The Psychology of Hitchcock by AJ Strout

Posted on by Arne Strout

From beginning to end Hitchcock’s career is situated in a bed of fear and Freudian theory. His stories exploited the many elements of psychology that Freud brought to medical science and earned him a place in history. As a teenager, Hitchcock wrote thrilling stories about “affrighted purity” for “The Henley” magazine while he worked at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. These short, dark stories were a precursor to Hitchcock’s visual expressions of the disturbed mind when he went on to establish himself as a filmmaker within the British studios. There he continued his stories about psychosis and emotional disturbance. For example, The Lodger is an early silent thriller which portrays a man so emotionally disturbed by his sister’s murder that he avenges her death by stalking her killer who has become somewhat of a celebrity. The Lodger‘s success was only a gateway, of course, as Hitchcock never stopped telling visual stories about the mind, psychosis, hysteria, and dreams—themes which were profoundly influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. In fact, the most literal type of reference to Freud in a Hitchcock film is the direct mention of his name and procedures. For example, as a party guest in the film, Rope fills her plate with food which is situated on a chest containing the victim, she says to the investigative character, “Freud says there’s a reason for everything—even me.”

Freud, who is considered a great thinker of the early 20th century, founded what we now know as psychoanalysis. His breakthrough writings on the subject were clearly a source of material for Hitchcock’s films. For instance, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, documents the case study of a troubled young woman—a topic that Hitchcock often borrows from for his own productions like Marnie. Through Dora’s psychotherapy Freud clinically explored themes like repression, the unconscious mind, free association, transference, and dreams and their meaning. While Freud prompts Dora to explore the reasons behind her emotional troubles and her supposed repression in the book, Hitchcock tells visual stories about the disturbed individual who wishes to uncover their own past and the reasons for their own behavior. We can see this parallel in Murder!, which was released in 1930. The film opens up on a confused woman standing over the corpse of her known enemy, unsure of who she is or how she came to be there. The woman winds up on trial for the murder and the subsequent plot follows a doubtful juror who investigates the case. Her unfortunate case of amnesia mirrors what Freud describes as Dora’s repression, and the juror’s investigation represents Freud’s role in Dora’s psychotherapy.

Though there is no question that Hitchcock enjoyed embellishing his work with Freudian themes, his films are not always perfect promotions of early psychoanalysis. In fact, many of the plot lines in his films can be read as a critique of the incomplete and sometimes inaccurate nature of Freud’s work. For example, in The Lady Vanishes, the spy who is responsible for relaying a well-guarded, coded message to the authorities is named Miss Froy. This is a play on both Freud’s name as well as his purpose as an psychoanalyst. Both Miss Froy and Freud are spies whose purpose is to decode and relay hidden messages. More importantly, the story’s villain is a German brain specialist who spends much of his time trying to convince the protagonist that her mind is playing tricks on her—a plot line all too similar to Freud’s sometimes erroneous analysis of Dora and her desire to masturbate or repress her feelings for the husband of her father’s mistress. In The Lady Vanishes, we see that Hitchcock places psychoanalysis on both sides of the plot. Freud is both the hero and the villain, both Miss Froy and the evil brain specialist. He’s a helpful resource for triumphant do-gooders and the pushy brute who wishes to subvert and deceive his patient through his position of power.

Spellbound is undoubtedly more saturated with Freudian themes and direct references to Freud himself than any other Hitchcock film. Its intro, its plot, and its climax all directly depict the elements, both good and bad, of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. In fact, even the credits of the film names May E. Romm, M.D. as the film’s “psychiatric advisor.” Almost immediately following this credit is the prologue which defines psychoanalysis and the function of the analyst in a rather kitschy way. It says that when psychoanalysis is done right, the demons of mental illness are dispelled from the human soul. Considering Hitchcock’s penchant for humor, this description void of any scientific information coupled with overly romanticized music, which Hyde calls “grotesquely overdramatic,” could be seen as a mockery of psychotherapeutic practices of the time.

As mentioned, Hitchcock both embraces and criticizes Freudian theory. With this in mind, the plot of Spellbound makes perfect sense. It clearly reflects Hitchcock’s critique of the passive, cold and sterile nature of early psychotherapy—the entire narrative revolves around the notion that psychoanalysis is useless without the personal touch of a caring and emotionally invested doctor. This is the main theme. The opening scenes of the film portray this theme clearly. It also intertwines this theme with another—Freud’s theories on sexuality, like sexual repression and castration. For example, the scene opens with a psychiatric patient, Mary, who is playing cards with friends and is then called away to an appointment with the protagonist, Dr. Peterson. On her way to Dr. Peterson’s office, Mary snuggles and then scratches the male nurse who escorts her. This is the film’s first example of the psychosexual theme which will continue to weave in and out of the main theme.

With a cold and distant attitude, Dr. Peterson invites Mary into her office to lie down for a session. Sensing the doctor’s uncaring approach to the situation, the patient immediately criticizes the process. Of her therapy she says, “I think the whole thing is ridiculous.” Moments later she returns us to her sexual frustration. She says, “Psychoanalysis. It bores the pants off me.” This subliminal Freudian slip about what’s really wrong with Mary is followed by her story about biting off the mustache of a suitor because she despises men. Of course, if not for the production code, the object Mary bit off might have been something other than a mustache. This is another fine example of Hitchcock’s presentation of sexual repression.

The extreme contrast between doctor and patient is Hitchcock’s way of approving an active, warm and caring approach to psychotherapy, or anything to do with life, whilst condemning a cold, inactive one. Though Mary is hysterical she’s presented as vivacious and interesting while Dr. Peterson is sane, cold and uptight. Even the difference in clothing suggests this; Mary is dressed as if she’s going out on the town. Her hair is down, she’s wearing lipstick and her eyes are bright. Dr. Peterson, on the other hand, is wearing a drab lab coat despite not being in a lab. Her hair is pulled back and she’s hiding her eyes behind glasses.

The intertwining of the two themes within this first scene persists and manifest more directly. Dr. Peterson continues her expressionless analysis of the patient and even becomes withdrawn when Mary discloses her violent desires toward the opposite sex. Noticing that Dr. Peterson has shifted even further from her, Mary gets up and violently hurls a book at the doctor. She then accuses her of being judgmental and of listening solely for the purpose of feeling superior to Mary. Hearing the altercation, Dr. Fleurot and the male nurse enter and Mary’s behavior changes as suddenly as the wind—she’s pouty and uses sex appeal to get sympathy from the men, even while calling Dr. Peterson “Miss frozen-puss.”

In the scene following Mary’s session it becomes apparent that Dr. Peterson’s cold approach is not just in her professional work. It’s in both her doctoring and in her personal life. This issue comes under fire by Dr. Fleurot who tells her, “I’ve watched your work for 6 months. It’s brilliant but lifeless. There’s no intuition in it. You approach your work with an ice pack on your head.” He even professes his feelings for Dr. Peterson, who reacts by closing herself off physically and gives a snarky response when he embraces her.

When Dr. Peterson gets to know John, the amnesiac with a secret, she finally begins to shed her frigid persona. The fact that Dr. Peterson gradually warms up throughout the film further cements Hitchcock’s positive opinion of personal warmth and life experience. We see this both immediately and gradually. First is the kiss between Dr. Peterson and John which is juxtaposed onto an image of doorways opening in a hallway. Here John literally opens the doors to Dr. Peterson’s soul. Second, throughout the film Dr. Peterson’s personality and womanhood blossoms which, ultimately, cures John of his amnesia and reveals the truth. To drive home his critique of passive and cold talk therapy, Hitchcock ends the film with an unorthodox but successful approach to curing John. Dr. Peterson spends a great deal of personal time with him and then actively takes him out onto the ski slopes to jar his memory. Dr. Peterson’s active approach as opposed to her passive analysis finally cures John who can now be exonerated from the crime he has been accused of. Here we see Hitchcock’s ultimate analysis of psychoanalysis; talking therapy can only go so far, especially with a cold doctor. For psychotherapy to be successful, the doctor must be warm and caring while encouraging the patient to actively engage their problems.

As Hitchcock’s career developed over the years, his visual approach to psychological material became more sophisticated. For this reason Psycho is Hitchcock’s ultimate Freudian film. It deals with many of the same themes that most of his previous films do, but its presentation of them is smoothly disclosed within the plot, the characters’ motives, and especially its visuals. For example, Hitchcock uses carefully placed items throughout the film to convey parallels and comparisons. We first see this in Marion’s office where the paintings on the wall are juxtaposed with one another. One is of a fertile landscape and the other is of a desert. The fertile landscape represents purity and pleasure. The desert landscape is barren and represents death. Because the subsequent scene of Marion running away with stolen money occurs in her car as she crosses the desert, we can gather from this that Hitchcock is comparing Marion’s actions with the wrong road—the road of death. The theme of comparisons and right versus wrong shows up many times in the film. When Marion and Norman face each other in the hotel their profiles neatly oppose one another. The viewer doesn’t know it yet, but Norman represents evil on one side of the screen while Marion, who ultimately plans to return the money after checking in with her conscience, represents goodness. This is a perfect parallel to other reflections of Norman and Marion which we see in other mirrors and windows within the hotel.

The ultimate visual examples of psychology in Psycho can be seen in its surrealism, an art form which uses distorted imagery to evoke disturbance and confusion in the viewer. On her getaway trip, Marion imagines the aftermath of having stollen a large amount of money. Here, a series of visuals and voice over take the audience on a trip into Marion’s mind as she reflects on the event. In addition, the lights from passing cars illuminate her face as she smiles about having cleverly stollen a man’s money—a beautiful, visual representation of Freud’s thoughts on the castration of males by neurotic women. Finally, we see the disturbance of surrealism in Hitchcock’s famous shower scene. Not only do we see extreme, disjointed close ups of Marion’s mouth, the knife, Norman’s silhouette, and Marion’s torso, but after Marion is killed she falls to the ground and the camera closes in on her single, dead eye. The shot dissolves into an identical image of the shower drain where Marion’s blood washes away. The end of Marion marks the end of her story in the film, and by default, disturbs the already terrified audience member. The protagonist has been killed, leaving the viewer grasping in the dark for whom to identify with.

Written by AJ Strout

(c) Letter A Films

2 Responses to The Psychology of Hitchcock by AJ Strout

Dr. Ted Price says: November . 10 . 2013 at 1:36 pm

The paperback edition of my book, a full psychoanalytic interpretation of Hitch’s films:
The 2011 revised, expanded paperback edition, Superbitch! Alfred Hitchcock’s 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper and the Eternal Prostitute. A Psycho-analytic Interpretation ISBN 978-1-936815-49-4, is available at the lowest cost from (Just contact via email for orders and details.)
Ken Mogg, the dean of Hitchcock criticism collectors, has been kind enough to say of my book,”You may just have have written the most consistently stimulating book on Hitchcock since the original ‘Hitchcock’ (1966) by François Truffaut.”
My thesis is that old Hitch, with his lifelong interest in psycho-analysis (e.g.Spellbound) had read, was fascinated by, and used, consciously, two famous papers by Freud to help him make two of his masterpieces, Vertigo and Frenzy, just as he had read, was fascinated by, and used, also quite consciously, a famous paper by Karl Abraham (on the Female Castration Complex) to help him make his unheralded, misunderstood film Marnie.
I’m a retired professor of film and a disabled Combat Infantry Veteran of World War II. I welcome emails from Hitch and Freud enthusiasts:
Please write: Dr.Ted Price

Arne Strout Arne Strout says: November . 11 . 2013 at 4:38 pm

I love Hitchcock for the innovative way he used the emerging constructs of his time to influence his work. I’m recently taking a Film Criticism course whose materials are both inspiring and frustrating. For example, I’m being introduced to the famous critic Pauline Kael who wrote that, rather than an auteur, Hitchcock is a recycler (my words) because he uses and re-uses his techniques again and again. I would argue, however, that this statement is too narrow; That Hitchcock was, himself, an innovative filmmaker. He reused his techniques to improve them. He did, after all, invent many of the techniques he used. He was also one of the first filmmakers to use both obvious and subversive techniques to explore psych-related narratives.

I would love to read your book! I will look it up :)


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