How to Attack a Hitchcock Classic

Psycho, A Comparative Analysis
“Write a comparative analysis of the methods and procedures used by two writers on Psycho.”

When it comes to analysing a film like Psycho (1960), the ‘rulebook’ for conventional film criticism basically goes out the window. With a Hitchcock film so notorious that people who haven’t even seen it can still recognise Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings-only score of the ‘shower scene’ (Rebello, 1999), you’re no longer really talking about a film, but a monumental milestone of cinematic history. With every countless aspect within the narrative to inspect and discuss at length, there is just as many outside the world of the film; from its inception to its cultural influence. Writers Michel Chion and Raymond Durgnat, although both trying to tackle the film as a whole, used very different approaches and writing styles to draw on both of these worlds.

In The Impossible Embodiment, an essay from ‘Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Lacan: But were too Afraid to ask Hitchcock’, Chion approaches the text by pulling out a single recurring concept he felt that no other critics had commented on yet; the acousmêtre. He focuses on this idea that the character of the Mother is an acousmêtre,a kind of voice-character specific to cinema that derives mysterious powers from being heard and not seen” (Film Sound, 2015), and how this concept is essential to what he believes is the central concern in Psycho – the impossibility of embodiment.

He introduces both of these ideas and then states the three key scenes in which the Mother features, which he then goes on to analyse in greater detail under sub-headings for each scene. Although the subject matter of writing could be considered rather poetically theoretical, he tends to follow a very formulaic style of writing. The structure of his essay is clear; he first sets the scene, explains the acousmêtric relevance and then describes exactly how this links back to his contention by analysing cinematic devices, such as specific use of shots or cuts. “(on the ‘argument scene’) Here one could well object: ’But that is embodiment!’… Yet quite the reverse is true, for embodiment certainly does not consist of showing us here a mute body and elsewhere a voice that is supposed to belong to it…” (Chion, pp. 197).

Chion’s idea about ‘being heard and not seen’ is a concept that seems comparatively small to the whole of the film. Although his essay is built around three specific scenes and the analysis of the character Norma Bates, he also draws notions from this evidence applying them bodily to the film. When discussing the ‘scene on the landing’, he centers his argument heavily on the specific use of camera angles, shots and edits. The following paragraphs take these discoveries and apply them to the overall methodology of the film. “The fascination arises from the fact that what is given is withdrawn in one and the same movement, what is lost is lost through the very same mechanism by which it had been apprehended, the whole of this process unfolding in the course of a single, uninterrupted shot.”(Chion, pp. 203). Although we’re talking about a specific occurrence, the language used in these concluding statements are far more general; what we’ve learned contributes and can be discussed in regard to the themes, style and film as a whole.

In addition, throughout his analysis, Chion also draws on ‘behind-the-scenes’ knowledge on the production of Psycho as well as drawing comparisons to other films and film-making functions. Durgnat, however, takes a far more ‘hands-on’ first-person approach to Psycho in Inside Norman Bates from ‘Focus on Hitchock’. Rather than an academic style of writing, he introduces us with an exceptionally detailed account of the film. Although retelling the plot is usually discouraged in criticism, he does it with such imagery and includes the reader constantly with rhetorical questions from the first paragraph that it’s hard to discredit him.

Throughout his description he makes comments on thematic things that he notices, as if taking notes while he watches the film, such as various recurring motifs and comparative references to other texts. He tends to focus on subjects of human behaviour (how very Hitchcock) and the use of commentary through symbolism. “Marion returns to the sane, shallow, superficial people of the office where she works. It’s not long before sex and cash are intertwined again.” (Durgnat, pp. 128)

Other writers can make it easy for the reader to want to disagree with them when they use this approach to criticism, easily offended with the implication of them speaking for us. However, Durgnat’s use of inclusive language is easily welcomed. Upon the conclusion of the insightful play-by-play of the film, he continues to act out this creation of just watching the film (or he really is just telling us what’s happening because maybe he is writing this from the cinema, who knows?) by telling us about the experience. “People leave the cinema, chuckling incredulously, groggy, exhilarated, yet hysterical…” (Durgnat, pp. 135).

In combination with his vivid imagery and metaphors, “our feelings are poured into so many moulds which are distended or smashed by contradictions, revelations, twists” (Durgnat, pp.136), this personal account becomes so persuasive in the sense that it’s near impossible to disagree with him – especially as he includes us in the discussion the whole way along with lingering questions.  He further drives his point home with the subtle habit of comparing the reactions in the cinema to the underlying commentary of human behaviour in the film.

Despite the colossal amount of insightful analysis a critic could draw out from a single scene of this ‘60s classic, both Chion and Durgnat courageously approached it as a whole, and pulled it off by being truly unique in their method, structure and prose.




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