A Retrospective View of Psycho

Women and Obsession in Alfred Hitchcock’s America: A Retrospective View of Psycho

The great film director Alfred Hitchcock has often been accused of “misogyny.” The charge seems to derive from his frequent portrayal of beautiful young women in his films as conniving, manipulative, deceptive, and narcissistic. But there’s a paradox. Hitchcock’s female protagonists are no shrinking violets: nearly all are strong-willed, outspoken, and even daring. Many of them do, however, end up dead (Janet Leigh in Psycho, Kim Novak in Vertigo), severely injured (Tippi Hedren in The Birds), or in grave danger (Grace Kelly in Rear Window). For some feminist critics, Hitchcock’s not-so-subtle message is that women who refuse to be demure and conforming are somehow betraying the “natural” order, and thus, invite their own “punishment.”

However, this “feminist” reading of Hitchcock may underestimate the depths – and complexities – of the director’s sensitivity to women – and indeed, his willingness to explore the female psyche in some detail, as well as men’s fascination with it.

Certainly, a close reading of Psycho can provide fodder for the view that Hitchcock is disdainful and distrustful of women. However, the film hardly portrays men in a more favorable light. Was Hitchcock anticipating the expanding public role of women by making them so central to his films, or was he merely projecting his own fears and anxieties about women based on his personal experiences and prejudices? Or, in fact, was Hitchcock making a much broader commentary about the hidden anxieties and compulsions of “modernity,” – pulling back the placid veil of the American “Fifties”—like the shower curtain in Psycho—to reveal something darker and more sinister?

Psycho, undoubtedly, is Hitchcock’s most extreme portrait of women. Hitchcock’s heroine, and femme fatale, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), lasts only a short while on-screen (less than a third of the film, in fact), but her early presence, followed by her shocking death, dominates the narrative. The second major character, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins), who murders Crane, does so while dressed up as his own dead mother, who has “inhabited” his psyche, but who occasionally “appears” in Psycho as a separate character. Marion’s sister, Lila, played by Vera Miles, who provides a… TURN PAGE >>

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