlor”). She also expresses a wish to eat with her mother’s picture on the wall, under the symbolic gaze of authority. Her wish for the family-sanctioned meal to be symbolically overseen by “mother” is fulfilled; not only is her dinner with Norman “observed” by the uncanny, unseeing eyes of paintings and Norman’s stuffed birds (to which “Mother” will optically compare herself to in the final scene), but it takes place in the shadow of the big family house from which “Mother” shouts shrill accusations. Even Marion’s ultimate murder is a monstrous form of wish fulfillment: she and her crime are obliterated and replaced by an uncanny double who is perversely implicated in the family and its renunciation of sexuality.

But even though she is taken out of the picture, we have not yet seen the last of Marion. In “Psychosis, Neurosis, Perversion (on Psycho)”, Raymond Bellour addresses the ending of Psycho as evidence of its narrative displacement:

The principle of classical film is well known: the end must reply to the beginning … Psycho’s opaqueness is contradictory in this respect: the end, apparently, in no way replies to the beginning… This is why the final explanation has sometimes been considered a useless appendix, whereas it is the ultimate result of the work of displacement that has taken place throughout the film. (238-240)

But though the psychiatrist barely mentions Marion in his dramatic exposition, the ending of Psycho is still very much a reply to the first part of the film. It serves to take us out of the uncanny, noirish realm we entered during the car journey and back into the world of easy explanations (time stamps, contracts, and diagnoses). The film is not displaced at all, but replaced; the latter part is a direct and uncanny response to the former, and it follows in the same vein. Just as Marion’s wish to be transformed is perversely fulfilled, so is Norman’s; he, like her, is destroyed and replaced. This is the point of Žižek’s Moebius strip: “if we progress far enough on one surface, all of a sudden we find ourselves on its reverse” (227). By the end of Psycho we have, in fact, come full circle: Norman is consumed and replaced by his own uncanny double. When he finally smiles at the camera in the penultimate shot, he has become, like Marion, a neurotic woman concealing a crime. The shot fades to the final image, superimposed for a moment over Norman’s face: Marion’s car and concealed body dragged back up from the swamp. We are once more on the former side of the Moebius strip: the uncanny night ends, Norman is renounced, and in the light of day Marion surfaces again, resurrected.

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3 thoughts on “Psycho’s Moebius Strip (Or: How Marion got her uncanny lunch and ate it, too)

  1. Really enjoyed your Psycho film crit! Finally saw it recently, on the big screen no less! Was pleased that despite the shower scene which has embedded itself in pop culture, there was no sense of having spoiled my viewing experience. (Sorta feel the same way about Soylent Green. Everyone knows the punchline–Soylent Green is people!–but the film has more to offer.) Indeed with Psycho, there were so many fresh perspectives that keep me thinking. In fact we are going to see the 78/52 documentary tomorrow. Please feel free to keep in touch, and thanks again.

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  2. Dear Margarita

    I, too, really enjoyed your analysis of Psycho.

    In addition to your principle theme of the Moebus Strip’s day/ night, Marion/ Norman, objectivity/ subjectivity transformations- is perhaps the theme of Hollywood’s sexism and inherent ageism in the form of an aged woman’s revenge?

    If Marion is the embodied ‘illicit female sexual principle’ in the form of glamorous Janet Leigh then perhaps Norman is the ‘anti ageist/ transgender hero’ par-excellence. Norman wreaks havoc on Marion Crane- the ‘beautiful, glamorous heterosexual heroine’ by not only murdering her, but murdering her dressed as an older woman. This is a double ‘castration’: ‘Mother’ robs her son of the object of his desire- spy hole Marion- in order to resurrect herself, but she also robs the audience of its glamorous star- Janet Leigh. Norman becomes his own ‘Mother’s’ incubus. This is ‘ageist revenge’: the young beautiful, glamorous woman star (Leigh) is ‘murdered’ by an ‘older woman’. Then the glamorous beauty reappears in the form of Marion’s sister, Lila, who has to endure ageism’s ultimate comeuppance: coming face to face with what she herself will become: the skull beneath the skin.

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