There aren’t many filmmakers as influential as Alfred Hitchcock, and who knows where modern cinema would be without Psycho and the iconic antagonist of Norman Bates. In this article, let’s analyze Norman Bates and the respective themes of the film and why it’s so important today.
Shot on a lower budget in black-and-white, Psycho utilized the crew from Hitchock’s television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Initially, the film faced divided opinions among critics due to its controversial subject matter. However, its intriguing storyline and exceptional box-office success prompted a major critical reappraisal.
Over time, Psycho has rightfully earned its place as one of Hitchcock's finest creations and stands as arguably his most renowned work. International film critics and scholars widely acknowledge it as a masterpiece of cinematic art, lauding its seamless direction, intense atmosphere, impressive camerawork, unforgettable score, and iconic performances.
Still from 'Psycho'. Photo credit: IMDb
Norman Bates assumes the role of both the main antagonist and, intriguingly, the protagonist/antihero in Psycho. As the proprietor of a motel, he leads a double life as a serial killer that targets women.
What makes his character particularly chilling is the influence of an alternate personality that manifests as his deceased mother, whom he had previously murdered. This twisted connection drives him to commit heinous acts while under her control, blurring the lines between victim and perpetrator.
Norman's alter ego, the "Mother" personality, embodies the same cruelty and possessiveness that his real mother, Norma, exhibited during her lifetime. This persona constantly belittles him and insists he remains devoted solely to her, leaving no room for a life beyond her influence.
When "Mother" takes control, Norman assumes her identity by donning her clothes and speaking in her voice. He even goes so far as to engage in one-sided conversations with her lifeless body, maintaining the illusion that she is alive.
Driven by this twisted manifestation, "Mother" becomes a harbinger of death, killing women whom Norman finds himself attracted to and eliminating anyone who threatens the illusion of her continued existence. During these episodes, Norman loses consciousness, only to awaken later with no memory of the crimes.
Convinced that "Mother" alone is responsible, he frantically covers up the evidence to protect her persona. The eerie duality of Norman's character blurs the line between his own identity and the haunting presence of his murderous alter ego.
On the surface plot level, Norman Bates embodies the psycho persona, grappling with multiple personality disorders and committing murders based on his perception of his mother's disapproval. This sort of thing is a common trope with antagonists, but it’s executed so well in this case.
As the movie concludes, a psychiatrist attempts to explain Norman's behavior through the lens of multiple personality disorders, offering a neat and convenient explanation. Yet, the audience knows that Norman's psychosis runs far deeper and darker than what the psychiatrist presents.
We have witnessed his profound loneliness, detachment, and despair while living alone in his parents' desolate mansion. Over time, he loses touch with reality due to his isolation from society. Unfortunately, instead of seeking to understand the disturbing origins of his behavior, the doctors and authorities merely label him as "mad."
The film poses a compelling exploration of the human psyche, highlighting that the roots of madness and turmoil often run much deeper than surface-level diagnoses can comprehend. It urges us to recognize the complexities within each individual and challenges the notion of easy answers when it comes to understanding human behavior and mental health.
Lies and Deception
In Psycho, lies and deceit take on a captivating game-like quality for Hitchcock. At times, we can discern when characters are dishonest, yet, in other instances, the line between truth and deception becomes blurred, leaving us bewildered.
For example, Sam and Lila mistakenly believe that Norman lives with his long-deceased mother. It makes for fascinating character arcs, which is important no matter how strong the antagonist is.
This intriguing theme unfolds in a film that portrays small-town ideals as virtuous and moral. Many characters are puzzled by the web of lies and deception, yearning to make sense of the tragedies disrupting their once-ordinary lives. Conversely, those engaged in deception stand as outcasts, feeling alienated from the society they inhabit.
This dynamic adds potency to the film's mystery. Psycho compels us to confront these questions, urging us to empathize with characters like Marion and Norman. It challenges us to explore the human desire to belong and to reflect on the societal norms that shape our actions.
In a world of judgment and conformity, the movie urges us to understand the motives behind lies and deception, offering a fresh perspective on the complexity of human behavior and the yearning for acceptance. It’s a writing lesson that an antagonist is more than a character and should play a deeper connection to the central theme.