Psycho (1960)

The following review is an excerpt from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Class Struggle” written by Mervyn Nicholson which appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Monthly Review. It is posted here with permission from the author and magazine.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Consider Hitchcock’s big one: Psycho, one of the best-known movies ever made. Its terrifying “shower scene”—of the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)—is arguably the most famous sequence in film history. In the enormous body of commentary on this film, what is rarely acknowledged is that Psycho is all about class.7 The plot is clear about this. The central character, Marion Crane, has worked for years as a secretary in a Phoenix real estate office. Her boyfriend, Sam, lives in another city, the mythical “Fairvale.” She is at a point in life where she wants marriage, not an affair, but Sam does not make enough money to get married. So their relationship consists of Sam’s brief sex visits; they make rushed love in a grubby hotel during Marion’s lunch break, resulting in her being late for work in the afternoon. Meantime, the unhappy secretary who shares her work space keeps an eye on Marion’s comings and goings. She cannot be trusted. Marion is fed up.

This is a movie about money. It is a movie about money far more than it is a movie about over-the-top psychiatric problems. Marion makes enough to live on—and that is it. Her boyfriend may be a hunk, but he has a nothing career (clerk in a hardware store is hardly the American Dream come true). Marion’s basic, simple desire for what everyone is supposed to have is blocked. She cannot start a family or do the respectable things she longs to in the era of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver—the glorious 1950s, when everyone was supposed to be happy and everything was just fine, and the American Dream was available to all who were worthy of it. In the face of this “Great American Celebration,” in C. Wright Mills’s phrase, Marion is frustrated enough to pose an ultimatum to her boyfriend—we get married, or it is over. Her angry dissatisfaction already marks her as a class outlaw. She is simply not fulfilling her assigned function of willing submission.

Something then pushes her over the edge, something that looks minor. Back at the real estate office after rushed sex in the grubby hotel over lunch hour, the boss comes in, accompanied by a rich oilman in a cowboy hat. They have just closed a sale: Cassidy, the rich man in the cowboy hat—shades of the noble Hopalong Cassidy—has purchased a house as a wedding gift for his teenage daughter. He has in hand enough physical cash to pay for it. Mortgages, like taxes, are for little people, plainly. As soon as he spots the beautiful Marion, Cassidy is on her, leering shamelessly; he parks himself on her desk, invading her space and asking rude personal questions. He demands to know if she is happy; he casually invades her private life as well as her work space, as though unlimited access to her was his right. But that is what being rich means. You can treat people like Marion as you please—there are lots more where they come from, whereas rich people are scarce and precious, indeed they are where wealth comes from. Marion is not permitted to express her feelings; the strain on her face is evident. Cassidy concludes that what she needs is a vacation—in Las Vegas, “the playground of the world,” he ecstatically proclaims. He waves his wad of bills in her face and announces that he “buys happiness.” He has plenty of cash because, he boasts, he does not pay taxes. The boss, nervous at having so much cash in the office over the weekend, tells Marion to deposit it at the bank—clearly he trusts her with a lot of money on a Friday afternoon. Cassidy, deliberately embarrassing the boss, then announces that the two men are “going to get some drinking done,” leaving the “girls” to their dull tasks.

Marion experiences a wave of rage in this scene. After years of boring semi-drudgery, she has nothing. Her youth is slipping away, but she cannot get married to the man she loves—or start a family—because there is not enough money. Years of work have brought her nil. Ditto boyfriend: burdened by debts from his dead father, he is resigned to a fate of debt peonage. This is a class situation, not just an individual one. Marion is very, very stuck. Screwed, in fact. Now this dirty old man Cassidy, wad of bills in hand, tells her that Las Vegas, whorehouse to the world, is where she should go so she can “buy off” unhappiness: a man who is rich and rude, who pays no tax and who does no work. In a moment of terrible frustration, Marion absconds with the Cassidy cash. No longer will lack of money stand in the way of her American Dream. She will boldly take and live her fantasy, finding it, with her boyfriend, in Fairvale. It is the kind of dangerous impulse that overwhelms even hard-working and conscientious people in a spasm of frustration. As Norman Bates instructs her later, everyone goes a little crazy sometimes.

Marion’s boss assumes that she will do as she is told with the money—but Marion clearly does not feel much loyalty to the business she works for. She is not even out of town before she is spotted—by her boss. Hitchcock goes out of his way to make sure that her impulse and her theft are doomed (note also his interest in the details of the work situation). Academics are inordinately fascinated by voyeurism in Psycho, and there are many scenes of Marion being observed by others. But watching and being watched has another, more important meaning, and it has nothing to do with the kinky sex that obsesses psychoanalysis—and academic and tabloid culture generally. Surveillance of those who work for a living is part of what it means to work for a living. As Cassidy’s ritual invasion of Marion’s space makes clear, access to every aspect of the life of those who work for a living—as opposed to those who own for a living—is a normal feature of working-class existence. Privacy is not a right. It is certainly not taken for granted, as it is by the rich.

Despite having been seen in her car by her boss (after being excused from work because of a “headache”), she persists in her flight to mythic Fairvale. In the grip of churning emotion, Marion loses her way in a rainstorm. Enter Norman Bates. She stops for the night at a motel (as she was warned to do by a menacing policeman): the Bates Motel. The boyish Norman hospitably invites her into his creepy parlor for a bite to eat before she turns in. In a disturbing speech, he expounds a nihilistic theory of misery and meaninglessness, in which people are caged in a boring routine existence and can never get out. He sneers at people, like Marion, who try to escape. He “doesn’t mind” his cage, he proclaims. Norman’s speech is the movie’s heart of darkness, a manifesto of despair and hostility: do not think you can escape—there is no escape. Accept hopelessness. Resistance is futile. The friendliness and frankness with which he ushers her into his parlor are not his actual feelings; the happy face is a construction. Behind the façade is a vicious belief in the pointlessness of existence and therefore the further belief that if you have the power, you can do anything you want to anyone you want to do it to, the belief Cassidy flaunts in the real estate office. It is the principle expounded by the rich young men of Hitchcock’s Rope, who illustrate it by murdering a friend. It is the fascist ideology that lurks within capitalism. In such a regime there are no “friends”—there are only people you can use in various ways.

Norman’s crazy harangue shakes Marion out of her crazy dream: her big impulse was a big mistake. She must go back to Phoenix. She must return the money. And she will be deeper in the hole than ever. She has much on her mind as she returns to her motel room. The scene of Marion flushing the toilet, a first in movie history, has excited much academic heavy breathing, but it really refers to the fact that that is where her life is, in the toilet, down the tubes, in the hole. She must find a better way to deal with frustration. Norman meantime spies on Marion. Through his secret peephole, he watches her strip for a shower. Norman then dons his murderer outfit, and takes her by surprise as she unwinds under the soothing hot water. He slashes this beautiful rebellious woman to death. He does it when, in the shower, she is utterly vulnerable—naked, alone, tired, expecting nothing (certainly no harm), relaxed. The point of this scene is that she is totally unable to resist. She cannot fight back. He attacks her at her most vulnerable. It is a truly terrible moment. This, it seems, is what you get when you are trapped in a dead-end job, and allow your frustration to momentarily drive you crazy, to act on an impulse that magically promised freedom, like winning the lottery—fantasy cash to solve all problems—market magic: the same dream, in short, that sustains a lot of real people, lottery tickets in hand, in the real world.

Psycho is all about money—about deprivation, frustration, and the privilege of property. It is about those who work for a living and have nothing—and those who do not work and have everything. Academic discussion of this astounding movie is more interested in Norman than in Marion.8 Nor is Norman treated as himself subject to economic forces, even though a lot of the movie deals with his financial situation and the horrors of the small-business world.9 No: Norman is endlessly explained—and explained away—a prize specimen for psychoanalytic exposé, no matter how unsatisfying.10 But obsessing over Norman’s private kinks has a notable effect: the effect of taking attention away from Marion, distracting us from her alienation—and her revolt. Shifting attention on to the crazy (who knows why?) Norman demotes Marion, but it also does something else—it takes attention away from Cassidy and the incitement to revolt.

Hitchcock is fond of showing us rich people, but Cassidy is the only rich person in the film. His droit du seigneur boasting and rudeness are what trigger Marion’s doomed rebellion. A particularly important fact about Cassidy is rarely acknowledged, namely his class status. For Cassidy is the embodiment of property—of capital. He is, in Marx’s phrase, “a social hieroglyphic.”11 Psycho is subtly but visibly a movie about class struggle, a movie where class struggle forms the essential assumption of the story—there would be, that is, no story without it. The term “class struggle” sounds a bit grandiose for a movie about a foolish theft and a murder (or two or three or four), with a dressing of Gothic frisson and film noir cinematography. Besides, when the term “class struggle” is heard now, it is usually just capital swearing at its enemies. In the view of today’s masters of the universe, the term means the threat of undeserving people taking property away from the deserving rich—the owners of capital—and thus a threat to the very essence of civilization and its survival. But that is precisely what Marion does. Marion is not a thief by nature or vocation; she appropriates the property of capital, and redistributes it, from the greedy to the needy. She does so as a matter of genuine justice, as opposed to the property justice imposed by the powerful, even though it is an act of madness. In so doing, she commits the ultimate archetypal crime—appropriating the property of the wealthy, the most terrible anxiety that exists in the regime of capital.

Class struggle is waged by the owners of capital against those who work for a living. It goes on all the time, simply because the extraction of surplus value requires constant pressure, constant forcing, constant aggression—otherwise it does not function. The work world is the world of forcing. And that is where the Marion Cranes of this world are—as well as, in fact, most of the audience who watched Psycho. Money in Psycho is not just an abstraction or a symbol, a Lacanian “signifier” for instance, a “phallogocentric” marker, as in much discussion of this film: it is a force. It is the power of life and death, the power of capital. Motivation is not simply personal and private: it is a function of class relations. The effect of class-forces is wide-ranging, subtle, and complex—not simple. To interpret the anxieties and wishes of people as solely private motivations is to misunderstand them, without also attending to their class context, which is strangely extremely hard to do. Devoid of this class context no rational explanation for the alienation that besets them is to be found.12

Unless its aggression is constant, capital does not get what it wants. But class aggression must meet cost-benefit analysis, like everything else. Thus, the less workers resist, the lower the costs of class aggression. In order for surplus extraction to proceed at maximum efficiency, that aggression must disguise itself. Generating and distributing illusion is a primary function of capital. It must propagate the belief that “the wealth and privileges of the few are based on natural, inborn superiority,”13 the belief that working people choose freely, that the existing system is efficient and just. Or, if not exactly efficient and just, it does not matter, because it is all there is. Thus not only is the system efficient—it is the only system. Even thinking about anything else is an invitation to chaos. Given the stakes involved, it is better for capital to erase the notion that there is a system at all. And that is indeed a common belief: there is no “system”—capitalism is simply reality, or nature, or the random workings of existence. It may not always have been there but it certainly always will be. Even the word “capitalism” must be handled with care: it is just “reality.” Since capitalism is not a system, whatever goes wrong is an accident or the result of the “bad choices” strangely popular with foolish victims. In this reasoning, Marion causes her own mutilation and death, by her “bad choices”; if you run off with the rich man’s money, you forfeit your rights. Anything might happen to you. In order to continue, capital must constantly inculcate a series of illusions that disable people’s thinking processes and their power to act in any way other than that desired by capital itself, or, like Marion, to act out some program of self-destruction. How this conditioning works is a question that has engaged the attention of almost all progressive thinkers, from Karl Marx, Emma Goldman, and Antonio Gramsci to E.P. Thompson and Pierre Bourdieu. We may not understand how this process works, but it does work. One of the effects of oppression is to impede the capacity to know that you are oppressed. The intensity of brainwashing cannot be overestimated.

In Psycho, Cassidy is marked as a “capitalist” in cartoon fashion: the big man with the big cowboy hat and the big swagger—emphatically different from his companion, “Mr. Lowery,” Marion’s nerdy boss. (The cowboy hat updates the Monopoly-game top hat, insignia of the capitalist of an earlier era.) Marion, by contrast, is powerless. She is also isolated. Above her desk Hitchcock has hung a huge picture of an empty desert. She is literally in a desert. There is no solidarity. The other worker in the office cannot be trusted—just as her man Sam pointedly cannot trust his coworker in the hardware store where he sells his labor, as we are shown in another grim worksite moment. There is no social scene in this film, no community or mutual aid. Everyone is atomized in the regime of Psycho, separate from everyone else. Everyone—except Cassidy—is trapped.14 Cassidy buys what he wants, including “happiness,” he says, vaunting the miracles of capital. What accumulates wealth at one pole of society accumulates misery at the other. Provoked by the rich man’s conspicuous consumption, Marion cannot control the impulse that hits her. But her revolt is doomed. She is inept as a thief, because she is plainly a responsible, hard-working individual. Far from being crazy, she is, as Hitchcock said of her, “perfectly ordinary.”15

Psycho is a thriller, a horror movie, indeed the inaugurating film of the “slasher” genre, a movie with sensationalist scenes and bizarre twists. But, at the same time, it deals with a real set of real problems of people who are deliberately presented as ordinary (well, a bit better looking than ordinary). The bizarre and melodramatic features of this film shift attention from what the film also shows: the struggle of ordinary working people to find some measure of control over their lives, in a social context of alienation and frustration. Contrary to the Cassidy ideology of freedom to choose, such control is out of reach of so many working people, while others, of no greater merit than the Marions and Sams of this world, have more than enough, even though they do not work. Not only do they not “earn” what they possess, they have veto power over the lives of others. Others serve, indeed exist, at their whim. Marion’s impulse looks simple but is in fact complex. On the one hand, she wants to find happiness with her man. But on a more important level, it is to strike a blow against Cassidy. Or more precisely, against not Cassidy personally, since there are other Cassidys, but against the power and arrogance that he wields and that he represents, and that she can no longer accept, any more than she can accept the frustration of not having the basics—a husband and a home, precisely what Cassidy hands gratis to his teenage daughter. Cassidy is not just an individual: he is a class. Marion’s revolt is a blind revolution against a system that oppresses her but that she cannot resist, except by actions that harm herself and that have no effect on her oppressors. Cassidy will get his money back, most of it, even if, after its detour in the swamp accompanied by a decaying body, it does not smell so good.

The fact that Marion fails so disastrously is, again, not simple; it is not a matter of accidentally happening to run into a psychopath. The “psycho,” Norman Bates himself, begins to look rather different, in the context of class aggression. He is not simply a loony. He is himself trapped by the economic circumstances he inherited from his parents—a failing business he cannot “unload.” At the same time, he functions as the “enforcer” of the system—the hidden violence that makes the Cassidys of this world safe, that enables them to consume Las Vegas, without responsibility and without caring about anybody or anything, except whatever turns them on. He acts on behalf of Cassidy without acting on behalf of Cassidy. As enforcer, Norman is conveniently “insane.” Being “insane” means that you can be utterly uninhibited in aggression against those who do not conform to authorized requirements. He has a license to kill. He can assault a defenseless naked woman he had made a big deal of befriending—and with no hesitation, no restraint, no compunction. His violence recalls the facts of class society. Marion’s impulse to take what she needs is like a spontaneous protest demonstration, like a food riot. Norman in practice functions like the thugs who attack demonstrators, like the torturers in the dungeon beneath the police station, the ones who know how to make people hurt, who are “crazy.” Marion is “disappeared” by Norman; she vanishes down the drain, down into the swamp, as if she had never existed. She is an error that has been corrected. She is now nothing, what she really was all along, anyway, according to the values of class society, another nobody.

What I am suggesting is that Psycho is not about a psycho who kills women: it is about oppression and alienation and blind revolt; it is, in short, about the power of capital and the fearful consequences of resisting its regime. It is about the violence that happens to those who revolt. These realities—oppression, alienation, blind revolt, the power of capital and the powerlessness of the worker—are the realities that make the story possible. Yes, from the conventional point of view this is a horror movie about a crazy person, but from a more realistic point of view, it is all about something else. The “psycho” is a psycho, because this is a society, a social order, that is “psycho.”16

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