Hitchcock’s Psycho: who is the protagonist?

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In Psycho Hitchcock kills off the leading lady 30 minutes into the movie. Why is it the only mainstream film ever to do this?

It’s not at all unusual for protagonists to get killed off in movies, in fact the teen-slasher genre is all about guessing who gets bumped off next. Nor is it unusual for the hero/heroine to die in the last reel. But the point is that if it’s been established that a character is the main protagonist their death inevitably signals the end of the movie.

What happens in Psycho is unique.

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Protagonists

Let’s go back to basics. Indulge me. Here’s a good dictionary definition: Protagonist

What is briefly discussed there is the example of Othello. Who is the protagonist?
Our focus of attention shifts from one character to another, and we may feel sympathy for Desdemona, but it is Othello who is the main character. You can kill off Iago or Desdamona (in fact Shakespeare does) and this moves the plot on, but kill Othello and your story has clearly reached the end.

Othello is also interesting because the protagonist never gets the chance to pursue a third act to redeem himself. The death of nasty Iago doesn’t count – that’s just a crowd pleaser to make us feel that some kind of justice has been done, and is not part of Othello’s character arc. Instead Othello is left stranded in his grief and guilt with death the only exit from his pain, and he knows it, which is what makes the play a tragedy. In a film this lack of a third act is very unusual, and often leaves us feeling that the story is somehow downbeat or unfinished. “Is that it?” we’re inclined to ask. Full Metal Jacket is a good example.

In a Multiple Protagonist film you have more freedom to kill off your characters, as happens in most horror movies – after all you need a body count! But you can’t kill just any of them. Some will perform a function that makes them indispensable till the last reel. Look at The Magnificent Seven. You could kill off any one of four of the leads mid-way and you’d be o.k. – though it would then be the Magnificent Six. But if you bumped off either Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, or Horst Buscholtz (the young buck) your story would have a real problem. Likewise Eli Wallach, the antagonist, has to stay till the end. Note that there is another protagonist here – the group itself. The group can shrink – as it does in many slashers like Final Destination – and may even gain more cohesiveness in the process, but in a film that is essentially about the formation and life of a group then once it is decisively broken up the movie is over.

Then we have films with a fractured timeline. Sunset Boulevard starts with The Protagonist literally dead in the water. But the story is then told in flashback, and he actually gets shot in the last reel. Citizen Kane does the same thing.

So the death of John Travolta well before the end of Pulp Fiction is OK – it’s a multiple protagonist film. However, let’s run with that. If you were to unravel the timeline, you might be surprised to find a three act structure bookended by Samuel L Jackson as the main protagonist. Everything else is a sub-plot. Travolta has an entertaining evening with Uma Thurman, but in the end he learns nothing he didn’t already know and his death only goes to underscore the lesson Jackson has learned from his ‘miracle’. Jackson then follows his path of biblical redemption by not killing Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, and the last thing to happen chronologically is his walking out of the café to a better life. Nothing too unusual there.

As for films like The Sixth Sense or The Crow where the protagonists die and come back to life in some other form – well… they’re still very much alive and kicking aren’t they?

Psycho

So (phew!) Joseph Stefano’s script for Psycho… First you have to appreciate how fresh this film once was. Over the years what was radical then has been endlessly reworked and may look to the modern viewer like so many cliches. That said, I think it still looks remarkably fresh.

For 20 minutes we follow Janet Leigh. She is very clearly The Protagonist. I don’t think we even see her boyfriend’s face. By the time she gets to the Bates’ Motel all the other characters have been left behind. But our feelings towards her are ambivalent. She is sexually promiscuous (by 1960 standards) and a thief. Still, she is appealing, is clearly bothered by her crime, and (it’s a Hitchcock movie) we’ve seen her in her underwear, so we like her.

Then, very late into the story, Anthony Perkins is introduced. But he is not presented as the villain and the film’s true Antagonist. Instead we see him as shy and likeable, if a bit odd, with a problematic domineering mother. Leigh is even unpleasant to him, which elicits our sympathy.

There is an absolutely key scene where Perkins watches Leigh undressing through a hole in the wall. What’s important is a shift from Leigh’s point of view to that of Perkins’ – quite literally – and we’re encouraged to identify with him. We are first surprised at what he’s up to, then share a moment of voyeurism as we watch Leigh get her kit off, but before we have time to reject Perkins as a pervert, he expresses regret and decides to confront his mother. He’s no hero, but plays the victim of circumstance, so we’re rooting for him. If you were to change one element of that scene the movie would take a very different course.

Then we have the shower scene which provides the main shock in the film – the heroine of the movie is brutally slain in front of us. Where can the film now go?

What it does is follow Perkins. He becomes The Protagonist. It’s worth noting that at this point, and right up to the end of the movie, we’re not meant to realise who the real killer is. This gives the film a great shock ending, but anything else would have alienated the audience. It was 1960 after all, and though they expected something ghoulish from Hitchcock, they would not have gone along with identifying with a brutal serial killer. Up till then Hitchcock’s heroes and villains were very clear cut.

(To me that ‘psychiatrist’ scene at the end seems very tacked on, and I do wonder, if he were alive now and given the opportunity of a director’s cut on DVD, if he might have chosen to remove it.)

So, to my mind Psycho is unique in this respect. I don’t know of any other film where The Protagonist is killed off, and is replaced by another character who is not introduced until 20 minutes into the movie – and is in fact The Antagonist! – who then goes on to become the film’s main protagonist.

So, how did this happen?

I was puzzled by this for ages, and finally, sadly, got my answer in the Guardian obituary to Jospeh Stefano.

When Stefano met Hitchcock to discuss the script of Psycho, he confessed to having a problem with the material; principally, he disliked the character of Norman Bates. In Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Bates is plump, balding, bespectacled and 40 years old. “I really could not get involved with a man in his 40s who is drunk and peeps through holes,” reflected Stefano. “The other problem was that there was a horrendous murder of a stranger I didn’t care about either.
I just kept saying to Hitch, ‘I wish I knew this girl. I wish Norman were somebody else.”‘

Consequently, Stefano suggested that the screenplay begin with the character of Marion Crane, who steals $40,000 from her Phoenix, Arizona, employer to begin a new life with her lover but is murdered after stopping at the Bates Motel. “Audiences would be sucked into a character who did something wrong but was really a good person,” Stefano said. “They would feel as if they, not Marion, had stolen the money. When she dies, the audience would be the victim. With so much early emphasis on Marion, no one dreams she’ll get killed. Killing the leading lady (Janet Leigh) in the first half hour had never been done before.” Or since…

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As to the writer’s qualms about the central male character, Hitchcock pacified Stefano by asking, “How would you feel if Norman were played by Anthony Perkins?” Stefano was delighted. “I suddenly saw a tender young man you could feel incredibly sorry for,” he recalled. “I could really rope in an audience with someone like him.” Hitchcock’s motives in suggesting the lean, lanky and boyish-looking 28-year-old Perkins were not wholly artistic, though he enjoyed the idea of evil disguised as innocence. He knew that the actor owed Paramount a film under an old contract and could be hired relatively cheaply – for $40,000, the same amount that Marion stole.

Coincidentally, both Stefano and Perkins were in psychotherapy when they were hired by Hitchcock. A weirder coincidence was that Stefano had no idea that Perkins’ father had died of a heart attack when his son was five, the same age as Norman at his father’s death. Nor was Stefano aware of Perkins’ intensely close relationship with his widowed mother.

Stefano was interested in how a formidable and over-protective mother could turn Norman Bates into a killer. So he wrote a scene between the adolescent Norman and his mother that was never intended to be shot. In it, the pair are larking about on the floor. Suddenly, Mrs Bates discovers that her son has an erection and her joy turns to hysterical anger. Screaming that he must forget that he has such a disgusting part of the body, she pulls a dress over his head, smears his face with lipstick and locks him in a closet.

Image  Joseph Stefano 1922 – 2006

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Follow me on Twitter: Karel Bata

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2 thoughts on “Hitchcock’s Psycho: who is the protagonist?

  1. Pingback: 501 Top Movies | Psycho (1960)

  2. Nuked

    I think a lot of this is right on key. I do, however, think you’ve missed a glaring clue. Not that I think I am 100 % right about this, but you describe the moment of shared voyeurism so perfectly. Remember, this isn’t the first time in the movie that we, the viewers, are voyeurs. (Other than the act of watching a movie is essentially one big act of veoyeurism) The very first scene with Marion and her boyfriend only exists because WE, the audience, CLIMBS IN THROUGH THE WINDOW. Later, as Stefano comments, “They would feel as if they, not Marion, had stolen the money. When she dies, the audience would be the victim.” – This is of course a rather common method of gaining sympathy for the protagonist, but I disagree with Stefano that we are a victim along with Marion. You pointed out in the scene with the hole in the wall, but actually in the scene preceding that scene; the dinner scene, is THE pivotal scene of the movie. In this scene we are meant to shift sympathies or focus point toward Norman. When Marion leaves the room, we stay with Norman, and to top it off, as you point out, we share that moment of voyeurism with Norman. Of course the dinner scene, besides being pivotal to the entire movie, is one of the most perfect, funny, harrowing scenes, I believe, in cinematic history. The dialogue is perfect and filled with symbolism and forewarning, but it is especially the cinematography that really takes it home. The owl behind Norman is ALWAYS there, slightly out of focus when he leans forward, but in plain view when he leans back. Most interesting is what he talks about during those moments. I think I’m getting off my point. My real point is that the audience is the protagonist. Since 1960, only Cache has really come close in playing with and indulging the viewer as much.
    I feel this is getting too long now, but one more thing, is, that _I_ think that the second-to-last scene that you mention, the one with the psychiatrist, is meant to be “tacked on”. I am almost 100 % sure that Hitchcock was very afraid that the audience was going to get up off their seats after watching Psycho, and then start talking about why Norman Bates acted the way he did. Because that is so incredibly not the point of the movie. And we KNOW that it isn’t because the psychiatrist scene feels so weird to us. We already really knew the things he’s saying, so why is he saying them? To eliminate them from our thoughts and discussions.

    Reply

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