Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Marion, Venus, and Susanna in the Mirror: The Paintings in the Parlor of the Bates Motel

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Marion, Venus, and Susanna in the Mirror: The Paintings in the Parlor of the Bates Motel

Article excerpt

In the original 1960 trailer for Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock notifies us that the parlor of the Bates Motel was Norman Bates' (Anthony Perkins) "favorite spot," then suggests that we visit the parlor with him. Once there, he points to a painting on the wall and says "This picture has great significance, because…" before lowering his eyes and changing the subject, leaving his audience to wonder what, if any, the great significance may be. The image is a copy of the 1731 painting Susanna and the Elders by Willem van Mieris (see Figure 1), and the placement of the object itself is significant to the narrative of Psycho since it covers the hole through which Norman spies on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). At the same time, the story of Susanna and its depictions in art have intertextual ramifications that extend in many directions, connecting this painting, and the other paintings in the parlor, with the characters and events in the film. For centuries, paintings of Susanna and the Elders have subtly played on the sympathies of viewers, inducing them to identify both with Susanna and with the Elders. By placing this painting so prominently in this scene, Psycho picks up this complicated identification of the spectator as it manipulates its own audience into identifying with both Norman and Marion. In the paintings and in the film, viewers find themselves identifying with both victim and perpetrator in acts of gendered violence.

After Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, Norman brings her some sandwiches and milk then invites her into the parlor behind the motel’s office. Norman steps into the dimly lit parlor carrying the tray, which he sets down before switching on a lamp. In the doorway, Marion casts mildly surprised glances at the stuffed birds mounted high on the walls. The paintings in the parlor do not capture her or the camera’s prolonged attention, but they remain in the background in this scene and others. While Norman and Marion are talking, the camera cuts from him to her and back, never showing both of them in the same frame. Behind Norman, we see an owl perched menacingly in the corner. Beneath the owl and somewhat overshadowed by it hangs a small framed painting, which we never see close up and which has received much less critical attention than the Susanna painting has (see Figure 1). William Rothman does not attempt to identify this painting, but observes that "the nude in the painting on the wall is Marion’s stand-in in this frame [which] will be confirmed when Marion strikes that figure’s exact pose" (283). After she has finished eating, Marion holds her left arm diagonally across her chest, as we can see the woman in the painting is doing. While Rothman notes this figure's pose but does not offer any interpretation of it, Neil Hurley sees the woman's crossed arm as a pudica gesture: "On the wall is a picture of a nude woman modestly wrapping her arms around her body in a protective gesture; Marion is seen with one arm similarly gripping her other arm in a subconscious posture of self-defense" (240). Marion may be feeling defensive, but the woman in the picture is making this gesture for other reasons.

Figure 1

The picture behind Norman, next to the Susanna, is a copy of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (see Figure 2). In Titian's painting, Cupid holds up a mirror as Venus poses, smiling with satisfaction at her reflection. Another Cupid figure reaches out to Venus from behind the mirror to lay a crown of flowers on her head. Venus is wrapped in a sumptuous red velvet cape bordered with fur and extravagant gold and silver embroidery, which covers the lower half of her body but appears to have fallen off of her right shoulder, leaving her torso bare. She holds her left hand up to her chest, perhaps to admire the gold bracelet and ring that adorn it, and check to see how well they go with her pearl earrings and the gold and pearl decorations she wears in her blonde hair. …

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