Hitchcock and the Moral-Religious Criticism of Art

 

Have you listened to my new movie podcast about Psycho? During the discussion of the moral concerns and conservative intentions of the movie-making, we tried to bring in the objects of art, and suggested that Hitchcock shows the audience certain important juxtapositions of movie plot and works of art, of settings–like the imposing residence–and societies–liberalism. I want to show you the works of art and to discuss their importance to the movie’s moral concerns. I’ll discuss them in the order in which they appear.

1. The Bates house, a very stately, old-fashioned kind of California architecture. The design is taken from Ed Hopper’s House by a railroad.

You can see that it’s viewed from the same direction in the movie, except, of course that it’s perched on a hill, which makes it look more imposing.

Part of what I’m trying to show in the discussion is that this is somehow tied up with the dark side of respectability, first because it conceals something–it removes awareness of the dark passions of the soul.

Secondly, because it tends toward an open show of the dangers that lurk in the soul, which is nevertheless ignored. The connection between beauty and sexual desire, between beholding and holding, is supposed to be utterly severed. There’s no risk to nudity in paintings, sculptures, etc.

It makes sense, therefore, to turn, in a horror story, respectability on its head.

Here’s a screenshot of Anthony Perkins looking at the picture Hitchcock amusingly called, “of great importance” in his presentation of the movie.

He’s not very concerned with spoilers and he treats it all as a trifle. He obviously banked on the effect the movie itself would have. Then again, there’s something to Hitchcock’s famous remark that it was a comedy, or a very funny movie. There is such a thing as tragic irony and, in this movie, horror irony.

2. The painting you see in that screenshot–van Mieris’s painting of Susanna and the elders, the Biblical story in Daniel 13. This was a great subject of painting in the Renaissance and well into the nineteenth century.

The painting conceals the peep hole that allows Norman Bates to spy on his guests.

He moves it to see and so does the movie–we get to see his eye at the peep hole and to spy on the very attractive Janet Leigh in various states of undress along with him.

As a warning against shamelessly looking upon shameful things, the painting is a very weak obstacle. It seems to conceal and help the shameful deeds by making the peep hole invisible.

Although, again, you could see a certain irony in hiding a peep hole behind a picture of peeping men trying to rape a woman…

But the work of art is also a symbol–it makes a certain argument. Even if you dismiss the moral or ending of the Biblical story depicted in the painting: the lustful, shameless old men who attempt to achieve a murder with the forms of law on their side are punished themselves to be killed–there is still something to be said for the movie itself: we tend to want to go beyond the surface of things, to look behind, to pry into what’s secret or, indeed, invisible. The movie itself ends with two versions of the invisible–the soul of Norman Bates. But instead we should stare at the surface more carefully, instead of trying to remove it.

As with the horror irony of Norman Bates’s unwitting self-disclosure whenever he opens his mouth, much is hiding in plain sight. The warning of the painting seems to be that respectability can become a weapon turned against any innocence left when shame becomes shameless. Weakness turns into corruption in that way. The movie is supposed to use the immoral desires that get people to the theater to ward against a worse immorality. Normality might be more bearable if respectability wasn’t turned into an attack on what’s not respectable. Curiosity is surely a vice, but there is something more dangerous in a situation where normality is defended by ignorance–an uninnocent defense, because it requires a complete blindness to the possibility of evil.

3. The other two paintings in the parlor. Here’s a painting by a Frenchman, Boucher: Venus consoling Amor. The way this seems to fit into the story is to announce the possible corruption of nurturing mother love into a kind of stifling of eroticism.

The shift between the two kinds of intimacy, that at some level does great violence to the soul, is the psychological problem of the story and it emerges thematically only in the conclusion, when the psychiatrist and the insane Norman give two accounts of what’s going on in his soul.

This extends the moral-religious criticism of art implicit in the story. First, of course, a parlor at a motel-by-the-highway near some small town in California would not be boasting such art. You could say, well, there could be prints – but these are all paintings. It’s not plausible that there would be replicas.

The impossibility of the presence of the paintings at first seems to reveal to the attentive viewer ‘what’s wrong with the picture’–with Norman and his mother. It does do that: the parlor with all these paintings is opened right after Marion Crane hears the ‘argument’ between Norma and Norman in the second-floor room of the house.

4. The other painting recognized by insistent viewers and scholars is a Titian: Venus with a mirror. What you see in the parlor thus also seems to announce the plot. Psychologically, this would be the self-love of the mother who tyrannizes over the child. You see eros always as a child in these paintings, as in the sculpture which is the first thing you see entering the house. That’s part of the infantilizing iconography of classical and Renaissance art. But Venus/Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, as opposed to eros, is always an adult and dominates the space and the story of the paintings. This offers the psychological possibility conveyed by the movie–eros impotent before beauty.

This seems to also announce the later scene where Marion’s sister, Lila, is shocked by her own reflection in the set of parallel mirrors. In this other comparison of the scene in the painting and movie scene, you see the different possibilities of thinking about the power of beauty.

This leads to the deeper meaning of the presence of these works of art that just cannot be there–if you pay more attention to the superficial stuff rather than to the less obvious, more sophisticated thinking that connecs plot, psychology, and paintings. These works of art put beauty under control in a certain way and pretend at the same time that it’s innocuous. Beauty is tame in them. To hold the painting and behold it has no effects on who you are or how you live.

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  1. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    I want to just echo what Mama Toad said.

    Titus and Eric, this has been fascinating.

    I also want to say I love the way the movie uses an affair, undeclared money, assumed names in a hotel registry, receipts, and the trust that begins to develop between the detective and the two people who knew and loved Marion, to illustrate that we’re trapped through our desire to act outside of accountability.

     

    • #31
  2. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    Theodoric of Freiberg,

    Your last comment got me to watch the DVD we finally pulled out of the library……

    I watched it from beginning to end last evening and came to the same realization about the 12 empty rooms. (I guess great minds think alike!). It is mentioned at least twice that there are 12. Hitchcock wanted us to realize that the number 12 is significant. They are metaphors for apostles who don’t actually exist. And I agree that Norman is much more than a false priest. He is a false Jesus. He and his modern motel represent secularism which is really nothing more than a false religion that instead of giving salvation, leads to tragedy.

    In this context, the film’s connection with the Eroica symphony is significant. Beethoven wrote it as a tribute to Napoleon, but later came to realize the significant faults of his subject. Like Beethoven’s original impression of Napoleon, Norman and his little motel are not actually what we believe them to be.

    • #32
  3. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    And, talk about pictures in the movie both revealing the truth and representing the obviousness of truth, what is depicted in the pictures on the wall of room one ?

    Do you mean the room in which Marion stays or the mother’s room in the mansion?

    • #33
  4. St. Salieri / Eric Cook Member
    St. Salieri / Eric Cook
    @

    Theodoric of Freiberg (View Comment):

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    Theodoric of Freiberg,

    Your last comment got me to watch the DVD we finally pulled out of the library……

    I watched it from beginning to end last evening and came to the same realization about the 12 empty rooms. (I guess great minds think alike!). It is mentioned at least twice that there are 12. Hitchcock wanted us to realize that the number 12 is significant. They are metaphors for apostles who don’t actually exist. And I agree that Norman is much more than a false priest. He is a false Jesus. He and his modern motel represent secularism which is really nothing more than a false religion that instead of giving salvation, leads to tragedy.

    In this context, the film’s connection with the Eroica symphony is significant. Beethoven wrote it as a tribute to Napoleon, but later came to realize the significant faults of his subject. Like Beethoven’s original impression of Napoleon, Norman and his little motel are not actually what we believe them to be.

    Thank you for the kind remarks and interesting insights, and catching my continuity error.  Not the only mistake that came out of my addlepated brain and mouth during the podcast.  It is a rich film that can hold several interpretations, and I wanted to explore the sacramental symbols that are all over the first part of the film but didn’t have time to do so fully.

    All of the comments here have been very insightful and encouraging, Titus is one smart cookie, and it was a pleasure to be part of the exploration of the film with him, a work of art which bears multiple viewings.

    • #34
  5. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re # 33

    I erased the remark because “obviousness” is dumb. I mean that what’s  depicted in the pictures on the wall in Motel room 1 reveals what people are to Norman; and represents,  to the viewer, truth and  Marion’s blindness to it.

    You might say we are blinded by, as well as trapped through, our desire to act outside of accountability.

    By the way, I don’t know if I agree with Titus and Eric that an upper middle class American family wouldn’t have had framed prints of  famous old paintings. Maybe such things were once considered to be a sign of refinement.

    I have to watch again the scene of Marion’s sister in Norman’s mother’s bedroom or the Hitchcock trailer. I didn’t notice the pictures in that bedroom.

     

     

     

     

     

    • #35
  6. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    This is great stuff. It’s taken me three or four days but I’ve finally listened to the whole podcast — really fun gentlemen, thank you for your erudition and thoughtfulness.

    That’s high praise, Mama Toad! I’m glad you liked it!

    • #36
  7. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    Re # 35

    As far as I can tell, the pictures in motel room 1 are of birds and possibly leaves. Am I missing something?

    • #37
  8. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Titus, I just want to add that, in the late 1950’s, a beautiful young woman who is not rich herself and not pregnant, and who so badly wants to marry a certain poor man that she’d lick the stamps for the envelope containing his previous wife’s alimony check, is not hung up on respectability, at least not a false kind.

    Then why does Marion use the word ? I think the implication is that Marion hasn’t better words to describe her longing to be able to honestly say,  to herself and anyone, that she believes what she’s doing is right.

    She “goes a little crazy”, as Norman would say, right after her lover appears to her to either not get that or not care.

    • #38
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    Titus, I just want to add that, in the late 1950’s, a beautiful young woman who is not rich herself and not pregnant, and who so badly wants to marry a poor man that she’d lick the stamps for the envelope containing his previous wife’s alimony check, is not hung up on respectability, at least not a false kind.

    Then why does Marion use the word ? I think the implication is that Marion hasn’t better words to describe her longing to be able to honestly say, to herself and anyone, that she believes what she’s doing is right.

    She goes a little crazy when she thinks her lover either doesn’t get that or doesn’t care.

    Well, you should consider what it means that there are no fathers in this story–well, except for that leering guy who’s all about getting away with exploitation. & maybe her boss, who’s the kind of guy who pushes his fears on his employees, which is another kind of exploitation, born of weakness, in this case, rather than vice, as in the other.

    This young woman with only a younger sister & the memory of her dead mother is especially vulnerable to society–& society is all about respectability.

    • #39
  10. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Yes. And you, Titus,  weren’t the only one who considered the Texan’s remarks and leering insulting. It was clear, when I watched her face, that the character, Marion, is insulted by his veiled proposition. Here’s the proof that, on some level, her reaction was: “Okay, Pal, you want to talk to me like I’m a hooker in a cheap hotel room ? Have fun trying to go after your undeclared money.”: While in the car driving, she imagines the Texan’s reaction to finding out the money is missing and a smile spreads across her face.

    • #40
  11. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re # 40

    But again, Hitchcock shows that Marion only sees in the Texan a rich drunk subtly treating her like a whore. The viewer has the inchoate feeling of something uncanny and evil about the man.

    • #41
  12. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Theodoric of Freiberg,

    Regarding your comment (#28) that the parlor scene is Shakespearean, it took me forever to see that “hot as fresh milk” and that very visible pitcher of  milk Norman has on the tray in the parlor scene are allusions to something my grandmother used to say sarcastically to describe someone she didn’t trust: “full of the milk of human kindness”. Did I ever feel silly when I looked up the origin of the phrase.

    Hitchcock must have enjoyed doing that.

    • #42
  13. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    When Arbogast examines the safe in the parlor, its door is open and there is nothing inside. This can be viewed as a statement that the modern world, represented by the motel, with its rejection of the past’s values and virtues, is ultimately empty and worthless.

    • #43
  14. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    The motel register can be seen as the modern world’s false bible. It is written by its “parishioners” and is full of lies.

    • #44
  15. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    You guys think too much.

    • #45
  16. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re # 44

    The motel register is the Book of Life mentioned in the Bible. The detective discovers that Marion’s name is written in it after all, when he recognizes her handwriting, and sees the name of the man she loved in her made up last name. Her name is there, not fake but disguised.

    Marion made it home.

    (Evidence for this way of looking at it is that when Marion’s lover and the sister show up at the motel disguised as a married couple, in order to find out what happened to her, Marion’s lover has to insist on signing the register. Norman, who knows he may want or need to kill them, doesn’t want them to sign.)

    • #46
  17. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re # 43

    The safe represents Christ’s empty tomb.

    • #47
  18. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    The policeman who follows Marion to the car dealership represents The Law before which, without Jesus, we stand condemned.

    • #48
  19. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    The detective represents a real priest. He’s kind of standing in for Jesus.

    • #49
  20. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    I also love the stark contrast drawn between the antiquated mansion and the modern motel.

    The mansion is filled with many strange and interesting artifacts — paintings, sculptures, old books, real wood, ornate non-linear architecture. It comes from a time before widespread mass production and distribution. The house and the objects it contains are fairly unique. You wouldn’t expect to find another house nearby that looks very similar on the inside.

    On the other hand, the motel is completely mass produced. Every room is an exact copy of the others right down to the pictures on the walls. It represents modernity where everyone has the same things because they have been cheaply mass produced. In the modern world, we have large neighborhoods where every house looks similar, has the same floor plan and contains many of the same items with only superficial variations. Many of our cities and towns contain the same restaurants, stores, gas stations, etc.

    Why leave home if it will be the same wherever I go?

    • #50
  21. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    You guys think too much.

    I agree. But it is fun. :-)

    • #51
  22. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Re # 46

    I like your idea of the register as the Book of Life.

    • #52
  23. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re # 50 (And then I’ll shut up.)

    In running from her own guilt and anger over allowing herself to be in the first hotel, Marion ends up in the second.

    Theodoric of Freiberg, I like your comparison of the old house with the motel. I would say, though, that the old house, with its particular paintings creepily placed, also represents secularism, but at an earlier stage. It’s like an earlier phase of the same illness. (I’m suddenly remembering the parlor conversation when we hear that Norman’s mother’s lover —We’ll later learn he was lying and adulterous.—persuaded his abusive mother to build what could be called the “new house”, the motel.) You get the feeling that the secularism of the past inevitably led to the bland and cheery slaughterhouse of motel room 1.(I’m influenced by Titus and Eric about this, I think. Great podcast.)

    The house representing the other faith is the church Marion’s sister and Marion’s lover seem to be attending with the sheriff”s wife on the morning of the day they find the truth.

    Confession: The first time I saw this film, up until Norman says “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” (after we just heard mother screaming vile things at him) I was practically falling in love with Norman.The power of the film is in the way it shows us ourselves in Marion.

    By the way, do I hear Shylock’s “pound of flesh” —when the viewer sees Marion driving and hears her thoughts—in what Marion imagines the Texan will say when he finds out she stole his undeclared money?

    Okay, now I’ll stop.

    I’m really looking forward to Titus doing The Birds.

     

    • #53
  24. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    I listened to that podcast last week, and thought I’ll have to watch it next time it’s on TCM (having already seen it 3 or 4 times, but not in probably over 10 years). It just so happened they ran it Friday morning (that kind of thing happens to me a lot), and I just watched it tonight. I was watching it with an eye for detail, having not known a lot of that stuff, though I knew about Eroica.

    It is a groundbreaking film that has never been approached by anything of that kind. Not only the murder but the long clean-up scene must have been jarring for 1960 audiences. Also, she dies with her eyes open, which of course is real, but not seen in movies much. I wonder if there were any before. And killing off the protagonist.

    I like how nice the sheriff, and especially his wife, are.

    • #54
  25. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re 54

    Agree. I loved the way the sheriff’s wife is portrayed, especially outside the church when she invites them (Lila and Sam) to her house that night, just the compassion of it.

    Come to think of it, in light of Norman’s invitation to Marion, doesn’t the sheriff’s wife’s invitation to Lila and Sam imply that the church (They’re standing in front of one.) represents the only other choice ?

    I was shocked reading the article Theodoric of Freiberg mentions, the one by the film maker and critic who would have taken out the scene in which the shrink explains Norman. The writer actually didn’t see (or didn’t want to see.) that the scene is deliberately a parody of psychiatry and psychiatric explanations of evil. His article says not one word about the church Lila and the sheriff’s wife are meant to be seen as having just attended when the sheriff’s wife extends to Lila that invitation to her house.

    Marion dying with her eyes open is powerful.

    • #55
  26. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    I can’t right now find mention of the article I’m talking about in the comments. But it’s a review of psycho by Roger Ebert.

    • #56
  27. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    I meant to add that I wondered if it would have been better if they didn’t actually show the skeleton, especially close up like that. What if she starts to turn the chair and they cut to the horror on her face.

    Also, she (the sister) and Marion’s boyfriend might be good together.

    • #57
  28. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    I was shocked reading the article Theodoric of Freiberg mentions, the one by the film maker and critic who would have taken out the scene in which the shrink explains Norman. The writer actually didn’t see (or didn’t want to see.) that the scene is deliberately a parody of psychiatry and psychiatric explanations of evil.

    Roger Ebert was a big liberal/progressive/whatever-the-heck-they’re-calling-themselves-nowadays. I’m sure he couldn’t even imagine the psychiatrist scene as parody. That’s why he thought it should have been cut short. How wrong can you be?

    Here’s the link to his review: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-psycho-1960

    I find the most interesting aspect of this scene is how the spectators, especially Lila, are completely passive while listening to the overbearing psychiatrist’s explanation. He is extremely cruel and uncaring when he tells Lila that her sister is in fact dead. Just as was stated in the podcast, they have to sit there and take it — and just get over it.

    • #58
  29. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re : 58

    Spectators completely passive with the overbearing shrink—as passive as Bates claimed birds are—is one chilling touch in the movie. The other one is this: Remember Bates telling Marion that it’s actually a falsity that birds eat very little, that, in fact, birds eat quite a lot ? After the scene in which Marion is murdered, Bates is frequently seen eating candy or chewing something.

    • #59
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