How To Identify The Protagonist Of A Story - Part II

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on March 30, 2015

Recently, I watched Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960) for the second time, six years after my first watch. And like with most great movies, the second watch was better than the first. In fact, I could feel the horror so much more this time. And of course, there are certain sequences which are so well shot and edited that you can keep studying them again and again.

However, this post is not on the wonderful cinematic design of the film, about its masterful direction or performances. This post is intended to take forward the discussion I started with a previous post on identifying the protagonist in a movie. And let me tell you, this time I'm fairly confused.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

The film starts with Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), a young not-so-conscientious girl, who runs away with some handsome cash belonging to her employer. Do we relate to her or care for her? I don't know. I think I'd care for her, and that too marginally, only because she is an attractive woman. She is like one of those characters from the classic Film Noir who is immoral but still the central character. So yes, whether we care for her or not, we follow her track and it seems she is the protagonist of the film.

She reaches a motel and decides to spend the night there. It is here, around 28th minute after it started that the title character, Norman Bates, enters the film. For the next twenty minutes, we stay with Marion, but increasingly get aware of Norman's dark and disturbed side. And around the 48th minute, Marion is brutally murdered by Norman's 'mother'. Here, the main character whom we had followed since the film began exits the story. Marion is dead. And one hour of the film is still remaining. So the character who was driving the story for close to one hour was not its protagonist?

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For a little over the next ten minutes we stay with Norman and see him getting rid of Marion's body, evidently to save his 'mother' from the crime she has committed in a bout of insanity. It is tough for me to think like this because even before watching the movie for the first time, I knew that Norman is, in fact, the 'mother'. But for a viewer who is not aware of this, does Norman become the protagonist from this point, trying to save her mother? Perhaps. I am not sure.

Three more characters join us after this - Marion's boyfriend, her sister, and a private detective. None of them assumes so much importance as a protagonist should. And a little later, after the 'mother' has killed the detective, and the other two visit the local sheriff to discuss the matter, they get to know that Norman's mother has been dead for quite a while. Twenty-five minutes of the film is still remaining and I can imagine how this revelation must have affected the first audiences of 'Psycho'. Even today, I could feel a chill down my spine at this point, mainly because we have 'seen' the 'mother' and cannot believe that she does not exist.

In the final act of the film, Marion's sister and boyfriend go to the Bates Motel with the intention to talk to Norman and his mother and figure things out. Around this time, these two appear as the protagonists - we care for them, they are driving the story, and Norman, by now, clearly appears to be the 'antagonist'. The climax finally reveals the dead 'mother' and Norman dressed up like her, trying to attack Marion's sister, only to be overpowered in time by the boyfriend.

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The last seven minutes of the film, and perhaps the weakest, is an explanation about Norman's condition. It is done in a way to evoke empathy for him, although we are still horrified by him. Then we see him, in a wonderfully composed frame, with his mother's voice over. He is there - the central character, the culprit as well as the victim. But is he or was he our protagonist? I just don't feel he was.

A few days have passed since this re-watch of 'Psycho' and I still don't know the answer. Perhaps this is one film where the classic structure of a 'protagonist's journey' or 'journeys of multiple protagonists' is simply not applicable. And this is an extremely rare case. Perhaps 'Psycho' is the story of the antagonist, the villain. Perhaps Norman Bates is like Shakespeare's Macbeth or Othello, and it is his story that we were told through this film. Only, the first half an hour does everything to make us feel otherwise.


This article written by Satyanshu Singh was earlier published on his blog and has been republished with his due permission. Satyanshu Singh is a National Award-winning director, screenwriter and teaches subjects pertaining to cinema.  The poems written by him have featured in Vikramaditya Motwane’s ‘Udaan’ (2010). Besides this, he also written lyrics for films like ‘Ferrari Ki Sawaari’ (2012) and ‘Sulemaani Keeda’ (2014).  

‘Tamaash’ a Kashmiri short film directed by him has won awards at multiple films festivals across the world. 


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