Analysis of the Swamp in Psycho

2085 words (8 pages) Essay

6th Oct 2017 Film Studies Reference this

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a university student. This is not an example of the work produced by our Essay Writing Service. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

  • Adrian Secter

Murder, Candy and Chains:

An Analysis of the Swamp in Psycho

Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”

— Carl Jung

Understanding a swamp is to understand what exists in shadow. Not the shadow of night or shroud, but that of the mute. The marginal. To know the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho where Marion Crane’s corpse-filled car is disposed of, is to know the film. Bogs have always been a place in flux, the last remainder of a primordial ooze. They serve as a place where strange organisms, many of which cannot survive elsewhere, can breed and grow. The same holds true for ideas. For a man such as Norman Bates, the swamp affords him (and his mother) the luxury of anonymity. Removed from the scrutiny of dry land, the rigors of reality, Bates’ imagination does as swamp creatures do. It experiments, it mutates and most importantly, it uses its natural habitat to dispose of any outsiders who threaten it. Given that the absorptive nature of the swamp scene is both literal and metaphorical, Michael Fried’s “Absorption and Theatricality” readily lends itself to this analysis. While Fried ostensibly concerns himself with Denis Diderot and 18th century French paintings, the case he presents all but begs to be deftly applied to film. A plea heard anachronistically by Psycho.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Find out more

This 1960 film is replete with striking scenes, and indeed it could be argued that the movie is comprised entirely of such scenes. It is however, the alluded to “swamp scene” that is most pertinent. In this scene, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) hides the car that his most recent victim, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). After murdering Crane in her motel room and disposing of all the evidence thereof, Crane’s body and 1957 Ford remain. Cleverly vanishing both corpse and car, Bates wraps Crane in a shower curtain, dumps her in the trunk and rolls the car into a nearby swamp. All of this exposition appears fairly straightforward, and would be, were the film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With Hitchcock behind the camera, the scene is elevated beyond mere plot and into a realm worthy of Fried and analysis. The crucial point of this scene is that the only remaining proof of Crane’s murder, the car, does not go quietly into the swamp. In filming this descent of woman, Hitchcock positions the car on a controllable platform, allowing him to adjust the speed with which the car is lowered into the murky gloom. The car is swallowed up, but only piecemeal. At first it proceeds smoothly, as the muddy waters seep into the front of the car. Then it stops. Half of a bone-white car still sticks out of the darkness. The trunk, with Crane inside, stares back at a watchful Bates. He stares back, munching on candy corn. The water finds its strength again and consumes more of the car. Then it stops. The trunk lies like a Nile crocodile, its back above the water. On the shore, Bates continues watching. At last, the water covers the trunk and its morbid contents. The camera lingers on the last bubbles, expiring as they flee towards the shore.

With this knowledge of the scene itself in hand, it is now possible to delve deeper into the swamp. Fried begins “Absorption and Theatrically” with an explanation of the prevailing Rococo style which he neatly summarizes as being “exquisite, sensuous and intimately decorative”. Fried contrasts the ostentatious and often dull (an artistic combination of decided difficulty) Rococo style with its artistic antithesis, the return to imbuing paintings with absorptive qualities. Fried defines absorption as an “….insistence on the unity of the painting and the insistence on the irrelevance of the beholder (Fried also reminds his readers that the effort to establish the unity of the painting must itself be understood as nothing but an effort to affect the beholder). Reading Fried with Hitchcock’s film in mind results in a fascinating adaptation of Fried’s explanation of relationship between Rococo and absorption. While cognizant of the perils analogies present, a careful cinematic examination of the dynamic between Rococo and Absorptive art sees a similar dynamic in the dynamic of the studio system and Psycho.

Find out how UKEssays.com can help you!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

Psycho follows in the artistic footsteps of painters such as Chardin and thus stands apart from the studio system of classical Hollywood films. On a very practical level, Psycho can also been seen as at odds with the prevailing system. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Paramount contract guaranteed the studio another Hitchcock film (his previous Paramount film being Vertigo in 1958) but studio executives found Hitchcock’s latest proposal to be repugnant and refused to finance it. Undaunted, Hitchcock produced the movie in cost-cutting black & white, using his own television production company and filming at Universal Studios. It is fascinating and relevant to note that reviews of Psycho were decidedly mixed, with the New York Times praising the horror movie’s depiction of “…the little details of ordinary life, a virtue in keeping with the lesser genres…” Or so it would have been had that quotation not pertained to a Baroque critique of Chardin in the 1730’s. Taking quote from art critics in the 18th century and applying them to the Salon of 1960 prompts an examination of the qualities of the film that are reminiscent of Chardin’s “Soap Bubbles” and thus it’s theatrical and absorptive qualities. The swamp scene is an excellent case study for this as the previously articulated manner in which it is constructed allows the beholder to become a subjective character within the scene. The technique used to achieve this are very similar to those used in “Soap Bubbles”. Fried identifies this the painters (or directors) “choice of a natural pause in the action which, we feel, will recommence a moment later”. The result of these choice is paradoxical, as Fried goes on to say that a static painting or a film’s (static in its celluloid repetition) “stability and unchangingness are endowed to an astonishing degree with the power to conjure an illusion of imminent or gradual or even fairly abrupt change.” Within the scene currently under analysis, this paradoxical choice is further amplified by the unique way film as an artistic medium can be re-watched. Despite the fact that an aesthete can (and many do) return to a certain museum to view a particular painting as many times as they please, and the fact that viewing and watching are for all intents and purposes synonyms, it cannot and is not said that an individual who has gone to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa fifty times has “re-watched” the Mona Lisa, regardless of the pedantic truth of that statement. But film, and Psycho more pointedly, is a “re-watchable” form of art. It is not a petty quibble over semantics, but rather speaks to the manner in which knowing the inevitability of the outcome mutates the audience’s conscious viewing experience.

When the swamp scene is watched for the first time, the viewer is struck with a tense and remarkable feeling. Despite just having witnessed the jarring murder of Crane in the infamously jarring shower, the audience finds itself wanting the car to go into the swamp. Hitchcock masterfully creates a situation of such deft tenseness that the audience is placed in the same mindset they have when watching a hero character disarm a bomb (always with one second left). The mastery of this scene is that it takes that expression of bomb-disarming relief and channels it for the benefit of a man who just brutally murdered a woman. A woman whose death has now been covered up, to the relief of the audience. In this crucial moment, the viewer does not want Bates to be caught. Upon re-watching the movie, and armed with knowledge of absorptive techniques, theatricality and French paintings of the mid-18th century, Hitchcock’s masterpiece offers up even more. Gazing (but never re-watching) paintings such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “La Piété Filiale” with the Bates’ Motel’s swamp in mind, one realizes that they are lost in the scene because of the manner in which Norman absorbs himself in his task. Much like Greuze’s painting, wherein Fried says that “the primary emphasis is no on the variety and multiplicity of individual responses to a central event so much as on the merging of those response in a single collective act of heightened attention”, the audiences’ and Norman’s responses to the slow descent of a hearse into the swamp merge into an “act of heightened attention. Fried illustrates what is at the heart of the “absorptive state”. It creates and maintains a fiction, a fiction the beholder, the viewer, the audience, call it what you will does not exist at all. Both the family in Greuze’s painting and the candy-corn eating Bates are depicted in such a way that they not only forget themselves, they forget us too. Furthermore, there is a direct relationship between the degree to which the fiction of the viewer is omitted and the ability of the actual viewer to emerge themselves in the world of the art. In turn, the reality created by Greuze or Hitchcock sees more real because it seems to be, regardless of whether or not it is being beheld.

But at the same time, the tension that manifests itself in aligning with Norman results from not being absorbed. This is in line with “Absorption and Theatricality” as the very same tension that absorbs the audience also results in the problems Fried makes out for Parisian salons in the 1750 and 60s’ when he says that the “illusion of negating the spectators presence creates both the absorption and the undermining of the images reality.” For the Salons, Fried makes the case that the fact that the absorption was being admired by critics made the illusion of negation increasingly difficult. However, for Psycho’s swamp scene, the latter effect serves to prod the viewer into realizing they were enthralled by the film’s antagonist, one who had dispatched the supposed protagonist not a third of the way through the film.

It is fitting to being to draw this examination to a close the way that Hitchcock brings Psycho to a close. At the end of the movie, it is not the penetratingly insane stare of Norman Bates the audience is left with, but rather a shot of car being pulled out of the swamp with chains. It is only right that as the viewer was pulled into the film watching the car sink deeper into the swamp, that they should be returned to their world as the car is pulled out of the swamp.

While Psycho may appear to conclude with a bland and straightforward explanation of Bates’ psychotic condition by a psychologist, appears can be, and frequently are deceptive. Receiving a medically valid reason behind the events that they have beheld is a poor balm on the confusion and terror they have absorbed. Hitchcock is fully aware of this and it is the primary reason why the film does not fade to black after the doctor’s rational explanation. The last fleeting moments of the film are reserved for the swamp. The re-introduction of the swamp, and the rising of the car, with all its macabre and money contents, raises introspective questions for the audience. While the police will undoubtedly open the trunk to find Marion and most of the stolen cash, the audience is faced with the prospect of opening their own conscious self to examination. Through the use of Michael Fried’s “Absorption and Theatrically” and a subsequent examination of the parallels between the Rococo and the studio, the absorptive and Psycho, this analysis has taken the crucial scene following Marion’s murder and used it demonstrate the manner in which the film’s audience becomes a subjective role in the film. The residual horror of the film is not merely the product of jarring murders but rather showcases the power of the absorptive technique in creating within the viewer shifting identification with the film’s characters. Ultimately, the audience is left with haunting questions regarding their own motives for things such as wishing the swamp would cover the car fully. And as the above analysis concludes, the answer can be a bit unsettling. But there is no need to upset. After all… we all go a little mad sometimes.

  • Adrian Secter

Murder, Candy and Chains:

An Analysis of the Swamp in Psycho

Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”

— Carl Jung

Understanding a swamp is to understand what exists in shadow. Not the shadow of night or shroud, but that of the mute. The marginal. To know the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho where Marion Crane’s corpse-filled car is disposed of, is to know the film. Bogs have always been a place in flux, the last remainder of a primordial ooze. They serve as a place where strange organisms, many of which cannot survive elsewhere, can breed and grow. The same holds true for ideas. For a man such as Norman Bates, the swamp affords him (and his mother) the luxury of anonymity. Removed from the scrutiny of dry land, the rigors of reality, Bates’ imagination does as swamp creatures do. It experiments, it mutates and most importantly, it uses its natural habitat to dispose of any outsiders who threaten it. Given that the absorptive nature of the swamp scene is both literal and metaphorical, Michael Fried’s “Absorption and Theatricality” readily lends itself to this analysis. While Fried ostensibly concerns himself with Denis Diderot and 18th century French paintings, the case he presents all but begs to be deftly applied to film. A plea heard anachronistically by Psycho.

This 1960 film is replete with striking scenes, and indeed it could be argued that the movie is comprised entirely of such scenes. It is however, the alluded to “swamp scene” that is most pertinent. In this scene, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) hides the car that his most recent victim, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). After murdering Crane in her motel room and disposing of all the evidence thereof, Crane’s body and 1957 Ford remain. Cleverly vanishing both corpse and car, Bates wraps Crane in a shower curtain, dumps her in the trunk and rolls the car into a nearby swamp. All of this exposition appears fairly straightforward, and would be, were the film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With Hitchcock behind the camera, the scene is elevated beyond mere plot and into a realm worthy of Fried and analysis. The crucial point of this scene is that the only remaining proof of Crane’s murder, the car, does not go quietly into the swamp. In filming this descent of woman, Hitchcock positions the car on a controllable platform, allowing him to adjust the speed with which the car is lowered into the murky gloom. The car is swallowed up, but only piecemeal. At first it proceeds smoothly, as the muddy waters seep into the front of the car. Then it stops. Half of a bone-white car still sticks out of the darkness. The trunk, with Crane inside, stares back at a watchful Bates. He stares back, munching on candy corn. The water finds its strength again and consumes more of the car. Then it stops. The trunk lies like a Nile crocodile, its back above the water. On the shore, Bates continues watching. At last, the water covers the trunk and its morbid contents. The camera lingers on the last bubbles, expiring as they flee towards the shore.

With this knowledge of the scene itself in hand, it is now possible to delve deeper into the swamp. Fried begins “Absorption and Theatrically” with an explanation of the prevailing Rococo style which he neatly summarizes as being “exquisite, sensuous and intimately decorative”. Fried contrasts the ostentatious and often dull (an artistic combination of decided difficulty) Rococo style with its artistic antithesis, the return to imbuing paintings with absorptive qualities. Fried defines absorption as an “….insistence on the unity of the painting and the insistence on the irrelevance of the beholder (Fried also reminds his readers that the effort to establish the unity of the painting must itself be understood as nothing but an effort to affect the beholder). Reading Fried with Hitchcock’s film in mind results in a fascinating adaptation of Fried’s explanation of relationship between Rococo and absorption. While cognizant of the perils analogies present, a careful cinematic examination of the dynamic between Rococo and Absorptive art sees a similar dynamic in the dynamic of the studio system and Psycho.

Psycho follows in the artistic footsteps of painters such as Chardin and thus stands apart from the studio system of classical Hollywood films. On a very practical level, Psycho can also been seen as at odds with the prevailing system. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Paramount contract guaranteed the studio another Hitchcock film (his previous Paramount film being Vertigo in 1958) but studio executives found Hitchcock’s latest proposal to be repugnant and refused to finance it. Undaunted, Hitchcock produced the movie in cost-cutting black & white, using his own television production company and filming at Universal Studios. It is fascinating and relevant to note that reviews of Psycho were decidedly mixed, with the New York Times praising the horror movie’s depiction of “…the little details of ordinary life, a virtue in keeping with the lesser genres…” Or so it would have been had that quotation not pertained to a Baroque critique of Chardin in the 1730’s. Taking quote from art critics in the 18th century and applying them to the Salon of 1960 prompts an examination of the qualities of the film that are reminiscent of Chardin’s “Soap Bubbles” and thus it’s theatrical and absorptive qualities. The swamp scene is an excellent case study for this as the previously articulated manner in which it is constructed allows the beholder to become a subjective character within the scene. The technique used to achieve this are very similar to those used in “Soap Bubbles”. Fried identifies this the painters (or directors) “choice of a natural pause in the action which, we feel, will recommence a moment later”. The result of these choice is paradoxical, as Fried goes on to say that a static painting or a film’s (static in its celluloid repetition) “stability and unchangingness are endowed to an astonishing degree with the power to conjure an illusion of imminent or gradual or even fairly abrupt change.” Within the scene currently under analysis, this paradoxical choice is further amplified by the unique way film as an artistic medium can be re-watched. Despite the fact that an aesthete can (and many do) return to a certain museum to view a particular painting as many times as they please, and the fact that viewing and watching are for all intents and purposes synonyms, it cannot and is not said that an individual who has gone to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa fifty times has “re-watched” the Mona Lisa, regardless of the pedantic truth of that statement. But film, and Psycho more pointedly, is a “re-watchable” form of art. It is not a petty quibble over semantics, but rather speaks to the manner in which knowing the inevitability of the outcome mutates the audience’s conscious viewing experience.

When the swamp scene is watched for the first time, the viewer is struck with a tense and remarkable feeling. Despite just having witnessed the jarring murder of Crane in the infamously jarring shower, the audience finds itself wanting the car to go into the swamp. Hitchcock masterfully creates a situation of such deft tenseness that the audience is placed in the same mindset they have when watching a hero character disarm a bomb (always with one second left). The mastery of this scene is that it takes that expression of bomb-disarming relief and channels it for the benefit of a man who just brutally murdered a woman. A woman whose death has now been covered up, to the relief of the audience. In this crucial moment, the viewer does not want Bates to be caught. Upon re-watching the movie, and armed with knowledge of absorptive techniques, theatricality and French paintings of the mid-18th century, Hitchcock’s masterpiece offers up even more. Gazing (but never re-watching) paintings such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “La Piété Filiale” with the Bates’ Motel’s swamp in mind, one realizes that they are lost in the scene because of the manner in which Norman absorbs himself in his task. Much like Greuze’s painting, wherein Fried says that “the primary emphasis is no on the variety and multiplicity of individual responses to a central event so much as on the merging of those response in a single collective act of heightened attention”, the audiences’ and Norman’s responses to the slow descent of a hearse into the swamp merge into an “act of heightened attention. Fried illustrates what is at the heart of the “absorptive state”. It creates and maintains a fiction, a fiction the beholder, the viewer, the audience, call it what you will does not exist at all. Both the family in Greuze’s painting and the candy-corn eating Bates are depicted in such a way that they not only forget themselves, they forget us too. Furthermore, there is a direct relationship between the degree to which the fiction of the viewer is omitted and the ability of the actual viewer to emerge themselves in the world of the art. In turn, the reality created by Greuze or Hitchcock sees more real because it seems to be, regardless of whether or not it is being beheld.

But at the same time, the tension that manifests itself in aligning with Norman results from not being absorbed. This is in line with “Absorption and Theatricality” as the very same tension that absorbs the audience also results in the problems Fried makes out for Parisian salons in the 1750 and 60s’ when he says that the “illusion of negating the spectators presence creates both the absorption and the undermining of the images reality.” For the Salons, Fried makes the case that the fact that the absorption was being admired by critics made the illusion of negation increasingly difficult. However, for Psycho’s swamp scene, the latter effect serves to prod the viewer into realizing they were enthralled by the film’s antagonist, one who had dispatched the supposed protagonist not a third of the way through the film.

It is fitting to being to draw this examination to a close the way that Hitchcock brings Psycho to a close. At the end of the movie, it is not the penetratingly insane stare of Norman Bates the audience is left with, but rather a shot of car being pulled out of the swamp with chains. It is only right that as the viewer was pulled into the film watching the car sink deeper into the swamp, that they should be returned to their world as the car is pulled out of the swamp.

While Psycho may appear to conclude with a bland and straightforward explanation of Bates’ psychotic condition by a psychologist, appears can be, and frequently are deceptive. Receiving a medically valid reason behind the events that they have beheld is a poor balm on the confusion and terror they have absorbed. Hitchcock is fully aware of this and it is the primary reason why the film does not fade to black after the doctor’s rational explanation. The last fleeting moments of the film are reserved for the swamp. The re-introduction of the swamp, and the rising of the car, with all its macabre and money contents, raises introspective questions for the audience. While the police will undoubtedly open the trunk to find Marion and most of the stolen cash, the audience is faced with the prospect of opening their own conscious self to examination. Through the use of Michael Fried’s “Absorption and Theatrically” and a subsequent examination of the parallels between the Rococo and the studio, the absorptive and Psycho, this analysis has taken the crucial scene following Marion’s murder and used it demonstrate the manner in which the film’s audience becomes a subjective role in the film. The residual horror of the film is not merely the product of jarring murders but rather showcases the power of the absorptive technique in creating within the viewer shifting identification with the film’s characters. Ultimately, the audience is left with haunting questions regarding their own motives for things such as wishing the swamp would cover the car fully. And as the above analysis concludes, the answer can be a bit unsettling. But there is no need to upset. After all… we all go a little mad sometimes.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on the UKDiss.com website then please: