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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Binx Speaks

Some years ago, for an undergraduate class in cinematic set design I took at Parsons, I had to give an oral presentation to my fellow students. My professor was the Director of the Museum of the Moving Image. However, it really was not I who spoke. The words came from my mouth and sounded like me, but they were Binx's.

I was in such a panic that you would have thought I didn't speak the English language. My assignment was to analyze Hitchcock's sets to see how they supported his cinematic concepts. Once again, I, a humble artist, was in over my head and Binx bailed me out. He told me to come over to his apartment and said we would work on it together. I thought this would involve a lot of pedantic research. However, when I got there, we didn't go to his library. We went to his TV. Binx had three Hitchcock movies and a bottle of chilled wine ready. What a lovely way to prepare a talk!

The following are my, er...that is...Binx's, talking notes. He pointed them out and I wrote them down while we watched the movies together. All the points he made were from his head, not from any book. When we finished, I asked him how on earth he knew so much about Hitchcock. He modestly said, "I wrote an encyclopedia article about him."

Talking notes: When viewing Shadow of a Doubt, Binx made sure I noted the quote, "If you rip the fronts off pretty little houses, you find swine." That is important. In that and other movies Hitchcock made in the forties and fifties, that's exactly what he was doing. He placed the actors in, if not pretty, at least everyday, sets–ones which are so ordinary that we get comfortable and never expect that horror could happen anywhere within miles of such places, let alone inside of them. In films, Binx explained, the audience doesn't expect anything awful to happen in pretty, brightly lit frames. Hitchcock gives the viewer a false sense of security because of the hominess and familiarity of his sets. In Shadow of a Doubt, we don't expect a psychotic killer in that pretty all-American Thornton Wilderesque town of Santa Rosa. And in North By Northwest, in such a serene setting as a wheat field, we don't expect Carry Grant to be pursued by an airplane.

In Psycho, made in the late fifties, we see Hitchcock masterfully toying with our expectations through set design. Psycho was a low budget film made with a TV crew. It is different from his earlier movies in that it was meant to be shocking. He shot it in black and white because he thought seeing blood in color would be too shocking for the audience. His earlier movies were more of the suspense or thriller genre. It is rumored that he was jealous of the attention that Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique was getting, so he made Psycho.

Sets: The architecture is presented with a strong feeling for the ways it restricts and regulates human movements. Hitchcock uses the architecture expressionistically, as does Douglas Sirk. Hitchcock's film architecture expresses ideas that do not depend on the architectural functions. He uses architecture more as a tool. For instance, the architecture in Psycho traps Marion. The small spaces through which she continually moves are a metaphor for her horrible fate. Her movement illustrates the inevitability of that fate. Also, the claustrophobic sets are so small that she seems enclosed, trapped, and unable to escape.

There are two different, contrasting kind of sets--horizontal and vertical. The Bates Motel and most of the other sets are horizontal and the Hollywood gothic mansion, home of Norman and his mother, is vertical--looming above it all. Hitchcock uses this contrast to misdirect our expectations. Again, we don't expect the horror to happen in the ordinary, sterile, well-lit Bates Motel. Once he shows us the gothic mansion, we are manipulated into thinking that's where the horror is going to take place.

The Victorian house is fully furnished. Again, with this densely cluttered set, Hitchcock is deliberately trying to misdirect us into thinking this is where the horror happens. The Bates Motel bathroom where Marion's murder actually does take place is bright and sparse in comparison. There is a jokey foreshadowing of this scene in the beginning of the film as Marion is shown in her own bedroom with a brightly lit bathroom in the background. Also, the viewing of the bathroom in this scene indicates that Marion is a transgressor, which we know her to be, namely an adulterer and a thief. "Good" women were not shown in the context of a bathroom in the 1950's.

Hitchcock carefully selected forties-style furniture for the contemporary sets even though this movie opened in the late fifties. That's the kind of furniture most people had in their home at that time. When styles changed into the kidney-shaped tables and such of the fifties, people didn't rush out to buy them. Most of America still had forties furniture in their homes. If Hitchcock had used fifties furniture in the sets, they would have lost the ordinary everyday quality that he was seeking.

Motifs: Throughout the set decor, there are recurring visual motifs: windows, mirrors, eyes, vanishing point perspective and vortexes.

Windows: Usually the windows are closed and Marion is being viewed by the audience as voyeurs. (Voyeurism is another recurring theme in Hitchcock's movies, e.g. Rear Window.) Initially, we are viewing Marion through the windows of the small motel room of her tryst. Then we are viewing her through the car windows, emphasizing that she is in a small place–like a cage–from which she cannot escape. Finally, we view her through a peephole, with Norman Bates simultaneously doing the same.

Mirrors: The mirrors in the interior sets deny the "reality" of architectural space in order to comment on the characters and their helplessness. The mirrors in almost every scene are analogous to eyes. In Norman's mother's room there is a double mirror which makes us anticipate another murder. (my thought follows) Also, I believe it is a metaphor for the split in Norman's personality.

Eyes: Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that in an earlier movie he had attempted to create the image of a pair of eyes shifting back and forth by having two men in the back of a paddy wagon looking out the two back windows. He succeeds in doing this in Psycho in a different, more fascinating way. The windows of the vertical set of the highly organic Victorian house are like eyes and Norman's mother (very small because she is seen from a distance as she walks back and forth in front of the windows) becomes the pupils. The pupils (Norman's mother) seem as if they are shifting because she is pacing back and forth. That was my absolute favorite visual.

Vanishing point perspective: In any real tragedy, which Psycho is, there is a sense of inevitability. Hitchcock utilizes all the visual motifs discussed here to support the concept of inevitability. But we sense it unmistakably through use of vanishing point perspective. In the beginning of the film there are vanishing points in the artwork on the walls which frame (trap) Marion in her office. Then we see the highways on which she travels to her death as vanishing point perspective. We see it again reflected in the state troopers' sunglasses (which are also mirrors). These recurring pin-point perspectives are graphic indicators that she is on a straight-line, no-detour journey to her horrible fate. There is no way out for her. She can only go in one direction. In addition, the rearview mirror in the car reinforces this idea by reflecting the vanishing point of the highway, so we see it twice. This is Hitchcock's typical frame-within-frame approach of driving a concept home. Douglas Sirk used this approach as well.

Vortexes: The vortex appears at least three times - first as a flushing toilet, followed by water and then water mixed with blood draining in the shower drain and finally as Miriam's car becomes mired and is
pulled down into the marsh.

Hitchcock was insistent on having the toilet visible in the movie. In addition to the vortex it created, it is so mundane, it fools the audience into thinking nothing unpropitious could happen in the presence of something so ordinary. (The next thought is my second contribution to my presentation.) In fact, Marcel Duchamp had already rendered the toilet harmless when he presented the urinal along with other ready-mades as art. How scary is art? And how about the shower? They're pretty innocuous too, aren't they? If you really want to know how successful Hitchcock was at set design, just ask anyone who saw the film how comfortable he or she was taking a shower after seeing Psycho. And speaking of showers, I have to go to bed right now–as is–because there's no way I'm going to get into the shower in my brightly-lit, sparse bathroom so soon after writing this post. No way.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Goer was actually one of my classmates. Following the conclusion of my presentation, Goer said in front of the whole class that my presentation was "fatuous and extremely simplistic." Our professor, the museum director, disagreed and said that he was quite impressed with the originality of my ideas. When he asked what sources I had consulted, I simply replied,

"Binx has spoken."


  1. Your drawings, etc are terrific--kinda like Tim Burton with empathy.

  2. Thank you and thank Binx.

  3. Impressive! I never looked at it that way.

    Good story.

  4. An impressive analysis. Bravo.

  5. Intriguing. Very interesting post.

  6. ash...champforever - imdbAugust 22, 2010 at 4:24 PM

    I just loved the section that described Norman Bates home as eyes and the mother as the pupils. Quite imaginative.

    Nice explanation about the reason for showing the flushing toilet as well!

  7. That was a great read. Thanks so much.