Mark Overanalyses Film


May 22, 2023 Season 3 Episode 6
Mark Overanalyses Film
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Mark Overanalyses Film
May 22, 2023 Season 3 Episode 6

Overanalysis is a boy's best friend as Mark tries to figure out what makes Psycho so terrifying, how many protagonists it actually has, and how an orphaned teenager managed to steal a corpse and weight a coffin without anyone noticing.

Show Notes Transcript

Overanalysis is a boy's best friend as Mark tries to figure out what makes Psycho so terrifying, how many protagonists it actually has, and how an orphaned teenager managed to steal a corpse and weight a coffin without anyone noticing.

Hi everybody, and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! Today, I’ll be looking at 1960’s Psycho. The only ever film that was so good, they made it twice the exact same way but with Vince Vaughn. Hmm, that’s odd, when I say it out loud it sounds like a terrible idea… 

Before I begin, allow me to remind you that I am available for story coaching and reading at

Psycho was written by Joseph Stefano from the novel by Robert Bloch, and was directed by all-time great director, shameless self-promoter, and creepy presence Alfred Hitchcock.

Now, full disclosure: I decided to overanalyse the structure of Psycho because someone told me that I wouldn’t be able to. And I am a small, spite-driven man. But also, I thought Psycho would be a fascinating study. I simply do not believe that a film as good and as gripping as Psycho could possibly not have a unifying story structure, but there’s no denying that Psycho is pretty atypical. After all, who is the main protagonist in this film? And, other than the superficial excitement of the tale, is this film actually about anything? I don’t know if there’s a film I’ve had less of a handle on going into its analysis. And that’s always pretty exciting.  

So, with all that in mind, first I’ll look at the fundamental features of the protagonist, and then I’ll go through the main story beats by looking at the sequences of the film. Then, I’ll talk about the main things I learned along the way. Either that or I’ll throw my hands up and admit I haven’t a clue.

So, let’s begin with the 5 Questions about the protagonist.

The 5 Questions

Question 1: Whose story is it?

Or, who is the protagonist? Hoo boy. Question 1 and it’s already a struggle. Ok, as far as I figure it, there are two possible answers here, which can be explored throughout. One possible answer is that this is a truly multi-protagonist story, like an episode of Law & Order. There’s a team of people who are investigating the truth of a crime or situation. In this interpretation, the baton passes from Marion to Lila and Sam at the all-important midpoint. You could count Arbogast, but there’s nothing unusual about a secondary character like Arbogast dominating one sequence, so I really don’t think we need to. 

The other interpretation is of course: Norman Bates. And this is the one that I would personally subscribe to. Now, many people might point out that Norman is not in the first act of the film at all, but while that’s unusual, it’s not a dealbreaker. For a more straightforward example of this, you could look at Hunger, where we follow new prisoners until Bobby Sands turns up 20-odd minutes in, or Fargo, where Marge is called into action at the beginning of the second act. So, here, as I go through the film sequences, I’ll be using this understanding. But I’d like to talk about my reasoning and the alternative approach later. 

Question 2: What is their life dream? 

Life dream here refers to what it is that the protagonist wants or is aiming to do when the film begins and the story has yet to properly start. Now, we don’t see Norman at the beginning of this story really, but it’s clear that Norman, despite misgivings, wants to be left alone with his mother. Whether he’s fully conscious of that is debatable, but that is what’s driving him.

Question 3: What is their Want?

Want here is what the character is trying to achieve in Act II of the film, from the moment they really begin their journey until the moment they are at their most defeated. The whole point of this is really to give the character something to do and to give shape to the story. As such, the Want is a SMART goal, in that it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. Now, as far as I’m concerned, Psycho’s Act II begins when Marion pulls into The Bates Motel at minute 26 and sees the shadow of a woman in the old house. It ends when it’s revealed almost exactly one hour later that Norman’s mother died 10 years ago. And so, what is Norman trying to do for this hour? Norman wants to protect his “mother”. 

Question 4: What is his Need? 

Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom that the character lacks at the beginning of the story. Now, you could say Norman has a Need to escape his mother persona’s hold over him, but in story terms, I think it’s more helpful to regard this as a flaw he’s moving towards. And so, Norman’s Flaw or Inverted Need is to fully embrace his psychosis. The only way he can truly protect his relationship with his mother is to become his mother. It’s really the perfect plan, Norman. I have no notes. But I’d like to come back to this idea and talk more about exactly what I think it means later.

Question 5: Does he get what he Wants and/or what he Needs?

So, this is debatable in lots of ways. On the one hand, you could say that the secret of Norma and Norman Bates is discovered, so Norman fails to protect it. On the other hand, Norman slides completely into his mother persona, and in so doing, he does protect her. In this way, you could argue about his Want, but his Flaw is achieved.

Ok, now that I’ve attempted to answer the 5 key questions, let’s have a look at Psycho’s sequences. 


The Sequences

There are normally, but not always, 8 sequences, or stages, in a film. A sequence is a combination of scenes that are tied together by having a single overriding dramatic question or tension, and they tend to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. A good way to think about it is that every 10-15 minutes, the audience should be on some level asking themselves a different dramatic question. 

Act I:

Act I has our first two sequences, and the first one is always pretty much “life as it is”. But of course, first, we have to pay deference to the amazing work of Saul Bass for a typically brilliant credits sequence and Bernard Herrmann for the score. What an intro. But then we meet Marion Crane, and the man she’s having a kind of affair with, Sam Loomis. Now, Hitchcock slagged off John Gavin for being a bad actor. But to be fair it must be hard to act when you have a jaw carved out of granite. Anyways, there’s some excuse to say if only these two had money, they could be together. But they don’t have money, so things are maybe coming to an end. And wouldn’t you know it, Marion goes back to work and a great wad of money lands in her lap. And I love the guy who gives it to her, all while basically bragging that he wouldn’t even miss it if it were gone. Hell, he probably owes more than that in taxes anyways. I wonder if he’s some relation to the Roy family. Now, this is a classic inciting incident, or the event without which our story as it is would not happen. Marion soon resolves to steal the money and run away with Sam, and so we have our first real tension: “Will she get to Sam?” At that, we enter Psycho’s second sequence: the drive.

Has there ever been a sequence this good that is generally overshadowed by the rest of the film it’s in?! Sequence II is amazing! It’s terrific in its own right, but in the context of the overall film, it’s really important. In practical terms, it moves Marion from her world to Norman’s. In tonal terms, it introduces the paranoia and tension that will define so much of Psycho’s second and third acts. And in thematic unity terms, it shows how the moment Marion commits a crime, it consumes her and her thoughts. But for now, let me just say that Marion takes off in her car, then sees her boss at a traffic light. His confused look suddenly triggers her intense paranoia, and the voices in her head turn from Sam’s imagined delight to the worry, concern, and suspicions of those she knows. While all of this is going on, the most intimidating traffic cop this side of the T-1000 quizzes her and begins to follow her as she panickedly buys a used car. The stress is obviously getting to her, as is the weather, and so at minute 26, Marion sees a sign for the Bates Motel. We have an answer to the tension: she did not make it as far as Sam. But she’s stumbled into something else entirely, and so we end Act I and we enter Act II.  

Act II begins with Sequence III, the first attempts to solve the problem. Now, I must admit I find it hard here to land on a particular tension. After all, we’ve been following Marion and her money up to this point. But, this is Alfred Hitchcock, and he knows what he’s doing. And Hitchcock, implicitly or explicitly, understands that sequence III always begins with a “What’s the plan?” scene, something that tells the audience what to expect for the long second act. And so, the first thing that happens in sequence III is Marion hops out of her car, looks up at the spooky house on the hill, and sees the shadow of an older woman pass by a window. And I would argue that, despite the obvious tension of the money, once this shadow appears, we can’t help but wonder who that woman is, and we ask within ourselves “Will Marion meet her?” So, Marion beeps her horn, but the woman doesn’t appear. Rather a young, rake-thin man, Norman Bates appears. And surely if they ever remake this again, Norman has to be played by Andrew Garfield. Anyways, this sequence is the first attempts to solve the problem, and it is not hard to keep Marion away from Mother. But: this sequence also contains what we can term “the refusal of the call”. And so, oddly, Norman invites Marion up to his house for dinner. And this we sense is truly Norman being Norman, a young lonely man being nervously friendly with an attractive woman. But this sequence always then ends with the acceptance of the call, or the protagonist’s first UNconscious move towards their Need. So again, in my view, it’s the first move that we see of Norman becoming his mother. Norman had wanted to invite someone in on his terms, but his alter ego overpowers him and has her way. [] And so, it appears as though Marion will not meet the woman, at least not yet. And so, we move into sequence IV: the greater attempts to solve the problem. 

And now, this is really the sequence that makes Psycho Psycho. The whole thing is just amazing, and completely iconic. Now, there’s still very much the tension of “Will we get to see the mother?” here, but in terms of dramatic tension, it’s really much more about Norman trying to connect with Marion. In the previous sequence, he invited her up to his house. Now, he has to coax her to talk to him after being embarrassed and ran out of his house by his mother. So, Norman comes down with some food now that the house is off limits. And it’s worth noting that Marion regards him as so non-threatening that she invites him into her room, and he avoids going in because he’s too… I don’t know… Too shy? Too awkward? Too afraid of his own impulses? Too much under the thumb of his ‘Mother’? And, I want to slow down for a second here, cos there’s a lot to get into in this next scene. Whatever the reason, Norman invites Marion into the parlour behind the office instead, and they have an incredible scene while being ominously overlooked by some stuffed birds. The symbolism is fantastic. Norman has surrounded himself with animals that are filled with something unnatural to preserve them, just as he himself has been infused on some level with the persona of his dead mother. Norman tells Marion she eats like a bird, but he’s rake thin, and not eating at all. Furthermore, he states that he doesn’t like stuffing beasts, only birds, because they’re passive to begin with. Just as Norman is passive and doubt-filled without his mother persona. Marion then tells him a man should have a hobby, and he admits it’s more than a hobby. A hobby should pass the time, not fill it: an admission really that his mother persona dominates his life. 

And again, as this sequence is “the greater attempts to solve the problem”, and we can see that Norman is conflicted in his feelings about his Mother and his situation. We sense that there is a Norman that would like help to escape his condition, but once Marion raises the spectre of an institution, well, Norman snaps back towards his Flaw. [] But the boy does have some kind of insight. He sees Marion’s predicament and, placing her back at ease, he tricks her into revealing that she has used a pseudonym. And this scene is the real moment of transition of perspective. When the scene begins, we are following Marion. When the scene ends, Marion leaves… and we stay with Norman. He waits a moment, and then removes a picture and peeps on Marion getting ready for a shower. Now, the description in the screenplay is really interesting here. It describes Norman as looking up at the house and looking resentful. He squares his shoulders and marches up there. But, inside, as he gets to the bottom of the stairs, he sags and shuffles into the kitchen. The whole thing reads like he wants to confront his mother, but can’t. And, well, that inability to do so leads us into arguably the most iconic midpoint — maybe the single most iconic scene — in all of cinema history. The midpoint of any film is always the protagonist’s first conscious move towards their Need or Flaw. With Norman unable to confront his mother, his mother decides to take over and confront Marion. In the shower. And, well… [] 15 minutes ago, the mother took over and refused to have Marion in her house. Now, the mother takes over more fully and viciously murders Marion. So, we wonder, now that Norma Bates has murdered someone, what will Norman do when he finds out, and will he successfully cover for his mother? And so we enter sequence V, a bizarre kind of Honeymoon Sequence.

The Honeymoon sequence is so called as it normally comes right after the protagonist has made their first conscious move towards their Need and they start experimenting with it. And as a result, things normally go well for a while. But Psycho is, well, Psycho, so the Honeymoon sequence is pretty grim, as Norman experiments with his flaw. So, what is Norman doing? He’s covering for his murderous mother. The other thing to say here is that midpoints almost always foreshadow the climax as well. And well, Norman attacking a woman dressed as his mother before trying to protect his mother persona is going to sound very familiar later on. That is story structure! 

But there’s a few other things to note here. For one, midpoints are generally where, in broad terms, you could say that story starts to trump plot. In other words, we become more invested in the journey or arc of the character than we are in the mission they set out on. And Psycho kind of says the quiet part out loud. Hitchcock famously popularised the term “Macguffin”, which is something that animates the plot but has little value in and of itself. So, for example, it could be a briefcase full of money that lots of people are after. So, it motivates the characters to spring into action, but really as an audience we don’t care that much if they get the money or not. We care that they “win” or “lose” more broadly. And here, the macguffin is indeed a newspaper full of money. And Norman literally throws it away. This story no longer needs it. But also: the audience has been mostly following Marion up to this point, at least consciously, so the film needs to shift the focus to Norman. So, how do we tell the audience that Norman is now the main character? Well, the essence of drama is that somebody wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. That’s what makes us associate with someone. And so, as we end the honeymoon sequence, at exactly one hour into our film, Norman is sinking Marion’s car in a swamp… and the car suddenly stops sinking. And we feel tense… for Norman. Whether we like it or not, we’re with him now. Interestingly, in the screenplay, this scene is intercut with a replay of the opening scene, as if to tell the audience there has been a shift in main character. But it must have been deemed unnecessary. Anyways, we have learnt what Norman has indeed successfully covered for his mother, or so it would seem. And so, we end our honeymoon sequence, and we move into sequence VI: the bridge from the honeymoon to the lowpoint. 

Now, there’s really two sequences here from minute 60 to minute 87. In the first, we suddenly shift gears to rejoin Sam as he’s confronted by Marion’s sister Lila and then Private Detective Arbogast. Arbogast is convinced that Marion is cooped up with Sam, so he begins combing the town. And on some level, we wonder “Will Arbogast find out what happened to Marion?” He soon ends up at the Bates Motel, and we can see that this is not the Honeymoon period anymore, because Norman is really struggling to protect his secret. Arbogast quickly figures out that Marion was indeed at the motel, and then when he suggests that Norman might have been fooled by her, he takes it personal. Norman, forgetting himself, states that she might have fooled him, but she didn’t fool his mother. Which is a really significant line, because it shows how much Norman has moved towards his mother since his earlier conversation with Marion. But of course, it also raises Arbogast’s suspicions. So, after a quick phone call back to Lila, the detective goes investigating. And at minute 77, Norma Bates strikes again. And so, Arbogast, in a way, did find out what happened to Marion, but it’s not of much use now. And so we enter a new sequence, Psycho’s 7th, as we wonder: Will Sam and Lila confront Norman? 

So, first of all, Sam heads out but can’t find anything. Because, as at all times in this story, Sam Loomis is fucking useless. Oh, this woman wants to marry him? Oh he can’t, cos his office is too small. The woman is murdered? Oh, now his office seems big enough. Then he’s clueless that she’s missing. Then he doesn’t believe it. Then he doesn’t believe that Arbogast is missing. Then he goes out to the motel, gives up and goes home immediately. Great job, Sam. Hard to believe this guy went on to be Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico. Anyways, we then have a scene with another iconic moment. Lila and Sam go to see the sheriff, who dramatically reveals that Norma Bates has been dead for 10 years! This revelation leads us to the low point of the story, where the protagonist no longer believes the counterargument, but the argument seems impossible. Norman takes his mother against her will and hides her in the fruit cellar. Knowing that people will come looking for Marion and Arbogast now, Norman still can’t properly confront or defy his mother, but nor can he fully embrace her persona at the moment. Norman is locking her up, compartmentalising her, and being more himself than at any other point in the story. But of course, it is not to last. The following morning, the sheriff tells Lila and Sam that he could find nothing suspicious out at the Bates place, so it would appear that Norman has protected his mother after all. But, Lila and Sam determine to head out there themselves. Well, Lila does. Sam initially suggests dropping her off at the hotel. I’m really not sure when this guy will notice his girlfriend is missing. Anyways, they head for the motel. We know this will come to a head one way or another now, and so, with 21 minutes remaining, we end Act II and we enter Act III.

Act III has a false resolution and a true resolution. Now, in the false resolution, Lila and Sam search the motel. And in some ways they do approach the truth, but this is the false resolution because 1) they still think it’s about the money, and 2) as Lila approaches and then explores the old house, Sam distracts Norman. So, throughout the false resolution, Norman is completely separated from his mother and his secret is in danger of being revealed unbeknownst to him. So, Sam subtly distracts Norman by accusing him of murder. This man is as dumb as a stump. As they talk, Lila sees his mother’s room is clearly still lived in, and then that Norman’s room is a bizarre mix of a grown man still living in a young child’s room. There’s a nice visual cue here, as Lila picks up Norman’s diary and turns it right side up to read it. But upside down or right side up, from the outside it looks exactly the same. Now, back in the office, Sam is once again doing the stupid thing and being far too direct with Norman. And it’s worth pointing out that, as this is the false resolution, there’s a line of dialogue that got cut from the finished film where Sam tells Norman that his mother is dead and Norman snaps that she is not. Again, this is the moment of greatest threat to Norman’s eventual flaw. But Sam pushes too much, and then gets knocked unconscious by a desperate man about half his size. Which is about par for the course for Sam. Norman is now onto them, and so chases up the hill. And so, with 9 minutes remaining, we enter Psycho’s true resolution.

Lyla hides from Norman, and in so doing discovers the cellar. Entering, she sees the back of Norman’s mother sitting. She approaches, swings the chair around, and in another all-time iconic moment, we discover the truth of the situation. Norma Bates is indeed long dead, and nothing more than a skeleton. At that, Norman enters dressed up as his mother with knife in hand and a terrifying, unnatural smile. He screams that he is Norma Bates. Notice, this is the first time her name is actually mentioned. Before this, it was always as his mother, but now his transformation is complete. But at that moment, Sam appears and wrestles him to the ground as Norman shrieks and his mother’s skeleton appears to enjoy it. 

Now, at that, we cut to the courthouse, for a somewhat infamous scene where a psychologist explains the whole film. Hitchcock didn’t want it but the studio insisted. It’s fairly long and there’s no drama to it, but to be fair, someone surely had to explain everything to Sam in simple terms. I still expect him to end the scene by asking something like “But… where’s Marion?” But maybe they cut that for time. I also really want to know how the hell a teenager with 2 dead parents managed to steal a corpse and weight a coffin without anyone noticing. No wonder this guy could get away with murder. I’ve got some real questions for Sheriff Al Chambers.  

Anyways, we have one final truly great moment to end the film. The psychologist has explained that the mother persona is now completely dominant. And so, when we see Norman one last time, we hear her voice in his head, as she reveals in truly deranged fashion that she has told the police that Norman committed those crimes, not her. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Norman looks into the camera, and grins at us. As we slowly dissolve to show Marion’s white car being dragged from the swamp, Norma Bates’s skull is imposed upon Norman’s face. Norma has truly taken over.  


Psycho is a fascinating film in many ways. It’s kind of odd that it works, and yet it works so well. Of course, one of the most famous things about Psycho is its narrative shock of seemingly shifting the protagonist halfway through. Now, again, I’m inclined to think that Norman is probably the protagonist. It’s just that he arrives at minute 27, which is late, but not unheard of. The main reason I think this is because there’s a rule of thumb that states that the protagonist of a story is the person who changes, or who changes the most. If that still doesn’t tell you, then you can go to the next level and answer the question: “Whose change defines the film?” While you could argue that Marion and Lila drive much of the plot, we can see that at the key plot points, Norman is moving towards and away from his murderous mother persona. At the start of Act II, he is dressed as his mother, completely alone with her. We know this because the silhouette that Marion sees is moving. But then, when the outside world calls, Norman comes out as himself. The real world has called Norman away from his default hermit situation. But at the first unconscious move, after inviting Marion up to the house, his mother fights back and demands she be kept away. At the midpoint, or first conscious move, Norman attempts to confront his mother, but caves. So, she takes over completely and murders Marion. The honeymoon sequence is spent with Norman covering for her. Then, as things get complicated, Arbogast comes to explore, which ends with Norman becoming his mother once again, but we all know that this is a real problem now. It is only a matter of time before the mother is found. This brings us to the low point, where Norman dissociates himself from his mother by literally and figuratively locking her away. This is maintained for the false resolution, until his mother completely takes over and dominates in the true resolution. 

So, we can see it is a classic story structure. The only thing is that it doesn’t kick in until the beginning of Act II. But then, if Norman’s change into his mother defines the film, what does that actually mean for the film? What is Psycho actually about? Or is it about anything beyond a suspense filled murder investigation? It’s an interesting question, and again, worth considering. But watching Psycho and paying attention to what the characters discuss, it reminds me of that great quote from that great film The Asphault Jungle: “One way or another, we all work for our vice”. In Psycho, it’s not so much that people work for their vice, but they are trapped by their sins. And this being Hitchcock, those sins are mostly money and sex. Sam can’t be with Marion because he’s an idiot. And also, because his father left him debts and he has to pay his ex-wife alimony. Marion then steals money from a man who says that you can’t buy happiness, but you can pay off unhappiness. The vice will get you so far, but not all the way. It has also often been noted that when Psycho begins, Marion wears a white bra and has a white handbag. After she commits the crime, she switches to a black bra and handbag. She will never wear white again. Also, of course, as soon as Marion steals the money, she is hopelessly out of her element, and becomes consumed by paranoia, fear, and shame. And then comes the crucial conversation: Norman tells her that we all have our private traps, and there is the question of whether or not we can escape them. This is the question raised by Psycho. And what happens immediately after? Marion decides she’s going to try to escape her private trap. She’s going to cleanse herself. And so, Marion removes her black clothing and showers. But, of course, Marion will not succeed. At Psycho’s midpoint, Marion’s mistake proves terminal. And then, the crime to be escaped becomes Norman’s. But he can’t escape it either. In fact, we gradually learn that he committed this crime because of another crime that he couldn’t escape 10 years previously. In order to keep the secret of this original crime, he ends up killing Arbogast. Once that happens, things just pile up until eventually Norman’s murder of his mother literally comes to consume him. Just as Sam’s debts stopped him. Just as Marion’s theft eventually killed her. Norman’s change does indeed tell us the message of Psycho: that our vices and sins trap us, and they might just consume us. To quote the man himself: “We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out.  We scratch and claw but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.” At the end of Psycho, the change is not that Norman has actually budged, but tragically, that he has stopped scratching and clawing. He’s passive, like a stuffed bird.

This has been Mark Overanalyses Film.  If you enjoyed this episode, please like, rate, follow, recommend, and whatever else it is that’s good for this kind of thing! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan who taught me everything I know about film, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.