tagReviews & EssaysCompulsion in Psycho

Compulsion in Psycho


When the story of Psycho went from Robert Bloch's novel to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 movie, significant and cinematically effective revisions were made. In this writer's opinion, some of these changes were adaptations from the Richard Fleischer movie Compulsion released the previous year.

Real life people and events inspired the novels of both Psycho and Compulsion upon which the movies were based. Wisconsin ghoul and murderer Ed Gein, whose crimes came to light in 1957, was the model for Norman Bates. Gein's deeply religious and puritanical mother, Augusta Gein, to whom he had been extremely close, isolated young Ed Gein from society when he was growing up and taught him a hysterical terror of sex. After her death, he made frequent nocturnal visits to the local cemetery where he dug up graves of women and raided their body parts to keep crudely preserved in his home. Unlike Norman Bates, Gein did not dig up the body of his own mother nor did he have anything to do with her demise. Although often called a "serial killer," only two murders have been conclusively attributed to Gein, both of middle-aged women who physically resembled his mother but whom he did not consider pure and godly like his dear departed mom.

Meyer Levin, author of the novel Compulsion, based his story on the sensational 1920s case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in Chicago, two young men from wealthy backgrounds who decided to commit the "perfect crime." A superficial reading of Nietzsche led them to foolishly conclude that the philosopher's concept of a "superman" meant a man morally licensed to commit crimes because he had ascended to a higher level than ordinary human beings so that the rules and laws for others no longer applied to him. The pair believed they were supermen for whom anything would be morally allowed including murder. They also thought that perpetrating the perfect, clueless murder would demonstrate their intellectual superiority. The crime they perpetrated was far from perfect: Leopold's prescription eyeglasses were found close to the corpse. Although Levin interjects certain scenes, makes up dialogue and thoughts, his novel closely follows known events, and the characters of Judd Steiner (Leopold) and Artie Strauss (Loeb) have personalities extremely similar to their real-life models.

The first major item adapted from Compulsion to Hitchcock's Psycho can be seen in Norman Bates' favorite hobby. In both book and film versions of Psycho, Norman is an amateur taxidermist. However, in the novel we are told only about a stuffed squirrel. In the movie, Norman preserves and mounts birds as does Judd Steiner of Compulsion. We are told in the novel that Steiner stuffs birds and while this information is not directly given to us in the movie version, it does tell us that he is an ornithologist and, in scenes set in his home, we often see Steiner around stuffed birds. The bird motif in both movies is appropriate partly because the protagonists in both are mother-haunted men. As Meyer Levin points out in the novel Compulsion, curious young children used to be told the stork story when they asked the inevitable question about where babies come from. Thus, an interest in birds can result from the early vexation of being misled about one's origins. Furthermore, a stork or other bird may at a subconscious level become symbolic of a mother.

There are other respects in which the movie, unlike the novel, of Psycho parallels the film Compulsion. One is in the appearance of Norman Bates. Bloch's novel describes a fat, blond, and bespectacled Norman. Hitchcock cast Anthony Perkins, a rangy, slender actor, in the role. Perkins is built along the same compact lines as Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman who played Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss respectively in Compulsion. Perkins was also dark-haired like both Stockwell and Dillman. Although Judd Steiner's missing eyeglasses play a large role in the story of Compulsion, the character is never seen wearing them. Perkins as Bates wears no eyeglasses. Finally, the Norman Bates of the novel is in his forties while Perkins in Psycho and Stockwell and Dillman in Compulsion appear to be in their twenties.

Another interesting parallel between these films is that both feature intense encounters on a staircase. In Compulsion, Judd and his brother argue on one. In the much more pivotal scene in Psycho, investigator Arbogast is killed on a staircase. Bloch's novel has "Mother" stabbing Arbogast just as he comes in the door of the Bates home.

Why did Hitchcock borrow from Compulsion when he crafted Psycho? He recognized the striking similarity of Norman Bates to the protagonists of Compulsion. All three are sexually ambivalent men whose confusions in this area contribute to their violence.

Judd Steiner is a (primarily) gay man in a society that rejects homosexuality as a perversion. Additionally, in the words of Meyer Levin's novel Compulsion, Steiner fears himself "a girl kind of boy." Artie Strauss is primarily attracted to women but feels an erotic pull toward other men. Although not mentioned in the film, the Strauss of the novel is a ladies' man who frequently struggles with impotency.

Considering the time period in which they were made, both Compulsion and Psycho deal very boldly with sexual issues. "I thought you wanted to be commanded?" Artie in the movie Compulsion reminds Judd who replies, "I do, Artie, I do."

Norman Bates is heterosexually oriented but awkward around women. Bates' gender identification is rendered ambiguous because he must dress up in women's clothes to bring his dead mother back to psychological "life."

Both Norman Bates and Judd Steiner suffer warped psychologies due to ambivalent relationships with deceased mothers. The movie version of Compulsion makes little of Steiner's relationship with his mother but Hitchcock may have read the novel and known that Steiner's mother, like Nathan Leopold's, had become sickly when she gave birth to him and was a semi-invalid throughout his childhood. Steiner blamed his birth for her illness and death. The normal trauma anyone might feel for a mother's death was aggravated by Steiner's feeling that his mother was one of the few "good," chaste women in the world. Bates was homicidally jealous of his mother's romantic and sexual relationships with other men and murdered her. (This is in contrast to the real-life Gein whose mother never wanted a relationship with a man after his father died.) Unable to live with the loss of her or the guilt of what he had done, Bates impersonates her but portrays the fantasized mother as ill to keep her away from the world's prying eyes.

Evidence of a Compulsion-Psycho link can also be seen in an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" called "The Landlady" (director Paul Henreid) that aired in 1961. Patricia Collinge played the unnamed Landlady and Dean Stockwell played her new tenant, Billy Weaver, whom the absent-minded landlady mistakenly calls "Mr. Perkins." Like Norman Bates, this unnamed older woman appears nervously ingratiating. Like the Bates Hotel, her apartment complex has "a lot of empty rooms" and she assures the new arrival that "we'll have it all to ourselves." The audience, like young Weaver, soon has an uneasy feeling that something is not quite right. Weaver finds the names of two men preceding his in the register and thinks they sound vaguely familiar. He seems to recall them in connection with "something unpleasant" but the landlady assures him that they could not have been involved with anything like that. "They were very handsome boys like you," she adds and we sense a touch of the reverse Oedipal complex in this older woman's feeling for Billy. He asks when they left and she replies, "They never left." Yet they are amazingly quiet young men around the house. We understand why when we learn that the Landlady's hobby is, like that of Norman Bates, taxidermy.

Another example of a powerful Hitchcock film borrowing is seen in Strangers on a Train (1951) in the faked-strangulation scene that becomes all-too-real. Bruno, a murderer, has crashed Guy's party. He impulsively and recklessly tries to demonstrate how someone could be strangled. With his hands around a matron's neck, he spots Barbara, played by Hitchcock's daughter Patricia Hitchcock, who resembles the woman he actually did choke to death; transfixed by Barbara, he continues "strangling" the matron until the latter is in real danger. He is stopped just before he really chokes her. There is no similar scene in the book that was made into the movie - but there is one in the 1950 film In a Lonely Place. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Nicholas Ray's film is about a man falsely suspected of committing murder. Bogart's character decides to demonstrate to a detective how the real murderer could have strangled his victim and puts his hands around the detective's wife's neck. Like Bruno after him, he gets so carried away that the woman is almost injured. Hitchcock expert Ken Mogg has noted that the actress who plays the detective's wife bears a striking resemblance to Patricia Hitchcock.

Mogg has also suggested that the character played by Bogart in In a Lonely Place may be " a prototype of the character played by Jon Finch in Hitchcock's Frenzy" since "in both films these protagonists are technically innocent while a charming, easy-going chap is the real murderer, but both come near to turning into murderers themselves."

Hitchcock was a director with extraordinary gifts. His Psycho is a singular masterpiece. However, it was greatly enriched and deepened by his shrewd borrowings from Compulsion. The "pretend" strangling scene in Strangers on a Train added a beautiful touch to another wonderfully crafted movie. Like any great artist, Hitchcock took inspiration wherever he could find it and the Master of Suspense was always on the lookout for ways to perfect his work.


This essay has been previously published on the Yahoo Group "Alfred Hitchcock Enthusiasts/Scholars."

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